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Laying (on) the Ground Work

I admit it. I have a fondness for shooting as low to the ground as possible. But doing so can be more difficult than it might seem. And it can take some planning.

It's pretty much self-evident that the easiest posture to photograph from is at eye-level while standing. Whether from experience when shooting yourself or from a quick survey of images from a variety of sources, you can find numerous examples of images evidently shot from this comfortable stance. Bending over to shoot can be awkward and sitting on the ground can get messy. Getting out of the car and standing next to it though is easy enough. Walking over to the railing at the scenic overlook to get a better view isn't much harder either. There's a reason that so many photographs are shot from the same basic vantage point. Anything else requires effort.

But ease of shooting does have drawbacks, notably that all your images will have a certain similarity with everyone else's images shot from a similar, comfortable height. Anyone who's been to the same places you have could easily be familiar with the point of view in your images, even if they didn't have a camera themselves. Photograph the most common viewpoint, and you shouldn't be surprised if people have seen it before, one way or another. If you want compelling images, you might start by trying a different point of view.

Today, it's becoming increasingly popular to shoot from a drone to photograph a bird's eye view of a subject. This sidesteps the problems inherent in shooting from eye-level and opens a whole new world of picture taking possibilities but may not be for everyone. Rather than shooting from higher up, I find myself fascinated with the possibilities of shooting lower down. Shooting from ground level can create images with a sense of place, providing an opportunity for a strong foreground coupled with a sweeping background, all in the same frame. But it can take a bit of work.

Avalanche Lilies in Olympic National Park"Most tripods have a hard time getting anywhere near ground level. Try yours to see what I mean. Chances are, you have a center column that makes it easier to push your camera a bit higher, but also serves as an impediment to going lower. Even if you do have a tripod that allows you to splay the legs all the way out, you can't go lower than your center column will permit. One option is to lose the center column and go with just the legs. Certain Gitzo and other models allow you to mount a tripod head directly to the top platform with no center column. Another good option is to invert your center column and suspend your camera hanging underneath. Of course, if you use an ultrawide-angle lens, you may have problems composing a shot without your tripod legs getting in the way. I did say it could take a bit of effort to make this ground level stuff work, didn't I?

Since we are talking about shooting low to the ground, you might consider ditching your full-sized tripod completely and going with something designed for shooting low. My favorite option in this category is the Joby GorillaPod. These things come in a range of sizes and capacities, so check the weight of your setup and buy accordingly. GorillaPods have an added advantage in that their legs are completely flexible, being built as a connected series of ball joints. Even if the result looks a tad ungainly, you can twist and contort one of these into holding your camera on uneven terrain, with virtually no limit or constraint on how low you can go. In a pinch, you might try doing away with the tripod completely and use available twigs or other available objects to prop your camera up. If you do, be extra careful not to jostle things unduly or your ad hoc support will give way.

Once you work out a method of dealing with your tripod legs and center column, the next impediment you will have to contend with is your tripod head. Even if you can rest your tripod head directly on the ground, your camera will still be a couple inches above that. There are several options to consider for solving this limitation. Suspending your center column upside down neatly solves this problem by allowing you to hang the camera underneath the tripod head rather than above it. You might also try rotating the tripod mounting platform ninety degrees over and rely on an L-bracket to orient your camera as needed. Or if you go with a GorillaPod, you should be able to contort your setup enough to hold the tripod head (and your camera) at nearly any angle, although you may find such a setup can be a bit tipsy with the head flopped over too far. Try to have one of the GorillaPod legs directly underneath the lens so the whole thing doesn't tip forward too easily. To find out what works best for your gear, play around with various options at home in your living room or backyard so you can work out any kinks ahead of time.

So, let's assume you have some means of getting your camera into position at or near ground level. Unless you plan to fire away blindly (which can actually work sometimes with a bit of trial and error), you'll need to get yourself down that low too. Contractor knee pads used by roofers can make crawling around on the rocky ground less painful, but you'll also need to consider that the ground can be, well, downright dirty, and perhaps muddy and wet. If you shoot at first light, even the most inviting meadow can be covered with enough dew to complicate things. I found this out the hard way one sunrise down at Mt. Rainier National Park. I got the shot, but by the time I did, my pants were so damp it was mighty uncomfortable hiking back to the car when I was done for the morning. A word to the wise: a cheap garbage liner spread on the ground can work wonders.

The next problem to be solved is seeing what you are doing. However low you position your camera, your viewfinder will follow along with it. With a bit of effort, you can definitely get your camera so low that you can't possibly see through the viewfinder. The old-school solution was to use a right-angle viewfinder attachment so you can look down into the viewfinder rather than having to squash your head against the ground to look directly through it. These days, many cameras have tilting LCD screens and Live View to let you compose directly on a more easily viewable screen. For the ultimate in convenience, consider hooking up an external monitor, cabled to a more comfortable viewing position. In a pinch, you can always just fire away, tweaking the camera angle ever so slightly between shots in the hopes you get at least one frame that works well. If you don't, keep working at it. If at first you don't succeed, and all that. It really can work, although there are clearly more efficient ways to tackle the problem if you plan ahead a bit.

Depth of field can create problems too. Expect to stop your lens down, or plan to use focus stacking to combine multiple frames shot over a range of focus points into a single image via software. Either way, even a slight breeze can create headaches, With the camera that close to the foreground, any movement will show. You may need more than a bit of patience and perhaps a bit of luck in some situations. Or perhaps just an afternoon once you get home working things over in Photoshop to properly blend the parts that work.

As I've alluded to more than once now, the key to all of this is to plan ahead. Figure out what you can do with creative rearrangements of the tripod and other support gear you have ahead of time. Fiddling with this when the light is rapidly changing is a great way to get frustrated and miss the shot. Don't forget to practice adjusting your camera and shooting with the setup you devise either. Remember, if your camera is suspended upside down, the controls on your camera may seem to backward to what you are accustomed. You should strive to be as familiar working upside down as you are when upright. The results can be worth it, but there's no sense making any of this harder than it has to be.

Date posted: March 10, 2019


Copyright © 2019 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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Related articles:
Getting Down With It: Bending Your Knees for the Best Shots
Desperately Seeking Foreground
Joby Gorillapod Focus: The True Gorilla of Gorillapods
Things You Can Find Down on the Ground

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