I absolutely love what the title of this article implies !!
My hunting progression through the years has gone from hunting/shooting animals out to 350 metres with a rifle in my early years to bowhunting and most latterly to photographing animals and birds. The move to bowhunting was nineteen years ago at a time when much of the excitement and thrills of hunting with a firearm had disappeared for me. The necessity of having to get right into well under 40 metres on an animal to ensure an accurate and important clean kill introduced a whole new ball game of thrills, challenges, adrenalin, nerves and excitement. Even the ‘uncontrollable leg shake’ phenomenon returned to my hunting – I hadn’t experienced that sort of raw excitement for years !! This whole ‘getting close’ thing places you well ‘inside’ their personal physical senses something which rifle hunting just doesn’t do by the sheer fact that distances are so much greater and therefore creating less personal or in-your-face experiences and encounters with game animals and wildlife in general.
As I progressed onto photography I discovered that to achieve a really high quality image of a bird or animal I was needing to get just as close to the quarry as I did when bowhunting. Which was fantastic because I was once again in a field where I could feel and experience the adrenalin charge, buzz and thrill of stalking and being super close to unsuspecting wild animals. There’s a very well known and popular saying in bird and wildlife photography circles – “Get close” !! Pretty self explanatory really but if you’d like to give yourself the best possible chance of a great wildlife or bird image instead of a mediocre one, then there are no truer words spoken.
Therefore, in this article I’d like to yak about a few things such as gear and techniques that I have discovered, found useful and more importantly work in getting us up close and personal with wildlife.
For the most part camouflage is helping us negate one of our quarry’s main senses (that of sight) from detecting our presence or whereabouts. There are five main elements to think about for good camouflage –
- Natural movement
A combination of at least three of these and you’ll be off to a good start, four will provide some very good camouflage. With all five you can have excellent camouflage.
Replicating the texture, pattern and colour of your surroundings is the beginning of good camouflage. If that was all you needed, though, then your flowery Hawaiian shirt would suffice. You also need to simulate the overall shape of something natural so as to blend yourself into the natural landscape and foliage around you – think of it as ‘blurring’ yourself into the landscape (an apt term considering we’re also talking about photography) or taking away the edges of your shape so it is no longer recognisable as a human form.
Lastly there is the element of natural movement. If your surroundings are moving in the wind and you are trying to look like those surroundings, then you should also be moving in the wind. Earlier on when camouflage clothing and gear starting becoming popular we were limited to pretty much two dimensional materials. Material design and manufacturing has come a long way in a short amount of time and mostly thanks to the imported American products we have access to some impressive and very natural looking three dimensional ‘leafy’ fabrics. Now our camouflage has the ability to ‘catch the breeze’ and ‘flutter’ just as the leaves and grasses do.
There are many and varied styles of camo clothing available now days and as Kiwi hunters I’m sure most of us have at least some if not truck loads of camo clothing. From the deerstalker’s bush-land and tussock patterned poly cotton shorts and trousers to the waterfowler’s very durable marsh and reed patterned, thick windstopper fabric jackets right up to the alpine hunter’s camo patterned goretex outer shell garments – we are certainly spoiled for choice. Any one of these pieces of clothing can and will be suitable for wildlife photography. The key thing to remember here though is that our aim is to blur into the landscape as much as possible. If you’re lucky enough to have a large selection of camouflage clothing (or are simply a ‘camo nut’) then just choose the garments that best suit your surroundings for any given photographic situation.
Apart from your standard camouflage hunting clothes that the majority of us own there are also quite a few other styles of garments of varied materials that I’ve tried over the last few years which I’ve found to be outstanding for wildlife and bird photography. Of these I have settled on two that suit me and my style of photography.
The first one is a simple pants and long sleeve top combination made from very light weight camouflaged-patterned nylon sewn onto just as lightweight mesh. The major feature with this combo is that the camo nylon fabric has leafy cut outs to give the clothing that three dimensional ‘blow in the breeze’ appearance. Having worn both 3-D type materials and the more conventional ‘flat’ linear type fabrics over the years (and been able to draw comparisons between how wildlife has reacted to both) I’m convinced that the 3-D options are definitely the way to go. Designed to be worn over your normal clothing (which should also be camo or at least dull/drab in colour) this style of garment is very compactable, light and easy to carry around. For those reasons it tends to always get stuffed into my pack or bag on every trip as a kind of guaranteed back up option.
