Bird Photography in Floating Blinds

June 14, 2019

Here is a new update posted on July 17, 2019.  I have been using two Mr JanGear floating blinds lately.  I like both version 1 and the much different version 2.  Of the two, I prefer Version 2.  Instead of one floatation tube full of air in version 1, the new version 2 has two floatation tubes that are blown up with a air pump separately.  I feel having two tubes is safer.  If one should suddenly deflate, you still have the other.  Version 2 comes with nice support poles for the blind covering that are quite solid.  However, I tend to not use the support poles and prefer to let the camo covering rest on me to reduce the blind area above the water.  Whether blind support poles or not, I find birds are easier to approach than the much larger floating blind I built with the tremendous aid of master floating blind guy Al Charnley.many years ago.  Mr JanGear blinds are portable and incredibly light.  I can easily hold up a blind in each hand.  They are ideal when you must travel far to the shooting site, or travel with them by car or air.

 

 Dixie about to enter Mr JanGear floating blind version 2

 What version 2 looks like without the cover.  A Kirk BH-1 ballhead and Wimberley sidekick supports the Nikon 200-400mm lens with 1.4x.

 John showing his shooting position without the cover using version 1 blind.  When I processed this image, something happened to my hair!

 

 Both of Mr JanGear's floating blinds are excellent.  John gives them a "2 thumbs up."

 How the lens is attached to version 2

 

 Dixie hidden in version 2.  This is what the birds see slowly floating toward them.  Most birds largely ignore it, and very few fly away, though, some swim just out of good camera range.

 

 Hen Gadwall with my Canon 800mm and 1.4x

 Notice the low angle of this great-blue heron image.

 Hen ring-necked duck

 

 Spotted sandpiper making a successful strike. The Mr. JanGear floating blinds can be used in less than 1 foot of water.

 Spotted sandpiper.  To stay dry, we naturally wear chest waders and are careful about leaning over too much to avoid water running down the front of the waders.  Everyone who has tried this with me agrees the floating blind is super easy to work in.

 Spotted sandpiper  Often birds approach the blind too close to photograph.  I have had birds within 3 feet of my blind and completely oblivious a human is close by.

 By working close to shore, sometimes you get subjects on the beach or perched on nearby branches.

 

 

 A male green-winged teal swims by me in Canada.  You can tell he wonders what this floating thing is all about, but not scared enough to detour from his path.

 This mallard duckling does not trust the osprey flying over it.

 

 

Many years ago, a very good friend who loves bird photography built a floating blind out of a 4 x 8 sheet of marine plywood.  He cut the sheet in two by making two eight by two foot pieces, added floating material, cut a hole in the center of it, added support to the top to hold the camo covering, and nailed a solid piece of wood in the front of the blind to support the Wimberley gimbal head that supports the long lens.  Since that time, Al has continually improved his initial version and it is outstanding.

 

 Eared Grebe with breakfast - I think a leech!

 

Quite a few years ago, I asked Al if he would help me build one too.  He said “yes.”  And that changed my photography for the better big time.  When I say, “help build the blind,” you should know I was the brute labor – you know – sanding, nailing, cutting.  I just did what Al told me to do.  He had the smarts to design it – not me!  And his wonderful wife sewed my camo blind cover that goes on top.  In a week I had a floating blind that I have used for more than a decade to photograph water birds at very close range.

 

The floating blind offers numerous advantages.

  1. The lens is close to the water, so the low angle produces images with impact.

  2. You can approach wary subjects quite closely.

  3. The floating blind supports both the weight of the photo gear and the photographer (if need be)

  4. Because the blind supports your weight when you hold on to the blind with your hands, you don’t sink into the muddy bottom.

  5. The blind fabric that you hide under does warm up – not always good – but it keeps bugs off you.

  6. The blind can work in water easily from 1 foot deep to about 5 feet – depending on your height.  You want your feet to touch so you can pivot the blind.

  7. Subjects notice the blind, but if you move slow enough, often they accept it completely and resume natural behavior.

 This is Roger Trentham in my floating blind in Idaho.  Obviously, we are showing you how the interior all works.  Notice the white frame to support the camo cover, and a Wimberley gimbal head supports the camera.  Roger is wearing waders and walking on the bottom of the lake.  The floating blind is not a boat, kayak, canoe, etc!  By the way, Roger is my partner in teaching the workshops in Smoky Mountains National Park where he lives just outside of Gatlinburg.

