How Low Can you Go? An Illustration of Camera Angle for Wildlife Photography

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Whenever I teach wildlife photography, I inevitably go on at some length about the necessity of trying to get your camera near the height of your subject’s eyes.  This concept doesn’t only apply to wildlife photography, it applies equally well to photography of people, pets or hobbits.  When I teach this concept to a group of students, their eyes tend to glaze over until I put some images in front of them that can really illustrate the point.

Safety first

It obviously isn’t always practical or safe to get into a lower shooting position. This is true if you’re dealing with larger animals and especially predators, getting low may trigger their prey response where they start to consider you a potential snack, or in my case a meal.  It isn’t just your health I’m concerned about, as it seems the regular response to some sort of animal attack is for the authorities to track down the offending critter and end its time on earth.  So, when I’m telling you that your pictures will improve if you can get lower and match your subject’s eye level, you do still need to THINK about what you’re doing and the sort of subject you’re dealing with.  No photograph is worth either your health, or the health of your subject.

How camera angle effects your images

I thought I’d use the following images, of the extremely dangerous and elusive Richardson’s ground squirrel, to illustrate how images improve as the angle of the camera to the subject changes in respect to the level of the subject’s eyes.  This is the perfect critter for this topic because, depending on the squirrel’s posture, its eyes are somewhere between one and six inches (2.5 to 15 cm) above the ground.  All of the images below were photographed with my full-frame Canon DSLR along with the Canon 500mm lens with a 2.0x teleconverter on it for an effective focal length of 1000mm.  All of the images were made at an aperture setting of f/9, the standard setting I use on this lens/teleconverter combination when I’m wanting as little depth-of-field as possible while at the same time stopping down a bit to compensate for the sharpness lost by using the teleconverter. 1000mm is roughly equivalent to about a 20x zoom, if you are using a point-and-shoot type camera, from what our bare eyes would normally see.

Examples

This first shot was taken from my vehicle with the lens resting just on top of the window opening.  The extreme focal length (or magnification factor) of images made with a super telephoto lens does help minimize the apparent difference in height (which ended up being about four feet or 1.2 metres) but you can still tell it was shot looking down at the squirrel.

Richardson's Ground Squirrel sitting on the grass - shot from four feet height

Richardson’s Ground Squirrel sitting on the grass – shot from four feet height (1.2 meters)

On this next photo below, using my tripod with the lens about 18 inches (45cm) above the ground, you can really see how the camera angle has changed and how nicely the background resolves into a whole bunch of nothingness (technically called bokeh), but there is still an element of peering down on the ground squirrel.

Richardson's Ground Squirrel sitting on the grass - shot from 18" camera height

Richardson’s Ground Squirrel eating a piece of grass – shot from 18″ camera height

 The effect of getting your lens closer to your subject’s eye level is that the viewer of your images is able to look at the subject without looking down at it and the innate connection between the viewer and the subject is a lot more intimate and compelling.  So what happens when you get even lower to the point where your lens is as close to the eye level of the subject as possible?

Richardson's Ground Squirrel giving a warning signal - 6 inch camera height

Richardson’s Ground Squirrel giving a warning signal – 6 inch camera height

Richardson's Ground Squirrel giving a warning signal - 6 inch camera height

Richardson’s Ground Squirrel giving a warning signal – 6 inch camera height

You can see the image becomes even more compelling with the lens and camera are now at the same level of the squirrel. I was laying in a prone position on the ground for these last two images, with the lens resting on a bean bag.  In the first of the two images above, shot at 6 inches camera height, you can really see the delineation line of what’s in focus and what isn’t (the DOF).  One could argue that the out of focus grass in front of the image is distracting, but, I’d argue that the dreamy effect created adds to the interest of the photo, and the squirrel’s head and eyes are nice and sharp.

Summary and your turn

I hope that these images, along with the accompanying text, help illustrate the point about getting to your subject’s eye-level whenever feasible. It’s not necessary to use a 500mm lens, you will have the same effect with whatever lens you have.

  • Have some feedback on these images?
  • Have questions about different situations?
  • This is the place to ask them or contribute your own thoughts.

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Paul Burwell

is a professional photographer, writer, educator and enthusiastic naturalist with over twenty years experience working with and educating adults. In addition to being the owner of the Burwell School of Photography, he is a contributing editor and regular columnist with Outdoor Photography Canada Magazine. Paul has been a finalist in the Veolia ‘Wildlife Photographer of the Year’ worldwide competition in 2009, 2010 and 2013 and was named a ‘Top Wildlife Shooter’ by Popular Photography Magazine in 2010.

  • Christopher Kecun

    Bringing seeing eye to eye to another level. Brilliant. +1

  • Julie

    Saying verses showing does make a huge difference! Thank you! :).

  • Paul Burwell

    Thanks Christopher and Julie!

  • Great tip…get low and create that intimate bond.

  • Barry E Warren

    Great tips on wildlife photography. Thanks.

  • Kirtu Riba

    This is a very valuable, new lesson in photography. I am grateful to Paul Burwell for the brilliant images and
    guidance.

  • M V Bhaktha

    Absolutely amazing……but how did you manage your “Stealth” mode to get so close and at eye level of the squirrel….??? Though the squirrel gave a warning sign of an impending danger it never ran away…right…? Can you pls throw some light on that….thank you

  • Paul Burwell

    M V Bhaktha, Getting close takes nothing more than patience, practice and perserverance. The primary method is to move slow and to never make eye contact. I also try to avoid moving directly towards a critter and instead find a way to kind of zig-zag. Hope that helps you out.

  • Johan Bauwens

    When an animal gives a warning signal, you are too close. Something else : what’s the difference between the two latter pics ? Postprocessing ?

  • Marlowe

    Great tips as always!

  • noob

    you dont need a 1000mm lens to take pics of squirrels lol, they are very easy to do with any lens, place food , sit and wait ,if u dont move much they will aproach.key to nature photography is to be non threatening,if you run about making lots of noise you scare them away.show them respect and they return it.works with all animals.. aslong as you dont encrouch their space,they will come to you and once they do, are very relaxed.

  • Waquaar

    Completely agree with Paul Burwell. Be in the prone position if you can while moving towards ur subject.. and loads of patience.. the more time u spend in their surroundings the more comfortable they’re going to get with you

  • Lizzy

    I love to photograph critters on their own level too!

  • Matt Vargo

    Using a 1000mm equivalent, he was probably 20-50 feet away from the squirrel. I doubt the warning signal was given to him, the photographer.

  • Steven Hodges

    I have found that turning around away from your subject instead of toward it while you slowly zig-zag can help you to get very close to skittish animals and birds.

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