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BIRDS AS ART ON-LINE Bulletin #85 July 27, 2002



I lay in wet sand at Stone Harbor Point, New Jersey. Just 30 feet away, a first winter Sanderling slept peacefully with its bill tucked neatly into its scapulars.  Crawling and crawling and crawling to my left past other Sanderlings, a few Dunlin, and a single Western Sandpiper, I had worked hard to isolate a single bird from the surf clam shells that littered the beach. It was less than an hour before sunset; the light was magical, and the background was pure Atlantic blue. The resulting images were well worth the effort, and the best of the series turned out to be one of my very favorite photographs. 


Sanderling, first winter plumage.  Image Copyright 2002 Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART
Stone Harbor Point, NJ  Getting right down on the ground produces intimate, artistic images.
Canon 600mm f/4 L IS lens, 1.4X TC, Canon Eos 1n,  Fuji Velvia pushed one stop. 
Evaluative Metering at 0: 1/640 at f/5.6.  
Why crawl around on the beach or in the mud with a telephoto lens?   Because getting on the ground--whenever and wherever possible--to photograph your subjects at their eye level is a simple way to dramatically improve the quality of your bird photographs. When working in flat, open areas like beaches, mud flats or grassy fields, getting down and dirty has many advantages.  Foreground and background elements are reduced to suffused blocks of color. Distracting elements such as brightly colored or dark pebbles, tiny sticks, or even feathers will either disappear completely or have their impact on the image greatly reduced. The resulting photographs will have an intimate and artistic feel to them, often appearing surreal with just a sharply focused bird sandwiched between soft blotches of color. Additionally, by staying low, it is far easier to get close to your subjects without disturbing them; birds and other wildlife are almost always threatened by the approach of a standing human figure.  For folks whose intermediate telephoto lens is their “big glass,” this principle is even more important.  Getting on the ground with a 300 or 400mm lens will make it far easier to fill three quarters of the frame with a small shorebird.

By choosing a wide aperture (the ones designated by the smaller f/stop numbers like f/2.8, f/4 or f/5.6), only the bird and a narrow strip of sand, earth, or pavement on the same plane as the subject will be in sharp focus. Your subject will really pop. (Be sure to focus carefully on the bird’s eye.)  Images made at ground level will almost always be far more pleasing than images made while standing or kneeling behind your tripod. You can prove this to yourself by making a few images while standing at full height and then getting right down on the ground to make photographs of the same subject.

There are several ways to support a telephoto lens when working on the ground. When I first got down in the mud, I mounted my 400mm manual focus lens in reverse on a pan tilt head that I had removed from an inexpensive tripod, the Slik U212. When ready to shoot, I simply shoved the long locking handle (which was pointed at the bird) into the mud for stability. This is still a good method to use with 300 and 400mm lenses. Other options include using a "groofwin" (ground-roof-window) pod (Leonard Rue Enterprises) with your favorite ball head, or using a sturdy tripod (without a centerpost) with the legs splayed out completely. I do not prefer either of these methods as my outfit would be at least 8-10 inches off the ground and I would need to arch my back considerably to see through the viewfinder.  In addition, it is difficult to move closer to the birds with the cumbersome setups described above. At Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, where crawling is all the rage at the East Pond, one friend constructed a "mud wheelbarrow, " and another a "mud sled.”  Each of these contraptions features a ball head affixed to a square piece of plywood. The former has an axle and wheels attached, and the latter is mounted on a set of tiny skis that act like sled runners! With these homemade setups, it is easier to crawl forward, but you still need to arch your back quite a bit to get your eye to the viewfinder.  .

Any of the above support platforms, however, may be ideal when you need to elevate your rig just a bit to get over some tall grass or gentle mounds of earth between you and the subject. Shooting from too low a position in these instances will result in the defocused foreground obscuring the subject’s legs or, even worse, the lower half of its body. For years, I simply removed my 600mm f/4 lens from the ball head and placed the lens on the sand, mud, earth, or pavement, supported only by the lens foot and the (still attached) lens mounting plate.  My 600mm lens has a large enough foot so that the camera is elevated several inches above the ground. When working on absolutely flat areas I usually had no problem. When I needed a bit more elevation, I had several options: On the beach, I would build a mound of sand to raise the camera and lens. When working on mud or dirt, it was even easier to build a small shooting platform. On grass I'll often support the rig with a sweatshirt, though a beanbag would work well there (and in other instances as well).  It never hurts to have a small towel along with which to clean your hands before touching your expensive camera equipment.   

