Tips for Wildlife Photographers Part 2: Get Low

In part two of our five part blog series on wildlife photography tips, Edward Selfe takes a look at the concept of getting low, which offers a beautiful perspective for photographs of wildlife. Read part one here.

It’s one of most common recommendations offered to aspiring wildlife photographers: Get low, below the subject’s eye level or even lower if possible.

This has given rise to the common sight of a vehicle full of people descending the side-steps and throwing themselves onto the ground with their cameras to get that low angle shot that they’re looking for!

And yes, the effect is dramatic: compared to looking down on the animal from above, the angle is flattering, giving more focus to the subject and often rendering the background nice and blurry.

Blurry backgrounds are heavily sought after in wildlife photography because they draw the eye to the subject and remove the messy background bushes and scrub. But, I think they are also sought after because they represent the effect generated by the large telephoto lenses that professionals have invested in for their craft.

Being able to isolate the background to focus attention is a useful capability, but I don’t think it means that any portrait of an animal with a blurry background is necessarily a good image.

Take this image of a leopard for example:

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This image of a leopardess has nice background blur and the leopard’s pose is good, but it actually is not much more than a simple portrait. If the subject was an antelope, it’s doubtful any of us would have kept it!

For me, the low angle is much more about getting an angle on the subject which is natural, seeing the animal eye-to-eye rather than from the safety of our lofty height. I also like to show animals in their environment (the leopard above could be on any open plain in the world and you wouldn’t be able to tell). For this reason, getting low down shows the environment behind the subject rather than below it.

Have a look at this image of impalas:

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This simple scene of impalas quietly feeding would be nothing at all without the arching trees and tunnel that is generated in the background. It was taken at f8, so there was no intention to blur the background entirely – in fact, I wanted it there to give context.

Another way of showing context and environment is to include bush and vegetation in front of the subject. For a long time, I tried to get clear views of my subjects but as I experimented with other options, I found that foreground detail was very useful in giving depth to the image:

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Lying on my belly was necessary to get this shot, but it was not to generate the buttery background. It was to show the green foliage in front, which gives a depth to an image that would be flat without it.

I love smooth backgrounds in some situations and I have used the technique in many of my shots. But I just wanted to offer an alternative opinion and suggest that photographers consider when this is the right technique to use, and when it’s better to draw back and show the environment too.

Get low, and enjoy the excellent angle of view that you get from this perspective, but consider using a smaller aperture to include background detail to tell the story of the environment.

Good luck and enjoy your photography!