Part 2 of Andy's Animal Lesson on the back breaking art of shooting low angle, this time he looks at the technical and support challenges needed to achieve these images.
By Andy Rouse
Part 1 of this masterpiece, amusing called Shooting Low Angle Part 1, introduced the concept of shooting low angle and the benefits of doing so. If you need more convincing then check out the Great Crested Grebe Obsession Animal Skills article as most of these images were shot from a prone position. So that's why you should shoot low angle covered from all angles. Technically it is challenging as it does require some forethought so here are a few hints and tips for getting that perfect low angle shot:
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. I generally take a "wide" meter reading using an evaluative setting (Nikon people please ignore this and use matrix metering as it works) and then shoot at +0.3 stops as I would rather have an image that might be slightly overexposed in this case than one that is too dark. The reason for this is that shooting low can introduce a lot of shadows into the image and within shadows lurks noise – brightening the image may cause the noise to appear which will mean extra time processing it out.
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.
We all need support!
One of the main issues when shooting low angle is supporting the lens as you will be very low to the ground. Here are a few solutions that I use:
Of course the most sensible way of doing this is to use a tripod, but this relies on the tripod not having a totally-useless-waste-of-money-cause-of-great-instability centre column. God how I HATE centre columns for tripods, they are wobbly at the best of times and cause so much instability. If you've got one the saw it off with menace. Anyway here's the benefit of having a tripod that goes flat...
Yep it's that dodgy picture of me at the Grebes again BUT you can see how flat both tripods are as they have no centre column. I have them at their widest with the legs splayed out for extra stability. Oh here's a grebe that I shot using this setup so you can see how the low angle makes such a difference...
You can see here how the low angle works so well as the background is a long way away and therefore causes the subjects to stand out better. So instead of using an aperture of f5.6 to isolate the subject from a higher angle, you could afford to increase this to f8 or even f11 and still retain good isolation. The benefit of increasing the aperture like this is simply that everything you want to be in focus will be in focus.
Of course this brings up another issue, keeping everything straight when you are shooting at a low angle. Because you will basically be looking through the viewfinder at a strange and uncomfortable angle, it will skew your perspective of straight lines completely. Therefore horizons may suffer and you will get sloping water, both of which aren't great! Of course both can be easily fixed in LightRoom / PS but it takes times and it will involve some cropping of the original image which may remove bits you want. So it's far easier to get it right at shoot time. Now there is a cheap way and an expensive way:
Cheap way - Use Camera's built-in spirit level. Most modern day cameras have a levelling indicator, usually as some function of the INFO button. The 7D2 has a nifty one that you can switch on in the viewfinder that I love to use, it's on Setup Menu 2 option viewfinder display. This works for the direction that are pointing in, but as soon as you move the camera's position, perhaps when you are following a moving subject, the horizon is no longer level and you get issues. There is only one solution to this, the expensive way.
Expensive way - UniqBall. Yes I know I have a vested interest, or is it that I am interested in vests? But the only real solution to the horizon issue is the UniqBall. I used them during my grebe project and they work every time. Anyway click here for the product info but don't buy as you get a discount, check out the instructions in Community >FotoXchange.
Beanbags are a great way of shooting low angle 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 they weigh half a tonne, or perhaps that is just the number of beans that I put in them!
I often use the Arnold Schwarzeknicker's method of long lens support, which is different from the kind of frilly yellow knickers that AJ wears. Here, let me demonstrate:
As you see here I often just balance the lens on the ground and don't use anything else. This only works for those locations with short grass but if it's just a touch too long I will stretch out my arm, clench my first and use it to raise the lens hood slightly. Anyway it's a great method unless you are in the middle of an earthquake or a volcanic eruption, in which case you should run and call for mummy.
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, I find that these are great on one hand as they slow down your photography and make you think, but on the flip side can give you much worse back pain in the long run! It's a balance between getting the shot and having some sadist in a white coat manipulating your back and smiling whilst telling you through yellowed teeth that it won't hurt.
Another solution of course is to use the LiveView function of the camera and I used this technique with the rabbit picture that you see below.
Although it is limited in terms of focusing ability it does allow you to rest your head below the camera, keep it out of view and watch what is happening ahead. When you see something approaching then you can slowly raise your eye to the viewfinder and use this to shoot, since the AF is not great using LiveView. Often I will put a little bit of netting on top of the camera to mask this movement, it all helps to break up your shape. No jokes please.
One addendum. Flip screens. The 70D has one and so do increasing numbers of cameras. Paparazzi's love them as they use them to naughtily look up celebrity skirts. These screens, when used for more sensible things, are great for getting a low angle without breaking your back.
I use remote cameras quite a lot as they have a lot of advantages, the main one being a lurking, sweaty human form is not standing next to it terrifying the subject that you are trying to photograph. Now I will cover the wonders of remote photography in another article as it will take a lot to cover everything, but the basic idea is to shove a camera on a very low tripod (usually a Joby or something similar) and trigger it remotely. Like this!
Now I setup my 6D on silent mode and attached a 15mm fisheye, pre-focused on the front of the perch, aperture f11 to ensure total sharpness to the moon. Of course you cannot just plonk a camera there and expect the Little Owl to ignore it, so it was covered with netting and sat next to a branch that had been there for days. So that's all done, the only remaining issue is how to trigger it and there are several options:
1) Long Cable - in the old days when dinosaurs ruled the earth photographers used long cables to connect to cameras. Hopefully this silly past-time has long died out with the Spitfire. In the modern age we have better methods.....
2) Wireless Trigger system - you mount a little box to the camera and have an identical one in your hand. When you see the object of your desire sit where you planned you press the button and the wireless transmitter does the rest and fires the camera. I have used a Quantum Freewire system for years, for all my diving kingfishers in fact. It's simple, powered by AAA batteries, very light and fits into my pack. The downside is that everything is guesswork. i.e. you cannot change any camera settings, point of focus or stuff like that. But I always managed ok!
3) Tablet / Phone driven apps - top of the tree, these apps reside on your tablet / smart phone and actually show you the image that the camera is seeing. Some even allow you to change settings, seems like genius. I tested one called the CamRanger for my first edition of FotoBuzz. We decided not to publish it because I titled it CamPants and AJ was worried we'd get put in prison where he would actually enjoy the showers. It was a piece of crap so don't buy it!!!! For the image above I used the Canon EOS Remote app on my iPad, which showed this image in all it's glory, allowed me to change focus point and exposure settings and generally looked great. The only downside of these apps is the range, probably limited to 10 metres no matter what the manufacturers claim!
No article about shooting low angle would be complete without a mention of the Go Pro, they have revolutionised this form of shooting as they are tiny, unobtrusive, produce cracking results and are lots of fun! I just wish their batteries lasted longer. I will do a feature on Go Pro's too if you like as I use them a lot. For the meantime though if you are gonna buy one then I would get the Silver as it has a screen at the back so you can see what the camera sees, always an advantage of course.
I have used them for all manner of low angle work, they are so small I just attach them to a tiny tripod and leave them hanging around in places where wildlife might turn up. Sometimes they attract very unwanted attention:
The moral is don't mess with penguins.....or skuas for that matter!
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