This article links directly with Shooting Low Angle Part 2.
One of the defining elements of being a photographer is to identify and shoot to a visual style. In fact I would say it's one of the most important considerations with your photography, much more so in my opinion than what tech kit you use. To find this style you need to work hard at your technique yes, but you also need to take inspiration from other photographers that you trust. I don't mean copy, as that is not the point of being a photographer at all, but to get ideas that you can apply to find your own direction. For me it's taken years to develop a 'look', and it's one these particular styles that a lot of clients now recognise and associate with my work. Of course it's my use of backlight that a lot of people associate with me, but the most common factor throughout my portfolio of work is that I try to shoot low angle, straight into my subject's eyes. I like the connection that low angle photography gives, it brings the viewer straight into the picture more and allows them to really immerse themselves in the shot. Well that's my intention anyway!
I love shooting at low angle, it's a technique that I have perfected over the years and always try to pass these skills onto any photographers that I get the chance to teach. So why shoot low angle? It can be a backbreaking, uncomfortable experience and most photographers I have worked with try to take the easy option and stand up normally. I usually sit on their legs, or get my mate Heffo the Elephant to do it instead. That usually gets the message across! Certainly my low level photography has often broken the mould and set me apart from the crowd. Yes it gets me a fair amount of criticism, usually from those who think that I am affecting the animal's behaviour by doing so. What they fail to appreciate is that my fieldcraft comes first and I never try low angle shooting unless I feel that the subject will be unaffected. Of course it's also because I stand out from the crowd by doing it, and nobody likes dealing with that!
I remember one time early in my career when I was shooting in the Everglades. It was late in the evening and I arrived at Ding Darling to find a line of photographers with their tripods set at head height. In fact they were so perfectly aligned that I could have walked a tightrope between them! Now that would have caused a lot of internet chat. Anyway I quickly realised that the angle that they were shooting at it wasn't the best, because they had all taken the easy option and followed each other like sheep (at this point Farmer John is getting excited at the mention of his beloved sheep). In front of them were several beautiful Roseate Spoonbills, amazing birds. The problem was the pond, it had this algae floating on the top and you can see it here still spoiling the reflection at the bottom of the picture. Shooting from a standing position, however, meant that the angle was slightly down on the Spoonbill, therefore the algae was in view behind the head of the spoonbill and was totally ruining the image. I made a suggestion to some of the photographers who just looked at me blankly whilst continuing to shoot more bad images.
So I sneaked in between them, set up my tripod at ground level and started to shoot. I set the 600mm lens (that was surgically attached to me at that point in my career...ah the exuberance of youth) to f/4 to highlight the bird only and dialled in -2/3 exposure compensation to accentuate the mood. The low angle I chose ensured that I got the lovely black background behind the shot rather than the algae. Shooting low angle worked. Photographers are always inquisitive when grouped together in a posse like this and one by one they all looked at what I was doing. Within a few minutes half of them were shooting at the same height as me but as usual no one admitted it was me that had caused them to do it. The level of shutter clicks from the low brigade showed that I had picked the best angle, so let’s look at why shooting low angle can be so productive for your photography.
The perspective from shooting at ground level is incredible, at the simplest level it makes everything look much bolder in the frame. I use it with wildlife to make the picture more intense and to really jump from the page. This technique has worked well with all kinds of wildlife, but perhaps is best known with my elephant work. When I first started to photograph them all those years ago I quickly realised that sitting in a vehicle would not give me a flattering angle on the elephants as the pictures just looked boring and uninspiring. So I started to lie down in front of approaching elephants (quite why to this day I will never know) to get a worm’s eye view of them.
The above is a slightly different view, I was under the car so not quite as flat as I was in the grass. It still allows me though to show the elephant against the sky and make it dominate the shot. As you can see the resulting images were spectacular as the elephants really stood out and look intimidating, the pictures just shouted for attention and in a competitive market this is vital for my business. Now I am not recommending that you do this and risk your own life, I rarely do this now, but the technique holds for all wildlife no matter what you try!
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 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 farther away and make it less of an issue, without the need to touch the aperture. Of course if you set an aperture of f/16 you will see background, so for most low angle work I am using f/4-f/5.6 which means a very diffuse background indeed. It is not just wildlife photographers that use low angles for increased perspective and visual punch. Football photographers (cmon you Hammers!!!!!) are usually sat down in a dugout at pitch level. By shooting low they focus solely on their subjects and this makes them stand out better on the printed page. I have seen portrait photographers photographing their subject from a low angle, especially if they have a famous landmark towering above.
Ok here are a few examples. A couple of years ago I photographed some Ascension Island land crabs during their migration and found that I was struggling to get inspiring pictures of them. They are very cool animals with lots of personality and will happily nip your ankles if you get toooooo close, but shooting them from standing height just made them look small and inconsequential, which they got very angry about!
