Tips On Getting Closer To Your Subjects (Field Craft)

     This article applies particularly to photographing birds, since that is the main focus of my photography, though it can generally apply to other wildlife as well. Another of my articles, "Good Camouflage and Its Use in Bird Photography", provides a detailed discussion of the application of camouflage, and some insight on how and why birds react differently to the human presence. Reading that article will provide a good basis of understanding on which to effectively apply the tips discussed in this article on the field craft of getting closer to birds.

Photography From A Vehicle: General Tips -
    Wildlife refuges, sanctuaries and parks most often provide this sort of opportunity. Keep these tips in mind -
  • Parking on the highway shoulder in situations where the subjects are situated along a busy highway with traffic zipping by can be a dangerous affair. The air pressure of cars and trucks flying by on the highway can and will rock your vehicle. Avoid shooting while your vehicle rocks to avoid image blur.
  • More likely there will be trails and drives provided away from traffic where quiet photography is much easier. Thoughtfully sharing space at busy times with other visitors is a two-way street. Other visitors who hop out of their cars to get closer with their pocket cameras will scare off your subjects, which can make your day frustrating. A polite reminder to them is not out of order.
  • On dry dusty roads, remember to keep other windows shut to minimize the dust inside the vehicle.
  • Bean bag articles:
    •  Bean bags
    •  Butterfly Bean Bag and Flying Saucer Ball Head
    •  Detailed instructions for making the Butterfly Bean Bag
  • Camera/lens support -
    • Bean Bag: By far the most cost effective, easy-to-use and practical support for your camera and lens when shooting from your vehicle window is the ubiquitous bean bag. It's easily placed on and removed from the window opening, won't scratch or bang up your vehicle interior, your equipment or yourself, and can be stored out of the way in the floorboard, dash or seat. Use a bean bag large enough and tall enough to put your eyepiece at eye level without you having to "slouch" down to use the viewfinder. "Slouching" can quickly cause neck and back pain, and fatigue. Using a power window to raise the bean bag is not recommended. It was designed to hold up the window glass, not 20 pounds of bean bag, camera and lens. Stacking a small bean bag on top of a large one can help, but increases the chances something will slip.
    • To make panning and tilting easier, particularly with a large telephoto, a flat plate with panning head and/or ballhead can be used atop a large bean bag. This is a costly addition, but it will raise the eye level of the camera on a bean bag that is not tall enough.
    • A very low cost solution is the "Flying Saucer Ball Head" project. This simple device will raise the camera eye level while providing a smooth and easy pan and tilt function. Add a quick release clamp compatible with your equipment to the Flying Saucer Ball Head for added ease of use and the option to better balance the lens on the mount.
    • Mechanical supports: In lieu of a bean bag, there are mechanical supports available you can attach to your door or window to mount lens and camera, but these are more expensive, cumbersome and complicated to handle and use.

The Field Craft Of Photography From A Vehicle:
  • Remember to try positioning your vehicle so the light is coming from the optimum direction. If you are familiar with the area, plan ahead for the time of day that will give the right lighting for shooting from the driver's door (if you're the driver as well as the photographer).
  • Drive as slowly as you can to avoid tire/gravel noise so you can listen as well as watch for your subjects. Stop often to better hear.
  • Turn off the engine while shooting to avoid unnecessary vibrations, and so you can hear better to assist in locating subjects.
  • As a rule, stay inside the vehicle. Getting out usually spooks the birds. On occasion you may be able to get out on the side away from your subjects and shoot from the hood or rear of your vehicle with a bean bag support while using the vehicle as a visual shield. If the birds see only your head/shoulders, it may appear to them the same as if you're in the vehicle window.
  • Some birds are more skiddish than others. If you pull over and stop they sometimes move away or leave altogether. In this case, try stopping well short of the birds location (50 yards or more) where they're still in view. Give them the time to realize you are not all that close before you begin SLOWLY creeping closer, 5 feet or less at a time, waiting 15-30 seconds between movements. Occasionally stop completely for a minute or two before continuing. Patience is the key the same as when you're on foot. Eventually you may get within good shooting distance for your lens without them being completely spooked.

