Perspective and Low-angle Avian Photography

July 20, 2017  •  2 Comments

There are many aspects to creating visually appealing images including subject, light, action, technical aspects, and the environment.  Another important aspect that is often overlooked by beginning and intermediate photographers is perspective.  

As a specialist in avian photography, I wanted to take a look at this and provide some visual examples to help illustrate how perspective can sometimes drastically change your results.  In my personal efforts, 90% of all foraging birds, shorebirds, or waterfowl is taken from a perspective of 12 inches from the ground or lower if possible.  I hope this example helps to demonstrate why I like that approach.  Each picture was taken with a 500mm on a crop sensor at f/4 to achieve minimum depth of field, with shutter speed of 1/800 and ISO 400.

To start, I will show a controlled subject, a small ornamental rooster from my kitchen (supposedly good luck).  It is about 7 inches tall.  The examples below were all taken within a few minutes so the only thing that changed was my position relative to the ground.  I did not change the distance to the subject.   The images were then cropped so that in each the eye was in the center of the image vertically and on the top "third" horizontally. 

The first image here was taken from a standing position. I am 6 feet tall.

Image 1 - 18 feet away standing

This perspective is common with beginning photographers, seeing a subject they like and shooting down at it.  This angle, however, can be very unflattering.  When shooting down the distance between your subject and the background is closer.   This adds more elements that are "in-focus."  Often the ground (or water) is not as flattering, especially when its murky water, grass, mud, or plain sand.  Shooting down will show the ground elements, mostly in focus.

As we move to a squatting or kneeling position, you can already see a difference in the way the environment is presented.

Example 2 - 18 feet, squatting

From the squatting position, about 3 feet above the ground, a few positive things have happened, the grass in the foreground has started to blur, and even more evident is the grass in the background.  Now we have created much greater separation from the head of the subject to the grass.  While we are still seeing the ground, it is now a couple feet behind the rooster, and it is out of focus.  This contrast between the in-focus head and the out-of-focus grass creates a pop that makes the rooster start to stand out.

To demonstrate how these angles affect depth in the image, I created a very simple chart that shows angles and distance.  This is not in any way completely accurate, if you are a mathematician, please do not email me with the flaws in the chart.  This illustration, however, may help you visualize the angles that are involved.  On this grid, each block represents 1 foot.  The example puts the subject about 15 feet away and starts with the top angle at 6 feet, about the same as our original image.  This, again, is a simple chart that does not account for the different lens length, field of view, etc.   


The first angle from 6 feet puts the background only a foot or so.  As we move down to 3 feet the angle becomes more shallow and a straight line puts the background a couple feet back.  This change looks minor, but when shot at lower apertures, it already does a good job at creating depth, as we saw in the example above.   The bottom 2 lines, represent much shallower angles and you can see the background really starts to drop off exponentially until you are shooting on a flat angle with has virtually no ground elements in the background at all.

The picture below was captured at about 1 foot off the ground.

Example 3 - 18 feet, 1 foot above ground

As we move to just a foot off the ground, we see results similar to the crouch, but more separation has occurred and the foreground out-of-focus grasses start to actually pop up into the "bird," and there is only a thin sliver of grass left in focus.

The last angle shown below is flat.  In fact here, the eye of the rooster may even be an inch or two above the lens.  

Example 4 - 18 feet, flat angle to subject


Here is where things get drastically different.  At a flat, ultra-low angle, the grass is gone, save for the blurred foreground and a few blades of grass popping up in the same plane as the rooster.  The big difference in this last picture, is the background.  We no longer see the grass behind the bird but we are now showing the distant shrubs, which are only about 15 feet behind the bird, but completely out of focus.  When shooting like this you will often get a completely different color in the background which really helps break up the scene.  Sometimes these breaks will even occur near lines of "thirds, " which may be pleasing for composition.  Where there is no solid background behind the bird, you may get horizons, bodies of water, or if you are really creative, a sunrise or sunset.

Here are the 4 images from highest to lowest together for comparison.

TIPS FOR LOW ANGLE:  A few things that you may want to try when shooting this technique.  

