Good Camouflage and Its Use in Bird Photography

To Camo or Not To Camo:

     I know a few nature and wildlife photographers who seem to never use camouflage and still get great photos. I've come to understand though that one's choice of whether or not to use camouflage, and the extent of its use, is more about one's particular style of photography than it is a question of its effectiveness or necessity.

     For bird photography in particular, the use of camouflage is hardly a necessity for all situations. There are wildlife refuges where the birds are so acclimated to humans that you can stand within feet of these wild birds and take all the photos you want. There are locations where you can sit in your car within feet of wild birds and take photos all day, but if you open the door and set foot outside the car, they're instantly gone. Many times birds will completely disregard your car as long as you keep driving on by, but if you slow down they will head the other way without waiting to see whether or not you actually stopped. At public parks, boat docks and other such places, where the birds are quite accustomed to the presence of humans, the birds often pay you little attention unless their comfort zone is intruded upon.

     So in essence it is true that for some birds you don't really have to use camouflage to get close enough for good photos. However, there are birds that simply don't hang around humans or human habitation at all. For those it becomes necessary to enter their private world, and that is when the use of camouflage really comes into play.

How then do you predict how a bird will react to your presence? What makes one bird stay and another flee?

    Find the American Woodcock
  in this photo
Find the Sandpiper
in this photo
     The tolerance of human presence or close human proximity by any particular bird is greatly influenced by several factors:
  • Species
  • Individuality
  • Age/Maturity
  • Past experience/conditioning
  • Location
  • Proximity/presence of other birds
  • Hunger/presence of food
  • Reproductive drive/season
  • Other animals
  • Camouflage and field craft

  • In essence it's a matter of nature, modified (or not) by nurture and the current conditions of the situation in question. A little explanation of each point will make things clearer.

    Species: Different species will exhibit a greater or lesser tolerance for humans, a trait apparently inherent in their genes. You're not going to get close to a Belted Kingfisher unless you are very well camouflaged, while a Chickadee may come and snatch a seed from a feeder while you're standing right under it. It's a fact that some species are inherently spunkier (or more skiddish) than others. With most species this is generally not an absolute, but it is a factor to be reckoned with. With some species though, it is almost a given that they will simply not tolerate human presence.

    Individuality: Within any species there are variations between individuals. This is just as true for birds as it is for human personalities.

    Age/maturity: Juvenile birds are often more curious and less cautious than older, more mature birds. On the other hand, sometimes mature birds are more confident and experienced than juveniles. It can go either way.

    Past experience/conditioning: Similar to age and maturity, a birds past experiences around humans colors it's tolerance for human presence. Pelicans, for example, may hang around fishermen on the beach if they've learned there is usually a free meal of fish heads or throw-aways. They can become quite bold at times, even trying to snatch away a fisherman's keepers.

    Location: A bird may react differently to human presence from one location to another, possibly based on past experiences at the particular location. It may also be it feels more comfortable at one location than another based on other factors we aren't aware of, such as the presence of rivals or predators. It's possible these other factors are only amplified by human presence.

    Proximity/presence of other birds: Nearby rivals or potential mates can affect a bird's comfort level. Being among a flock or group (safety in numbers) can affect the individual's comfort level, based on the reactions of others in the group. If one spooks, they may all spook, though that is not always the case. Even in a flock situation, some individuals react contrary to the groups reactions. The use of decoys takes advantage of this predictable response.

    Hunger/presence of food: Hunger, and the presence of plentiful food can make a bird stay in a location and keep its attention on the search for food. For example, herons and egrets often get very focused on chasing fish, and appear to ignore things that might otherwise make them skiddish and flighty.

    Reproductive drive/season: The presence of potential mates, and a concentration on courtship rituals can keep birds focused to the point of ignoring all but the most immediate of dangers. In nesting season birds may tend to stay close to the nest and young, and even stand their ground or attack to defend their nests, instead of fleeing intrusions.

