It’s been a while since we had a tip for beginners, so here is a quick post for the wildlife photographer. It’s not uncommon for friends of mine to see a photo like the one below and for them to ask where I took it. Quite frequently my response to them is, “From the window of my car.” They usually laugh thinking that I am joking and then I tell them that I’m serious. If you take many wildlife shots, you will quickly realize that oftentimes animals are acclimated to cars and if we stay inside them, we don’t stress them as much and they don’t flee as fast.
Thus, one of the most effective blinds from which to photograph can be your car which allows you to approach much closer than if you are outside walking. Taking photos of wildlife often involves using long lenses and of course, keeping them steady is critical. However, a tripod just isn’t handy or convenient when you are sitting in a car, so what to do then? Well, an indispensible tool in your kit is a bean bag.
While you could make your own, there are a number of bean bags available commercially with each one having some differences. With these differences, the cost can range from as low as $30 to up to $130. So to be of assistance, we have put together a list of some things to consider when choosing the right bag for you:
Table of Contents
1) Mounting Plate
Some bean bags, such as the Apex Bean Bag come with a plate on the top surface that allows a ball or gimbal head to be used. This adds to the cost and weight of the bag but it can make panning easier.
2) Weight When Filled
Most bean bags come empty and you fill them with the material of your choice such as beans, rice, buckwheat shells or plastic or styrofoam beads. An obvious advantage of this is for shipping and travel. It keeps the size and weight to a minimum until you need it and almost every country has beans or rice or something that you can use to fill it. What you use can be a matter of preference and convenience.
The heavier the fill, the more stable it can be, but obviously, it can be a burden to carry if needed. I have mine filled with buckwheat shells which are light, yet they absorb the vibrations well. Recently while out shooting, a friend picked up my bean bag to hand to me and he was surprised by how light mine was compared to those filled with beans.
3) Platform Dimension
The platform needs to be wide enough to cradle the lens and deep enough to balance it. If it’s too shallow in depth (front to back) then a large lens may not balance well on it and may pivot unwantedly. If you have large lenses such as 500mm f/4 or larger, then you want to make sure that the support is large enough to accommodate it.
It should have a non slip surface on top along with inner sides of the legs or saddle that are soft enough so as to not scratch the paint on your car. It needs to be durable enough to withstand the weight your camera/lens combo without stitches breaking or coming undone. Besides, you just never know what could happen to your bean bag. A friend of ours, Barbara Fleming who runs photo tours with another friend and guest writer, Russ Burden, was on a safari recently and experienced the following:
Now most of us will never have a cat try to let the beans out of our bag, but durability is a good thing!
5) Water resistance
Lastly, consider a water resistant or waterproof bag because if the bag gets wet, your beans may get moldy and pretty nasty. If your bag isn’t water resistant, you can buy water repellent spray and treat the bag yourself.
The filler in the bags helps to dampen the vibrations to steady the lens and camera from shake. If you have doubts, rest a lens on the window of the car and take a shot, then use a towel or some other cushion and take another shot, compare the two and you will see a difference. Bean bags are great for shooting from car windows, but also are handy for making a rest on the hood of a car, a fence or a pole. They are also good for shooting from the ground to get a low perspective.
I like the bag that I have from The Vest Guy which is also available through B&H photo. It’s affordable, durable and the platform is large enough to rest my d4/500mm combo without holding it, thus giving my arms a break and making it easier to shoot for extended periods of time. Panning is a bit of a challenge but if I anticipate that I may need to pan, then I will sometimes put my left hand underneath the lens and rest my hand on the bag so that it is ready to move if needed.
I am embarrassed to admit that in the past, I usually just threw a sweatshirt or jacket over the car window and used it to rest the lens. Then a couple of months ago I finally used a real bean bag and I immediately realized what I have been missing. It gives your arms a break and makes for more comfortable shooting while at the same time minimizing camera shake. So if you don’t currently use a bean bag to steady your lens when shooting from a vehicle, you gotta make one or buy one but either way, get one. You won’t regret it.
I’m adding a comment well after the original article for info for those who may come here after me. I use a variety of options in this area.
An empty beanbag filled with beans or rice is great for national or international travel. I have a smaller travel bean bag I use for this and it works great for rental cars, tour bus, safari jeep, etc.
My main bean bag (it lives in my truck) is larger and filled with plastic beads. I shoot in rain/snow and it’s not possible to know moisture won’t get into the bag from weather, or AC. Plastic beads won’t absorb water or mold, as will any natural fill. Even if the material itself is “waterproof” these are not seam seeled, nor do they have waterproof enclosures, so I can’t make sure moisture doesn’t get in. True waterproof bags are made with different materials, all seams are tape sealed, and the enclosures are quite different – to assure waterproofness. While I have used and worked with a number of “weather proof” bean bags, none of them are truly water proof, so if you choose to use natural fill, for cost or weight reasons, be very careful if/when that bag gets wet. In truth, even the coatings used on most waterproof canvases or manmade materials will wear off with use. Just a wise heads up on this.
The other option I love and works well for travel, too, if you have the space for it, is to use a big hunk of closed cell foam, wrapped in soft cloth. These are really light, easy to move quickly, more protective of automotive surfaces (depending on the cloth used). I use squares produced by Domke that are soft on one side and water resistent on the other, with velcro in the corners. They are great for protecting gear in transit, but then I use them to enclose the foam, so vehicle and camera gear is not scratched up, but is a quick support.
