If you’ve spent any time trying to photograph wildlife, you’ve probably come to realize that it can be an excruciatingly challenging enterprise. Wild animals are, for good reason, afraid of humans. We hunt them, harass them and destroy their habitat. They also tend to have much keener senses of smell, hearing and sight than we do, evolved over a millennia to help them elude predators like us.
For these reasons, I often think that if I could have one superpower, it would be a cloak of invisibility. The next best thing, though, is to obscure myself as much as possible from my wild subjects using some form of photo blind.
Knowing when a photo blind will be helpful, what kind of blind you need and how to shoot from it are essential skills for any wildlife photographer, from hobbyists to professionals.
Portable Photo Blinds
Wildlife photographers and hunters have very different aims, but there is a good degree of overlap in their methods. As people who want to blend in to natural settings, we wildlife photographers tend to borrow a lot from hunters’ techniques, tools and wardrobes. Tent blinds are a case in point. Pop-up hunting blinds are perhaps the most popular tool for wildlife photographers who seek to hide from their subject. Brands like Ameristep make very affordable, convenient blinds that come in a carrying case with stakes included, readily popping open to become a small tent-like domed structure. There have also been high-end blinds made expressly for wildlife photography, but as of the writing of this article, vendors for those are difficult to find. I own the well-respected Tragopan v5 blind. These blinds feature a fully customizable window system and the ability to extend a tripod leg outside of the blind.
A tripod is essential if you are shooting from this kind of photo blind. The whole idea is to be as quiet and stationary as possible. If you are swinging a lens up and out of the window when something comes into view, your subject is likely to take off. You will also need a chair. Choose something with back support that is fairly comfortable, as you may be spending a lot of time in the same position.
Once you have a blind, consider its placement carefully. Experiment with it in your (or a friend’s) backyard. A good starting point might be situating it near a tree where birds tend to perch before coming to a feeder, or near a pond, forest edge or fruiting tree. Think carefully about distance. Do you want to be close enough to get a frame-filling shot, given your lens? Or do you want a sense of habitat? It makes sense to have a couple different lenses with you for various options, as well as teleconverters for extra reach.
Try to set up the blind so that the light will be coming from behind you at the time of the day you plan to shoot. For example, since sunrise and the hour or two after are often birds’ most active periods, many bird photographers site their blinds facing west. Hammer those stakes in hard, and make sure to leave a couple flaps open to allow wind to pass through if you’re leaving it out for a few days (if all closed up, it will blow over more easily).
Also note that animals are very sensitive to changes in their surroundings, and though your blind may sport an impressive camouflage pattern, it will not escape notice. I find that it’s very helpful to put up a blind several days before I plan to spend any time in it, as birds and other animals will have come to learn that it’s a harmless part of the environment.
A note about ethical considerations: Nesting and denning animals require special care. There is no more important stage of life for an animal than the birth and care of its young. I have used a blind not far from a fox den with very good success. The foxes were denning under a shed in someone’s backyard and were very used to people. Each situation will be vastly different, however, and it’s up to each of us to carefully assess the reaction of the animals to the presence of our blind. If it seems like the animal is changing its behavior, staying away or acting fearfully throughout one or more of your sessions in the blind, remove the blind and stay away. In general, wolves, coyotes and raptors are all extremely sensitive to human presence near their dens/nests, and I advise against the use of a blind in these situations (unless you are working with researchers who understand and study the individuals).
Another option is what’s called a “body blind.” These are made to simply fit over the body to break up the outline and conceal a person in a camo-patterned cloth. It fits over you, your tripod, camera and lens. There is a slot for flash and a window screen so you can view out the front. The most popular brands are Kwik Camo and LensCoat’s LensHide. This is an extremely portable option that can be used with or without a chair. Keep in mind, though, that if you move or fidget much, this blind will move with you, and that can quickly give you away.
I also own a ghillie suit, a mesh camo outfit that looks like leaves are appliqued all over it, and includes coverage for hands and face. These can be found at any hunting store. Of course, it’s just for your body, and your camera and your movements will not be disguised.
Floating Photo Blinds
Blinds that float can provide a wonderful opportunity to get near waterfowl and afford a very low shooting angle, as cameras are mounted on the water-level platform from which the photographer shoots. Chest waders are worn to keep the photographer warm and dry. From the research I have done, there aren’t readymade ones out there — they would cost an arm and a leg to ship — but there are plenty of floating blind construction plans and videos readily available on the web. The basic materials include plywood, water pipe, foam insulation, aluminum rods and camo material. My friend and photographer Drew Fulton made the one in the photo below. I have yet to spend much time in a floating blind, but I am eager to someday.
"Rolling" Photo Blinds
What is a "rolling" blind, you ask? A car. Although I prefer to be on foot, in the vicinity of my home in upstate New York, I mainly shoot from my car. Birds and other animals seem to be much more comfortable with people in cars than people on foot. I’ve even parked at my own house and photographed birds as they went about their business in the yard near me. They didn’t care at all that I was in the car, but as soon as I got out, they fled!
I usually use a beanbag resting on the door or on a slightly raised window for increased leverage. I turn my engine off and drape my non-shooting hand over the barrel to steady the lens. When I travel, I take the emptied-out beanbag and then fill it with cheap dried beans or rice when I get to places like Africa. Another idea on the cheap is to shorten a pool noodle and slit it down one side, fitting it on the edge of the car window when you need it.
Some beanbags have removable mounting plates that allow for panning clamps, like Really Right Stuff offers. There are also special car mounts such as the Kirk Window Mount. These are pricier ways to go, but they do greatly increase stability, which means sharper photos. Some people like to buy camo netting and hang it over the window, so that their face is hidden.
When shooting from the car in winter, try to keep the inside of the car fairly cool, as emanating heat can cause problems with shimmer.
Permanent Photo Blinds
There are many refuges, state parks and sanctuaries that have permanent blinds for viewing and photography. California’s Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex offers several, as does the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge, and Texas’ Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. A Guide to Wildlife Viewing and Photography Blinds, a joint publication of the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries and the Colorado Division of Wildlife, gives information about blinds in 21 states.
Note that reservations are required for some blinds, sometimes well in advance, while others are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
Blinds give us a chance to be among wildlife in a less-intrusive way, capturing animals as they go about their urgent business of feeding, breeding, parenting and migrating. Isn’t that what’s it all about — capturing natural behavior while not disrupting our subjects? Tread lightly, and shoot from the heart.