Whether it’s of a bird or a person, eye contact in a photo engages and draws the viewer into the photo, creating a connection between them and the subject. As easy as it sounds to just shoot when the critter is looking at you, rarely in the great outdoors are we lucky enough to just walk up to our subject and grab an instant masterpiece image of it. Getting eye level and capturing the right type of eye contact for your composition requires thought, a careful approach, and attention not just to the subject, but everything going on around you.
Eye Contact vs Eye Level
While certainly connected, eye contact and eye level are not the same thing. When getting to eye level, you are using fieldcraft to change your position relative to the subject, the light, and the environment. Eye contact is capturing where the subject’s gaze is directed, whether it is looking straight toward you or off frame towards something else.
Types of Eye Contact
The type of eye contact in a photo can alter the mood and impact of the shot. We view eye contact as a way to create connections with other creatures. By including it in your images, you can help create and strengthen a connection between the viewer and the subject, or let the viewer see that connection between different subjects in the scene.
- Direct – When discussing eye contact, this is probably what comes to mind first, the subject looking straight down the barrel of your camera into your eyes. This type of eye contact connects you with the animal, helps put you in their world, makes you wonder what they are thinking or feeling, and makes them more personal. As a photographer, you are setting the stage for the story, making the viewer feel as if they are the subject of the animal’s attention. But, also letting them imagine what the animal is feeling.
- In Frame – This is eye contact from the main subject to a secondary subject in the scene. Think mama wolf looking at her pup, or a couple looking at the sunset. As the viewer you don’t have as personal of a connection with the subjects, as you shift from being the focus of their attention to an observer watching them. As a photographer you are capturing a story playing out, and presenting this narrative to the viewer. The viewer’s emotions, memories, and perceptions decide how they feel about the subjects and story. But this can be carefully guided by the photographer’s choices in light and composition to create a specific mood and elicit feelings in the viewer.
- Off Frame – Potentially one of the more challenging forms of eye contact to include successfully is when the subject is looking out of the frame toward something unknown to the viewer. This lets them imagine the story for this photo and create their version of what is happening. As a photographer you can guide and suggest the story they imagine through subtle cues, like placement of the subject in the frame, angles, composition, leading lines, etc. But, these types of images are the most easily misinterpreted by the viewer, as more of their imagination is involved in creating the story of the shot.
Why Eye High?
Wildlife comes in all shapes and sizes, to capture impactful eye contact, you usually have to get to eye level with them. The angle of eye contact can invoke different moods, such as looking down at an animal can give the viewer a sense of power over them, or make the creature appear weaker and smaller than they truly are. When you get eye level with an animal, you are in their world. This often serves to create the deepest connections between your viewer and your subject, making them feel more empathy and interest for the animal.
So if your subject is up in a tree or flying around, you have to change your altitude or change your angle. For ground subjects, the smaller they are the lower you have to go!
While getting to eye level makes your images more intimate and engaging, as with everything in photography, you may have to make compromises. While you can use the viewing angle to draw your viewer into the shot, you also use it to compose your image and remove distracting items from your background or foreground. Sometimes going too low may pull things into your background you do not want, so find the right height that gives you a nice background, but still gives you that eye level feel.
The Low Down on Getting Down Low
As upright bipeds, humans tend to be taller than many of the creatures we encounter. While there are plenty of animals that live way up high in trees, or are taller than us, many are ground dwellers, and if you want to get eye level images, you have to get down on the ground with them.
I tend to get many funny looks when I venture on to the Florida beaches in search of wildlife photo ops, (fine, more funny looks than I usually get out in public, sheesh…). While the beachgoers are there in their swimsuits and flip-flops, I’m decked out in fishing waders, knee and elbow pads, and a utility belt full of gear that would make Batman envious. Sure, it’s not your standard beach attire, but it keeps me comfortable and protected.
Once you get down there, you will quickly learn two things. First, as the animal moves around, if you jump up to move to a new spot you will only stress the animal and scare them off. Crawling slowly, while pushing your camera along ahead of you, causes the least stress and will get you to the right angles for your images. The best technique is the leopard or military crawl, there are plenty of YouTube videos on how to crawl properly if you are not an expert crawler (it’s an art and a science, speaking from my experience as part of the 1972 Olympic Speed Crawling Team). Now you understand why I wear the knee and elbow pads, these protect you from getting torn up by whatever you are crawling over.
