The Car Blind

BigHorn Sheep, Bandlands
Big Horn Sheep, Badlands

Wildlife photography presents the nature photographer with many challenges. One of the foremost is getting close enough to the animal to create an effective image, while not disturbing the animal, affecting it’s behavior, or putting oneself in danger. Because wildlife is often most sensitive to the presence of things that look like humans or other large mammals, when possible many wildlife photographers will make use of a blind–a general term for any sort of structure, tent, or what have you, that renders the photographer less visible. Numerous styles of blinds exist, some are as simple as camouflaged tarps that disguise the form of the photographer, while some are elaborate structures. While dedicated blinds have their place, I’ve often had good success photographing using my car as a blind.

Much to my surprise, many animals (and I’ve observed this both with birds and large mammals) are much less frightened by the appearance of a car or truck than they are by a human figure.

A little preparation goes a long way. There’s nothing more frustrating than driving through a beautiful wilderness area, spotting wildlife, and finding that you’ve left your camera in the trunk. I tend to travel with two cameras. When wildlife opportunities seem likely, I’ll be sure to have a body with a long lens just behind my seat so I can reach it in a hurry.

Blue Egret, Big Lagoon Park
Blue Egret, Big Lagoon Park

Having spotted a subject, my first task is to figure out where and how to put the car in a favorable orientation. I don’t slam on my brakes, often this means I’ll need to pass the animals and make a U-turn to approach. If I do need to turn around, I’ll go a fair ways past the animals before turning around to avoid attracting the animals’ interest.

In finding a place to stop my car, I’lll look for a wide place out of danger from traffic (no photograph is worth risking your life for!), with me on the far side of the car from the animal, and preferably one with a bit of room to adjust the position of the car as time goes on. While being away from the animal in the car reduces the range of directions I can shoot, it also means that I can get out of the car and shoot (if I decide to) without making myself visible to the animal. If it’s close to the road, I’ll start a fair ways from the animal, moving the car a little closer–infrequently so that the animal has time to get comfortable with my presence. (My Prius helps here, I can often move the car using only the electric motor, which is very quiet.) Both the egret and the bighorn images here were taken after a fair bit of working my way closer to the animals.

Once you’ve stopped the car, start shooting. Shooting with a big telephoto lens from a car is almost as effective as putting up a tripod in terms of getting gawkers–attracting other other cars and people to join you. And almost as a rule those folks won’t bother staying in their cars.

The bighorn image was shot with a full-frame camera and the Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS USM Telephoto Lens for Canon SLR Cameras the egret image was shot with a reduced-frame sensor and the Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM Super Telephoto Lens for Canon SLR Cameras.

Neither image is greatly cropped, yet in both cases the animals are uninterested in my presence. I know that wouldn’t be the case if I’d been on foot.

Again, be very careful. Wildlife present a big shiny distraction to the driver, both to yourself and the to other vehicles around you. Remember that your first priority must be the safety of yourself and that of the vehicles around you. Shoot only when you’ve gotten yourself safely stopped and you’re into a safe location. Once you’ve done that, you’ll likely have a great shooting opportunity.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Great read and very informative. I recently experienced this first hand on the way home from work. I had spotted a family of deer just off the road in a parking lot. As I drove nearer to the family they seemed completely unfazed by the cars presence. They were still a good 75 yards off from me or so. I did have my camera on the passenger seat but I decided to get out for a better shot.

    Bad idea. As soon as I was clear of the car they spotted me and scattered off. It was obvious they were far more threatened by my figure than my car. It seemed quite crazy at the time, your post is excellent confirmation.

  2. great passion is a strong requirement in this genre of photography. i admire those poeple who show the world really “wild” wildlife photos.

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