Story & photos by Gerrit Vyn
One of the biggest challenges in nature photography is getting close to wildlife. This is especially true in locations outside of parks and refuges where wildlife is often habituated to people. Photography blinds allow you to get into camera range in places that would be impossible to otherwise and allow you to shoot where no one else is shooting – a local woodlot, marsh, or your own backyard bird feeders. Using a photography blind is often the best or only way to photograph a particular species, location, or behavior. A good photography blind is one of the most important tools in a wildlife photographers’ arsenal for getting close. Working from a blind also benefits wildlife. Rather than pursuing and potentially disturbing subjects, the photographer lets subjects come to them. This increases a photographer’s opportunities to shoot natural, undisturbed behavior, and minimizes their impact on wildlife. One of the great things about working from a blind is that if you’ve done your homework and planned well you can be confident you are going to have some unique opportunities for photography.
A photography blind (also known as a “hide”) is a small structure that conceals a photographer from the outside world. When done correctly, the photographer is hidden, and nature goes about its business like no one is there. In most cases, the color of a blind’s exterior is not important, the main thing it has to do is hide the human form and movement.
Choosing a Shooting Location
Choosing a shooting location is the most important consideration you’ll make when using a photography blind. Sometimes your aim will be to find a productive spot like a busy wetland and your goal will be to shoot anything that comes into range. Other times, you will develop a specific location for shooting a specific species or behavior. Choose your location wisely through research, observation, and experience. And know that you can shoot almost anything with a good strategy and a well-placed blind.
Habitat based shooting, where you setup without a particular species in mind, is most productive in places that wildlife are drawn to. Wetlands, forest and meadow edges, desert water sources, productive feeding areas, migratory hotspots, and anywhere else where wildlife congregate, are all good bets depending on the season. Keep your eyes open as you travel near your home for potential opportunities and anticipate peaks of seasonal activity when shooting will be best.
Working from a blind is often the most effective and least intrusive way to photograph a specific species or behavior. Each situation will be unique and require its own strategy. Like habitat shooting, your goal is to maximize your chances of success by identifying places your target species frequents and setting up there. This will require observation, research about a species behavior, phenology, and good planning. The more experience you have the more you’ll learn what to do and what not to do.
Knowing and anticipating wildlife behavior through research and observation and identifying hotspots for wildlife activity will guide when and where you set up your blind for photography. Here are some examples:
• A specific perch on a pond edge that you see a belted Kingfisher frequently hunting from
• A forest clearing that buck White-tailed deer hang around during the rut or one that Wild Turkeys display in during spring
• An active fox den on a neighbor’s property
• A cavity nesting bird like a woodpecker or bluebird that is low enough to shoot
• A fruiting tree that Cedar Waxwings descend on to feed in winter
• A grouse lek or drumming log
• A neighborhood wetland that attracts duck during migration
• An isolated perch in a field of prairie that is a popular singing perch for songbirds in spring
Another productive way to use a photography blind is to create a setup that will attract birds or wildlife in an ethical manner. The most popular application of this is to shoot at backyard bird feeders set up for photography. One of the best places to work on your photographic skills, have lots of action, and build a nice portfolio of passerine subjects is right in your own back yard. While some birds like chickadees and nuthatches are generally tolerant and will continue to come to your feeders if you sit in the open, other species won’t. If you are concealed, you might even get lucky and have something special like a hunting Sharp-shinned Hawk perch close by. A small photo blind that you can move around for different lighting, perches, and backgrounds is a great option for this type of shooting. When creating a setup for bird photography pay attention to light direction and backgrounds. Don’t just set up a bunch of random feeders and perches and start shooting. Strategize and think about how you can manipulate the movement of birds by limiting food sources and available perches so that action is concentrated where you want it. Many birds will stage or wait on a conveniently placed perch until a feeder becomes clear of other birds or to survey the area before visiting a feeder. Use this to your advantage. You can also strategically place food so that it is not visible in your photographs but gets birds to perch where you want them to. Try to provide perches that are attractive and natural but not overdone.