On this afternoon I found this very friendly chap and decided that the only solution was to get low and eat sand. After a bit of animated front claw waving in my general direction the crab relaxed and I was able to take this very characterful portrait. The low angle really makes the crab stand out in the frame and removes any distracting background elements (commonly known as the sea). For the techs, I shot this with a 300mm f/2.8 lens to really throw the background out more and create a compression effect on the crab, which fixed lenses tend to do. The numbers were ISO 400, f/8 @ 1/125th and it was one of the rare occurrences I used a flash, as I wanted the crab to stand out against the sky. So I darkened the exposure first before firing the flash. Quick and simple.
I gave a workshop a few years ago on photographing pigs. Yes that's right, domestic porkers! My clients turned up, dressed in old clothes as I had instructed and I immediately made them all lie down on their stomachs in the thick mud. No I am not a sado masochist, well only on a Tuesday anyway, I knew that the best angle to photograph the pigs was from mud level. At normal head height the pens were very distracting, full of out of focus elements in the background. At mud level the pigs were isolated against the sky and looked fantastic, like this!
So cute, yes, but the low angle worked for the picture well but it also worked on another level, the fieldcraft aspect.....
Relaxing your subject
For the 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, you are dominating their view and they will be scared of you. Getting down to their level changes this completely. Whilst this is not recommended for large predators as they will take painful advantage of this (don't do it without a lot of experience please), with others it will make a huge difference to your photography. Subjects will approach you closer because they will be inquisitive and because your shape will not look human. They will not be afraid of you or scared of your size. This latter point is perhaps themost important as it will give you better and longer picture opportunities. But like I said, do not try this with animals that have the capability to do you serious harm.
Recently I photographed some wild rabbits that were certainly not used to humans at all. For various reasons I could not use a hide on the estate so had to lie down flat and use camouflage gear to mask my face. The bunnies, whilst wary, came out and played in front of my camera for most of the afternoon because after a while I was just an accepted part of the scenery. Had I been standing up or walking around they would have scarpered underground and I would not have seen anything. Now they will always do that anyway when you arrive, but if you lay down and wait, they will come out. Just like this one did, it could not smell me (as I got the wind right) and was very inquisitive so could no resist a look, SNAP! Now the low angle also helped the composition here as I was able to to use the grass in front of me as a natural frame and a low aperture of f5.6 to blur the distant hillside behind. Sitting upright or standing would have meant that I was dominating the scenery and I would not have seen a twitching ear let alone a rabbit all day. Of course rabbits are onething but when I am photographing hares it's essential that I am at a low angle as you can see here.
The problem with hares is that they have no burrow to flee to, so they are always sitting around. They are also very mobile so impossible to photograph from a hide successfully, so it's a case for me of using the car as a mobile hide. When I find one that seems relaxed with me, or better still in the act of courtship like this one, I slowly bring the car to a stop in the perfect place for the light and the wind direction. Then I slip out of the blind side and get flat on the ground, crawling slowly towards the hare whilst using the car behind me to distract the hare. It worked here very well, I managed to get a nice distance before he stood up and looked at me. The female, happily chewing grass slightly out of shot just ignored me, but he obviously thought I was competition!
The eyes have it
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. For me that is always a delete when I am editing, in fact these days I rarely takethose shots at all now. Portraits showing eyes are VERY unforgiving. 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. Check out this stunning example of a Cheetah stalking me....
>On safari it's always difficult to get low as you cannot just get out of the vehicle, it's dangerous and scares animals like cheetah witless. If you do not understand the word witless then just think of the Spurs defence and you will then understand. But you can use a few tricks to get lower and one of these I use is to get ahead of a walking animal and find a depression in the ground to put the wheels of the car into. Here I found a ditch and, since I was driving, I put the whole side of the Landcruiser over at 50 degrees! It must have looked weird to anyone watching, and to the cheetah it clearly looked very interesting indeed! By the way the roll angle for Landcruisers is much much more than this but trust me at 50 degrees it's very hairy indeed!
You see the low angle here? It works so well. If I had shot from the usual height of the window then I would have been looking down slightly on the cheetah and the background behind it would have been the grass. This would not have isolated the cheetah at all and ruined the effect of the shot. Yes I could have used a lower aperture to try to negate this, except I couldn't as I was already at f/4 because the light was so low. So shooting from a lower angle gave the forest as the background, this was further away than the grass so made the cheetah stand out more.
>Of course I would have preferred to have had both those trees on the left of the cheetah much less prominent and I have toyed with the idea of re-processing this image to tone them down a little. But actually I have grown to like and accept them and clients have never complained so I will leave them be.
So you can see here how getting a low angle helps with the eyes as well as general composition. It's a compelling cheetah picture, made all the more special by the very early red light. I have no idea to this day why the cheetah has it's hackles up at me, I have never seen a cheetah do this and I did get the impression for a while it was stalking the car, which is unheard of for a cheetah. In the end it headed away from me but still gave me some looks of pure hatred over its shoulder as it disappeared into the grass.
Okay, so there you have some compelling reasons for shooting low. In my opinion it just makes much more beautiful pictures. There is no doubt in my mind that this is a vital technique for all photographers as it makes your photographs different and stand out from the crowd. Now this article is in two parts and in a couple of months I will look at the technical / support challenges for shooting low angles, including some recommendations for osteopaths!