The Field Craft Of Approaching On Foot:
  1. The number one rule is always use PATIENCE. If you cannot muster patience, you will never become successful at bird photography.
  2. If at all possible, pick a spot, settle down and wait for the birds to come to you instead of trying to creep up on them. Wisely choosing a location that you've scouted before, where you know the birds like to congregate, will net you better photos with less effort than chasing them down will ever provide.
  3. Birds are creatures of habit. They will return to favorite perches, favorite feeding spots and favorite bathing locations. Use that knowledge to your advantage.
  4. Be quiet (no talking), walk silently, move slowly and stop often to listen and scan. Even if you're headed to a particular location, take time along the way if possible to watch and listen for the unexpected opportunity.
  5. If you're on the move, the birds will most likely know you're coming before you ever spot them, with or without the best camouflage in the world.
  6. Camouflage articles:
    •  Leafy Camo Suit
    •  Super-telephoto Lens Camo Cover
    •  Tripod Camo Skirt
    •  Ghillie Suits with Ghillie lens covers and tripod skirts
  7. Use good camouflage anyway. Even simple natural colors (greens and browns) will be better than flashy colors. Bird photography is difficult enough without making it harder for yourself.
  8. If you spot a subject(s), pause to assess the situation. Does it look nervous with your presence? Is it busy feeding and hasn't noticed you? Are there others to alert the group to danger? Do you have any cover to use for an approach? Formulate a plan of approach before you go charging in. Make a judgement as to camera settings and lens and be prepared to shoot.
  9. If you are sure you've been spotted, pause to see what the subject will do. Allow time for the subject to calm and hopefully accept your presence. If it settles down, approach slowly, pausing as you go, continually assessing its reactions.
  10. If you are sure you've been spotted, take shots if you wish even before getting to the optimum distance or location. Sometimes something is better than nothing. This pause may also help to calm the subject, as well as acclimate it to the shutter noise.
  11. By ocassionally moving parallel to the subject (approaching more indirectly), instead of continually heading directly toward it, you may seem less threatening to the subject.
  12. Many photographers advise not to continually stare at your target, assuming that this may be construed as a predatory approach. Look away often and try to appear more casual.
  13. If you judge it to be overly agitated, sit down and wait. Allow time for it to realize you are no threat. If it goes about normal activity, you might try once more to get a little closer.
  14. If you reach your desired shooting spot and the subject has not fled, then settle in, keeping your movements slow and make no more movements than necessary. Sit, lie down, or position yourself for your desired method of shooting. Making yourself appear smaller is always a good idea. Give the subject time to be more comfortable with your presence. Take the time to choose your poses and shots. Learn to anticipate what it will do next based on your observations of its activities. This is when you often get the best photos.
  15. Often making an approach by crawling works well. This is a slow and tediuos process, but works amazing well for many ground-based birds such as shorebirds or other ground feeders that spend much of their time walking around instead of flitting about. Again, patience is the key, and camouflage colors help to make you look less threatening. This smaller profile and lack of the upright human shape should also make you appear less threatening. Move and pause, move and pause, just like approaching on foot.
  16. For water birds (both swimmers and waders) a crawling approach not only helps get you closer, but will provide that low angle view that works so well with water, where there are no grasses or weeds to obstruct the shot. Low angle shots and subject's eye level shots are more interesting and intimate than looking down on them.

Photos taken from a drifting kayak
The Field Craft Of Approaching On Water (by canoe or kayak):

     Many photographers claim that birds are less threatened by humans when they are approached from the water. I cannot say from my own experience whether or not that notion is valid. I've had mixed results paddling in my kayak. The same is true from my small duckboat (with a quiet trolling motor). Even being fully camouflaged (boat and all) seems to make little difference. I've been five feet from a singing Red-winged Blackbird, within 30 feet of a feeding Osprey, and within 100 feet of an adult Bald Eagle while paddling in my kayak. On other occasions I couldn't get within 500 feet of either with the same boat. I'm sure the variables listed in my article on using camouflage in bird photography are at play here. A factor based solely on approaching from water (whether wading or in a boat) is not included in that list, since I have no convincing data that the whole notion of "approaching from water" in and of itself is a factor.

     It does appear however that if you are using a kayak, canoe or other small boat to reach your subjects, there is a wrong way and a right way to approach. My experience shows that a slow drifting approach will often work amazingly well. To do this, paddle your kayak into a position some distance from your subject to take advantage of the prevailing breeze and/or current, allowing it alone to slowly carry you toward the subject. From that point try to avoid paddling at all, although an occasional slow, low angled touch up stroke to keep your boat facing in the right direction doesn't seem to harm anything. I keep the paddle lying crosswise in front of me and use one hand on the paddle for the touch-up "strokes" while keeping the camera up with the other hand. Obviously you can't do much of a stroke with one hand on a kayak paddle, but it can be enough to help keep the boat oriented toward the subject. Just don't flail your paddles about in the air, which is the whole point of this exercise. In this fashion, allow the boat to slowly drift toward your subject - as slowly as possible. Keep your camera up in front of your face and begin shooting once you are at an acceptable, though not necessarily optimal distance. Do not move around, just keep your face behind the camera and snap away. As you drift closer the shots will get better and tighter until you're either too close for the lens, or the bird decides to leave.

     Using this method (with neither the boat nor myself camouflaged at all) I've actually drifted until the bow beached itself on the sandbar only 5 to 10 feet from where the birds were gathered. Though some left as I approached, many of them stayed, and I sat there picking and choosing shots until I tired of it. I'm sure it all depends on the particular species, the conditions and location, and other factors. In any event, common sense would tell you it should work better than flailing an 8-foot stick about in the air while approaching. Who wouldn't want to get out of the way of anything such as that?

Kayak Camouflage articles:
•  Lightweight Camo For Kayak
•  Camo Cover For Kayak
•  Kayak Cover For Duckboat
•  Revised Duckboat Camo
     One last note here on the kayak camouflage. The purpose of (and best use for) the camouflage is when you've picked a good location and "parked" the boat in order to sit and wait for your subjects to come by, essentially using it as a sort of blind. Just as when on foot, stalking your subject in a kayak isn't necessarily the best use of camouflage, though it hopefully helps you appear more "natural", and therefore less of a threat. I think the movements of arms and paddle does more to attract the birds attention than anything else. My point is that you should never underestimate the issue of unnecessary movement when approaching and photographing birds, whether in your vehicle, on foot, or in a boat. Movement is the "big giveaway".