Weekend Assignment: Shooting an Ants-Eye-View

By Geoff Harris

The low down on shooting at ground-level

I've not done the research (I've been a bit busy this morning) but I'm fairly confident that most photos are shot at eye-level. It's understandable of course. It's the way that we see the world when we stand up. What could be more natural than shooting from this position? However, creativity means breaking the rules occasionally. Today therefore I'm going to extol the virtues and offer a few tips for creating images at or near ground-level.

Hattie the cat staring at the camera

Get down to the level of your subject for a more natural perspective (even if your subject isn't that impressed with your diligence).

Inevitably some of the subjects you'll shoot will be shorter or lower than you. If you shoot from eye-level you'll therefore be looking down on your subject. Good examples of this type of subject include children and pets (unless you've potential basketball player for a child or own a giraffe). Looking down on a subject isn't a good perspective – particularly if you're using a wide-angle lens (the head of the subject will appear unnaturally large compared to the feet).

Close-up of a poppy growing in a pasture field near Bamburgh, Northumberland, England

Get down low enough and you can shoot your subject from below. In this shot I used a low-intensity burst of flash to lighten the flower so that it stood out from the background sky.

A better approach is to shoot from the same level as your subject. Shooting this way creates a more natural and sympathetic perspective (and will stop your subject developing a crick in the neck). How low you have to go will depend on the height of subject. Personally, I'm happy to shoot lying on the ground, but that may just be me (leading to much ‘tutting’ from Mrs T when I come home covered in mud again).

Late afternoon in summer, looking over Greenleycleugh Crags on  Kevelin Moor above Allendale and the Allen Valley, Northumberland, England

Getting down low to really fill the foreground does mean thinking hard about depth of field. For this shot I used a hyperfocal distance calculator to work out the aperture I needed to ensure front-to-back sharpness.

There are certain practical difficulties shooting at or near ground-level. The closer the camera is to the ground, the more difficult it is to get a tripod low enough. Fortunately, lying on the ground does make hand-holding your camera far easier (particularly if you rest you elbows on the ground). Physically getting your eye to the viewfinder can also be tricky. Using Live View helps, particularly if the camera has an articulating screen.

Waves washing over the sandy beach near Seaton Sluice on the south Northumberland coast, England

Getting down low and using a wide-angle lens has helped to emphasise the sense of the water running off the beach. I did keep a careful watch on the waves however so that I could move the camera out of the way if necessary.

If your camera doesn't have an articulating screen a small mirror can be used to reflect the image from the LCD to achieve essentially the same effect (albeit with the image reversed). Some camera manufacturers sell angle-finders which can prove useful. These are essentially miniature periscopes that allow you see through the viewfinder without needing to crouch down to the same level as the camera.

Depth of field may be an issue if you want to include both a foreground and background (your foreground may be mere inches from the lens and your background could essentially be at infinity). In this sort of situation I tend not to worry about the background too much. The key is to focus precisely on your foreground subject. The foreground is probably the most important part of the composition and should therefore be the sharpest thing in the photo.

Sycamore leaf lying on the ground in autumn in the the grounds of Wallington, Northumberland, England

Compact cameras are great for shooting at ground-level. Their size and weight make them easy to hand-hold in this position.

Oddly enough it's far easier to achieve front-to-back sharpness with a digital compact camera than it is with a DSLR. For that reason (and also because digital compacts encourage this sort of experimentation) it's my compact that I often turn to for this sort of shot.

Your weekend assignment this week is to shoot at or near ground-level. Think carefully about foreground and where you focus. Have fun, but don't blame me too much if you end up with dirty elbows. Upload your best shots to our Free Monthly Photo Competition for a chance to win one of MyPhotoSchool online photography courses.

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) - http://www.amateurphotographer.co.uk the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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