Some kinds are better for certain settings and species than others: a ground blind, in which one lies flat, is great for waterfowl on ponds, while a body blind or ghillie suit might be best for a woodpecker nest in thick forest. For more on these types of blinds and their uses, read my earlier column on the subject, “Using Photo Blinds.”
My most useful and frequented blind, however, wasn’t originally purchased for wildlife photography. I can’t bring it on planes, but it’s extremely portable. It’s my most spacious blind, with room for lots of gear as well as creature comforts. It allows me to see in all directions and to open and close windows at the touch of a button. As you’ve probably guessed by now, my favorite blind is my car.
The obvious advantage of cars as blinds is that you can travel near and far in them to find and follow your wild subjects. Not only do they bring you to the location of wild animals, but also cars often increase the amount of time your presence will be tolerated by animals, giving you a greater chance to get the shot you’re after. This is because, overall, animals are more comfortable with humans approaching in cars than they are with them approaching on foot. This has been my own experience no matter where I go and has been confirmed by many other photographers and wildlife watchers I know.
Of course, sometimes we have no choice but to shoot from cars. Some places require us to stay in our cars, such as areas in national parks where wildlife like bears and bison roam, or along some wildlife drives in national wildlife refuges. Some people are limited to their cars by disabilities and mobility issues.
There is certainly an art to wildlife photography from a car. I want to share some of the strategies and tools that have helped me successfully capture photos of wildlife from my car.
Support For Long Lenses
If you use a telephoto lens of 400mm or more, there are several options available for support and stability when shooting out a car window. At the high end are window mounts, made by manufacturers like Kirk Enterprises. These are aluminum support devices that you clamp onto the door and pair with a tripod head. Keep in mind your window will need to be a good size to fit this in, with your camera on top of a tripod head.
Perhaps the most commonly used supports are beanbags that sit on your car door or window; you place the barrel of your lens on these. They come empty and can be filled with all manner of materials, from buckwheat hulls to beans. You want to fill it enough so that it provides solid support yet not to the point where you can’t shift your lens around as needed. The most useful beanbags are U-shaped, so they “hug” the edge of the door or window. Beanbags are very useful when traveling overseas, as you can fill them when you get to your destination with a quick trip to the local grocery. You can also use them in a pinch as ground pods, by turning them upside down and cradling your lens or camera in the dip.
Some beanbags have a plate that can be inserted, onto which you can attach your tripod head or use a panning clamp. LensCoat makes one I use, the LensSack Pro. The mounting plate is made of lightweight aircraft-grade aluminum with a 3/8”-16 mounting screw allowing you to mount a gimbal or ballhead. This can provide stability for cameras with lenses up to 800mm.
On the other end of the spectrum, a cheap and easy trick is to simply adapt a pool noodle as a support. Slit it along one side so it can fit over your window, cut it to the right width, and cover it in duct tape to both silence any squeakiness and tone down bright colors.
Ensuring Sharp Shots
Temperature difference between the car interior and the outside can create distortions in the air that can prove deadly to your photos. If you’re in a cold environment, don’t blast the heat too much just before you shoot.
Vibrations from a running engine will compromise the sharpness of any shot, so turn it off. If your lens has some kind of image stabilization or vibration reduction feature, make sure it’s turned on. If you’re using a beanbag, push down gently on the top of your lens to stabilize it.
A sharp, noisy shot will always be better than a clean, blurry shot. Raise your ISO so that you have enough shutter speed for the kind of action you seek to capture.
I am constantly scouting for places to return to for photography from my car, even when my camera isn’t with me. Look for locations that species will likely return to. Maybe it’s a fruiting tree attracting songbirds or a farm field rich with raptors hunting for voles. One time when I went to my local grocery, I noticed that robins and cedar waxwings were flying into trees in the parking lot, gobbling up berries. I returned the next day with my camera and got some great images of them eating.
Fortuitous times to find wildlife anywhere are more likely to be at dawn and dusk, when many animals become active. That’s also often when the light is best, if the sun is out, as it’s low and warmer in tone. Keep a list in your car of good spots to return to when you have time and the light is right.
Be ready at all times, even on your way to a destination. So many times, I’ve come upon something wonderful and had only a few seconds to grab a shot before the animal flew or ran away. It is crucial to be prepared. Your camera should be within reach, turned on and with basic settings dialed in that you can work from. Keep your teleconverters accessible too, in case you suddenly find you need more reach.
As a caution, if you drive around, as I do, with your camera and lens attached, keep in mind that all that jostling can loosen the screws on your camera plate. It’s worth checking them from time to time, especially if you find your focus seems to be suddenly problematic.
Don’t overlook using your car as a blind right at your own home. Have you ever noticed that the birds in your yard will continue about their business when you’re in your car, but once you step out, they take off? Take advantage of that. Position your car with a view of a favored perch when the light hits it just right. Sit in the back seat so you have ready access to both windows. You might be surprised at what you can get right at home.
Keeping Company With Wildlife
When I am prowling a road or area, I may be targeting a particular species, or I may just be looking to see what I can find. I drive slowly with windows open, listening intently—often it’s my ears that lead me to a particular bird. If I see something I’m interested in but it’s a shy subject, I drive past it slowly, get far enough away that my turning around won’t be very noticeable, and then I drive toward it, having made sure my settings are where they should be. If the subject is now on the wrong side of the car, I will turn around again. I often switch off the engine and coast for the last few yards. I don’t look directly at the bird or other animal for a moment, unless I’m really rushing to get the shot. I lift the camera slowly, hiding my face behind the body as soon as possible.
Finding the best spot from which to shoot is perhaps the greatest challenge when you use your car as a photo blind. You want to be close enough to get a decent shot, but also positioned far enough away so that the animal continues with natural behavior and doesn’t see you as a threat. You are also thinking about light angle. And trying to stay safe. This is where practice helps you to get fairly adept at these decisions that must be made quickly yet cautiously.
It’s helpful to park at a distance and discern what’s going on before drawing closer. You can plan where you want to be and what the behavior patterns of the animal dictate. It’s also a useful way to observe baseline behavior so you will know if you are disrupting them when you pull closer.
Sometimes, instead of driving around, I choose a “sit spot,” selecting a place to park along a quiet road near a source of water or a flowering tree. I go in early morning when birds are most active. If you expect to be parked somewhere for a while, you can try hanging camouflage netting in the window to hide your face while still allowing you a view. Another idea is to put fabric of some kind on the passenger window to obscure your silhouette.
Silent shutters, if your camera offers the option, can be very useful when shooting from the car. Using camouflage gloves can help to disguise your hands’ movements as you control your gear.
Keeping safe should be your first priority. If you suddenly see something, no matter how excited you are, don’t brake hard if someone is behind you, and fully pull off the road if possible. Choose to search along roads without much traffic. I like to go on seasonal roads because they are so infrequently traveled.