War photographer Robert Capa is famous for saying “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” While this is definitely true, I’d like to suggest a variation of this sentence that applies to bird photography: “If your bird photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not low enough.”
Why shooting from a low position results in better bird pictures
Most novice bird photographers tend to take shots from above. This is especially true for those who try to capture water birds with their cameras. They walk on the beach or along a pond, notice a bird, raise the camera and push the shutter release.
Now, is it impossible to get an outstanding bird photo with this shooting technique? Not necessarily. If you’re good at panning and subject is in flight, you can definitely get a great shot of a seabird while your body is in an upright position. But if your subject is a wading bird or a duck, your image results will most likely not be satisfying. This is because your image will lack two essential elements: a blurred background and the intimacy that makes exceptional bird shots.
Blurring the background
The blurred background (also commonly referred to as “bokeh“) makes the subject stand out more prominently in the scene. You can also think of it as a way of making the background less distracting. There are two ways of achieving this effect. The first one is to buy expensive gear. The lower your aperture, the more likely you’ll get a creamy bokeh. However, if you’re shooting at an aperture of f/2.8, you’re at risk of having parts of the bird not sharp enough for a killer shot. Also, who has the $7–10K to buy a 400mm f/2.8 telephoto lens? So, what’s the trick?
It’s called “subject to background object distance”. The further away your subject is from the background objects, the creamier your bokeh will be. It’s that simple.
Now, what does that mean for a our bird photographer who’s walking along the beach? It means that he has to get low, so whatever is in the background of the photo is further away. Ideally, you’d lie down on the beach, with your tripod set to the lowest position you can possibly achieve. Instead of using a tripod, you could also use a piece of equipment that’s called a “ground pod“. Those ground pods are circular, plastic devices that let you mount your camera and slide through mud or sand.
Adding intimacy to your shot
The other element that will make your photo stand out while applying this technique is the intimacy that you’ll add to the shot. By shooting from the lowest position possible, you’ll capture the bird in a way that the viewer will get the impression of being part of the bird’s world. That way, the dynamics in the picture will be way more interesting. For the viewer, it will seem as if you captured a moment in the bird’s life as seen through the eyes of another bird. In other words, the viewer will see the subject’s habitat from its own eye-level. This will create a feeling of peer perspective and will make the shot much more interesting.
Applying this technique will demand some additional challenges to you as the photographer. First of all, you’ll have to be really low. In most cases this will mean that you’re going to lie down on the ground, be it dirt, mud, muck, or whatever is going to be underneath you. Then, looking throught the viewfinder will be difficult, and getting the sharpness right (especially when you have to use a hoodloupe) can be difficult as well.
However, all of it will be worth while, because bird images shot from a low position will make a difference.
Oh, and if you’re planning to follow this advice – don’t forget the waterproof blanket or jacket that you’ll need to stay dry. I got soaking wet more than once after forgetting this essential piece of equipment at home.