Currently, I use a Walt Anderson Panning Ground-Pod that features a Lazy Susan-type mounting clamp attached to a rustproof supporting base.  This ground-pod raises the lens and camera only about 2-3 inches higher off the ground, but this additional clearance allows the photographer to rotate the lens to vertical without having the side of the camera touch the sand, mud, or water.  The swiveling clamp makes it fairly easy to pan with birds that are walking or foraging. Lastly, the support base keeps most sand and mud off of the lens.  This recent addition to my equipment arsenal has made life on the ground a lot easier. 

Least Tern, juvenal plumage  Image Copyright 2002 Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART
I crawled more than 200 yards through soft sand to make this image.
Canon 600mm f/4 L IS lens, 2XII TC, Canon Eos 1v, Fuji Velvia pushed one stop. 
Evaluative metering at 0:  1/200 at f/11.

First, while remaining a good distance from the birds, I search for an attractive subject or subjects.  Then, I take my big lens off of the tripod and mount it on the ground-pod. Next, I hang my vest atop my tripod; a Wimberley head makes a great clothes horse.  I generally mount a tele-converter on my lens and stick an extension tube or two, a few rolls of film, and a blower brush in a pocket or a fanny pack.  Some folks use Velcro to attach a small kit bag to their lenses.  If you’ve remembered a small towel, simply drape it over the lens barrel.  Even with my chin on the ground, my head will be at an angle to the viewfinder when working at ground level, so I place a Hama Double-Bubble level in the camera’s hot shoe so that a quick glance will ensure that my subjects are square to the world.  (The hot shoe is the slot on the top of the camera that accepts the electronic flash.)  How anyone can make a square-to-the-world image without a bubble level when working on the ground is beyond me.

I begin my approach on foot, usually trying to reduce the distance between the birds and myself by about half on my initial approach.  Then I’ll slowly get down on my knees and again try to cut the distance in half.  By this time I am generally within 30 to 50 feet of the birds. I will place my rig out in front of me and painstakingly get down on the ground; any quick movements at this stage are sure to flush the birds. For my final approach, I utilize several styles of advancing.  One is to crawl directly towards the birds like a marine while cradling the lens in my arms.  Another is to lift the lens slowly, place it out in front of me, and then crawl forward to catch up with it.  You will be crawling on all fours, supporting all of your weight on your knees and elbows.  Be sure to stay low and keep your butt close to the ground (lest you scare off your subjects). By crawling sideways like a crab, I find that I can move along a lot more quickly. And when you get really close to your subjects (which you will do regularly when photographing at ground level), simply push the lens ahead of you and then pull yourself forward with your elbows.

It is important to keep your hands absolutely clean and free of any sand or mud.  This will be difficult to do at first.  Here are a few tips.  When you are yourself to the ground, rest your weight on your elbows if possible.   If not, pull your long sleeves down over your hands, put your hands on the ground for support, and then, once you are down flat, pull the sleeves back up.  Your hands will be clean and dry.  Another option is to place a hand atop the lens barrel for support while lowering yourself.   (Be careful not to knock your lens over into the mud!)  If you are using a splayed out tripod, you can use one of the tripod legs for support, but make sure to place your hand on the lowest leg section near to where it is touching the ground, else you might damage one or more leg sections by bending them. (I speak from experience here…)  If you do get your hands dirty, that is when you hope that you have remembered the towel!  If your hands are dirty when you change film, you are headed for trouble in the form of getting sand or grit inside the film chamber.  This often results in scratched slides.  I use my blower brush to clean the inside of the camera during most roll changes when I am working on the ground.