Leafy style long pants and long sleeve top. Highly compactable and very lightweight.
The second is a Ghillie suit. Popular with military snipers they are typically a garment of cloth or mesh with loose strips of burlap, cloth or twine attached to resemble leaves, twigs and foliage. They can also be improved by attaching scraps of vegetation from the area much like we do with ground layout blinds when paddock hunting geese. Ghillie suits can be made in many different styles and forms including a full body suit, poncho style suits, ghillie pants, upper body ghillie suits, back packs, face veils and head covers.
I use a top (with hood) and pants style that both roll up into a stuff sack (with shoulder strap) that measures 50cm x 20cm and weighs only 1.4 kg all up. Again, a tidy little unit that is easily toted around the countryside on my photography forays. For such a minimal financial outlay ($155 from memory) this item of camo clothing has done wonders for my photography. Quite simply the wildlife and birds just can’t see you – honest !! Even when it is not absolutely blended in to the surroundings (eg, when out on a grey sandy mud flat) the suit’s superb ‘outline breaking’ features are what make it so darn good. So good in fact that on three separate occasions I’ve had birds land on me thinking I really was a bush or foliage !! Their one downside is that they can be a wee bit on the warm side on the hotter days.
Ghillie suit. ( 1/200 @ f/7.1, iso 800 )
And just to show how good these things are, here’s a waist up shot of me wearing the suit. ( 1/80 @ f/7.1, iso 800 )
Hides and Blinds
Water fowl hunters will all know the benefits of using hides and blinds to get birds into range of our guns. They are just as effective in wildlife photography to help obtain those frame filling shots too.
Patience in wildlife photography is pretty much a prerequisite. That in itself implies many hours of waiting and biding your time for the perfect shot. A main benefit of using blinds and hides in photography is that they offer a very reasonable amount of space, comfort and (depending on materials and design) degree of protection from the elements. Blinds are also perfect for situations where you have already done the homework of learning precisely where, when and for how long an animal or bird is frequenting a specific spot. The blind can then be set up in the ideal position.
As with the clothing, I have used a few different types of blinds and hides since starting out. The initial couple were homemade and better not talked about. What those first homebuilt models did teach me is that you can save a huge amount of time, energy and heartache by just buying a fold out, reasonably lightweight compact commercially made one !! Now days they come in a range of sizes, shapes and patterns (including ones with ‘leafy’ 3-D materials – great) are really well made, sturdy as well as being very comfortable indeed. They set up in literally seconds with no effort at all.
The one I settled on is Ameristep’s ‘Doghouse’ blind. It has a floor area of 1.5 metres x 1.5 metres and has head room of 1.7 metres. I can sit comfortably in a fold out chair with ample room for tripod and camera, all my other gear as well as Meg, my Springer Spaniel. Zipped, fold away panels (each with mesh velcroed panels on the inner side) in three of the walls offer panoramic views. The back wall is a floor to roof zipper for entry and exit. Once folded up and in it’s pack-style carry bag (which measures 60cm in diameter and 8cm thick) it weighs in at about 6.3 kg. Getting up there in weight but when you consider how big it folds out to, still very manageable. The ghillie suit and this ground blind are two of my most valued pieces of equipment in terms of producing really high quality close up images.
The ‘Ameristep’ portable ground blind I use. ( 1/160 @ f/7.1, iso 800 )
Kingfisher with crab taken from the portable ground blind, Marlborough lowlands. ( 1/320 @ f/7.1, iso 200 )
Sometimes when I perhaps don’t have the portable blind or it is just impractical to set it up at a particular location I’ll improvise by making a ‘natural’ blind from local vegetation, branches, logs, driftwood, grasses or what ever is available and suitable. One other piece of gear that is always in my bag is a simple nylon camo poncho/sheet. At a pinch I can just lay this over me as a ‘drape’ but on more than one occasion I have used it in conjunction with natural materials to build a more than adequate and well camouflaged temporary blind. Which has just reminded me of yet one more piece of gear that is permanently in my kit – a lightweight waterproof ground sheet. It’s not uncommon at all to be flat on your stomach for long periods in pretty wet and dirty conditions. A lightweight sheet like this adds nothing to the size and weight of your bag but is invaluable.
