Before I learnt how to use a DSLR to make images I used see photographers go down while taking photographs. And I used to wonder why. Once I started learning the ropes I realised that there is a science behind it. And I now understand that there are atleast 3 reasons why they would do so.
Firstly, focal plane. Every photo that one takes has one plane of sharpness that is parallel to the sensor. Keeping this plane as parallel to the subject as possible will result in sharpness in the important parts of the subject – eyes & large portions of the body. For a subject as small as a bird on the ground, this is possible only when you go down to its level. When you shoot standing up, the plane of the sensor and that of the bird will invariably be at an angle to each other and that will mean loss of sharpness in some part of the subject.
Secondly, background. A couple of things I learnt in a basics of photography workshop that I had enrolled for a few years back were the importance of the background and the concept of depth of field. One of the elements of getting a shallow depth of field (sharp subjects which stand out against an out of focus background – which usually makes for good images in bird photography) is the distance between the subject and the background. The longer the distance, the shallower the background and this makes for a more striking image. When you are shooting a bird on the ground standing up (or even from a vehicle), there is hardly any distance between the bird and the background (unless the ground falls off behind the subject). However, if you go down on the ground and shoot prone, then you increase the distance between the subject and the background. And this creates the opportunity of making shallow depth of field images.
Thirdly, perspective. When you shoot a bird on the ground while standing up, you are seeing the bird from your own perspective and from your height. In effect you are looking down on the subject. Getting down to the eye-level of the subject helps us visualise the world from the view-angle of the subject. Making it a more intimate picture and therefore more pleasing to the eye.
Two caveats though. One, unfortunately it is not easy to practise this all the time. Alighting from the safari vehicles inside most national parks is not allowed – let alone lying flat on the ground. However, wherever it is possible, it is important to try and practise this so that it becomes a habit. The same principle applies when you are shooting a bird in a water body – try and get low and shoot as close as possible to the level of the water. Two, getting out of a vehicle, is bound to spook the subject and it may take off. So, it is important that the approach is not direct. Get off from the side of the vehicle that is away from the bird and use the vehicle as a cover while trying manoeuver into position. Importantly, warn your co-passengers about your intent to do so.
The two images below illustrate the impact. They were shot in the Little Rann of Kutch a couple of years back and are actually successive frames of the same subject, separated by about 90 seconds. We were following this Peregrine Falcon (a juvenile or a sub-adult) when it perched on these flat stones on the ground.
The 1st image (on the left) was clicked just as we approached the bird and switched off the engine. I realised that the bird may give us a few minutes here and decided to climb down from the vehicle and try and get a few shots at the ground level. I alerted my companions on the vehicle to my intent and quietly got off, lay low on the ground and keeping the vehicle between the Peregrine and me crawled toward the back of the vehicle. I stopped short of breaching the cover of the vehicle, set-up my camera (I was using a Nikon D7000 with a 600mm lens) on a bean bag and clicked the 2nd image (the one on the right) from under the chassis of the vehicle.
The difference between the images is stark. What makes the subject pop out of the second image is the background. And if you observe it carefully you can discern a slight pinkish hue in the horizon caused by a completely out-of-focus flock of flamingos miles away in the distance.
The second image inherently appeals to me way more than the first one. What do you think?