 This is what wildlife see drifting toward them.  And drifting is the right word.  The key is to move slowly.  If you move so fast a "rooster tail" of spray is behind you, then you are walking way too fast.

 

My original floating blind is eight foot long and weighs about 50 pounds.  While I can carry it for a short distance, there are times when I need to hike up to ½ mile and then that does not work.  Fortunately, I own another commercially made floating hide that is easy to carry long distances – the one from MR JanGear.  This blind is light as you fill it up with air for floatation.  I can carry it easily with one hand.

 

Let’s cover the protests first.  Typically, when I suggest the floating blind, I get these objections right away.  So, let’s cover them now.

  1. “How do you move it – paddle, motor, what?”  The floating blind is NOT a boat.  You DO NOT ride in it.  Your camera and lens are mounted to the floating blind and you wear chest waders and walk under the camo cover to move the blind around.

  2. “Bloodsuckers will eat you up!”  Remember, you are wearing chest waders so no problem from things in the water – not sure about gators, though.

  3. “I am not risking my expensive gear to the water.”  It is possible to get your gear wet if you mess up big time.  If you forget to lock the lens to the Wimberley mount, or drop it in the water when getting set up, or trip over your floating blind when you are entering or exiting it, then yes, bad things could happen.  Don't do that! You do need to pay attention to what you are doing – especially when getting ready to launch and when taking everything ashore.  When in the blind where it is floating up to your waste or higher, I don’t know what you would have to do to get everything wet.  Imagine being in a big truck inner tube up to your chest – how do you flip it over?

  4. “Waves and high wind will get you.”  It would be a horrible situation to be in a floating blind in water where you can’t touch the bottom and the wind and waves take you on a wild ride.  The outcome would likely be terrible for your gear and could be fatal to you.  But, no need to worry.  Perfect floating blind conditions are early morning or late afternoon sunshine when there is no wind.  In other words, you want perfectly calm water as then subject reflections are so much better.  Plus, since your camera gear is attached to the floating blind, and it, well…. floats, that means even ripples on the water make your camera gear steadily move up and down, making it tough to compose and shoot sharp images.

 How close can you get?  This ruddy duck is full frame.  This is what I am seeing in my camera's viewfinder.  Often birds approach me too close to photograph.

 

Therefore, I don’t worry about rough water for this reason.  If it is windy and the water is rough, there is no reason to launch the blind.  Do something else.  If the session begins with ideal conditions, and then the wind suddenly blows up, and that means waves soon to follow, I immediately head to my take-out point, or if I am a long distance from there (1/2 mile for example), I walk directly to shore and then hike the shoreline using the shallow water to get back to my take-out spot.

 

I know I have spent at least 1000 hours in a floating blind and always alone, and I have yet to have a difficult moment!  It has been easy.  Of course, I have been wearing chest waders since I was about twelve so walking in waders is second nature to me.  I avoid water where I cannot touch the bottom because kicking my feet in chest waders to move forward only gets me up to a speed of about 100 yards every ten hours – I think.  In other words, you don’t go very fast kicking your feet, so I just don’t go places where I can’t touch the bottom of the pond or lake.  Should I accidently step into a spot where I can’t touch bottom, I immediately turn and kick my feet to get back where I can touch, and that is only one step away.  And to be honest, that seldom happens, because as I walk along hidden inside the floating blind, I never lift my trailing foot until my leading foot touches bottom!

 

 Ducklings readily approach the floating blind.  Apparently, if I move a little, I stir the water and that brings up more food for them to eat.  After a day or two, they know that really well, and then the problem is getting far enough away from this little lesser scaup duckling to be able to photograph it.

 

The Floating Blind Experience

 

Here is a typical morning for me in the blind.  I enter the floating blind on a calm morning in a place where I know lots of water birds frequent.  I do this about 45 minutes before sunrise.  I move slowly – officially known as “no ripple speed” – to the area where I know the birds like to be and simply hold still while waiting for them to emerge from the shoreline vegetation where so many spend the night hidden in the weeds.  At first, they notice me, but when I do nothing and don’t make any sounds, they begin to accept me and swim closer.  Soon they are being birds and feed, court each other, maybe escort their ducklings, and whatever else they naturally do.  When the sun rises, then I instantly have splendid light and begin photographing them.  When possible, I like to work reflections into the composition.  I always look for action – ducks bathing, ducklings diving, that sort of thing.

