Tips on Getting Unique Shots (anywhere with any camera):
It’s likely that over 90% of all photos are taken from a height of about four feet to six feet above ground level. Call it “eye level”. It’s a logical height to take a photo. It’s the easiest height to take a photo. It’s probably the most boring height to take a photo!
Any Camera…Anywhere: Almost all of my digital SLR gear is professional grade. However, the concept of shooting from a low angle translates to any camera—from an iPhone to a point-and-shoot, to a digital or film SLR, and all the way to a large view camera. (Videos can also benefit from the low vantage point.) Remember…this concept should apply to just about any subject matter in any state or country! This blog is focused on the JH and Tetons, but don’t think it only applies here!
The Goal: If part of your goal is to get something “unusual”, it could mean doing something as simple as kneeling down. It’s relatively easy to do, but I seldom see people do it. If you study some of the stunning photos by the pros or journalists, you’ll probably see a pattern of them getting in all kinds of unusual positions and locations to get shots others don’t. It can work with wildlife, portraits, and action sports if the photographer has access to get to the low spots. Most sports photography, like football and basketball, is done from a low perspective. Besides giving a unique angle, it makes the athletes look larger than life.
This Feature Post will show shots from a low vantage point, but it is also worth noting that getting higher than the norm can also create some unique or captivating shots. I tend to like the low shots, especially for wildlife. A Mountain Goat or a Bighorn always looks more majestic when taken looking slightly up. At least in my mind’s eye, looking down at one would be much less appealing. Likewise, taking a photo of a Grizzly bear down in a ravine would probably be less captivating than the same Grizzly on the rim and the photographer in the ravine shooting up.
Equipment: Neart the bottom of the page, I show and explain the equipment I used for most of these shots, but the concept is to simply lower your vantage point for unique or more interesting images.
Examples: The rest of this post will show you a few examples of getting low for something unique. They are intended as “food for thought” or “seed ideas” of how you might approach a subject differently than most. If you are more creative than me, you’ll find lots more possibilities! Not all scenes or wildlife photography will work by setting up low. For example, at the Snake River Overlook, the wall prohibits much flexibility. Or, when a moose or elk are in sagebrush, getting low doesn’t work. The sagebrush can actually block your view!
Chapel of the Transfiguration: This one requires being flat on your stomach long before most tourists enter the park. I used a Gitzo tripod with the legs spread out flat. On some days, I get the scene composed and focused, then change the lens to manual. I can trigger the camera with a remote trigger, allowing me to stand and walk around. I can take lots of shots as the light changes.
Bull Moose Crossing the Gros Ventre: Taken lying flat on my stomach on the mossy river rock. I smelled like a river bottom the rest of the day, but it was worth it. Addition 2-21-2014: A few years ago, a bull moose was bedded down next to a grove of aspens. A photographer decided to crawl down an old irrigation ditch to get closer. At some point, the moose caught a glimpse of the low photographer and jumped up. He was startled—probably more from the potential threat of a wolf than if the photographer had walked to the same spot standing up. Sneaking up on wildlife is probably not a great idea!
Schwabacher Landing: In the summer and fall, this pond is normally reflects the Tetons. By November, it freezes and creates a completely different look. For this shot, I was on my stomach, using a tripod with all legs flattened out. I shot other images from different heights that day, but this one was much more interesting.
Purple Lupines: Flowers are obvious subjects for getting low. In most cases, the flowers are THE subject, but when you have the Tetons as a backdrop, how can you not include them! For this shot, my four piece tripod was collapsed to the shortest height.
Windblown Flowers: I spotted these colorful flowers on my way back from Cody last summer. Most people like dead calm conditions for their wildflower shots, but I tried letting the wind be a positive player in some of the shots that day. In reality, I didn’t have a choice! Some worked better than others. I was set up with the low vantage point with the camera. I wanted to backdrop the purple Lupines behind the Yellow Mule’s Ear. The exposure was 1/20th of a second at F22. Some of the flowers were being pushed much harder than others in this shot.
Chevy Truck: This would be much less dramatic if I had been standing at normal eye level. This image has three “players”: truck, Tetons, and clouds.
Approaching Horses: My camera was roughly a 18″ off the ground for this one. It was taken with a Nikon D4 and a 200-400mm at a bit of a distance, which helped compress the scene.
Uinta Ground Squirrel: Sometimes called Chislers, these little critters are common along Mormon Row. Hawks and Owls feed on them, so they can be skittish. This one let me get close enough to include him in the bigger scene while shooting from the ground. I believe I was using a bean bag at the time. A rolled up jacket or blanket works, too.
Waterfalls Pano: (click on the image to see it much larger) I took this image on the South Fork of the Snake River last fall while on a fly fishing trip. You need a boat to get to this spot. I took one of my tripods with me, anticipating this shot and took the pano series while the tripod was collapsed to the height of just one leg.
Mare’s Tails at the Moulton Barn: There’s an irrigation ditch at the Moulton Barn. Occasionally, it contains water. For this shot, I had the camera setting on a bean bag at the edge of the water. With a wide angle lens, I was able to hold good depth of field, so I focused on the few leaves just past the water’s edge and shot a bunch of images. I had my spirit level on the top of the camera so I could look down at the camera as I clicked. The water level was below the lip of the retaining ditch. I couldn’t see through the viewfinder, even while on my stomach. In other words, I was “shooting blind”. Thankfully, I could review the shots in the digital camera’s viewfinder. I like lots of elements in this photo with the sweeping clouds, fall foliage, shadows on the bank from the cottonwoods, and the close water.