Choosing a Portable Blind
Small portable blinds used for hunting were once the go-to solution for nature photographers but now there is a company dedicated solely to creating blinds for photographers – Tragopan. Tragopan blinds (photographyblinds.com) come in a number of sizes and styles and all have unique features for photographers. The Tragopan V6 (https://photographyblinds.com/products/tragopan-photography-blind-v6) is the most versatile one-person blind available today and is easy to setup with a robust hub system that reduces setup time and ease compared to traditional “pop-up” style blinds. The Tragopan V6 also has a wide suite of accessories including an attachable vestibule for camping or additional space, a rain canopy for especially wet conditions, and even a way to connect two of them together – a great option for working with a client or friend.
Choosing the Right Spot to Set Up a Blind
Once you’ve chosen the general location for your blind setup it is important to scrutinize your exact setup location. Move around the area, get on your hands and knees or belly to visualize your shooting height if necessary, look for obstructions that might get in the way, visualize where birds and animal will perch or swim, and plan your backgrounds. Once you are in your blind and wildlife is present you can’t move it. Be sure you’ve picked the exact right spot.
LIGHT Identify where the sun will rise and set and erect your blind for the light angle you want during the hours you will be shooting. Sometimes this will mean setting up a blind for a morning shoot and then moving it for an afternoon session. Imagine how the light will look in the morning compared to the afternoon and when it is cloudy versus sunny. Decide which conditions you will shoot in the most and setup your blind accordingly.
Study your available options for backgrounds. In general, you’ll want your subjects separated from the background by at least a few meters or much more depending on the look you are going for. Generally, the further away the background is from your subjects the better, though some species require some cover to be comfortable and won’t venture out too far.
OBSTRUCTIONS You may not notice an errant blade of grass or tree branch when setting up your blind, but your subject will surely stand behind it if it is there. Scrutinize your shooting lanes carefully before settling on your spot. Even the smallest obstructions can ruin a good opportunity. Visualize the animal behavior you think will unfold in front of your blind and eliminate any obstructions you can accordingly.
For some species you should be aware of how animals move through the landscape where you are shooting. Pay attention to frequently used game trails, flight paths, and openings in vegetation where animals might appear. You will want to place your blind at the right distance from the most probable locations that animals will appear. This will depend on the focal length of lens you are using. If you are unsure, setup the camera and lens combination you plan to use and examine the area to determine your best shooting distance. Having subjects that are too close can be even more of a problem when using a blind than having subjects that are too far.
Deploying Your Blind
Different species and locations require different blind deployment strategies. In many cases, a blind can be erected, entered, and shot from right away. You may have to wait awhile for birds or animals that you disturbed to return but in places like wetlands, bird feeders, or a prairie dog town, this can happen rather quickly. There are times when you put up a blind for just a few hours when you stumble on a good location but most of the time you will put up a blind for several days or weeks and return to it repeatedly when conditions are good. For the most sensitive species and locations, especially nesting, display, and mating areas, it is often necessary to introduce a blind gradually over time to see if it will be accepted and great care should be taken. You never want to introduce a blind too close to a sensitive location like a hawk nest, a grouse drumming log, or a fox den, depart, and then find that the bird or animal never returned because of the blind. In cases like this it is best to first set up the blind during the day at a distance you know will not disturb the animal. You can then return over a series of nights and gradually move the blind a bit closer. This gives the animal time to adjust to the new object in its world and see it as non-threatening. For species that require this type of delicate approach it is helpful to put a dummy lens hood in the spot where your lens will eventually protrude so the bird can get used to that also – spray paint a coffee can black and hang it in the window. Entering and leaving the blind under the cover of darkness or when wildlife is absent is also required in some situations. If you do enter the blind during the day, some species like eagles require that you go to the blind with another individual and that they depart and leave you there once you are concealed. That way the bird thinks you have left. Once some birds know you are in a blind it can cause them to become warier or to stay away altogether. In those cases, you may have to quickly abort your shoot.