    Other animals: The presence of various other species can provide a comfort level, or inversely increase stress levels in the case of potential predators. Hunters often use decoys not only of the target species but also what they call "confidence decoy" species - birds that seem to flock together despite being of different species.

    Camouflage and field craft: A well camouflaged photographer using good field craft will greatly increase his/her chances of getting closer to, and remaining close to birds that might otherwise choose to leave.

         With experience, watchful attention, and an understanding of how all these factors can affect the flight response, the photographer can learn what to generally expect from various species of birds. With time it becomes easier to judge an individual bird's reactions and to know when to back off so they don't press the bird too much. It's all a part of the field craft a photographer needs to learn and apply.

    The Eyes of Birds:
         You need to keep in mind that a bird's dominant sensory input is it's vision, just as it is for humans. Birds see in color pretty much the same as humans, but their vision is much sharper than ours. They also spot movement easily, much the way we humans do. For example, if I'm trying to spot a bird in the trees, I don't waste time searching each limb. I just watch for movement, then I focus on the movement to see what it is. Birds do the same thing. Even when you are camouflaged, your movements can easily give you away. Keeping your hand, head and body movements to an absolute minimum will make a difference, and any movements you make should be very slow and smooth. (To learn more about the Vision of Birds, check out these web pages from Stanford University and Wikipedia.)

    Practical Considerations:
         Ultimately, the need for camouflage depends on the situation. I certainly don't use camo all the time. If I can get a great shot from the window of my truck, why bother with camo? Well, it seems that even in situations where it's not really necessary, a little camouflage still can make a difference. I often use the camo cover over my lens, even when shooting from the truck window. Anything that makes me or my big white lens look more like nature can help put the birds at ease. If it gives them the confidence to come even ten feet closer than they would otherwise, my photos can be that much better. Bird photography is difficult enough without making it harder for myself. Every little advantage I can get is worthwhile.

         Putting the birds at ease is an important point to keep in mind. You can get some interesting shots of birds really being themselves if they feel comfortable with their surroundings. Preening, scratching, stretching, courting displays and other behaviors will add to your photos, but birds don't do these things when they're on the verge of fleeing because they're nervous about your intrusion. Your being well camouflaged can allow the birds to do what they do naturally instead of nervously watching your every move.

    What Is Good Camouflage?
         Keep in mind that we're not talking about being camouflaged from human eyes. Military and survival camouflage means not being seen at all, not even by the amazing logic of the human brain. Surviving a sniper is a completely different thing from hiding from a bird. And with birds you don't have to be concerned about scent as you would with predators, or many mammal species as hunters have to keep in mind. With birds you only have to be very unobtrusive, not utterly disappear. That which easily fools a bird can be child's play for a human to detect.

         Blur your shape into the    surroundings. This is a camo netting body drape embellished with rafia & burlap threads
         So, what does being well camouflaged for bird photography entail? My best description is to blur yourself and equipment into your surroundings. Make yourself seem part of the landscape, nothing more than a clump of brush, a leafy extension of the existing foliage. Be completely unobtrusive, which not only involves camo, but also your actions and movements. Even with good camouflage, your location may be perfectly obvious to watchful human eyes, while at the same time you may simply not exist as far as the birds are concerned - unless you mistakenly call attention to yourself. I have given some inattentive folks quite the surprise when they suddenly realized they were standing next to someone they didn't see until I moved. It works for birds as well. I've had birds swim within three feet of me without their ever knowing I was there, and I wasn't inside a blind either.

    There are five elements to consider for good camouflage:
  • Texture
  • Pattern
  • Color
  • Shape/dimension
  • Natural movement

  • The combination of at least three of these elements is a great start. With four of them you can have very good camouflage. With all five you can have excellent camouflage.

         Consider that even though individual leaves are generally symmetrical, and may well be smooth and slick, or even shiny, the overall appearance of "foliage" is irregular and asymetrical. Camouflage is about looking like a whole mass of leaves or clump of grass. The visual effect of a whole conglomeration of leaves is completely different from an individual leaf.