I can’t stress enough how important really good camouflage is for wildlife photography. For example, to obtain a frame filling image of a small bird such as a Kingfisher I need to be a mere few metres from the subject and that subject cannot know I’m there. Trying to hide an 86kg, 188cm tall object from an alert and cagey wild animal that is only five metres away really does necessitate good camo.
Everything I need out in the field for wildlife photography … and all able to be carried on my back. Clockwise, bottom left – lightweight camo long pants and long sleeve top, camera bag with two bodies, two lenses and all appropriate accessories, portable fold out ground blind, fold out chair, tripod, and in the centre is the rolled up ghillie suit.
Hides and blinds are really great tools to use to get close to animals and birds. Often though situations dictate that the only way we’re going to get close enough for a good photograph is by using the old fashioned method – stalking in.
The first and single most important thing to consider is ‘lower your profile’ !! Wild creatures have evolved right through time with the inbred, instinctive fear of the human shape and form. The tall upright shape of a human will automatically instil fear into an animal and fear will usually translate into ‘run away very quickly’. Get down lower (onto your knees at the very least but ideally flat on your belly) and instantly the dreaded upright form has gone. The first few times I made a conscious effort to do this I was astounded at the reaction of animals and birds. Starting the stalk on my belly from well back and slowly inching towards the subjects, I got as close as I dared and managed to rattle off some really good images of the family group of rabbits. They certainly knew I was there but because I didn’t present the fearful tall upright figure to them their minds were put at ease to a degree. Being in camo clothing I guess all they see from their perspective is a low profile bush and foliage. Many other times I’ve blatantly tested the low profile theory. After belly crawling (wearing the ghillie suit) in very close on some wading birds for example and having got the images I was after, I’d get up onto my hands and knees. Their initial reaction is to look up and at the movement but in just a few seconds go back to doing what they were doing. Same thing happens when I get right up onto my knees. It’s only when I slowly get completely up onto my feet that they flee. Very interesting stuff and proving the innate fear of the erect, upright human form.
Image showing the very low profile created when belly crawling during a stalk. Compare this to someone standing upright !! ( 1/160 @ f/7.1, iso 800 )
Knowing the habits and body language of your quarry is another advantage when stalking. Being able to predict or know in advance what actions an animal or bird will take at any given time benefits us by reducing the number of ‘surprises’ that might catch us out. (This habit knowledge will also create valuable split seconds to catch images that you would have otherwise missed out on. For example, I’ve learned to know when Herons are about to take flight by there body posturing. Knowing this gives me just a few seconds to quickly change camera settings for in flight images). Intimate knowledge of creatures’ behaviour and habits will of course only come about through many hours of simple observation. In that sense even the days when you come home with no ‘keeper’ photographs haven’t been wasted.
Where terrain allows try and approach your target from directly front on. The direct line of travel is naturally the shortest route but it also disguises much of your body’s movement while approaching. Going left or right will only succeed in making more of your size, shape and any movement more visible to the animal. All movements should of course be very slow and deliberate. If for any reason your target becomes edgy or looks like it may be about to flee then simply stop, lay very still for as long as it takes for the creature to settle and calm.
All praise to the ghillie suit (and a very long belly crawling stalk) on this image. ( 1/1000 @ f/7.1, iso 400 )
As far as the subject of photography goes this article contains very little in the way of technical information. No apologies on that front. Apart from learning and getting completely familiar with my camera, lenses and gear the other single most important factor in getting great, high quality, frame filling images of wildlife and birds is the ability to be able to “get close” (very close). Camouflage has played a huge part in that ability and the fabulous pieces of camo clothing and equipment on the market now days are a godsend for the wildlife photographer. Behind the camera and lenses, the fold out ground blind and the ghillie suit I mentioned in this article would be my most valuable pieces of kit as far as assisting in obtaining great images. After trying out many different pieces of equipment over the years, the few mentioned in this article are just what I’ve settled on – ones that suit me and my photography style. They may not be for everyone but could serve as a good starting point or perhaps even save people the trials and errors that I went through to find something that ‘worked’.
And remember ….. Lower your profile !!