The best perspective of photographing birds is from the ground level instead of shooting downward or upward on your bird subject. Being on the same level as your subject and keeping the bird in the same focal plane as your lens creates a very intimate photograph of your subject. Shooting from ground level creates subtle foregrounds and often creates dramatic out of focus backgrounds, especially when shooting towards the crashing waves of the ocean. This results in an artistic and surreal feel or composition of the bird being in a cloud. Ground level photography is a simple way to drastically improve the quality of your images. Here are my top five tips for capturing intimate pictures of birds from the ground.
Panning Ground Pod
When photographing gulls, terns, waterfowl and shorebirds on the beach or other birds in open grassy areas, I find that lying down on the ground using a Walt Anderson Panning Ground Pod is the best method for capturing these intimate images of my subjects. The ground pod is small and lightweight with a 4×8 inch base plate and an Arca-Swiss clamp. When using the pod on the ground, it keeps your camera and lens just a few inches off the ground and is easy to capture both horizontal and vertical images. Using a cheap Frisbee underneath the ground pod keeps the pod from getting soiled with sand or mud and makes it easier to move around on the sand.
Additionally, I use a Hakuba 2-Way Bubble Leveler in my camera’s hot shoe, which allows me to level the camera and lens while on an uneven surface such as sand. Therefore, in post-processing, I will not have to straighten the image and lose any of my image from having to crop the straightened image.
Patience is essential in ground level bird photography as you will have to wait until the bird perceives you as part of the environment. Sometimes this requires a couple minutes or even longer of being still and quiet as you lay on the ground. Once the bird starts to ignore you, some of the best photographic opportunities occur as you are able to capture your subject’s behaviors.
An advantage of lying down on the ground is that birds become accustom to your presence and feel less threatened. When standing or kneeling, birds feel threatened and fly away if you approach to close. When positioning yourself on the ground, some birds may flush anyway, but they will often return to the same area once you have settled into your position. Often positioning yourself a little further away from your subject is ideal as you can scoot slowly on your stomach towards the bird until you have reached where you need to be.
By using the ground pod, I am able to move toward my subject without a cumbersome tripod. The pod attached to my long lens makes it easier for me to crawl and scoot in the sand and allows for a quieter approach to my subject. I am able to move the ground pod and lens out in front of me and then use my elbows to scoot or crawl towards it. Scooting along the sand allows for minimal disturbance to the bird and gets you closer to your subject than walking or standing would.
Know the Subject’s Behaviors
To capture the natural behaviors of your subject, it is extremely important to know what to expect from your subject. This information is vital in composing your image. You need to know how your subject moves, the size of their wingspan, how they search for food, how they preen, and when they are about to fly away. Knowing these behaviors allows you to compose your subject ideally in your viewfinder and be able to anticipate their movement to capture that perfect image. Another consideration for composition is the background and/or foreground. Make sure that there is not anything that will detract from your primary subject. Blurred backgrounds and foregrounds will emphasize your subject in the image. The sand and/or crashing waves make excellent backgrounds and will give you a very intimate image of your subject.
Use a Wide Aperture
Lastly, choosing a wide aperture allows you to blur your foreground and background and brings emphasis to your subject. It will also give you a higher shutter speed to freeze the action. The bird will stand out or pop against the out of focus background and foreground.
Shorebirds and seabirds are great subjects at beaches to photograph at ground level. Sometimes you may find subjects other than birds at the beach, and these same tips can be used to create intimate pictures of these other wildlife subjects such as sea turtles, crabs or even seals.
By getting down on the ground, as a bird photographer, you can improve your images by creating more intimate and dramatic pictures of birds.
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