Sunrise Soldiers: Taken during the early morning along the Gros Ventre at a kneeling height.
Conflicting Lines: Sometimes, the normal “pedestrian” eye level shots just don’t work. In this shot at the Cunningham Cabins, and most eye level shots there, the distant ridge lines hit at almost exactly the same location in the photo as the roof line—as seen in the image above.
Cunningham Cabin with Mount Moran: You can see how dropping the camera to a lower vantage point lets the roof line project into the mountain range, plus the close strip of grass and weeds compliment the horizontal bands in the rest of the image. This one has Foreground, Middle Ground, and Background elements with very little extra effort.
High Vantage Point at Cunningham Cabins: People probably see a 10′ ladder strapped to the ladder rack on my truck off and on during the year. Occasionally, I go back to places and shoot from a higher vantage point. The roof line is an issue at Cunningham Cabin, so the other option is to get above the roof. I shot this at a distance with a short telephoto lens and the tripod was straddled over the top of the ladder. The conflicting lines issue disappear—and being back from the cabin lets the mountains loom much larger. Check out : Distance and Scale Relationships in the Tetons (and elsewhere) for more information on this topic.
Otter Family: I was kneeling with a very low setup on my tripod for this shot. The otters were much more tolerant of me being low than when I was standing or moving around.
Bison Passing the Barns: Another example of lying on my stomach to capture the reflections of the Grand and get a couple of bonus Bison.
Snake River Riffle: This shot required getting up long before first light and hoping for something good to happen at sunrise. I wore my fishing waders that day and was set up with my camera on the tripod just above the water level. Actually, I was kneeling in a small pool just below the riffle. The first time I tried this shot, I was wearing a jacket and had a wide angle lens in the side pockets. While kneeling in the pool, the pocket of the jacket went below water level and ruined the lens. Lesson learned!
ShoBan Pow-Wow: Taken from ground level at the Shoshone-Bannock Pow-Wow at Fort Hall, Idaho a couple of summers ago. Photos from this event will be a future Feature Post…so sign up to follow this blog!
Broom Ball: For this shot, I rested the camera on the ice and shot upwards with the lens focused on one of the players. The rodeo arena lights lit much of the scene and my strobe lit their faces. I think it is a much more interesting shot than if I had been at eye level.
Tripods: I typically shoot with a tripod when I can. Neither of my main tripods have a “center column”. Most people will tell you the center column style tripods are not quite as stable or secure. They are probably still more stable than a monopod or no tripod, but I definitely like the tripods without the center post. Both of my tripods have four piece legs. That allows them to collapse to a smaller size, but it also lets me adjust to the lowest leg height and lower than a three piece. Both of my tripods let me spread the legs to almost flat height, as seen above. I do that all the time! Of course, it means I have be lying on my stomach to compose the shot. The tripod in this shot is an older version Gitzo G1348 four piece carbon fiber tripod. The G1349 model had a center column. They make a lighter version of both models now. The ball head is an Arca-Swiss Z-1 and the little post below the tripod platform is part of a Really Right Stuff leveling pan assembly. It helps a lot for doing panoramic images. When I am on my stomach, the viewfinder on the camera is in a relatively comfortable height.
Bean Bag: I also have a bean bag in my truck I use to photograph out the window, but also to rest the camera on while on the ground. I use it more often when the shot is fleeting and I don’t have time to flatten the tripod, or when the legs of the tripod would not fit into the area. Here’s more info: Kenisis Safari Sack I. Check out their site. You can see how it can work over the window, flat, or folded. I normally keep it on the center console of my truck for quick access. While this might generically be called a bean bag, mine is filled with plastic pellets I purchased at Kenisis with the bag. There are lots of manufacturers of good bean bags, of course.
Add-Ons: Most of the newer digital SLR cameras have some sort of way of telling if you are level. I think Nikon calls their feature “Virtual Horizon”. But, of course, you have to be looking through the viewfinder or LiveView to see it. For the ground shots, I add a “spirit level” on the hot shoe. I can tell if the camera is level before pressing the shutter, even from above. In many cases, I never get to look through the viewfinder. And, to be honest, I just like having the spirit level on my camera. The remote control is a RFN-4s wireless trigger. Once I get the camera set, I can control the camera’s shutter while standing up and walking around. It is very nice for any kind of landscape work. The tether on the left was added as a result of my D4 and lens slipping out of the tripod clamp a couple of years ago. I looked online for commercial tethers and never found what I was looking for. Instead, I purchased a heavy duty dog leash at the local pet store and shortened it. The other end is fastened to my tripod. I seldom pick my tripod up anymore without the lens or body tethered.
Hand holding also works: The tripod and gadgets above help me get the best shots I can, but you don’t absolutely need them! Just get low, get steady, and shoot!
Knee Pads:During the fall, I spend a lot of time trying to capture images of the bull moose. Shooting from a low vantage point seems ideal and I do it when I can. A few years ago, I bought a pair of gel padded knee pads at the hardware stores. I wear them fairly often. In the winter, or after fog or rain, they can also keep your knees from getting too wet. Sometimes the moose will be inactive for half an hour or longer. The wait is much more comfortable with the knee pads. Small critters like foxes and otters seem less intimidated by someone kneeling than someone standing.
The Wrap-Up: The images here are not intended to tell you how should compose your images, but more to supply some creative spark. Not that many people take the time to shoot from a low vantage point, so anytime you do it, your images will have a different look for the same subject. I showed my equipment, but it really doesn’t require all of it to get a nice shot. Happy shooting! MJ
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