Very few animal species see humans as prey. Being at the top of the food chain definitely has its advantages! However, like with many good things, there are downsides as well. Most animals are deeply and instinctively afraid of humans. For wildlife photography, that can be quite a challenge.
To get around this problem, you can borrow a solution from the animal kingdom: camouflage! When you learn how to blend into nature, you’ll be less likely to scare away your subjects – which is good both for them, and for your photos. In today’s article, I want to provide camouflage tips for wildlife photographers based upon my extensive experience.
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Camouflage Is Not Always Necessary – And Sometimes It’s Detrimental
To kick things off, I should mention that wildlife photographers obviously do not need to employ camouflaging techniques all the time. You don’t need to look like a member of the Special Forces to take good wildlife photos. Nor do you need to spend all day sitting in a bird blind, staring at an empty tree branch.
The most obvious example is urban wildlife photography. For better or worse, such animals have adapted to live alongside people, even feeding on our leftovers. They stop being scared of our everyday behavior. (This is scientifically referred to as habituation.) So, just go out into the city and wear the most ordinary clothing you can find, and act normal – or at least, as normal as you can as a photographer.
That said, you should still make sure to use careful techniques even for urban wildlife, or other wildlife that isn’t very scared of you. The key is to pretend to be completely disinterested! Avoid walking directly toward the bird or whatever animal you’re photographing. And, ironically, don’t make any particularly careful movements.
Think I’m exaggerating? Try it yourself. Go up to a common bird in your local park. When people walk past it, it almost lets them step on its head. And now you. Just approach it, looking at it intently, and it’ll fly or hop away. Even the most relaxed wildlife will act cautiously if you are blatantly focusing your attention on it.
Once, my friends and I got a tip about a Saker Falcon nest near a bike and skating park. While we were in the car and people passed by on the path, the Falcons sat quietly on the nest. But as soon as we got out, wearing camouflage jackets and pants, panic set in. These intelligent birds saw us as a threat specifically because our outfits and behavior were outside the norm. It didn’t matter that it was a camouflage print – it made us stand out like neon signs.
Different Types of Camouflage for Photographers
The situations I’ve described so far are common for urban wildlife photography, and other wildlife that is habituated to people. But it’s true that, more often, camouflaging techniques will help rather than hurt your chances of success. Here are the most important types that you need to know.
1. Your Car – a Portable Hide
The second simplest form of camouflage (right after “no camouflage”) is your car. Most animals don’t see you as a human when you’re in a car. While inside a car, you have a better chance of getting closer to wildlife. Even a slightly open window doesn’t usually trigger a panic reaction.
Believe it or not, birds can even distinguish between different cars, and they’ll be more relaxed if you’re familiar to them. Last week, my friend showed me his favorite Heron site in the southeastern Czech Republic. When we arrived there in his Škoda car, the birds were completely calm. But when more of us arrived a few minutes later in a Volkswagen, panic broke out. It took several hours for the birds to realize that the German Volkswagen was just as harmless as the Czech Škoda.
2. Fashion Sense
Many wildlife photographers use various camouflage pants, shirts, and even hats and gloves. I am one of them – my wardrobe is so camouflaged that I sometimes think my closet is empty!
Although camouflage patterns can work well for photographing mammals, I don’t find it to be a great help for bird photography. Fooling a bird’s keen eyesight and outsmarting their sharp brains (yes, birds are quite smart) usually requires a different level of camouflage.
Let me give you an example. Near the village of Mindo in Ecuador, I discovered a nest of Golden-headed Quetzals in an old, rotting tree. At the time, I was dressed all in camouflage, with a hood over my head and a net draped in front of my face. I waited motionlessly for the parents to bring food to the chicks. After a while, the male flew in with food in its beak, then looked right at me. Its glance spoke for itself. Although birds do not have well-developed facial expressions, I could read “amateur…” written all over its face. For reference, I looked about like this:
An alternative option, which is a bit more effective for skittish birds, is the so-called ghillie suit. It works especially well if your goal is to photograph mammals. Depending on the wind direction, you will be practically invisible to mammalian senses. Birds can still pick them out with their much better color vision than ours, but it’s a step in the right direction.
By the way, I don’t recommend wearing camouflage in certain areas, simply as a safety precaution. When I tore my pants in the field in Colombia, I had to buy new ones. I was recommended military digital pattern pants by Colombian Army soldiers. They said that both they and the FARC guerrilla units use a slightly different pattern, so neither side should shoot at me. That made me feel better… to some extent.
3. Camouflage Nets
So, what do I use when I really want to blend in with nature? I usually work up from basic methods to more advanced camouflage. The simplest thing I use, as I mentioned a moment ago, is a combination of camouflage clothing and a full-body net (shown below). It’s not going to convince the most skeptical birds, but it will still help. At a minimum, even if the animal registers you, they will not necessarily think of you as a human, so you may be able to get a bit closer.
Camouflage nets are very versatile. I will sometimes even drape mine over my car if I expect to be sitting in place for a while. You can also use it to make an improvised hide, rather than draping it directly over yourself.
This being the modern world, there are also camouflage nets designed for photographers, with a hole for your lens to shoot through. As well as similar products for hunters that can serve a similar purpose.
4. A Dedicated Hide
The most extreme option to conceal your presence (short of setting up a remote camera trap) is to use a hide. Unlike any of the options so far, hides will not only allow you to blend into the environment, but also conceal your movements. That’s because hides are essentially pop-up tents or even permanent structures that you can remain inside.
Your movement will be perfectly hidden by a photo tent, so as long as you stay quiet, even the most skittish animals will relax. In terms of specific products, there are many possibilities because the needs of photographers and of hunters are overlapping. That said, I recommend getting something with adequate windows for your lens, so that you can scope the environment and compose your photos easily.
Tents are also nice because they provide some protection from the weather. Keep in mind, however, that unlike camping tents, most hides (whether photography or hunting) usually don’t come with a floor as standard. Sometimes there’s an optional one. But I actually prefer it without. The lack of a floor allows you to pick up and move the hide while you’re inside, and you can easily set up right in a shallow stream bed, for example. I do both those things quite often.
My final tip is to leave the hide set up in the environment for long periods of time, if you can. Animals can be wary of new things in their environment. Set up the hide somewhere with adequate food, water, and (for bird photography) perching spots. Keep it there for a few days, weeks, or months, and the animals will behave like it’s not there at all.
Another advantage of the solid hides is that they can be left in place for extended periods of time. If the situation allows it, of course. After all, animals are not only afraid of humans, but also of new things in their environment. If you leave the hide in a suitable place for, say, the entire spring, the animals will learn to ignore it completely. Give the birds a reason not only to ignore the blind, but to seek it out, and you’ll have a photo feast. That reason can be food, water, nesting or perching opportunities.
As you can see, there’s more to camouflage than just wearing a green and brown patterned shirt. If you want to take photos of skittish wildlife, you may need to dive into the world of camouflage netting and even dedicated hides. Conversely, sometimes the best camouflage is no camouflage, particularly for wildlife that is already habituated to humans.
What is your experience with camouflage and blending with nature? I would appreciate your questions or stories in the comment section below.