A lot of birds spend much if not nearly all of their time on the ground or water's surface. A great way to photograph or observe these low-down birds is to recipricate by getting down to their level whenever possible. This technique has several merits. First, the low perspective provides a compelling, natural-feeling composition that really engages viewers. Second, I think that birds often feel less threatened by an observer or photographer who is sitting or lying down instead of standing tall over them. Finally, sitting down can actually be pretty comfortable for long viewing or photo sessions.
White-tailed Ptarmigan, Boulder County, CO July 2006. Sitting down amongst the rocks where this male was hanging out payed off with killer close-ups and a peek at those awesome feathered feet as it walked right up to me! Photograph by Bill Schmoker.
One tip for photographing birds without a tripod while sitting on the ground is to rest your supporting arm’s elbow on one knee. This adds a lot of stability and greatly reduces fatigue during long shoots. Or you can crank your tripod down to a comfortable height to use from a seated position- this may require spreading the legs to a wider setting (which has the added advantage of leaving room under the tripod for your legs.)
Good: Sitting down to photograph shorebirds at the Chico Basin Ranch, Pueblo County, CO May 2008. Photograph by Brian Gibbons.
Juv. Curlew Sandpiper, Gray's Harbor County, WA, Sept. 2005. I saw this bird and its cadre of Dunlins working their way towards me so I sat down, got the flash ready (the bird would pass between me and the evening sun), and sure enough the bird walked right by me about 8 feet away.
Lying down on the ground can be less comfortable than sitting but gain you an even more dramatic perspective. Sometimes you’ve got to be willing to get wet, cold, &/or dirty, but looking eye to eye at a bird is ever more dramatic than looking down at a birds back. If it is cold out add an extra layer- it is harder to keep warm when you are sitting or lying still (although you’ll be more out of the wind, which is a plus.) Getting real low can also create a dramatic blurred background with the subject dominating the frame instead of a busy ground tableau creating distraction in the scene. I’ve seen many examples where the difference between a good and a great bird photo is a lowered perspective!
Better: Lying down to photograph shorebirds at the Chico Basin Ranch, Pueblo County, CO May 2008. Photograph by Bill Schmoker.
Spotted Sandpiper, Pueblo County, CO May 2008. Photograph by Bill Schmoker (taken lying down on the shoreline of a small pond.)
One thing you don’t want to get wet or dirty is your camera rig, so if you are lying down to get those killer low shots you’ll want a strategy to protect your camera. A simple solution is to put the lens on your non-trigger hand (flat or fisted) or to use a glove, rock, rolled up jacket, or other improvised pad. More comfortable is some kind of ground support designed for photography. Deluxe supports include the NatureScapes Skimmer Ground Pod II or the Walt Anderson Panning Ground Pod. Both of these let you mount a gimbal or ball head for smooth support and camera movement from the ground. A simpler and more affordable option is to use a bean bag or Puffin Pad from the ground, perhaps on an inverted Frisbee or plastic tray if it is wet or muddy.
Horned Lark, Boulder County, CO Feb. 2006. Yeah, I got cold getting this photo but it was worth it! Photograph by Bill Schmoker.
Snow Bunting, Park County, CO Nov. 2008. Another ground-loving bird that looks a lot better eye-to-eye than from above! Photograph by Bill Schmoker.
Sitting or lying down to observe and photograph birds may take a little extra patience since your mobility will be restricted but I think the payoff is well worth it. Besides the photographic potential there is something very rewarding in having a shorebird walk up to within a few meters of you or listening to soft vocalizations within a nearby group of ground-foraging birds that are unconcerned with your presence. If you haven’t tried birding or photographing birds from the ground give it a whirl when the opportunity presents itself!
Redhead, Jefferson County, CO May 2006. I took this shot lying down on a low bridge crossing a pond, shooting through the railing. Photograph by Bill Schmoker.
Black-tailed Rattlesnake, Santa Cruz County, AZ August 2006. Other subjects besides birds can lend themselves well to ground-level phtography, like this rattler that was basking on my front porch at the Santa Rita Lodge. Photograph by Bill Schmoker