He kind of looked like a cross between the Sasquatch, the Swamp Thing and a fuzzy, wuzzy bear all rolled into one. The first time I saw Dad wearing his ghillie suit, I burst out laughing. Really. It’s not something you want to put on until you’re alone in the woods.
While it looks bizarre, camouflage like a ghillie suite really does work in wildlife photography. And photographers don’t have to wait until Halloween to dress up in a costume. Cleverly blending into the forest, grasslands or lake lets photographers get close enough to fill the frame with wildlife.
If you’ve ever tried to get a good look at bird in a tree, you know that most birds will fly away as soon as you make eye contact, move slightly or make any noise. While standing 25 feet from the tree might be fine for a birder, the photographer needs not only to be closer to the bird, but also “invisible” to the bird. That’s where camouflage comes into play.
Dad’s first experience with camouflage happened about eight years ago when he was just getting into bird photography. He’d found a great blue heron fishing spot in a swampy area of the Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge in Texas. Dad watched the heron for quite a while and studied its habits. The heron would wait for a fish to swim into the channel, catch and eat the fish and then fly in an arc to the trees along the opposite shore. Dad knew he could get a nice shot of the bird flying.
The problem was, he couldn’t get a clean shot from the shore due to brush and tree limbs. Dad decided to use the kayak instead. He knew after watching the heron that it was rather wily and very nervous around the boats carrying fishermen farther out on the lake.
In order to keep the bird relaxed, Dad knew a specially disguised kayak would be needed. So he got to work in the “elf shop” at home and created his own camo kayak.
Dad started with a basic one-seater, Native Ulitmate 12’ kayak he purchased for about $1,200 from Austin Canoe and Kayak in Texas. This canoe’s super power is a special feature called a tunnel hull. The unique hull combined with the wide bottom provides more stability than the average kayak. You can even stand up in it without tipping over.
In addition to the stability, the seat sits lower in the kayak and creates a solid center of gravity. A kayak with a low profile is less likely to roll. That’s a plus in anyone’s book, especially if they have expensive camera gear that doesn’t respond well to a soaking in dirty lake water.
Dad loved the basic design of his new kayak, but he needed to modify it for wildlife photography. He created a bucket-shaped contraption almost in the center of the kayak to hold two of the three legs of his tripod. Once in place, you simply tighten the screws to hold the legs in place. The bucket is attached to a plywood base that is in turn strapped to the bottom of the canoe.
These modifications are important when you need to paddle. Obviously you can’t hold a camera on a tripod and paddle at the same time. With Dad’s device, your hands are free and your gear is safe.
As you can see, the third leg of the tripod isn’t ratcheted down. You can shorten or lengthen the leg if you have animals on the move and you need a different camera angle. You’ll also notice the Wimberly Gimble head combination on the tripod. This combo gives you additional freedom to smoothly move the lens for tracking a moving target and helps create stability for the large, heavy 400mm lens.
Next Dad added camouflage netting he purchased at an Army Navy store. He made sure the camera and tripod were covered as well. Any flicker of light off the metal parts of the camera gear is like a giant flashing “Danger” sign to wildlife.
To avoid such disasters, LensCoat makes an entire line of camouflage covers for all of your camera gear, including tripods, flashes, lenses of all sizes and accessories. You’ll find a variety of camo patterns from forest to snow. It’s important to choose the right pattern for the area you’ll be shooting because a heron will see you if you’re using snow camo in a brown, reedy area on the water.
Donning his own camouflage gear was the last step for Dad in outfitting the kayak. For his inaugural trip, Dad chose a brown patterned, long sleeve shirt and hat he picked up at an Army Navy store. He hung some brown netting from his hat to break up his facial features. You could also throw some camo fabric over yourself and the camera gear for 100% coverage. On this trip, however, he wanted to keep the flash free of fabric in case he needed fill light on the subject.
Dad was finally ready to test his newly outfitted kayak. He had no problem getting the 55 pound vessel into the water by himself. Dad hid in a reed-filled, swampy area while waiting for the heron to show up.
The whole thing worked really well. The great blue heron showed up at the fishing spot about an hour later. The bird caught its fish, swallowed and took off for the trees. It didn’t even know Dad was there.
It wasn’t until Dad began panning with his camera that the bird realized someone was watching it. The panning movement, a smooth gliding motion of the lens as the photographer follows the bird, tipped off the heron that he wasn’t alone. Although the heron didn’t return to the fishing hole Dad walked away with a nice shot, “Great Blue Heron”.
Floating Like a Duck
After the success with the kayak, it wasn’t long before Dad devised another way to photograph birds on the water. The floating duck blind works perfectly in shallow water situations. Dad constructed this blind from an old truck tire’s inner tube, a sheet of marine plywood and camouflage fabric. He cut the plywood to fit on top of the inner tube and painted it all black with marine paint. Then he used heavy-duty zip ties to attach the plywood to the inner tube.
The platform holds his camera and other gear. In the center of the platform Dad added an attachment for his Wimberly Gimbal head combo that holds his camera and long lens. To complete the ensemble, Dad donned chest waders and threw a camouflage blanket over himself and the rig.
Before he jumped into the water with his new rig, Dad checked the depth of the pond. It would be pretty awful to stumble across a deep hole, lose your footing and topple the blind, camera and all. So Dad kayaked out and used a long pole to test the depth of the water.
The rest was a piece of cake. Dad simply walked the whole blind to a good location in the pond and waited for the wildlife. Easy peazy.
While the set up is easy, we do have a few tips regarding the blind. Arrive early in the morning. Wild animals are very savvy about changes in their environment. It’s what keeps them alive.
If you can place and anchor the blind in the pond a day or two before you shoot, it gives the animals time to get used to the new object. You’ll have more success when you do actually shoot because the animals will be more relaxed.
On the day of the shoot, you should arrive very early in the morning, before the animals show up. Again, you don’t want to alert them to your presence. Seeing the human crawl in the weird thing floating on the pond will turn them off to the whole area.
We also suggest you check with the locals to find out if water moccasins, alligators or other predators live in the water. You’re better off safe, than sorry! During his time at the Martin Refuge in South Texas, Dad’s ranch guide told him that shooting in the water was a bad idea. They had water moccasins and alligators roaming the waterways. (You can read all about Dad’s adventures at the ranch here.)
Using the camo kayak and floating duck blind methods of disguise will produce great results if you’re trying to photograph wildlife that hangs out in or near water. You might get a few snide remarks about Sasquatch, the Swamp Thing and bears from your family members, but, hey, it’s Halloween. Your fellow photographers will not only admire your amazing wildlife photos, they’ll be doubly impressed you had the guts to actually wear your camouflage in public. That’s what really matters.
Join us next Wednesday when we take a look at three more camouflage options: the super cool rolling blind, pop-up tents and the snicker-inducing ghillie suit (we saved the best for last!).
- Native Watercraft Ulitmate 12 Kayak www.nativewatercraft.com/boat.cfm?id=5
- Austin Canoe and Kayak www.austinkayak.com
- Wimberly Gimbal tripod head www.tripodhead.com/products/wimberley-main.cfm
- LensCoat covers www.lenscoat.com