         Simulating the texture, pattern and coloration of your surroundings is the beginnings of camouflage. If these were the only requirements though, your flowery Hawaiian shirt might be considered camouflage. You really need more than that. You also need to simulate the overall shape of something natural, to merge your shape into the shape of the landscape and foliage around you. This is the "blurring" effect I mentioned. You have to take away the edges of your shape so it is no longer recognizable as the human form. The same holds true for your camera, lens and tripod, etc. The one thing I have not found a practical way to "blur" is that big black round hole leading into the lens hood.

         Finally, there is the element of natural movement. By this I mean your camouflage having the ability to catch the breeze and flutter a bit, just as leaves and grasses would do. If the foliage around you is moving in the wind, and you are trying to look like that foliage, then you should also be moving in the wind, keeping yourself and your surroundings connected in a natural way.

    Military surplus camo netting
    used as a blind
          Take for example military camo netting, which is relatively heavy compared to the lightweight polyester die-cut camo materials you can buy these days. The netting is not only heavier, it's much more open, offering less wind resistance. Therefore it doesn't tend to move very much in a light breeze. Attaching some natural looking embellishments such as rafia and burlap threads to the netting can provide elements that will flutter in the wind as does grass or foliage. Adding clippings of surrounding vegetation will afford the same effect. Such additional elements as these also provide additional color, adds three-dimensional texture, and helps disquise the original outline shape.

          The new lightweight polyester die-cut camo materials will catch the wind more easily than heavy camo netting. Also, the small flaps of material created by the die-cuts give it an enhanced ability to flutter in a light breeze. This provides the desired natural movement, adding to the illusion of it being a leafy surface. The three-dimensionality of the die-cut flaps enhances the texture as well. Yet, even the die-cut materials can benefit from further imbellishments. An example of this is the tripod camo skirt I use. The photo at right shows it after I added tufts of rafia and burlap threads to simulate weeds, grasses, Spanish moss and other naturally occuring foliage.

    Old military field camo pattern and Vietnam era "tiger" camo pattern.

          As for color and pattern, you should use whatever blends with the landscape wherever you do your photography. There is an extensive commercial market for camo patterns created and licensed by competing companies. These patterns go into the clothing and equipment used by sportsmen and the military. I have looked at and used all sorts of camo patterns, from the old standard military field camo and tiger camo patterns to the commercial sportsmen patterns I just spoke of, and I have settled on one that works well for my bird photography.

      Camo patterns designed for wetlands use.   
          I very much prefer the Advantage Max-4 HD pattern, shown as pattern #1 in the chart at right. It is a popular camo pattern found in sportsmen's clothing designed for duck hunting, which is obviously conducted in the same sort of wetland terrain where you find many other birds. I find that such clothing is not only good camouflage, but also excellent for keeping warm and dry when out on my late fall and winter photography expeditions.

         The chart also shows other similar patterns that can work for marsh type vegetation. However, in my opinion these others either have too little contrast in the pattern to be effective, or they use too many golden/yellowish tones to blend well in the areas where I photograph. Pattern #5 in the chart is much too small and repeats itself too often to be believable as a texture.

    Making Effective Use of Camouflage:

         Using a Blind:
         Once you've decided which pattern might be most effective in your situation, you need to put your choice into practical use. Purchasing or making a photography blind is a good bet for getting closer to the birds. A blind doesn't necessarily need to be as well camouflaged as you need to be if you're just sitting out in the open. Generally they're shaped like a little hut or building, so it's not usually so well hidden from sight anyway. It's real purpose is to hide you, not itself. However, the more natural it can look, and the more it blends into the landscape, the more easily birds will accept its presence. If you can buy or make one in the camo pattern you've chosen for your needs, it will be all the better.

