When we were kids we all loved to play hide and seek. Finding a good hiding place was not always easy. Hiding from wildlife can be just as difficult, but doing it well can improve your chances of getting some truly amazing photos. The debate about the effectiveness of camouflage for wildlife photography seems to vary from what you read to who you talk to. It’s funny because the camouflage clothing industry thrives with the hunting community who have seemingly accepted its effectiveness for years. I’ve personally experienced the effectiveness of camouflage use in wildlife photography and don’t need much convincing. I don’t think that visual camouflage will make you a better photographer but if used properly it will improve your opportunities.
Camouflage is defined as an attempt to hide or disguise the presence of a person, animal, or object. Camouflage alters or obscures the appearance of an object in order to conceal its location. My normal limited attempt at visually camouflaging myself can be seen in the photo above. The extent to which camouflage can be taken can be seen in the photo below.
Most animals and birds can see well. Some birds, like hawks, can see exceptionally well even from far distances. What animals and birds do not always do well is clearly interpret and understand what they are seeing. Animals and birds need to use all of their senses to determine whether something is a threat or not. Movement, scent , and sound as well as sight are important to their ability to decide if something is a threat in their environment. Eliminating or confusing their sense of sight is helpful in confusing their overall ability to perceive you as a threat. This is why visual camouflage is a big advantage. Animals and birds may see something, but not necessarily know what it is, therefore being more tolerant of it. Lack of movement or how we move is also an important part of camouflaging ourselves. Moving slowly and in a random fashion rather than directly at the subject is an effective adjunct to the use of visual camouflage. The variety and diversity of ways to visually camouflage yourself are endless. From a simple drab brown T-shirt to a full blown blind, each form of camouflage has its time and place. We will discuss two basic ways to visually camouflage ourselves, clothing and blinds.
Open any hunting catalog or search on the internet and you will soon discover that there are no shortage of camouflage clothing manufacturers and retailers. The variety is confusing and overwhelming. I think as with most purchases let budget be your guide. Quality clothing will fit better and last longer. I have a tendency to buy from Cabelas or Academy, but there are many more to choose from. Academy provides mostly the Magellan Outdoors and Game Winner brands which are lesser quality but also more economical. Cabelas on the other hand will have a larger variety and selection of higher quality but at higher prices. I prefer Realtree camo patterns for clothing, with patterns specific to the surroundings you photograph most in. Here’s a link to the multitude of patterns available, http://www.cabelas.com/product/Camo-Pattern-Buyers-Guide.
Something to consider are 3D camo patterns. Generally, they are leafy patterns with 3D leaves attached to give texture and more effectively break up your human outline.
Another similar 3D option is a ghillie suit. A Ghillie suit is a type of camouflage clothing designed to resemble the background environment such as foliage, snow or sand. Typically, it is a net or cloth garment covered in loose strips of burlap, cloth or twine, sometimes made to look like leaves and twigs, and optionally augmented with scraps of foliage from the area. The ghillie suit was developed by Scottish gamekeepers as a portable hunting blind. Personally, if you are looking for the most effective form of camouflage then a ghillies suit is it. There is a reason ghillie suits are the choice of scout snipers around the world for field work. If it’s good enough camouflage when your life depends on it, then it’s good enough for wildlife photography. Ghillies suits are very good at breaking up the human form and disguising our outlines. Most ghillie suits will come with a gun wrap. When used on a telephoto lens as seen in the first photo in this post they provide good concealment all by themselves. In my experience you should reserve ghillies suits for times when you need maximum camouflage, maximum mobility, and are on more private than public land. Frankly the site of someone in a full ghillie suit can be frightening to the uninitiated.
Last you may consider some type of head cover or mask. Facial recognition is important to animals. I tend to find these too visually restrictive and opt for a ball cap in a natural color. Camouflaging your body and leaving your human head flapping in the breeze does decrease the overall effectiveness.
If you’re not into the camouflage look then a good alternative that is relatively cheap is to purchase a portable popup hunting blind. These are widely available through the suppliers mentioned above. They come in a number of sizes and shapes. They are easy to set up and take down. They provide good concealment and some modest protection from the weather.
I prefer to use these in situations that are more static and less mobile. I have a friend who allows me access to his ranch for photography. I set up the blind in a static location with a good view of a water source and leave it there for weeks at a time. This allows the birds and animals who come to water there to habituate to its presence. It is very comfortable. I sit in a chair and use my tripod and gimbal head for lens support. There is room for a small cooler which makes being a patient photographer a lot easier.
The second option for blinds if you want to remain more mobile is to use a lenshide by Lenscoat. They come in summer and winter weights, and a variety of patterns. They are more portable than a popup blind and can be carried in a belt pouch that is supplied with the product.
Playing hide and seek was fun as a child. There is no reason it can’t be just as fun as an adult wildlife photographer. Make yourself less visible and you’ll become a better wildlife photographer.