Advanced Bird Photography: Working the Angles

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When you're in pursuit of bird photos, it's often easy to simply grab the shots you can, especially after a long stalk or wait. Putting out just a bit more effort to look for an interesting camera angle, however can reward you with unforgettable shots. Let's look at a few possibilities:

Go Low for Waterfowl

One of the most dramatic and effective tactics when photographing shorebirds and other waterfowl is to get your camera all the way down to ground/water level. That means using a tripod that will let you swing the legs wide or simply using bean bags or similar props. (I know of one pro who carries a shallow pan to rest his camera and lens on.) This is going to put your expensive equipment in close proximity to things that can damage it, so it may be a little stressful and you'll probably want to make sure your gear is weather sealed.

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That said, be prepared to get down on your belly and to be there for a while. A simple, roll-up camping pad can make your stay a bit more pleasant. If you'd like to use something a bit more portable, shove a few trash bags in your pocket. These low-angle shots tend to connect the viewer well with your subjects, providing a bird's-eye view, if you'll excuse the pun. They also add an interesting dimension with the inclusion of the water or shore.

Another advantage of this angle is the low profile you project, which may entice normally shy subjects to move closer.

Get Even Lower for Cool Lighting Effects

Now, obviously you can't actually get lower than ground level, but when shooting any bird on land or water, setting the camera up low enough to angle the lens up toward a low sun can provide great rim lighting effects or awesome silhouettes as well.

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To get the angle, you can simply take advantage of a slope, depression or other landscape feature. If you're shooting tall birds, such as cranes or egrets, you can simply zoom in on the head and neck of your subjects. If your subjects are roosting for the night, you're in luck – you can probably use your tripod at full height and get the angle without lying down.

A Bit Higher for Reflections

While some people consider reflections cliché, the fact remains that they're very popular with buyers of bird photography. When you're shooting waterfowl or wading birds, the reflections add a three-dimensional quality to the image.

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To capture the most interesting reflections, you'll want to place your camera a few feet above the water, or higher if you're farther away from the subject. (It's all about the angle.) You can do a quick visual check through the lens or with your eyes while bending your knees to find the best height, then set up your equipment.

Another awesome effect with reflections is to find an angle that reflects the colors of foliage, other surroundings or even the sky in the water around your subject. If the water is moving, you'll have a constantly changing, colorful pattern added to your shots as you work on capturing your subject.

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Silhouette Your Subject

Although silhouettes aren't really a phenomenon of camera angle, they're worth discussing here because the angle of a shot can help produce a more interesting image when you're creating one. A subject can be silhouetted against anything bright; it doesn't have to be the sun or the sky.

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For example, with a bird standing in or floating on water reflecting the sky, exposing for the bright water will underexpose the bird. By lowering the exposure a bit or making some adjustments in post processing, you can darken the subject to a silhouette for a beautiful effect.

Practice. Experiment. Practice.

As is true with all photographic techniques, working with camera angles in your bird photos is a matter of experimentation and practice. Don't be afraid to try something different. Some of my favorite bird shots are of groups of birds roosting in trees for the night below the camera. I took the shots from a highway bridge above the island during sunset. Fortunately, there was very little traffic that evening or I might not be here to tell you about it.

You won't have to go to that kind of extreme to find a interesting camera angle for your bird shots. Just don't get stuck in the eye-level rut!

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