Story and photographs by Robert Strickland
As you age, your ability to walk around is limited, so I have started using my vehicle as photography blind. Occasionally I get out of the car, use the tripod, and hike to a hot spot, but generally, I’m shooting photos from the car especially if I’m on a driving trail such as a loop road.
My vehicle allows the luxury of sitting in a seat, relaxing and being comfortable. The key word is comfortable. I have spent plenty of time out in the woods with no seat, cuddled up under a tree, freezing, and trying to stay warm while waiting for a subject to come by.
The vehicle takes you to another level when using it for photography. The birds and wildlife have become accustomed to the many vehicles on the roads today. As a result, they tend to be more passive around vehicles than seeing a person on foot, which allows you to get much closer to your target. I use a specialized beanbag to support my camera lens. My beanbag is packed with sunflower seeds and it holds the camera lens rock solid.
When I get to an area that looks like a potential hotspot, I get out the beanbag and lay it on the top of the door with the window rolled down, then lay my camera lens on it. Next, I slowly drive ahead until I spot a subject, then adjust the camera lens and take the photo. Sometimes shooting from a window limits the angle of the shot, but you can solve that issue by rolling up the window slightly or adjusting the angle of the vehicle. It also helps if your outside mirrors can fold out of your way.
One must be mindful that, on any road where cars are rolling along to observe and photograph wildlife, the traffic can be annoying. Therefore, as I drive down the road I will use a pull off and shut the vehicle down to get the photo I am looking for. This makes it difficult to get going again with all the traffic, but my reward for all of the trouble is a nice, sharp image.
My vehicle is reasonably silent and I can almost sneak up on some of the subjects. I would not recommend a diesel vehicle, as they are just too noisy. Your vehicle should be as quiet as possible, as noise scares everything away. On one outing, I was driving slowly along a back road and crept right up on some grouse that were feeding. Driving very slowly, just creeping along, will often allow you to get closer to birds and other wildlife near the roads.
I always bring my tripod and a blind on photography trips in case there is a need to disappear and really check out an area. You can cover the window opening with some see-through camo material. You open the door, insert the excess material around the door frame, and shut the door. This gives a little extra hiding capability if you are working a very spooky subject such as coyote or a deer. You just need to cut a slit into the material for the camera lens.
When you come up on a subject, turn off the vehicle. The engine causes vibration, which can make your images soft or even out of focus. This is particularly true for long lenses.
Since the car windows will be open, you will want to dress appropriately for the weather. It can get chilly or warm in the vehicle. I sometimes turn on the heater or AC and let it run to keep me comfortable, but this requires care because the temperature differences between the car and outside can create distortions in the air that can ruin your photographs.
Keeping the windows down invites a variety of insects to enter the vehicle and annoy you, so applying insect repellant beforehand is a good idea. A note of caution, though: if you use an insect repellant with DEET, be sure to wash your hands before handling your camera gear, as DEET can deform the plastic parts of your camera.
Additionally, if it is hot and muggy and your equipment has been inside the house with the AC on, you’ll want to place it in the garage or some other area with a temperature between that in the house and the outside to ensure you have no fogging when you find a subject. If you’re shooting in the cold freezing air and take the camera lens inside, you should place it in a large plastic bag and let it come up to temperature slowly. The issue is your gear going from one temperature extreme to another. Your gear needs time to acclimate to the temperature you’ll be working in, so these steps should ensure that you don’t experience fogging on your lenses or other camera parts which can not only prevent you from taking pictures, but can cause moisture to get trapped in the inner workings of your camera and lens.
Any type of vehicle can be effective as a blind, from a small car to a pick-up truck. I had a truck, and used the back as a stationary platform to set up my blind when I found an active Great Horned Owl’s nest. Once you have entered a hotspot and are getting some photos, you never want to open or crack the door or the subject will flush and disappear. If you see others taking photos do not leave your car as it will create animosity and enemies as you will probably flush what they were shooting.
Using this technique could reward you with a photograph of a Great Horned Owl or other wildlife subject.
Robert Strickland is a self-taught professional photographer and writer. He has been photographing for more than 40 years, and his specialty is nature and wildlife. In the winter months, he photographs throughout Florida. In the summer months, he photographs throughout upstate New York. In between, he has yearly stops at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Since he first went to the Smokies, he has been enthralled with Cades Cove and the numerous wildlife and historical settings.
You can check out more of Robert’s work at http://robertstricklandphotography.com