The perspective from shooting at ground level is one that makes the effort of getting into the position in the first place well worth doing. At its simplest it makes everything look much bolder in the frame. You can use it with wildlife to make the picture more intense but almost every subject will, at some point, benefit from a low viewpoint.
One hidden advantage of getting low is that it can remove an annoying background. When you are photographing at head height the area behind the subject will come into play, depending partly of course on which aperture you set. This is simply because you are generally looking slightly down on your subject and therefore the background immediately behind the subject it close to you. By lying down on the ground you effectively take the background further away and make it less of an issue.
Of course if you set an aperture of f/16 you will see the background unless it really is a long way off, so for most low angle work where the background is relatively close it’s best to opt apertures of f/4 or f/5.6. This way you will get a very diffuse background indeed.
It is not just wildlife photographers that use low angles for increased perspective and visual punch. Sports photographers are at pitch level or often even below it. By shooting low they focus solely on their subjects and this makes them stand out better.
A wildlife photographer shooting at a low angle can put a subject at its ease as it feels some equality with you. Think of how scary you must look to most animals and birds if you are standing up dominating their view. Getting down to their level changes this completely. While this is obviously not recommended for dangerous species unless you can do so safely, for the less harmful species it will make a huge difference to your photography.
Subjects will approach closer because they will be inquisitive and because your shape doesn’t look human, they will not be afraid of you or scared of your size. This latter point is perhaps the most important as it will give you better and longer picture opportunities.
Animals have beautiful eyes and the essence of a good wildlife shot is to show the eyes in all of their glory. It greatly helps the connection too with the image if you can see their eyes. The problem in achieving this is that animals rarely look up, especially when in bright sunlight, so often what you get are ‘half moon’ eyes with shadows across them. Taking a much lower view will help to negate this and you are more likely to get an animal making direct eye contact with your lens.
On safari it is always difficult to get low as you cannot just get out of the vehicle but you can use a few tricks to get lower, such as getting the driver to put the vehicle in a ditch. To do this successfully you may have to take a chance on the direction of your subject but if you are fortunate to choose right, then you can get some amazing shots. The other thing to look for is when the animals themselves are up on higher ground, such as a cheetah on a mound or a leopard in a tree. When you can react to this situation then you can shoot easily at eye level even from a high vehicle.
Technical considerations of shooting low
Exposure: If you are shooting slightly upwards then the sky will be playing a factor so you need to be aware of its effect. In general the more sky you use on the image the more the exposure may suffer. Usually this manifests itself as underexposure and therefore you will need to compensate the exposure accordingly – perhaps by one or two-thirds of positive exposure compensation. If you have a bright, blue sky then use a circular polariser to enhance the effect, especially if you are shooting in the bright of the day. Don’t forget that if you have a long focal length lens you can still get a drop-in circular polariser. It’s an expensive but necessary piece of kit. Also don’t forget that you will lose two stops of light, so if your shutter speed falls too much then increase the ISO to compensate.
One of the main issues when shooting at a low angle is supporting the lens at that level. Here are a few solutions:
Tripod: Of course the most sensible way of doing this is to use a tripod, but this relies on the tripod not having a centre column so you can splay the legs out and create a perfectly low but stable platform to shoot from but tripod aren’t always possible. When you are shooting low on a tripod (or just from the ground for that matter) you will basically be looking through the viewfinder at an uncomfortable angle so it will skew your perspective of straight lines completely. Therefore you may get sloping horizons. It can be easily fixed in post-production but it takes times and will involve some cropping of the original image so it’s far easier to get it right at shoot time. Most modern day cameras have a leveling indicator, usually as some function of the INFO button. Use them if your camera has this facility as it saves loss of pixels later.
Beanbags: Beanbags are a great way of shooting from a low position as you can just rest them on the ground and they will hold the lens safely and without any stress to your arms. The only issue is carrying them around with you as the larger ones – and you need a good-sized beanbag for a long lens – are heavy!
Seeing through the viewfinder: One important point about having your camera low is that unless you are a contortionist it can be impossible to look through the viewfinder. The solution is to use an eye-level finder attachment on the viewfinder. Another solution of course is to use the Live View function although remember, in Live View the AF isn’t as fast so it’s not as useful if the subject is active.