Practical points – the bigger the better, relative to the lenses you use. A 600mm is my main lens, so having a big base is helpful, plus, fuller and heavier makes for a more solid platform. Also, I like to rotate the lens support around, so that it provides two solid points of contact with whatever beanbag I am using. That said, if you have a big heavy beanbag, it takes some effort/strength to get it into place – so can be tough to get in place quickly. If I am driving around slowly, then it’s easy to keep the big bean bag in place. If I am driving around at regular speeds, I don’t keep the big bean bag in place. If I see something quickly, then the foam is my best option – or miss getting the shot.
Can you tell me where I can order the buckwheat shell ? I tried different places but having difficulties with the order. I am from Canada. Thank you. Pat
Pat, try buckwheathull.com but I’m not sure if they ship to Canada. If not, they might have a suggestion for you. Rob, at thevestguy.com ships to Canada but it is a bit pricey, but if you can’t find anything else, they can help you. Another option if you are looking for light weight material – styrofoam “beans/beads” for a bean bag. Good luck!
Thanks for the shoutout, Tom.
We sell the bean bags empty with the option to order them pre-filled. BuckwheatHull.com is a another resource. Often times the shipping is just as much as the product does so it pays to order in bulk. For smaller quantities you can sometimes find them on amazon.
Or, just get a fill from a local grocery, or bulk food, store.
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My Safari Sack filled with beans is really heavy. Filled with buckwheat hulls, it’s very light but not as stable. I have found that sunflower seeds make a good compromise.
Thank you Winston for another good alternative.
Styrofoam (polystyrene) beads can be hard to source – if you’re looking for some, you can find the little bb-sized round pellets (about 1/8 inch, 3-4 mm wide) at ahhprods.com. We’ve had photographers get our beads and have been satisfied :) Usually sold in 4.5 and 9 cubic feet, but you can always request smaller sizes!
What size beanbag do you use?
Thanks – T.J.
TJ, I use the large size bean bag from The Vest Guy. It works well with both a 300mm/2.8 and a 500mm/4. If you have a 600mm, you might want the extra large. You could call them and they would be happy to give you guidance based on your needs and lenses.
Tom great article! From trying wildlife photography I find your tip on using the car as a blind to be very true. I am still surprised as I see a bird on a fence post sit still while a vehicle passes with in 10 feet, but a person walking cause the bird to fly off when they are 50 yards away.
Thanks again for a great tip!
I know this question is slightly off topic.
I will be travelling to several National parks this summer and would like, if possible, a lens recommendation.
I have a Nikon d600 with a 24mm prime lens and the 28-300 kit lens. I would like a lens for wildlife photography.
I have seen Nasim’s review of lens for wildlife photography (photographylife.com/best-…hotography) and he really likes the Nikkor 300mm f4 However this review was written before the new 80-400mm lens was released and comparing the MTF charts they both look very good with maybe a slight edge to the 300mm before adding a teleconverter.
The 80-400mm has the advantage of being the only lens I would need to carry on hikes, while If I get the 300mm I would also would probably have to carry the 28-300mm lens as well.
So my question is do you think the new 80-400mm is a good lens for wildlife photography especially it autofocus speed, and its sharpness or would you recommend getting the 300mm f4 with the 1.4 teleconverter.
Josh, we are working on the 80-400 review so stay tuned and take what I say as very, very preliminary and subject to change. In short, for wildlife, the 300/4 and 1.4x TC combo is sharper and would be our choice. Obviously, the convenience of a zoom is always a plus, but it usually comes at a cost. What I can tell you is that the new 80-400 does focus faster than the old. As for the image quality, the edge would go to the 300/4 combo.
That said, we have requested another copy of the 80-400 to test. We are not convinced that the copy that we first received was a good copy. It was soft at the long end. Keep in mind that more often than not in wildlife photography, you will be shooting at the long end and if that is the case, then the ability to zoom becomes less of an issue. Think of how you usually shoot the 28-300 lens you currently have when using it for wildlife and my guess is that you shoot at the 300 end most of the time. Obviously, it is not always the case. Also, as you consider it, think how often that at 300mm, you still crop your image to get closer.
I had a similar decision to make – buy a 200-400/4 or a 30o/2.8? After some time, I decided on the 300/2.8 because it takes teleconverters better. Have I wished I had a 200-400 instead? Yes, at times, but I really haven’t lost sleep over it and overall, I wouldn’t change my decision if I had to do it again.
I hope that gives you some food for thought. If you can hold on for a bit, hopefully, we will have a better feel for the new 80-400 and will get the review out before you leave. Either way, have a great summer!
I really LOVE my 200-400 however and would not change it for a second. The only thing that would be better….Nikkor to make a 400-600mm with the same speed and sharpness….and not too much heavier!
Barbara, I like your thinking on that 400-600 – good luck with them making one. You are right, the 200-400 is a great lens. I know a photographer that switched from Nikon to Canon, but kept his 200-400 – just in case he switched back – he loved it that much. I also have talked with more than one canon shooter that covets the Nikon 200-400. Definitely a great lens.
Interesting, effective and simple- great write up, Tom!
Fantastic photo – by anyone’s standards.
Thank you Scott