Wildlife Portraits: Going Low for a Dramatic Touch

Alaskan Coastal Brown Bear Cub, Silver Salmon Creek, Lake Clark Park, Alaska
Nikon D700, Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 HSM EX OS Lens, 1/1000s @ f/5.6

Most of the time when we photograph wildlife we’re moving around in the open standing behind a tripod or in a vehicle. Either way we’re elevated above ground level and are looking down on most mammals. That works alright and can help keep pesky grass and bushes out from in front of the animals but there is no substitute for the personal intimacy of a portrait taken by going low and getting to the same level as your subject.

This bear cub was playing in the meadow while we watched. When I saw it head for an area with short grass I took advantage of the design of my Gitzo GT3541LS tripod and pulled a leg stop high enough to pull a leg out wide and lower the tripod down to where I was right at the bear’s own level. Focusing was no problem with the very quick focus motors on my Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 OS HSM Lens on my Nikon D700, especially without much grass to confuse the camera.

Of course it was only safe to do this because Rick, our bear guide, was on watch in case the mother showed any signs of stress or another bear approached, but the result is a much more intimate image than the ones shot from a higher level.