 

 A hen canvasback with her two young swim by quietly.  When I have more than one bird, I immediately increase my depth of field by going to f/11 or f/16 if the light permits.

 

After I have been still for a while, I slooooowwwwly begin to move by walking and move closer to an intended subject, or sometimes I must move back if they swim closer than I can photograph them.  It is amazing to be able to easily move around among the birds without alarming them.  If I want a little different light on the subject, or a different background, or be closer or farther away, I just move slowly.  For most birds, they don’t have a problem with that.  Some are suspicious, though, and may move away slowly by swimming.  Very seldom does a bird take flight to move away from me.  Some individuals are more accepting than others, and some species are easily approached and other not.  In Idaho, Great-blue herons are always wary, and most lesser scaup could not care less.  American avocets are a big favorite of mine and quick to take alarm if they see a person walking along the shore.  But, in a floating blind, just the other day, I saw a small squadron of twenty avocets fly in, land in my corner of the lake, and I moved over to them.  They never made a peep.  Soon I was full frame on these avocets feeding, sleeping, bathing, and just being avocets.  I could move around the flock with no worries whatever.  After I had shot way too many images, I slowly moved away from them and then the breeze picked up and I continued down the shoreline to where my truck was parked, emerged from the blind only then, loaded everything up, and off I went for coffee!  Notice that even though I was done photographing the avocets, I was careful to not frighten them.  It would be foolish and rude to simply emerge from the blind and scare the avocets when you are done photographing that morning.  Better to avoid disturbing the wildlife as much as possible, and certainly don’t train them that the “dreaded humans” could be lurking within the floating blind.  By the way, when you photograph in the same wetlands time after time, resident birds of the wetlands become easier to photograph when they see the floating blind over time.  I remember when I found my first pair of cinnamon teal and they did not let me photograph them the first time.  They kept swimming just out of good camera range.  The next time I could get closer to them and made some fine images.  The third time I could be any distance from them, and they showed no concern whatever – even at “petting range.”

 

 American avocets are my favorite shorebirds.  Like all the shorebirds I have tried to photograph by approaching them in a floating blind, they are easy.  Normally, I get no reaction from shorebirds at all - what a pleasure it is!

 

The joy of all this is the setting and experience.  Imagine fifty birds, representing a dozen species, mirror images, golden sunshine on the birds, and you can move at will and photograph all.  In two hours, I have been known to fill 100GBs, and that is a lot of images. The floating blind is the best way I know to essentially become invisible out on the water!  It is awesome!!!!!

 

Photo Skills

 

Long Lens

 

Use a long lens!  The more reach you have, the easier it is to get within excellent photo range.  I consider an 800mm mandatory.  It could be my Canon 800mm f/5.6, or a 500mm lens on a camera with a 1.6x crop factor, or a 500mm with a 1.4x (700mm close enough), or finally, what I use now.  I really enjoy my new Canon 600mm f/4 III lens with a new Canon 1.4x teleconverter making it an 840mm lens.  It is an awesome combination for water birds, and the close focusing ability of 14 feet makes it ideal for ducklings and small shorebirds!

 

 The bright red eyes of eared grebes are amazing to me.  You wonder how they ended up looking like this.  So special!

 

High Speed Shooting

 

Use high speed shooting as you need to shoot a lot of images to ensure making a sharp image. It is also crucial for action sequences, like a duck rearing up to flap its wings.  For this reason, I use the Canon 1DX Mark II as it shoots 14 images per second.

 

 

 

 

Ducklings are super active.  You need to shoot as many images per second as possible to catch the best poses!

 

Image Stabilization

 

Turn Image stabilization on.  Since I plan to pan with swimming birds, I use Mode 2 that only stabilizes in the direction opposite the direction I am panning.  If I pan left to right, the image is stabilized in the up and down direction.  I realize the lens is mounted to a Wimberley head and it is suggested not to use IS when mounted to a stable mount, but the camera is not perfectly still because the water likely as some movement and me hanging on to the camera also causes small vibrations.  Keep in mind image-stabilization does not help with subject motion.

 

 Even MBJ's (Medium Brown Jobs) like this hen bufflehead make fine images.  I like how the brown colors blend together and work with the golden water at sunrise.  Buffleheads are tiny ducks, and you need a long lens to get a big image of them on the sensor.