    Small blind in use at
    Lake Mattamuskeet NWR.
         You should keep in mind though that using a blind is not always practical or feasible. Some places (such as many state and national parks or refuges) won't let you set up a blind ahead of time and leave it, which pretty much defeats the whole premise of using a blind in the first place. If your situation permits however, a blind is a great way to provide the camouflage you need. In any event, it requires setting up and taking down, and carting around. No matter how light and portable it is though, it is still something else to be carried, packed or dragged along with your other photography equipment, or else it will require additional trips to deal with it separately from your other equipment. Even a blind can keep some birds away because it's not a completely natural part of their world, and birds can be wary of changes in their usual surroundings. Thus, the process of setting up a blind some distance from where you ultimately want it, and then over time moving it closer and closer to its final resting place is a way to acclimate the birds to its presence before you ever use it to take photos.

          Camouflaging Your Equipment:
         The obvious things like lenses, camera bodies and tripods are not the only items to consider here. The bright sun reflecting off your sunglasses, jewelry, watch or belt buckle can catch a birds eye and give you away. Simply removing these items or covering them with clothing is all you generally have to do there. For projects and tips on how to camouflage just about everything else, just look through the articles linked at the top of this page.

         Camo camera bags, a camouflaged equipment cart and other useful projects are covered in these how-to articles. Of particular interest should be the super-telephoto lens camo cover and the tripod camo skirt shown in the left photo. Not only do they mask my equipment, they serve as a partial blind for me as well. When I'm sitting behind the camouflaged tripod and camera, my shape is already partially masked, and much of my hand and arm movements are concealed. When I'm also camouflaged to match the camera and tripod, I visually merge with them into a very irregular, non-human shaped object that blends well into the surroundings. This is well demonstrated farther down this page in the next section, as well as in the article "Homemade Leafy Camo Suit".

      Camo pattern Advantage
    Max-4 HD used in sportsmen's winter clothing.

          Camouflage For The Photographer:
         With your equipment well camouflaged, it's time to make yourself blend into nature. A good start is some basic camo pattern clothing. The weather and the season will dictate what is reasonable and practical in this regard. The majority of my bird photography is done in the fall and winter, so I've gathered a wardrobe of warm, waterproof/water resistant camo clothing primarily designed for duck hunters. If you purchase quality clothing it will be lightweight in terms of bulk, yet provide plenty of warmth and will block the wind well. It will also be waterproof by default if it's made for duck hunting, and will come in patterns suitable for wetland camouflage.

         You can also buy hunting clothes in other camo patterns suitable for woodlands. With the right choice of camo pattern though, you can get by with only one pattern that will do a good job for pretty much all situations. That is one of the reasons I like the Advantage Max-4 HD pattern. It seems to be a very versatile camo pattern. For milder weather I often wear surplus military "fatigue" camouflage shirts as a light jacket. The material is too heavy to suit me for a "shirt", but it wears well as a light jacket over my regular shirts. You can do the same thing with long sleeved hunting shirts in the commercial camo patterns as well, using them as a light jacket over your other clothing to provide some camouflage when it's not so cold out. Camo pants are also available in lightweight materials for warmer weather.

          Too often though, the face and hands are overlooked. Hats, camo gloves and face masks are the final important details that can make or break attempts at effective camouflage. These items can be a problem though. In warm weather a face mask and gloves can quickly become uncomfortable.

    Gloves: Gloves hide your hands, or more accurately, they keep your hands from being flags waving around to give you away. If your gloves blend with your camo clothing, hand movements will be less obvious. They don't have to match your clothing camo pattern, but they should have a camouflage pattern of some sort. At the least you should wear black, dark olive green or brown gloves if you don't have camo gloves. Even cheap green cloth gardening gloves are better than nothing, but be sure you have a grip with them. Avoid mittens of any sort. You cannot handle cameras and lenses with mittens. It's asking for a disaster. You will drop something.

