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Getting Down Low in Wildlife Photography

When photographing wildlife, the images that most resonate with the viewer are those that evoke emotion and offer an insight into the world of a particular animal.  There are numerous tips and pieces of advice that can be given to help improve your wildlife photography but the one tip that is the easiest to implement, and will show immediate benefit, is to get down low when taking your wildlife images.

Brown Hare (Lepus europaeus)

Brown Hare (Lepus europaeus)

Here are three reasons to persuade you to try it next time you are out taking photos of wildlife:

1. Getting closer

If you are shooting wild animals, as soon as they become aware of your presence, they will often retreat in the opposite direction.  You typically can’t just walk up to wildlife and expect it to pose for you and getting down low is only part of the good field craft required to get closer to wild animals.  By lying down, you will be far less noticeable than by standing upright or crouching, allowing you to crawl much closer to your subjects before they either become aware of you, or feel threatened.  Often, good field craft is better than the longest telephoto lens for capturing frame-filling shots.

European toad (Bufo bufo)

European toads (Bufo bufo)

2. Isolating your subject

If shooting an animal at ground level from a standing position, you will be looking down on it, meaning that the ground or plants behind it will form the immediate background of the shot.  As this background isn’t very far away, it will be difficult to render it out-of-focus, even with the largest aperture, causing the background to distract the attention of the viewer away form the subject, in the final image.  Getting down low will often result in the background of the shot being much further away, meaning that you can capture the entire subject in sharp focus whilst ensuring that both the foreground and background are soft and blurred, isolating your subject in a fine plane of focus.

Sanderling (Calidris alba)

Sanderling (Calidris alba)

3. Eye level

By getting down low, you can take photos of animals at their eye level.  Typically in wildlife photography, if the face of the animal has been captured, it is key for the eyes to be the point of focus as that is where the eyes of the viewer will immediately be drawn.  If the eyes are soft or out of focus, you will lose the viewers attention, however if the eyes are sharp you create a relationship between the subject and the viewer.  This relationship is made all the more intimate by being down at eye level with the subject as the viewer feels like they are looking at the animal from within its world.  If you take a photograph looking down on an animal, the perspective gives the animal a sense of vulnerability (which can be used creatively in some circumstances) however by getting down low this is easily avoided, and much more powerful portraits an be captured.

You may find that you initially feel awkward crawling around on your front after wildlife and that you get much muddier than if you stay on our feet, but once you start doing it and see the results, you won’t be able to stop.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category.

Elliot Hook is a wildlife and landscape photographer based in Hertfordshire, UK. Elliot loves being outdoors with his camera, and is always looking to improve his own photography and share what he has learnt with others. Elliot also can be found at his website, on Twitter, Flickr and 500px.

  • http://www.portraitinspiration.com Jai Catalano

    There should be a disclaimer though. Don’t get too close and too low while photographing deadly snakes. May cause a career change.

    :)

  • http://csafotography.wordpress.com Chitra Sivasankar Arunagiri

    These three are great points. Isolating and focussing on the eye is the key. Well aren’t they the same as human portraits. I tried photographing an UK Grey Squirrel and they were awesome.

  • Scottc

    Great tips, and great photos.

    Sometimes you can’t get low enough……

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/4803754865/

  • Scottc

    Or, maybe it’s hard to get high enough…..

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/4422216723/

  • Simon

    Yes, all those things sound about right, though points 1 and 3 can sometimes be infeasible. I take a lot of photos of forest birds, and when you’re struggling just to get a clear shot through the branches, there’s only so much you can do about composition. And calling out “please little bird, come a bit closer” only works maybe one time in ten…

  • http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/ Mridula

    But getting on the ground attracts so much attention! I agree with the tips it is just so difficult executing them!

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/

  • http://www.wildlifeencounters.eu Steve

    Definitely a good idea to get low if you can but not always possible, especially with African wildlife. On the other hand they are often larger animals where eye level is feasible (and safe)

    http://wildlifeencounters.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/African-Mammals/G0000IrGRBOD5m2s/I00001jQiXVdKtF0/C0000bdEkyK_8Dzs

  • http://desitraveler.com desi Traveler

    Yes, getting low does gives a unique POV…some time if the small creature is looking above for danger you can
    sneak close and make them look big

    [eimg url='https://fbcdn-sphotos-d-a.akamaihd.net/hphotos-ak-ash3/549751_4419078832704_1730034627_n.jpg' title='549751_4419078832704_1730034627_n.jpg']

