Tim Boyer Photography

Small Groups, Cool Birds, Fun Locations

It’s about PoV and Getting Eye Level!

Bird PhotographyTim Boyer

Most photos of birds are either from above the bird looking down on them (like ducks or shorebirds) or from underneath the birds looking up at them (such as an eagle or gull flying by).  If we were taking a portrait of a family member, we wouldn't stand above them or below them. We'd want to shoot eye level, to see who they are, to see their character, to understand the features of their face.  Aren't people's faces and eyes the first thing we look at? We want to see if they're following what we're saying and to see who they are, etc.  If we make a connection to other people by looking at their faces and eyes, won't our bird images be better if we do this too? In some ways, shooting eye level shows we are trying to meet them at their level, in their environment, and on their terms.  We're looking for their character too, and we're looking to make a connection.  It's possible to get eye level and make this connection in different ways.  For this image, I was standing on the bank of a river and climbed down about five feet, so I'd be pretty much eye level with the landing Osprey.  The Osprey nests near where I live are up on 40 and 50-foot poles, or on top of cell phone towers, so I also traveled across the state from Seattle to Cusick, Washington because I heard the Osprey nests there were at eye level.  I also had the tripod at normal height since I was able to move up and down the bank to adjust my Point of View.

A juvenile Osprey is strecting and practicing flaping its wings.
A juvenile Osprey is strecting and practicing flaping its wings.

With water birds or shorebirds the most common way to get eye level is by lying on the shore or sand. Creating an interesting Point of View means working the subject to understand how best to create an image of it. The Western Sandpiper image was created at Ocean Shores during the spring migration of shorebirds.  I was laying on the sand with waders on slowly crawling towards the birds.  I got as low as I possibly could!  By wearing waders when it's wet I can keep dry, and mud boots and Gortex rain pants help if the grass is wet or I'm shooting in a muddy habitat.  If you can't lay down on the sand or shore, sit or kneel behind your tripod, just by getting as low as you can you'll create a better image.

Western Sandpiper - 1/1600 of a second at f/8 ISO 640 Canon 5D Mark III withthe 600 mm lens and a 1.4 Extender using a Ground Pod.
Western Sandpiper - 1/1600 of a second at f/8 ISO 640 Canon 5D Mark III withthe 600 mm lens and a 1.4 Extender using a Ground Pod.

If the photographer doesn’t make the connection with the bird, how can the viewer?

Ansel Adams said, “There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer."

I understand this better now that I know - as the photographer my connection to the bird will be the connection the viewer has or my connection will help the viewer connect with the bird.  The day I created the Snow Goose image, I was looking for a different kind of image, I laid down in the road and shot into a flock of Snow Geese. When I started, I was just taking images of the rounded and curved forms, and patterns.  But when this Snow Goose opened its eye I knew I had my image.

Snow Goose - 1/320 of a second, f/9 at ISO 200 Canon 7D at 600mm with the 1.4 Extender
Snow Goose - 1/320 of a second, f/9 at ISO 200 Canon 7D at 600mm with the 1.4 Extender

But, Point of View is only one of theses “connection” elements an image needs to have. Humans also make the connection to birds through the sparkle, gleam or highlight in the eye, thus making the bird look alive and not dull or dead with a flat black eye. A successful image will have both, a sparkle and an interesting Point of View.

While photographing this Mountain Plover, the tripod was lowered about 2/3 of the way to the ground, so the camera is about two feet above the bird.  There's a slight downward angle present in the image, even from the lens being just a couple feet higher than the Mountain Plover.  Sometimes to get the feet of the bird in the frame or to get the whole reflection of the bird in the frame it will be necessary to shoot from a slightly higher than eye level position.

Mountain Plover - 1/160 of a second at f/5.6 and ISO 500. Canon 5D Mark III 600mm lens and CTO gel and 580 EXII flash.
Mountain Plover - 1/160 of a second at f/5.6 and ISO 500. Canon 5D Mark III 600mm lens and CTO gel and 580 EXII flash.

This Snowy Plover image was made with the camera on the tripod but with the tripod legs fully splayed open and resting on the ground.  The soft blurriness on the bottom of the bird is a small rise in the sand.  This softening creates an element of mystery and maybe even movement in the image as it appears it could be moving sand.  By being a bit higher in Mountain Plover image above the soft blurriness was avoided.  Both work, it's a matter of personal preference and what you're trying to say in the image.

Snowy Plover - 1/80 of a second, f/5.6 at ISO 640, Canon 5D mark III, 600 mm lens and 1.4 Extender, with the CTO gel and falsh Extender on the Canon 580 EX II.
Snowy Plover - 1/80 of a second, f/5.6 at ISO 640, Canon 5D mark III, 600 mm lens and 1.4 Extender, with the CTO gel and falsh Extender on the Canon 580 EX II.

I think it's our job as the photographer to make sure that the connection between people and wildlife happens.  That this just creates a more wonderful, intimate image is a bonus

A note on equipment and use.

I have a tripod that doesn't have a center column.  Center column tripods don't allow for the tripod to sit all the way flat on the ground and keep the camera up a foot or two off the ground.

  • I shorten the tripod legs first; then I spread them out wider to get the camera closer to the ground.
  • It's difficult to push an opened legged tripod on the ground, so when I know I'll be crawling (like for shorebirds) I use a Ground Pod and mount my camera and lens to it.  The Ground Pod requires a tripod head so; sometimes I'll use the taller Wimberley gimbal head, and  if I want to get super low, I'll use a ball head.
  • If I'm on the ground, most of the time I stay behind the camera to reduce what the birds see. But sometimes I'll kneel to the side of the camera and tripod.
  • I often use a C Angle Viewfinder.  This is a right-angle viewfinder that fits on the back of the camera so I can have the camera lower in I need to kneel and can't lay down.

Enjoy             Thanks         Tim