          Admittedly using gloves is problematic any time when handling a camera. When it's cold, the warmer gloves can be too thick to feel what you're doing. When it's not so cold, even lightweight gloves can be too warm. Finding gloves that let you feel what you're doing isn't an easy task. Choose a size that is as small and snug as will barely fit onto your hand. Any excess size, and therefore baggy looseness, will make them harder to use. If all else fails, you can try leather driving gloves, which are made of very thin, soft leather, and have lots of cutouts in them to let your hands breath. They're not really made for warmth, they're made for getting a good grip on the steering wheel. A good grip is a very important consideration when choosing gloves. I've tried on lightweight camo gloves that gave me a good tactile feel, but the material they were made from had virtually no grip at all. Try them on in the store and handle some slick objects to test them before buying them.

          The good news is that you can find both lightweight and cold weather camo gloves suitable for photography. I found several pair, some for warm weather and some for cold weather, by continually keeping an eye open and trying on anything that looked like it might be suitable.

    Homemade face mask made from cotton material.  
      Commercial leafy face mask of die-cut synthetic.
    Face masks: I don't take very well to polyester, preferring cotton for just about everything wearable. It seems though that most of the hunting/sporting face masks, head nets and balaclavas are made of some form of polyester - usually fleece. They're meant for winter hunting and keeping warm while snow skiing, etc. Warm is great for cold windy days in the winter, but for the rest of the year my facemask needs to be light and breathable. Having looked at every sort of face mask I could find in the stores, I ended up making my own from less than a yard of inexpensive cotton material I found at Walmart. It's not your usual camouflage pattern, just an olive green leafy foliage print that provides suitable camo blending.

          When selecting a face mask, be sure to get one that has ventilation around the mouth and nose. It's not for breathing exactly, but for letting your breath out and away from inside the mask. If this pathway is blocked, your warm breath will be forced up and out around the eye opening. On cold days, this warm, moist air will quickly and continually fog your viewfinder. It's a mistake I made when designing my mask, and I had to modify It. I simply cut an opening around the mouth area and sewed hanging flaps across the nose that draped down over the mouth opening. The flaps let my breath out directly so it's no longer forced up and out around my eyes. No more fogging. Because I cut out the flaps to look like leafy foliage, they add a 3D effect to the mask. This can plainly be seen in the enlarged photo. Unlike the commercial face mask at right, the top of mine is open, using just two thin straps criss-crossing the top of the head to hold it up. Thus it needs to be worn with a separate hat or hood.

    Hats: I have half a dozen camo hats of various kinds - a camo ball cap, wide-brims and roll-up "boonie" hats. I grab whichever hat suits my needs at that moment. The wide-brims are mainly for shading my face from the sun. The ball cap or any hard brim hat tends to get in the way when trying to see through the camera viewfinder, so I don't usually wear them when actually taking pictures. The soft brim "boonie" hats are better for that. They also work well when I'm wearing the face mask as seen in the photo above. I use one of the "boonie" hats as a basis for the camouflage hood that goes with my homemade leafy camo suit.

    Conventional Ghillie suits in coloration
    for a pine/cedar environment and a winter grasses environment.

    Are you curious where the term "Ghillie" suit came from? This link to Ghillie Suit on Wikipedia explains it.
    "Ghillie" type suits and camo drapes: My first attempt at a camouflage "suit" was this Camo Net Body Drape that I made from military netting in a "poncho" style. "Ghillie" type suits are generally classified as (1) a true Ghillie (for crawling), (2) a "bush rag" (a sparce poncho style) for ease of mobility on foot, or (3) a "Yeti" that looks like a big wooly booger. Some Ghillie suits are a pants and jacket two-piece affair, and some are a one-piece jump suit affair. Because of the way a true Ghillie suit is constructed (a base layer of material with netting attached which is then embellished with jute, burlap or synthetic threads) it is often inherently hot to wear (read the information from Wikipedia on Ghillie suits). The net drape in my article provides far more ventilation than a true Ghillie suit, though the net itself is made from rubberized material, which isn't necessarily comfortable in the warmest weather. My first foray into making my own Ghillie suits is covered in this 4-page article - Ghillie Suit Camouflage.