  • http://www.michaelchahleyphotography.com Michael Chahley

    Getting low actually does work. Here’s an example of a porcupine, i’m sure many of you have seen one of these before. How often do you get to look eye to eye at one? Not many people start rolling on the ground while on nature hikes…

  • http://www.michaelchahleyphotography.com Michael Chahley

    Getting low actually does work. Here’s an example of a porcupine, i’m sure many of you have seen one of these before. How often do you get to look eye to eye at one? Not many people start rolling on the ground while on nature hikes…[eimg url='http://www.michaelchahleyphotography.com/Portfolio/Wildlife/i-8kNhdjw/7/M/Portfolio.No.Mark-19-M.jpg' title='Portfolio.No.Mark-19-M.jpg']

  • http://www.michaelchahleyphotography.com Michael Chahley

    Getting low actually does work. Here’s an example of a porcupine, i’m sure many of you have seen one of these before. How often do you get to look eye to eye at one? Not many people start rolling on the ground while on nature hikes…

  • http://www.michaelchahleyphotography.com Michael Chahley

    Getting low actually does work. Here’s an example of a porcupine, i’m sure many of you have seen one of these before. How often do you get to look eye to eye at one? Not many people start rolling on the ground while on nature hikes…

    [eimg url='http://www.michaelchahleyphotography.com/Portfolio/Wildlife/i-8kNhdjw/7/M/Portfolio.No.Mark-19-M.jpg' title='Portfolio.No.Mark-19-M.jpg']

  • http://www.michaelchahleyphotography.com Michael Chahley

    Getting low actually does work. Here’s an example of a porcupine, i’m sure many of you have seen one of these before. How often do you get to look eye to eye at one? Not many people start rolling on the ground while on nature hikes…

    http://www.michaelchahleyphotography.com/Portfolio/Wildlife/i-8kNhdjw/7/M/Portfolio.No.Mark-19-M.jpg

  • http://www.panoramio.com/user/675793 Paolo Nadeau

    Good to get low, but not too close!

    I shot this guy with a 400mm lens.

    http://www.panoramio.com/photo/81633213

    Paolo
    Smoky Cat Productions
    Jacsonville, FL

  • http://www.panoramio.com/user/675793 Paolo Nadeau

    Good to get low, but not too close!

    I shot this bad boy using a 400mm lens.

    http://www.panoramio.com/photo/81633213

    Paolo
    Smoky Cat Productions
    Jacksonville, FL

  • http://benchapmanphotos.blogspot.co.uk/ Ben Chapman

    Desi traveler that’s a brilliant photo

  • http://www.flickr.com/gipukan/ gipukan

    Taken from a small boat in a swamp in Uganda. This rare sight of a shoebill swallowing a lungfish whole. http://www.flickr.com/photos/gipukan/5546639904/

  • http://sjtphotography.com Steve Talabac

    Tried this technique on shore birds earlier this year. The photographer Moose Peterson had recommended and demoed this technique in a Scott Kelby training video. Worked out very nicely. Will look forward to trying it again at the next opportunity. Shot of a Ruddy Turnstone at the beach in Sanibel Is:

    http://sjtphotography.com/swfloridashorebirds/h1a7c8a69#h1010e0f2

  • Colin Burt

    Excellent advice – but for us ‘no longer young ‘ photographers it is followed by the problem of getting back up again . A good stout tripod or monopod has a use apart from supporting a camera. But better a sawn off stout walking stick. !

  • http://sjtphotography.com Steve Talabac

    @Colin… Yeah, I can empathize with that! I also do a lot of macro flower photography, many times taken at ground level. Like this shot:

    http://sjtphotography.com/p502346203/h2afda33c#h2afda33c

    I use manual focusing and “Live view” on my LCD to compose etc, so I always use my tripod while I’m sprawled on the ground… which is good, because I can then use it to boost myself back up off the ground! :D

  • http://dayinthelifepc.com Tyler

    These pictures are awesome. I don’t photograph wildlife very often but I’ll try to remember some of these tips in the future!

  • http://www.sheilanorkis.com Sheila Norkis

    Yes, sometimes it’s hard to get back up, but it’s worth it. : ) [eimg url='http://sheilanorkis.zenfolio.com/p229220369/e3e14e93f' title='e3e14e93f']

  • Di’

    [eimg link='http://www.flickr.com/photos/dmward/8181061886/' title='_MG_6054a' url='http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8065/8181061886_e51c63a9b4.jpg']

    Nice article, the tips are great, and a little luck doesn’t hurt either :)

  • http://marius-fotografie.blogspot.com marius2die4
  • Dave Gahan

    Great tips as always, this is the only photography newsletter i subscribe to now as all the others are useless and there main aim is to sell you stuff. well done for keeping very usefull indeed.