  • Dress accordingly as you will be laying down a lot, often in sand (if you're lucky), mud, grass, and all sorts of foul wildlife habitat.  Consider a yoga mat to lay down if you will be in one spot for a while.  Bring a change of clothes (I always have 2 complete sets of clothing in my trunk along with towels and a backup pair of shoes).
  • Your neck is going to get stiff very quickly so there are a few things that can help.  You can purchase a "right angle" viewfinder that allows you to look down and keep you from bending your neck.  This is a huge help, but might take some time to get used to.  Its good for slow moving ducks but harder for tracking little plovers scurrying around.  You can also try laying sideways.  I shoot like this most of the time, where I am more on my side and my neck seems to hold up better.
  • Look through the subject.  I use this phrase a lot and it's meant to make the photographer think about what is behind the subject.  On stationary subjects you will have time to change positions move up or down a couple inches, left/right a few feet.  As demonstrated before, a few inches can make a difference about what is shown behind your subject in the background and those small changes in elevation can greatly affect your final product.

Below are a few images that were shot with very low angles to illustrate real life examples of what can be achieved.  Good luck with your efforts!

At this low angle, this Semi-palmated Plover really shows the action of pulling the worm from the sand.  This persepctive feels intimate and gives a great sense of being close to whats happening.  It also allows the elongated worm to show better.

Getting low, here the lens is laying on my hand in the sand, allows the background to include some sky.  This breaks up the solid sand that would be showing if I was just a few inches higher.  Another cool impact of this low angle, is seeing the space between the foot and the sand, which is much more obvious when viewed from this perspective.

With larger wading birds, you don't have to be as low.  In this image, I moved from a low position to a sitting position, shooting with the camera lens balanced on my knee.  Keeping level with the birds eye was my main focus.  This also allowed me to capture the tall grasses in the back.   This was one of my favorite overall images of 2017 .

This example shows a foreground blur that composes the bottom third of the image.  The key element for me here was the sky.  The sun was just coming up and the sky still had blue and purple tones that I wanted to include.  The Oystercatcher was actually a little above me on a small dune, so I could get the sand, the bird and the sky all in one picture.

I wanted to be sure to include the green mossy rocks as part of this background, so I got super low to catch this Oystercatcher in a small pool near the jetty.  Had I been a foot higher, I would have lost the rocks and only gotten the shallow blue pool.   I think getting both the pool and the rocks created a better product.

Gaining low perspective on waterfowl is challenging and rewarding.  This was taken laying on the shore of a pond.  When I saw the ducks I noticed this great golden color in the background, which was created by dead grasses in the morning sun.  Getting flat of the ground allowed me to get the background in the frame.  Had I shot this higher all of those colors would be missed except what might have been seen in the water reflection.

The low angle on this White-cheeked Pintail (Aruba) created a very shallow area of water in focus.  The water ends at the grasses and creates a horizontal line at about the 1/3 mark from the bottom.   I personally like including these breaks in backgrounds.  Because he is drying off, the head of the duck is not up in the greens and yellows.  A  higher perspective would likely, but the head in the water, not the grasses.

The water here was not gorgeous by any means and getting low minimizes it's impact and pulls in some other neutral colors from the side of the creek.

Foraging birds are not always in the open like this.  Getting on the ground here gives a very different and intimate feel to these Vesper Sparrows.  This bird is on the other side of a gravel road.  Shooting down at an angle would bring in that very bland element and make it look like a bird on the road.   Changing to really low (actually an inch or two below the bird as he in on the slightly elevated road) allowed 2 layers of backgrounds to come in to play.  There are golds from a burnt field that lead into a tree line on the horizon.  Getting this low will get some super out-of-focus elements that can bleed into the subject, so you will have to determine if this bothers you or not.  For me seeing the three layers evenly broken up created a more interesting image and the blurred bottom of the bird lead into the in-focus head which also worked for me.

Guest Submission by Ray Hennessy  - By getting incredibly low in a shallow pool of water I was able to include the sun in the frame as this Laughing Gull took off. It was on a small sand bar no more then a few inches out of the water but that was enough for me to get below the bird. 


Jennifer Sylvia(non-registered)
This was very helpful. Thank you for shooting and demonstrating each perspective.
Hayley Crews(non-registered)
Very helpful information Scott. Thank you!
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