Photography tips – Getting level

A simple yet often ignored rule, the “getting level” is one practical tip that will improve your images overnight. EOS 7DII with EF 500mm f4 at 1/800, f6,3, ISO 100. Hemsedal/Norway, July 2017. Click to enlarge.

A few days ago I published a blog titled “The Golden Hour“, about choosing the right lighting conditions for getting the best possible results. In it I all but promised to offer a few tips on what could well be “the first rule of nature/animal photography”, namely the rule that states that you must get level with your subject to create a bond between the viewer and the subject. This is that promised blog entry.

“Getting level” is something that is usually emphasized at the very top of any list of tips for budding bird photographers, yet when browsing images of birds on the Internet, and on social media in particular, it is a rule that is violated more than it is adhered to – and the violation of the rule is to blame for countless sub-standard images eating Internet bandwidth for little benefit to anyone. That is a big shame, because getting it right isn’t hard to do, as long as you don’t mind getting down, further down, until you’re often flat on your belly and resting the big lens directly on the ground.

There are two important reasons for being obsessed with the “getting level” rule;

  • One is already mentioned above, and has to do with the psychology of watching nature photos. Anything that appears to be observed from either below or above will also appear to be “further away”, even if it is just a psychological mechanism. It is simply much harder to relate to a photo subject that doesn’t appear to be on the same level as we are, and since the aim of nature photography is generally to create a connection between the viewer and the subject, any extra distance introduced into the equation will come between you and your goal/aim. Put in plain terms, as long as you aren’t getting level, the impact of your image will be a mere fraction of what it could be.
  • The next one is more technical and aestethical; the more level you get, the further back your background will be. A smooth-as-silk distant background with nothing to distract the viewers’ eyes is the ideal way to focus their attention on the subject. I.e. the bird you’re trying to portray. This is no small thing – a change from being on your knees to being flat on your belly will push the background back from being centimetres behind, to being many scores of metres behind (terrain permitting), and will make or break a shot.

In order to get low I often use a homemade “ground pod” comprising a cheap, lightweight frying pan and a cylindrical bean bag (see image). In the configuration shown here I can easily push it in front of me if I’m stalking some subjects, and once I’m close enough I often lay the bean bag on its side so it gets lower still. If the surface I’m creeping on allows it I may even put the camera/lens straight on the ground, to get even lower than this – you need to experiment to find a system that works for you, but one thing I know DOESN’T work is spreading the legs of the big, heavy tripod and creeping around on the ground trying to move that thing in front of you.

The homemade “ground pod”. Click to enlarge.

Below are a number of images of both kinds – “good” ones and “bad” ones, I hope you can see how big the difference is, even if the degree of “violation” of the rule is sometimes quite subtle. Click on the first image to open the gallery, and take note of the image captions as you browse. Hopefully your audience will thank you for it once the results start to materialise.

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  • Aperture: ƒ/6.3
  • Camera: Canon EOS 7D Mark II
  • Taken: 5 July, 2017
  • Exposure bias: -1/3EV
  • Focal length: 500mm
  • ISO: 100
  • Shutter speed: 1/800s

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