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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Shooting Blind

How to shoot from a floating blind

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Avoid Intrusion
Spring, with its courtship rituals and young broods swimming about, is by far the most productive season to photograph from a floating blind. It's also the most sensitive because many birds are sitting on eggs. A careless photographer's actions can have grave consequences, potentially causing a pair—or pairs—to abandon their eggs. Learning how to recognize the behavior leading to a specific display is prerequisite homework for any photographer wanting to capture the peak of the action, and so should learning how to recognize the signs of stress in wildlife. Back off at the first indication that your presence is threatening their well-being; no photograph is ever worth endangering the safety of the birds, eggs or chicks.

It's imperative that you educate yourself about the area and the species you intend to photograph prior to arriving on location, either by accessing this information online, hiring the services of an experienced local guide or contacting biologists. Be aware that in some areas such as national parks, state parks, national wildlife refuges and others, this type of activity could be illegal as it may constitute harassment. You may need to apply for a special-access permit. Always check with the proper authorities to determine if this type of photography is allowed.

To avoid becoming the next victim of Murphy's Law, I always make slow and deliberate movements inside the cramped blind, especially when changing lenses, and I only carry two camera setups inside— my DSLR with a 200-400mm zoom lens mounted on a Wimberley head and a waterproof plastic housing with a DSLR and a 28mm ƒ/4 lens for scenic shots. I also have a 1.4x converter, spare batteries, plenty of CF cards, energy bars, bug repellent, a bottle of water, my cell phone to call for help, if needed, and a roll of orange survey-flagging tape. Because it's easy to get lost in an environment where every square inch of real estate looks identical to the next when seen at water level, I may attach small ribbons of tape to vegetation to find my way out of the marsh. When I retrace my steps out of the marsh, I make sure to remove all ribbons.

There are basically two different strategies when shooting from a floating blind. One is to float aimlessly about the marsh looking for subjects, moving ever so slowly to avoid creating ripples on the water while keeping the vegetation at your back. The other involves taking position near a promising location like a nest, a partially submerged log or a small island of vegetation on which animals are likely to climb to preen or rest. I like to wiggle my blind into a nearby stand of cattails, if available, to keep from bobbing like a cork and to better become part of the landscape. Then I just wait for things to happen. This method offers unparalleled opportunities to observe and photograph the behavior of totally relaxed birds. I keep the light at my back whenever possible, not only to provide the best light on my subject, but also to render the blind as a dark, unidentifiable silhouette when seen backlit by the birds. You know your blind has been accepted by the wetland residents when Forster's terns engage in courtship activity on top of it or muskrats try to move in with you!

There's no doubt that what makes photographing from a floating blind so unique is the eye-level perspective resulting from having your telephoto lens only inches above the water. This perspective suggests an extraordinary intimacy with your subject and tricks the viewer into thinking that you were submerged up to your eyeballs when you captured the images. This optical illusion can be further enhanced by tipping your lens up and placing your subject in the upper-third tier of your frame; the negative space created by out-of-focus water in the lower two-thirds effectively draws the viewer's eyes to the subject at the top. While in my blind, I may sometimes record what the underwater world looks like with my camera protected in an Ikelite underwater housing.

Get Close With A Kayak
Dominique Braud's floating blind is a great photo device, but not everyone wants to build a blind. If you just want to be an occasional waterfowl photographer, a portable kayak may be a good fit. Kayaks don't hide you like a blind, but they can let you get into some great locations. Photographers like George Lepp have taken some remarkable photographs from kayaks, and you can, too. To get sharp photos from a small kayak, image stabilization and fast shutter speeds are important. If necessary, increase the ISO to get a shutter speed that exceeds the minimum handholding rule (1/focal length = minimum handholding speed).

Working from a floating blind can yield some of the most rewarding images for any nature photographer. Give it a try, and you'll see wildlife in a whole new light.

Dominique Braud is a wildlife and nature photographer specializing in the natural history of the Great Lakes and Upper Midwest region. His book Minnesota Wildlife Impressions was published by Farcountry Press. A native of France, he resides in Farmington, Minn. You can see more of his work at www.animalsanimals.com.


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