Inside the Blind
The primary function of a blind is to hide a photographer’s movements and the human form, but you should also minimize the sounds you make. When adjusting camera equipment or changing lenses, move slowly and deliberately. One sound that you can’t avoid is your camera’s shutter sound (unless you are shooting mirrorless!). When you are working with a sensitive species it is advisable to introduce the sound of your shutter slowly. Some animals are easily startled by sudden or unfamiliar sounds like twigs snapping and many will not tolerate a cameras shutter at close distance especially if it is introduced suddenly. Depending on the camera you are using and how loud it is (and some like the Canon 1DX Mark II shooting 14 FPS are very loud!), introduce the sound of the shutter before an animal reaches shooting range. Take single images, then some short bursts as the animal gets used to it, while it moves closer. Most animals become quickly accustomed to both loud shutters and flash if introduced gently from a distance. Don’t underestimate your shutters ability to scare things off and only shoot in bursts if necessary. For some animals use your silent shutter function if your camera has one.
Entering and Departing the Blind
It is a good practice to enter and depart your blind stealthily with the goal that wildlife doesn’t associate the structure – the blind- with humans. Enter quickly and quietly. If you need to use a light, use a small dim light, preferably one that is red, and try not to turn it on in the blind. The blind itself can be a good obstruction to hide behind during your approach in some instances. Creep up behind it so the animals on the other side don’t see your approach and entry.
Preparing to Shoot
Whether you are spending just a couple of hours in a blind or you plan to spend an entire day or more, you should try to make it as comfortable an experience as possible. The more comfortable you are the more hours you are likely to put in to get the shot.
Here are a few tips:
• Find yourself a comfortable lightweight chair that is the appropriate height for shooting out of your blind’s window
• Lay on a camping pad for shooting at ground level
• In hot weather use a blind with lots of ventilation
• In cold weather dress in layers and bring a sleeping bag if needed
• Make sure you have sufficient food and water
• The less equipment you have in the blind the more space you’ll have to move around and stretch your legs
• Bring something to urinate in if you are unable to get out of the blind. An appropriate container for men and something like a “Gogirl” for women are options.
• In muddy areas you may want to use a ground cloth if your blind doesn’t have a floor.
A Word of Encouragement
Like any approach to wildlife photography, shooting successfully from a blind requires knowledge of your subject and location, patience, and a bit of luck. Of these, patience is perhaps the hardest trait to master when working from a blind. Many of us are not accustomed to sitting in one place for long periods of time and the idea of doing so, rather than roaming forest and field with camera in hand, is unappealing. Once you’ve had success in a blind though, things begin to change. Your time will be spent anticipating success as you wait, watch, and listen. It is not idle time, but time spent observing, learning, and being keenly aware of your surroundings. You will become more present, immerse yourself fully in nature, and time moves more quickly. The process of finding a good location, strategizing, and shooting from a blind, will produce some of your most rewarding and productive moments as a wildlife photographer. At any moment that whitetail buck, Hooded Merganser, or singing meadowlark will be filling your fame. Get out there and good luck!
Gerrit Vyn is a wildlife photographer and cinematographer for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a Senior Fellow at the International League of Conservation Photographers and has been photographing birds and wildlife professionally for the last 25 years. He is best known for his work documenting endangered birds and conservation issues around the world and is a sought-after speaker on the topics of birds, conservation, and photography. Gerrit’s complete guide to bird photography, Photography: Birds, was published in April 2020 and his previous book, The Living Bird, was a New York Times Bestseller and National Outdoor Book Award winner. His work is published regularly in magazines, including National Geographic, BBC Wildlife and Audubon, and has been featured in media outlets including NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, CBS Sunday Morning, and the PBS Nature series. Visit him online at GerritVynPhoto.com and on Instagram @gerritvyn.