         Another consideration is ease of use. I find the military camo netting is easily caught on my equipment's buckles, knobs and latches, my wristwatch, clothing buttons and adjacent vegetation. It's not well suited for movement in the bush, but works well once I'm settled and quietly waiting for birds to come along. A "string" type Ghillie suit will also tend to behave the same way, catching on anything it can. The one truly outstanding attribute of the Ghillie suit is its ability to blend into the landscape when made of the correct color combinations for the terrain where it is used. The popularity of Ghillie suits is evident by their more frequent appearance of late in hunting/sporting supply stores and big chain stores. The "leafy" camo material is likewise becoming more popular, with shirts, jackets and pants appearing more often in those same outlets. Even "blanket" style products are becoming available that you can throw over yourself as well as over your camera and tripod. I find the blanket type coverings to be more of a hassle than anything else. It certainly is not the sort of thing the more "mobile" photographer would want to deal with, but once you're settled in a spot for awhile, it can be a useful option to consider. I made a small two-sided reversible Ghillie "blanket" as a sort of accessory throw cover that matches my Ghillie suits, which I can use as a quick cover, or to hide equipment.

      Tripod with camera and
    empty stool
    Tripod with camera and
         My net body drape is predominently green, even after being embellished with other materials, and works well in greener seasons, or around evergreen foliages in colder weather. It's unreasonable to expect anything that covers your arms and head in warm weather to be all that comfortable. However, my homemade leafy camo suit (shirt, pants and hat/hood) works better in more seasons because of its light weight, its breathability, and its color and pattern. As I mentioned earlier, when I can't use a blind, I use this suit along with the camo cover for my lens and the tripod camo skirt as my portable blind.

         While my camo patterned clothing does very well with the camouflaged lens and tripod, the more aggressive (and effective) camouflage afforded by my homemade leafy camo suit works even better. This is quite evident in the two photos at right - one without the photographer, and one with the photographer. Essentially, I become part of the camera and tripod camouflage. Even when I'm looking around, the head covering with the face flap velcro'ed shut is pretty effective at hiding me. Another good point about this sort of material is that contrary to what I expected, it very seldom becomes entangled in anything, making use with photography equipment a hassle-free affair.

          The suit is so effective by itself, I can even use it alone when shooting hand-held, so long as I use a similar camo covering for the smaller lens. It is comfortable, easy to put on and take off, even over shoes. The "jacket" (actually a shirt) and pants are both large enough I can wear them over a heavy winter hooded coat and insulated hunting overalls, yet light enough to wear in much warmer weather.

          You can purchase similar commercially made lightweight leafy camo clothing, but a suit like mine would cost over $200. I made my three piece leafy camo suit for less than $50, and that's including the lens cover and the tripod skirt too. If you would like to learn a little more about it, see my article on the "Homemade Leafy Camo Suit".

         I use this leafy camo suit jacket and hood in conjunction with the camo coverings on both my duckboat and kayak. The combination works well, as evidenced by the adjacent photo of my kayak camouflage project.

    The Snicker Factor:
         I will admit that I get stares often enough when I show up in my camo. On the other hand, I also get curious folks asking "Are you a professional wildlife photographer?" One birder I met along a trail said I was the first walking tree she'd ever seen, and then wanted to take some snapshots of me. Despite that curious meeting, birders in general "pooh pooh" camo as being utterly unnecessary, which is understandable. They only need to get close enough to see the bird with binoculars or a scope well enough to tell what it is. We photographers have to do considerably better than that for good photos, and anything we can do to get closer has to be worthwhile. To those who think camo is funny, or silly, or overkill, I let my photographs do the talking. I'm not out there to look good, I'm out there to get photos that look good. Besides, I get a great deal of satisfaction seeing birds up close, and good camo allows me to do that.