  • OnyxE
  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/fenske_tom/814512941/ Tom

    Great tips! I’ve had some success getting down low with snakes. I give the venomous ones lots of space but can usually get very close to others. The eye level shots make a big difference.

  • Ian

    Love the shots and some good ideas.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/gibsoni1/8191469648/in/photostream

    Strawberry Stealer

  • http://www.sheilanorkis.com Sheila Norkis

    [eimg url='http://sheilanorkis.zenfolio.com/p229220369/e3e14e93f' title='e3e14e93f']

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/fenske_tom/ Tom

    [eimg link='http://www.flickr.com/photos/fenske_tom/814512941/' title='Garter Snake on Road' url='http://farm2.staticflickr.com/1110/814512941_7574711ef7.jpg']

Some older comments

  • Tom

    November 18, 2012 06:03 am

    [eimg link='http://www.flickr.com/photos/fenske_tom/814512941/' title='Garter Snake on Road' url='http://farm2.staticflickr.com/1110/814512941_7574711ef7.jpg']

  • Sheila Norkis

    November 18, 2012 01:38 am

    [eimg url='http://sheilanorkis.zenfolio.com/p229220369/e3e14e93f' title='e3e14e93f']

  • Ian

    November 17, 2012 04:44 am

    Love the shots and some good ideas.

    www.flickr.com/photos/gibsoni1/8191469648/in/photostream

    Strawberry Stealer

  • Tom

    November 17, 2012 04:32 am

    Great tips! I’ve had some success getting down low with snakes. I give the venomous ones lots of space but can usually get very close to others. The eye level shots make a big difference.

  • OnyxE

    November 17, 2012 04:17 am

    I love eye level. http://www.flickr.com/photos/marionlynne777/7251541012/in/photostream/lightbox/

  • Dave Gahan

    November 16, 2012 09:51 pm

    Great tips as always, this is the only photography newsletter i subscribe to now as all the others are useless and there main aim is to sell you stuff. well done for keeping very usefull indeed.

  • marius2die4

    November 16, 2012 06:10 pm

    Great tips!
    http://marius-fotografie.blogspot.com

  • Di'

    November 16, 2012 03:39 pm

    [eimg link='http://www.flickr.com/photos/dmward/8181061886/' title='_MG_6054a' url='http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8065/8181061886_e51c63a9b4.jpg']

    Nice article, the tips are great, and a little luck doesn't hurt either :)

  • Sheila Norkis

    November 16, 2012 02:54 pm

    Yes, sometimes it's hard to get back up, but it's worth it. : ) [eimg url='http://sheilanorkis.zenfolio.com/p229220369/e3e14e93f' title='e3e14e93f']

  • Tyler

    November 16, 2012 01:31 pm

    These pictures are awesome. I don't photograph wildlife very often but I'll try to remember some of these tips in the future!

  • Steve Talabac

    November 16, 2012 01:00 pm

    @Colin... Yeah, I can empathize with that! I also do a lot of macro flower photography, many times taken at ground level. Like this shot:

    http://sjtphotography.com/p502346203/h2afda33c#h2afda33c

    I use manual focusing and "Live view" on my LCD to compose etc, so I always use my tripod while I'm sprawled on the ground... which is good, because I can then use it to boost myself back up off the ground! :D

  • Colin Burt

    November 16, 2012 12:46 pm

    Excellent advice - but for us 'no longer young ' photographers it is followed by the problem of getting back up again . A good stout tripod or monopod has a use apart from supporting a camera. But better a sawn off stout walking stick. !

  • Steve Talabac

    November 16, 2012 09:22 am

    Tried this technique on shore birds earlier this year. The photographer Moose Peterson had recommended and demoed this technique in a Scott Kelby training video. Worked out very nicely. Will look forward to trying it again at the next opportunity. Shot of a Ruddy Turnstone at the beach in Sanibel Is:

    http://sjtphotography.com/swfloridashorebirds/h1a7c8a69#h1010e0f2

  • gipukan

    November 16, 2012 09:04 am

    Taken from a small boat in a swamp in Uganda. This rare sight of a shoebill swallowing a lungfish whole. http://www.flickr.com/photos/gipukan/5546639904/

  • Ben Chapman

    November 16, 2012 08:31 am

    Desi traveler that's a brilliant photo

  • Paolo Nadeau

    November 16, 2012 07:26 am

    Good to get low, but not too close!

