Whilst having a look around Keith Reeder's website the other day I found an interesting article on improving your bird photography. Keith gives a lot of good advice that many people who are starting out in the minefield of bird photography could learn from. It is good, solid, common sense stuff...even if he doesn't mention anything about using a tripod.
I know, it's not his shooting style to use a tripod and he does very well without one.
One of the tips only gets a little paragraph - the one about getting low. Whilst not every bird photograph will benefit from this, I often see images on the interweb that could have greatly benefited from this simple bit of advice. And it applies to most subjects, not just birds.
The idea is that you get to the eye-level of your subject and that includes getting up high as well as low. If you want to photograph your child/dog/cat get down to their level - it will instantly make the photograph more intimate.
Warning - don't try this with the goldfish in your garden pond unless you have a good underwater cover for your camera...
Getting low is demonstrated with these two shots of a Snapping Turtle taken moments apart. In one I was crouched down low, the other I was really down low...as low as I could go without needing a spade.
Notice the difference? You are looking down on the turtle in the first shot, but on more equal terms in the second. Also see how the Turtle is seperated from it's surroundings in the second shot...greatly simplifying the scene and removing distraction from the main subject.
So, why do we only hear about getting low all the time rather than up high for bird photography?
Its easier to lie on the ground than carry a step-ladder for those pesky birds up in the trees...
Now, this is all very well but how can you support your heavy lens and camera whilst pretending to be a commando from a particularly bad war film? Well, the larger prime lenses have a pretty big foot that can be fairly useful. Until you want to move...then you are trying to carry all that weight at nearly arms length, whilst trying to drag yourself along too.
Trust me - it doesn't look cool and hurts like hell.
I saw a clever solution last year with a bit of DIY by Glenn Bartley. He built himself the "Pan Pod" using an old frying pan, a bolt and duty ballhead. Glenn mentioned on one forum that he also turned the frying pan around to allow you to slide it over the ground easily. More recently Nigel Blake blogged his own version of this - the "Frypod". Nigel's design is very similar to Glenn's but definitely more refined.
Of course, these are only cheap if you already have a ballhead capable of holding your lens. I wanted something that could handle my 500/4 lens and whilst very good, my little acratech ballhead just isn't man enough.
I even found a commercial solution of these called the Skimmer...it is basically a plastic version of the Pan/Frypod...without the ballhead...priced at about $100. At that price I won't even bother with a link.
Enter the Visual Echoes panning pod (sold at several places - Google it). This is simply a rectangle of metal with an arca-swiss style quick-release plate that allows full 360 deg rotation - ideal and easy for tracking running, feeding or swimming birds. The bottom of the plate has 4 rubber feet that mean it can also be used on the roof of a car or similar. Yes it is expensive but cheaper than a new ballhead and much lower to the ground.
And the instructions recommend placing the plate in a frisbee to allow you to 'glide' across the ground when playing at commando. Genius.
I call it the "Frispod". The image above is mine in action holding my Canon 500/4, 1.4x and 1D mkIIN on Sandy Point beach in Massachusetts.
If you are on a tight budget, there is always the "Frisbag".
I used to use my double beanbag as ground support to give me room to twist the camera around to portrait format and let go of the rig without it falling over. Of course, trying to pan or change position was even harder than the gear on its own.
Solution - I put the bag on a frisbee. It is heavy if you are traveling any distance, although you could carry the bag empty then fill it on location with sand/dirt (I recommend using sealable sandwich bags as liners for this).
Simple but effective.