Three Reasons to Photograph Wildlife at Eye Level

Photo by Steve Berardi

Snowy Plover / Photo by Steve Berardi

When you encounter wildlife, it’s pretty easy to get excited, isn’t it? It doesn’t happen often, so when you’re lucky enough, the first thing you’re probably thinking is, “wow, I do not want to scare this thing away!” (well, unless it’s a bear or mountain lion, heh).

In that moment of excitement, it’s easy to forget about camera techniques and just start snapping photos from where you’re standing. But, if you want an intimate, sharp, and isolated portrait of any wildlife subject, you’re gonna have to get down to their eye level to snap the photo, and here are some reasons why:

#1 – It makes the image more intimate

A lot of wildlife you encounter will be shorter than you, so you’ll usually be looking down on them. This creates a feeling of superiority in the image.

Getting down to the eye level of your subject helps put you in their world, and get their perspective on things. Suddenly things don’t look so small anymore, do they?

#2 – It makes the image sharper

When you photograph wildlife at eye level, you also help position your camera so the sensor is parallel to the most important plane of your subject (the eyes and as much of the body as possible).

This helps put all important parts of your subject at the same distance from your sensor, so all those parts will be in sharp focus.

In every photo, there is really only one plane of complete sharpness, so choosing this plane wisely and positioning your camera’s sensor so it’s parallel to this plane is critical to getting sharp photos of wildlife (or wildflowers, butterflies, dragonflies, etc).

#3 – It creates a better background

When you’re photographing wildlife from above, the background will usually be the ground or plants immediately behind the subject. This makes it hard to get that nice out of focus background because it’s just too close to the subject.

But, when you get down to eye level, the background will usually be something far away, making it much easier to get a good blurred, out of focus background.

Be prepared to get dirty!

Of course, getting down to eye level isn’t always easy: sometimes it means you’ll have to take the photo while lying down on the ground! Don’t worry, it’s just a little dirt! And, it’s the only way to get intimate, sharp, and isolated portraits of wildlife.

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steveb2About the Author: Steve Berardi is a naturalist, photographer, software engineer, and founder of PhotoNaturalist. You can usually find him hiking in the beautiful mountains and deserts of southern California.

Comments

  1. great tips, thanks for sharing ;-)

  2. Yep, great advice. This also works underwater for fish & sealife. If you shoot slightly upward you even get a bit of surface in there to make an interesting background.

  3. Ah, yes, the getting dirty factor, no doubt the biggest reason to not get quite at eye level of a wildlife subject. I do think photographing from a lying on my stomach position is very comfortable though, but I am hesitant about getting totally filthy sometimes if I wasn’t exactly dressed for and planning on making a wildlife shot.

    The info on only one plane of complete sharpness is really informative and I will keep that in mind on my next photo excursion.

  4. Henk Coetzee says:

    It’s a little more difficult when the subject is a giraffe (sorry I couldn’t resist that one).

  5. This is absolutely true — I know it wasn’t a good day for photographing shorebirds if I make it back to the car without about 3 pounds of sand or mud in my pockets and pants! And really interesting observation about the focal plane and subject sharpness, I hadn’t connected that with low-angle photography before. Beautiful shot of the snowy plover as well!

  6. Nice shot of the Snowy Plover, a threatened species on the Pacific Coast.

    Thanks for sharing the great photography tips! I never thought about the focal plane in relation to being eye height. I will concentrate more on this in the future!

  7. Thanks all for your nice comments!

    @Jason – I agree, lying on your stomach isn’t too bad, although it becomes a problem when you want the camera somewhere between you lying down and kneeling.. which means some awkward positions..

    @Henk – lol, good point. I guess for giraffes you gotta climb up a tree to get the photo? :)

    @Larry – yeah, it’s unfortunate california has so few undisturbed beaches left, making it really hard for the plovers to breed and get enough food (they’re constantly being scared away by humans). When I took this photo, I made certain never to approach them directly and instead let them come close to me, if they felt like it. It worked well, and most importantly: I didn’t scare them.

  8. Henk

    You forgot about the eye level shot of the sleeping Lion.

    Steve thanks a very good article. Shem Campion showed on his blog how beautiful an elephant’s eyes can be http://www.shemimages-blog.com/2009/11/eye-of-elephant.html

  9. Good photo and good points.
    As a footnote, consider taking a few shots from the standing position before lowering oneself to eye-level. Movement, at least for me, frequently frightens the subject to take flight, so this “backup” is some solace for missing the shot altogether.

  10. @Rick – Great point! I need to start doing that more often.. those photos from above are also sometimes helpful for identifying the bird/dragonfly/etc later.

  11. My favourite position is to sit on the ground with my knees crossed and my elbows resting on my knees to support and steady the camera, I will often adopt this pose before trying the classic supine one, as its easier for me to get up. Although I came home yesterday from the marshes covered in mud and all damp from head to foot tring to hide the fact that I’d ruined the new trousers my wife had bought me at the weekend.

    Well in my defence I did go out with the idea of scouting for landscape shots!!! and not wildlife.

  12. Great advice! Love the plover photo.

  13. Nikhil Sheth says:

    Good stuff Steve

  14. Great stuff – I don’t care about getting dirty, it’s just when the moisture soaks all the way through my clothes and into my underwear . . . . .

  15. Murray A. Palmer says:

    I have been photographing wildlife and nature as a serious amateur since 1981, only recently turning to digital. Imagine yourself as another animal of the same, similar, or perhaps predatory species of the one you are trying to photograph, and you will naturally find yourself in a good position to portray your subject. Try to keep the plane of the sensor parallel to what you most want to show, but I don`t use a low ISO or try to isolate the bird, frog, etc. from the background by using a shallow DOF. As a naturalist, the habitat is part of what I want to show. In like vein, I would not create a black background. Some may see this as artistic, but it tends to make one think the species is nocturnal. I don`t recommend using a tripod, especially in dense vegetation, but using burst and a close-focussing telephoto is sometimes handy.

  16. Absolutely and do it whenever I can! I lie on beaches quite a bit, so wear waterproof shoes and waterproof pants and a jacket which I put over my regular clothes, so I can get down low and roll around in the mud to get the shot I want without getting soaked to the skin…been there and done that!
    I also use Nature Scapes the Skimmer Ground Pod which is awesome! http://www.naturescapes.net/store/the-skimmer-ground_pod-ii.html

  17. Dianne McDermand says:

    Great advice. That is why an articulated screen was so important in my camera choice – ground level shots without lying in the dirt.

  18. I try to do this as much as I can when taking photos of Wildlife. You can also use these same tips for flowers, taking the picture from the flowers level instead of above usually looks a lot better :)

  19. Michael White says:

    I have found the same thing to be true, espcially in regards to children, and pets. When in rough terrain, I often take some knee and elbow pads, I have observed other professionals doing the same thing.

  20. Interesting post Steve, a lot of helpful tips. I came upon your blog today in searching for some information. I will be back and checking out your other posts as well.

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