    I shot this bad boy using a 400mm lens.

    http://www.panoramio.com/photo/81633213

    Paolo
    Smoky Cat Productions
    Jacksonville, FL

  • Paolo Nadeau

    November 16, 2012 07:20 am

    Good to get low, but not too close!

    I shot this guy with a 400mm lens.

    http://www.panoramio.com/photo/81633213

    Paolo
    Smoky Cat Productions
    Jacsonville, FL

  • Michael Chahley

    November 16, 2012 06:36 am

    Getting low actually does work. Here's an example of a porcupine, i'm sure many of you have seen one of these before. How often do you get to look eye to eye at one? Not many people start rolling on the ground while on nature hikes...

    http://www.michaelchahleyphotography.com/Portfolio/Wildlife/i-8kNhdjw/7/M/Portfolio.No.Mark-19-M.jpg

  • Michael Chahley

    November 16, 2012 06:33 am

    Getting low actually does work. Here's an example of a porcupine, i'm sure many of you have seen one of these before. How often do you get to look eye to eye at one? Not many people start rolling on the ground while on nature hikes...

    [eimg url='http://www.michaelchahleyphotography.com/Portfolio/Wildlife/i-8kNhdjw/7/M/Portfolio.No.Mark-19-M.jpg' title='Portfolio.No.Mark-19-M.jpg']

  • Michael Chahley

    November 16, 2012 06:28 am

    Getting low actually does work. Here's an example of a porcupine, i'm sure many of you have seen one of these before. How often do you get to look eye to eye at one? Not many people start rolling on the ground while on nature hikes...

  • Michael Chahley

    November 16, 2012 06:14 am

    Getting low actually does work. Here's an example of a porcupine, i'm sure many of you have seen one of these before. How often do you get to look eye to eye at one? Not many people start rolling on the ground while on nature hikes...[eimg url='http://www.michaelchahleyphotography.com/Portfolio/Wildlife/i-8kNhdjw/7/M/Portfolio.No.Mark-19-M.jpg' title='Portfolio.No.Mark-19-M.jpg']

  • Michael Chahley

    November 16, 2012 06:11 am

    Getting low actually does work. Here's an example of a porcupine, i'm sure many of you have seen one of these before. How often do you get to look eye to eye at one? Not many people start rolling on the ground while on nature hikes...

  • desi Traveler

    November 16, 2012 04:02 am

    Yes, getting low does gives a unique POV...some time if the small creature is looking above for danger you can
    sneak close and make them look big

    [eimg url='https://fbcdn-sphotos-d-a.akamaihd.net/hphotos-ak-ash3/549751_4419078832704_1730034627_n.jpg' title='549751_4419078832704_1730034627_n.jpg']

  • Steve

    November 15, 2012 07:55 pm

    Definitely a good idea to get low if you can but not always possible, especially with African wildlife. On the other hand they are often larger animals where eye level is feasible (and safe)

    http://wildlifeencounters.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/African-Mammals/G0000IrGRBOD5m2s/I00001jQiXVdKtF0/C0000bdEkyK_8Dzs

  • Mridula

    November 15, 2012 03:41 pm

    But getting on the ground attracts so much attention! I agree with the tips it is just so difficult executing them!

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/

  • Simon

    November 15, 2012 11:47 am

    Yes, all those things sound about right, though points 1 and 3 can sometimes be infeasible. I take a lot of photos of forest birds, and when you're struggling just to get a clear shot through the branches, there's only so much you can do about composition. And calling out "please little bird, come a bit closer" only works maybe one time in ten...

  • Scottc

    November 15, 2012 10:53 am

    Or, maybe it's hard to get high enough.....

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/4422216723/

  • Scottc

    November 15, 2012 10:52 am

    Great tips, and great photos.

    Sometimes you can't get low enough......

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/4803754865/

  • Chitra Sivasankar Arunagiri

    November 15, 2012 08:44 am

    These three are great points. Isolating and focussing on the eye is the key. Well aren't they the same as human portraits. I tried photographing an UK Grey Squirrel and they were awesome.

  • Jai Catalano

    November 15, 2012 06:36 am

    There should be a disclaimer though. Don't get too close and too low while photographing deadly snakes. May cause a career change.

    :)

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