 

Exposure

 

I use two methods. If the ambient light is not varying much, like one hour after sunrise and no clouds in the sky, then I use full manual exposure.  I manually set the aperture, ISO, and shutter speed and then use my in the viewfinder exposure scale, adjust exposure to zero compensation, shoot, and see if I have any blinkies.  If no blinkies, I add 1/3 stop, shoot again, and check for the first blinkies to appear.  I keep doing that until the first blinkies appear in the highlights and use that for my exposure.  I shoot only RAW, and know the blinkies and the histogram are both based on the embedded JPEG in the RAW file, and not on RAW data.  I use the second method early at dawn when the ambient light gets steadily brighter, or when the sun is moving in and out of cloud cover.  Then I use manual aperture and shutter speed, but AUTO ISO with exposure compensation when necessary - and that is most of the time.  Again, I adjusts the exposure compensation to produce the first blinkies.  Keep in mind that Auto ISO is a full automatic exposure mode, even though aperture and shutter speed are set manually and cannot change unless the photographer changes them.

 

ISO

In the floating blind, the blind likely is moving up and down a little, and I am holding on to my camera, and birds move.  Using more shutter speed helps a bunch.  I use ISO 1000 with my Canon 1DX Mark II and that gives me a lot of shutter speed.  However, once the sun fully rises, often I can drop the ISO to 400 and still maintain a shutter speed greater than 1/1000 second.

 

 A drake scaup primping for perhaps a date?  After all, it is spring when I took this.

 

Shutter Speed

 

I don’t like to let the shutter speed fall below 1/1000 second, but I have when the bird is quite still, and the water is perfectly smooth.  Then I can get by with 1/250 and still make sharp images.

 

F/stop

 

My lens is an f/4 lens, but I know lenses are sharper a little more stopped down, so I seek to use f/5.6 or f/8 in brighter light.  If I must shoot wide open (f/4) to keep the shutter speed enough, then I have no choice.

 

Viewfinder Level

 

 I do like backlight too on the water.  It works best when the water behind the bird is rather dark to make the backlight highlights show up well.

 

Many cameras offer a way to turn a level on that appears in the viewfinder.  Be sure to do that!  It makes keeping the birds on the water level so much easier.

 

Focus

 

I am a huge fan of back-button focusing, but not with floating blinds.  My arms must be at an odd angle in the blind and that changes how my hands attach to the camera.  I keep the continuous autofocus set and on the shutter button.  A half press of the shutter button activates continuous autofocus, and a full press shoots the images.  I use a single active AF point, or sometimes a small group of five, and use a joy button on the rear of the camera to move my active AF point or points around to coincide with the bird’s head.  My right thumb moves the AF points around.  If I used back-button focus, my right thumb would need to do double duty and move the AF points around and press the AF-On button to initiate autofocus.  (My right thumb isn’t so good at multi-tasking.)

 

 The subject does not have to be on the water.  Here I am in my floating blind and the sandhill crane is hunting insects along the shore.

 

Many will tell you the beauty of back-button focusing is you point the AF point at the birds head, press in the AF-on button and the lens focuses on the head, let up on the AF-0n button to lock focus, recompose, and shoot and the focus remains where you had it.  Only problem, the duck swam a little closer or further away and you are no longer focused on the bird’s head.  For action photography, even with slow action, I prefer to keep the AF on the shutter button.

 

AF Microadjustment

 

All my lens/camera combinations where I use autofocus are AF Microadjusted.  I have a detailed article on my web site blog about the process I use.  All my lenses have benefitted with better focus with some adjustment value – some a little and others a lot.  Right now, I use a -1 AF microadjustment for the Canon 600mm f/4 by itself (that isn’t much), and when using the 1.4x teleconverter with it, then I dial in a +5 correction.  I get much shaper images by AF microadjusting my gear.  Note:  One advantage of mirrorless cameras is they don’t seem to need any AF microadjustment since focus in done at the sensor plane.  Keep in mind the AF microadjustment is for a lens/camera combination.  Even if you use the same gear I do, you cannot assume my AF microadjustments work for you – they probably don’t.  Not to leave any doubt with you, but I cannot imagine using autofocus with a lens/camera combo that is not AF microadjusted.  I find it to be that crucial, but then I am critical about capturing good image quality.