You will, obviously, wish to wear old pants and a long-sleeved shirt is pretty much imperative.  A nice, soft sweatshirt offers enough cushioning to save your elbows. Knee and elbow pads can ease the pain when working on less forgiving surfaces.  When working in mud or on wet sand, I sometimes wear fisherman's rain pants (skins), but still manage to get good and messy.  When I am finished, I will back up a bit by crawling in reverse in an effort to minimize disturbance of the resting birds when I finally do stand up.  Almost nothing makes me happier than spending an intimate hour with a flock of roosting shorebirds and then crawling away and leaving them exactly as I found them.   (Carrying a small whiskbroom in your vest allows you to brush sand or dirt from your equipment before re-mounting the lens onto your tripod.)

After major spinal surgery in 1990, I shied away from ground-level photography for many years, but returned to my roots (so to speak) about five years ago and have loved every minute of it.  Getting down and dirty is one of my very favorite photographic techniques, and the results make all the mud, muck, and skinned elbows and knees well worthwhile.  Whenever I encounter birds in flat, open areas, I get right down on the ground, approach them carefully, and begin making wonderful images. And, if you are physically able, so should you!


The Walt Anderson Panning Ground-Pod is ideal for supporting your rig for ground level telephoto photography.  This elegantly designed ground-pod is not for everyone, but if you regularly get down on the ground to photograph shorebirds and gulls at their eye-level, you will not want to be afield without having this gadget in the big back pocket of your X-tra Hand Vest.  (The ground-pod is reported to be ideal as well for photographing from atop a bean bag in either your own car or an African safari vehicle, but do note that I have not tested the ground-pod for this purpose yet.)
Canon 500mm f/4 L IS lens on mounted on Panning Ground Pod
Image copyright 2002 Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART
The ground-pod consists of a 4X8" base plate (with 4 little rubber-nubbed "feet" at each corner) and a small but sturdy Arca-Swiss style clamp mounted atop lazy-Susan type base that makes it is easier to follow running or foraging birds.  (The base itself has four cut-out sections that reduce the weight of the unit.) The thing that I love most about the ground-pod is that when I turn the lens to vertical, the height of the pod keeps the camera out of the sand or mud.  (This is a big problem when you simply place the mounting plate and the lens foot in the sand or mud. as I did for years)  And of course, the ground-pod keeps most of the sand and mud off of your expensive equipment...
We currently only six Walt Anderson Panning Ground pods in stock. If  you would like one, please send a check for $204 to PO Box 7245, Indian Lake Estates, FL 33855 ($199 plus $5 shipping via priority mail).  Florida residents please add 6% sales tax = $210.94.  Please make checks out to "Arthur Morris," not to "BIRDS AS ART."  Thanks! 
Several readers e-mailed and mentioned that they had had problems with a variety camera bodies "blacking out" of when used with a variety of IS lenses.   Subscriber Dr. Cliff Oliver of San Diego wrote;
 Doctor doctor.....
I had the same thing happen with my 500 is blacking out and reading "Av: 00."  Canon wanted me to send it in and they said it would take weeks to figure it out.  I called George Lepp and he said that is was obvious that the contacts were picking up some moisture.  He said that the solution was simple: carry a pencil eraser and "erase" the contacts periodically especially if shooting around salt water or in humid conditions.  Presto, it was cured.
It's time for me to head to WalMart and pick up some #2 Eberhard Fabers...
I received the e-mail below from subscriber George Forrest.  (I had sent George an earlier draft of my Road Runner AW review quite some time ago.)
Hi Art,
As you may recall, my decision to invest in the Road Runner AW was based on your experience with this product. I'd like to report that it came through three weeks of hellishly bumpy roads on my recent Belize trip with flying colors.   Pulling the Road Runner AW through the airports, etc., was a breeze compared to my old way of carrying the gear: 16 pounds of equipment carried on my shoulders via two carry-on bags...  With the Road Runner AW, I got everything in one convenient carry-on!  The small four wheel drive delivered every bump with a vengeance.   At trip's end, while returning the car to the rental agency, I opened the back door to remove the luggage and from the top of the heap my Road Runner AW literally jumped out, hitting the pavement with a sickening thud. It was if someone had actually thrown it out of the vehicle...
When we finally made it home, the first thing that I did was mount the F5 on my 500mm Nikor and try it out; to my relief, everything worked just fine.  Thanks for steady flow of good information.
And best,
George Forrest




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