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|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.
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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.
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.