Blinds let you get close to wildlife to observe and capture intricacies of behavior. While most people think of photographing waterfowl from a blind, you can use one to get great shots of all sorts of other wildlife.
Blessed with nearly 10 million acres of wetlands and a major migration route along the Mississippi flyway, my home state of Minnesota attracts innumerable species of waterfowl and wading birds, especially during the fall and spring migrations. Unfortunately, conditioned by centuries of being shot at, these birds are more apt to seek the protection of open water or the dense cover of cattails than pose for the camera. Unless you were born with webbed feet or fins on your back, getting close to your subjects may require some ingenuity. What's a photographer to do? If the ducks won't come to you, go to the ducks…in a floating blind!
Dominique Braud's floating blind gives him enough space to use a large telephoto lens on his DSLR and still remain hidden. He wears insulated chest waders to keep him warm enough to shoot at the edges of the day.
In the 1980s, I was inspired to build my own floating blind. The safe and stable rig I use has provided me with many years of flawless performance. To make it, I glued three donut-shaped layers of two-inch-thick, construction-grade insulation Styrofoam™ together for flotation (the brittle white polystyrene some coolers are made of is totally inadequate) and topped that with a matching three-quarter-inch plywood platform on which I mounted a Wimberley Version II gimbal-type head for silky-smooth panning. A small plywood seat, attached to the platform with nylon ropes, provides comfort during long shooting sessions. Finally, several layers of nonglare, waterproof, foliage-like camouflaged netting secured to a dome-shaped frame of chicken wire with an opening for the lens fool the wetland denizens into thinking that they're looking at an innocuous pile of vegetation, such as a muskrat house. Don't skimp on the amount of camouflage netting. You don't want the birds to see your outline silhouetted through the material when the sun is at your back.
In my early days, I used to camouflage the blind with real vegetation, but environmental impact considerations and the advent of fast-drying and realistic-looking artificial materials have made such a choice obsolete. The smaller and the better camouflaged the blind is, the quicker it will be accepted or, better yet, ignored by the locals. While birds are never completely fooled—your movements as you pan to follow your subjects and your telephoto lens sticking out of the blind always arouse some degree of suspicion—they appear remarkably unconcerned by my contraption and quickly resume their normal behavior.
Inside the blind, I wear chest waders for insulation. In the spring, the water temperature may only be a few degrees above freezing and it serves as protection against leeches. I sit below the water surface, partially submerged up to my chest, and move about by walking along the bottom or gently kicking my feet. Dressing properly means not having to come out of the water when the light turns gorgeous or the action heats up because you're shivering. Neoprene chest waders are a must to provide insulation both in cold spring and warm summer temperatures. Remember that even in the summer, you may lose heat quickly because of your relative inactivity in the blind. Underneath my waders, I wear soft, weather-appropriate clothing, such as sweatpants or a fleece jacket.
While Minnesota is mercifully devoid of poisonous aquatic snakes and giant man-eating reptiles, hazards to man and equipment abound in a marsh. Be aware that what may appear to be a shallow bottom may simply be the top of several feet of decomposed vegetation that could suck you in if you were to stand on it. It's also important that you maintain steering control of your blind; when you sit in the blind, your feet should always touch the bottom. Weather systems can move in quickly in the Upper Midwest; before heading out, I always get a weather report to make sure that no rain or thunderstorms are headed my way. A floating blind shouldn't be used on very windy days; not only do you run the risk of being blown out toward the middle of the lake where your feet won't touch bottom, but the choppy waters will make it hard for you to precisely compose your photos and get sharp images.
Tighter Isn't Always Better There are times when filling the frame with your subject may keep you from seeing the big picture. On windless days, and with the sun directly behind you, breathtaking mirror reflections of your subject in sky-tinted water can be captured. If you're using a zoom lens, zoom out and recompose to include the reflection for images that will transcend the mere encyclopedic representation of your subject. The versatility of a zoom lens in the 200-400mm range is a major asset in a marsh where subjects can appear unexpectedly and seemingly out of nowhere; by simply adjusting the focal length, precise framing can be achieved without having to physically move the blind forward or backward, which could spook your subjects. Keep the horizon level in your images by using a double-bubble level or activating the viewfinder grid display in your camera if it offers this feature.