Second, pushing your camera in front of you while crawling is not that easy when it’s on a tripod. You definitely want to use a support of some kind, especially when working with large telephoto lenses. This will give you sharper images, cut down on your fatigue from handholding it, and allow you to use your hands to maneuver around. That’s where ground supports like the Platypod Max and Ultra are extremely useful, you can push them along in front of you across the ground’s surface, instead of having to pick up and leapfrog your tripod forward a foot at a time.
Using a Platypod on the Ground
When on the ground select gear and settings that give you the most flexibility for any wild animal you may encounter. You never know who may suddenly show up, or what action may occur. Because you are laying down, it becomes more cumbersome to carry a lot of gear, or try to switch up lenses.
My preferred support for ground level wildlife photography is to use the Platypod Max or Ultra, with a Really Right Stuff BH-55 Ball Head and a Wimberley Sidekick. Adding the Sidekick provides a little more height and flexibility in adjusting your sight angle. Sometimes going too low may pull things into the background that distract the viewer from the subject of your photo. You may also suddenly find you can no longer see your subject due to foreground objects getting in the way. Using this helps you see your subject through any foreground elements and adjust your background composition easier, but still has that eye level feel.
Big Zooms vs Primes
For lenses, I opt to go with a big zoom over a prime, in my case using the Tamron 150-600mm. As beautiful as my 500mm prime is, it’s much heavier, and is less flexible in terms of positioning and composition. With a zoom, you can roll your focal length in and out to adjust for what is in front of you. When using a prime, you have to move if the action is too close or too far away. Because you move much slower on the ground, when using a prime you will at times sacrifice a great shot you have in your head for the limits of your focal length. The newest generations of these big zooms offer exceptional image quality and flexibility, at lower weight and cost.
Leave Your Lens Collar Loose
With any of these lenses, use the lens collar to attach it to your Sidekick or ballhead, and keep the collar loose, so you can quickly change between vertical and horizontal compositions. Locking the collar, and dropping the camera over into the “notch” on your ballhead for portraits can result in a change in your camera’s center of gravity, causing it to tip over. The additional advantage of a gimbal is it makes the camera feel almost weightless, allowing you not only to pan left and right, but also adjust up and down, and roll your orientation from portrait to landscape fairly effortlessly.
Be Sure to Tip Your ‘Pod
When sliding your Platypod forward, check that the front edge is not digging into the dirt. As you push it ahead, also pull back and push down slightly on the back of your camera, so it shifts the center of balance toward the back of your Platypod, and lifts the front edge of the Platypod slightly off the ground. Also, don’t use the screw in foot pegs for this type of photo exercise, that will keep you from being able to slide it at all.
Keep it Clean
While you are on the ground, don’t open your hand and use it to “push-off” the ground to move or stand up, otherwise your palm will be covered in dirt, sand, or whatever you were crawling around in. You will likely get that all over your gear, and cleaning sand off your camera is not a fun time! Use a closed fist to push yourself up, this keeps the dirt on the outside of your hand, and away from your camera when you grab it. I also recommend carrying along a large soft bristled paintbrush, using that to knock excess dirt off yourself and your equipment.
When it’s Time to Leave
Just because you got all the shots you want, doesn’t mean you should jump up and leave. Taking care in the way you disengage is just as important as your care in approaching an animal. Patience is key to great wildlife photography, and no photo is worth harming the animal or environment you are photographing! Wait for them to leave, or ease out slowly and calmly the same way you came in, causing as little disturbance as possible. Take this extra time to observe and learn, every moment can teach you something new about the creature you are photographing.
Slow Down and Enjoy!
One of the best parts of ground level photography is it makes you slow down. Take a few moments to just watch the animals, pay attention to what they are doing, and how they react to their environment. You will find with ground level photography, you will meet and see some amazing creatures from a whole different perspective. Enjoy this moment in their world, see things from their point of view, and have fun. After all, that’s why we are out there as wildlife photographers!
- Canon 5D Mark IV
- Tamron SP 70-200mm f/2,8 Di VC USD Lens
- Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD
- Platypod Ultra and Platypod Max
- Phottix Mitros TTL Transceiver Flash and Odin II TTL Flash Trigger Transmitter
- ExpoImaging Rogue FlashBender
- Really Right Stuff BH-55 Ball Head
- Wimberely Sidekick
Like this article? Follow this link to read more of my photo tips and techniques. Jason’s Articles at Photofocus