6. Hide Photography

Hides are a tried and tested means of allowing close encounters to be had with a wide range of species. Whether you use public installations or your own personal hide then the opportunities for photography can be superb.

a.       Public hides

Many nature reserves are provisioned with large public hides. Most provide an excellent platform for observation but, from a photographic point of view, many are pointlessly positioned – too far from any action, or facing into the light for much of the time. There are a few, however, where some thought has been gone into their location and placement, and these can yield some great images. The downside is their public nature and fact that you have no control over the actions of others – loud voices, waving arms, mobile phones and pagers going off, you have probably seen and heard it all. Plus in those few hides that are good for photography dozens of other photographers will have taken almost identical shots in the past. The same can be said for set-up hides in Britain – hides for the likes of Kingfishers and Cuckoos where you pay for the privilege of taking exactly the same shots as everyone else who uses the hides. They certainly improve your chances of taking photographs but individuality is limited.

Public access hides on the Isles of Scilly offer the most reliable opportunities in the UK to photograph Jack Snipe. The birds are seemingly indifferent to the chatter and shutter bursts emanating from inside. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

Public access hides on the Isles of Scilly offer the most reliable opportunities in the UK to photograph Jack Snipe. The birds are seemingly indifferent to the chatter and shutter bursts emanating from inside. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

Hides in several locations on the East Anglian coast offer occasional opportunities to photograph migrant Little Gulls. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

Hides in several locations on the East Anglian coast offer occasional opportunities to photograph migrant Little Gulls. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

b.       Portable one-person hides

Portable hides are in essence miniature tents and are designed for more independently minded photographers. They come in a range of designs and styles and, in the past, they were box-like in appearance and used rigid poles and guy ropes to keep their shape. Nowadays, the most frequently used hides are domes whose metal poles ensure they remain reasonably rigid. Typically they have a canvas covering that is patterned with a choice of designs, with woodland/leaf pattern being a popular option.

   Portable hides offer the photographer the chance to take unique images, with opportunities for manipulation of perches and background at feeding stations, and beside water. If sited appropriately, a well-placed hide will blend in with the landscape but from a bird’s point of view the introduction of a relatively large new structure into their environment will not go unnoticed.  Arguably the most important function a hide performs is to disguise the human form – many species are distinctly wary of people.

   If the species you want to photograph is wary, consider introducing the hide to the location in stages, moving it closer to your chosen spot over a period of hours or even days if the hide’s security is not an issue. Sometimes though it pays just to put it in place in one go and reduce the disturbance caused to a minimum. But bear in mind that it can take a while for birds to accept a hide. So if you want to use the best morning light for your photography, you might want to put it in place before dawn, when there is just enough light to see what you are doing. Or as an alternative get a friend to accompany you to the hide, and leave once you are installed – this deception is reckoned to put some bird species more at ease with a new hide. Remember too that a hide is only as good as its occupant so keep movement within to a minimum, avoid flapping canvas and observe silence – birds have ears after all. With the privilege of using a hide comes responsibility: avoid attracting attention and leave the scene as you found it when you dismantle your hide.

This Aquatic Warbler was photographed, with permission, in Belarus using a portable hide. A degree of fieldcraft was needed too: the species has very precise habitat requirements and typically only sings in the early evening, 6.30-7.30pm being the witching hour. ©Pail Sterry/BPOTY

This Aquatic Warbler was photographed, with permission, in Belarus using a portable hide. A degree of fieldcraft was needed too: the species has very precise habitat requirements and typically only sings in the early evening, 6.30-7.30pm being the witching hour. ©Pail Sterry/BPOTY

c.       Using a car as a hide

A car can make a remarkably good hide, and many birds are seemingly indifferent to vehicles if they stick to roads and well-used tracks. The best results are achieved usually by parking the car in an ideal location – beside a regularly used perch or open patch of marsh – and waiting for the birds to come to you. Cars make particularly good hides if you are trying to photograph migrant birds, as can portable one-person hides. The birds will be temporary visitors to novel and unfamiliar locations where a vehicle does not look out of place, and their main concern will be finding food. Whatever the circumstance, the effect will be enhanced if camouflage netting is used to disrupt the outline of the car’s occupants and render minor movements inside the car invisible. A stable lens and camera is essential (to avoid sudden movements) so either set up a flexible tripod in the car, or support the equipment on a bean bag draped over the door’s open window.

In late winter, flocks of geese are reasonably widespread in southern Sweden. These Bean Geese were photographed from a car, beside a quiet country lane. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

In late winter, flocks of geese are reasonably widespread in southern Sweden. These Bean Geese were photographed from a car, beside a quiet country lane. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

Rob Read