Photo Tip of the Week: Get Low to Shoot Wildlife
As wildlife photographer Dale Morris tells it, the secret to successful wildlife photography is to get down and dirty. Literally.
As a child I used to love rolling around in the dirt, a boyish pastime that caused my poor mother endless amounts of grief and countless hours of laundry time. I still do it now, but as a professional wildlife photographer I at least have a reasonable excuse for being covered in dirt. Lying in the mud in order to get low-angle shots is just part of the job!
Wildlife lends itself extremely well to low-angle photography, and if you break with the convention of shooting from a standing position (or from the elevated perspective of a car seat) you may well find that your photos take on an altogether different and more dramatic appearance. But don’t expect to stay clean.
WHY USE LOW ANGLES?
Low angles are great for a number of reasons. They can bring you eye-to-eye with the world’s smaller creatures which in turn will create an image akin to how that animal itself may see the world. Focusing through vegetation (rather than above it) can frame your photos and will often give the image a sense of depth and atmosphere.?
Low angles work for big animals too. Big animals will loom large and as such, will look bigger, taller and generally more impressive.
LENSES AND TECHNIQUES
When it comes to lenses, any lens will do, including the one attached to your point-and-shoot camera. If you have an interchangeable-lens camera and you’re serious about wildlife photography, though, there are a few focal lengths that really do work well.
Telephoto and zoom lenses with focal lengths around 200 or 300mm can be really useful for those times when it’s not possible (or safe) to get too close to your subject.
Pro photographers will often use teleconverters too, which magnify the reach of their lenses. A 300mm lens with a 2x teleconverter, for example, has an effective focal length of 600mm.
Wide-angle lenses are great for shooting at ground level as long as the subject matter is close enough to the lens that it will dominate the image.
Macro lenses are particularly good for low-angle shooting. If you get to eye level with your subject, or even below it, you can turn a field of daisies into a forest, or a preying mantis into a towering monster.
When you crouch, kneel or lie down to take a picture using a telephoto lens, you should try to use the largest aperture available (f/2.8 if your lens allows it). By doing so, you will find that your focus point will be reduced to a very narrow band which will bring the subject into sharp focus yet blur any potentially distracting foreground and background clutter.
If you are shooting through vegetation then you may want to switch to manual focus to avoid the frustrations that can occur when your camera decides it would rather focus on foreground objects.
HOW LOW CAN YOU GO?
I shoot a lot in Africa and it can be terribly frustrating being confined to a vehicle on Safari, but often that's the safest place to be when the wild animals really are wild. But there can be other options.
Take a guided game walk and then let the scout tell you when it is safe to take photos from a prone position.
Boat journeys can also be great because most animals you see will be milling around on river banks which are either at eye level or a little higher.
If you’re using a zoom lens, you can often focus through fences or, if your guide (or the rules) permit it, to alight from your vehicle on the opposite side and then shoot underneath the car.
Pans, rivers and gorges can also serve as natural barriers between you and you subject matter… but do be aware of crocodiles if you plan on lying down next to water!
When you’re next out taking photos, why not take a break from shooting from eye level, and instead get down on your belly – your pictures will be all the better for it.
I approached this sleeping sea lion and crouched down below the rock he was resting on in order to get this image. As soon as the shutter clicked he woke up and bolted into the sea. (Exposure: f4.5 @ 1/800s. Lens: 24mm.)
I wanted to simulate the perspective that a jackal may see when considering raiding an Ostrich nest. Normally a risky undertaking but my wife was keeping a good look out for the male. (Exposure: f4.5 @ 1/1250s. Lens: 400mm.)
A lion lies unaware of my approaching boat on the Luangwa River In Zambia. Shooting through vegetation from a low angle can give dramatic effects but can confuse your camera’s autofocus. Here I used manual focus to make sure the camera focused on the lion’s eyes – not the surrounding blades of grass. (Exposure: f4 @ 1/800s. Lens: 200-400 zoom @ 350mm.)
Robert is a semi-tame warthog who lives in the wilds of South Luangwa National Park in Zambia. I used a wide-angle lens to accentuate his already comical appearance and shot from a low angle to make him look large and looming. (Exposure: f20 @ 1/250s. Lens: 10.5mm fisheye.)
I shot this image of a crocodile opening its mouth through vegetation from the opposite side of a small stream. The bank on which I lay was high enough and I was far enough back from the edge so as not to run the risk of being spotted and consumed by other crocodiles in the water. (Exposure: f4 @ 1/400s. Lens: 200mm.)
Article first published in the June-July 2012 issue of Digital Photography + Design (now Australian Photography + Digital).