5 Ground Level Bird Photography Tips

5 Tips for Ground Level Bird Photography by Lori A Cash

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.

Pair of royal terns in courting display on the beach at Cape Point on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
This pair of royal terns was captured while laying down in the sand with my Walt Anderson Panning Ground Pod. This image was taken at Cape Point, Cape Hatteras National Seashore in the Outer Banks of North Carolina.


Bubble Level

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

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. 

Willetwalking in the surf at the beach in Nags Head on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
In capturing this image, I positioned myself down on the sand and waited for this willet to walk towards me in the surf. Sometime, patience will afford a great opportunity to capture a great action shot such as I was able to capture the willet lifting its leg up while walking. This image was taken on the beach in Nags Head on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

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.

Pied-billed grebe walking in the surf on a late spring afternoon at the beach in Nags Head on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
Sometimes all your knowledge of a subject may catch you off guard such as in this case when this pied-billed grebe that I was photographing on the beach in Nags Head stood up and started walking. By positioning myself laying in the sand I was able to capture this very unique look of this grebe walking in the surf. As bird photographers, we should always be prepared by expecting the unexpecting behaviors of our subjects as well.

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.

Sanderling yawning on beach at Nags Head on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
Sanderling yawning while resting on the beach in Nags Head on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. By using a wide aperture, I was able to blur the background of the blue water making my subject of the sanderling stand out in my image.

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.     

Rock Pigeon (Columba livia) on beach at Buckroe Beach in Hampton, Virginia.
Rock Pigeon on beach at Buckroe Beach in Hampton, Virginia. Pigeons and gulls are almost always found at the beach and are great subjects to practice ground level photography techniques.

Copyright © 2021 Lori A Cash

About Lori A Cash
About Lori A Cash

Lori A Cash is an award-winning wildlife and nature conservation photographer who has over thirty years’ experience photographing wildlife and nature. In addition to being a conservation photographer, Lori is a visual storyteller, writer and blogger.  Lori resides in Hampton, Virginia and primarily photographs in the Hampton Roads area. Her conservation efforts expand throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia. Through her conservation storytelling and photography, Lori strives to inspire and educate others about the beauty of the natural world and to advocate for the protection of our environment and wildlife.

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