Special features

A photographer’s guide to blinds: Windows on nature

Blinds can be cramped and either too hot or too cold, and sometimes they’re buggy, but they’re always the best way to get great photos of birds
By Steve Maslowski | Published: 2/19/2010

BRD-B0410-500I may have been only 13 years old, but I wasn’t stupid. It took only a few minutes to figure out why I was in the blind that July day.

The cramped little tent was hot, humid, and buggy. My father, veteran wildlife photographer, writer, and longtime Birder’s World contributor Karl Maslowski, was more than happy to have me man the camera.

Despite the discomfort, the experience held an element of magic that still remains vivid four decades later. In front of me only six feet away, a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird flew up on gossamer wings, alighted at the edge of her nest, and shoved the length of her bill down one of the nestlings’ throat. The sight was so bizarre and close it seemed surreal. You can see the resulting photo on the facing page.

Since then, I have spent enough time in blinds to consider them my office cubicle. And all my experiences there can be summarized by this simple dichotomy: Blinds are miserable little places in which you can see wild animals remarkably close and in wonderful detail.

But what exactly are blinds? In general, they are portable tent-like structures that photographers use for concealment when trying to photograph wildlife, especially birds. Why blinds are called blinds is beyond me. In England, they are called hides,which makes more sense since they hide you from your subject. In addition, some early wildlife photographers used animal skins — or hides — to try to blend in like a deer or antelope.

But blinds can be made out of almost anything. As long as they don’t flap too much in the wind or make noise, animals usually ignore them after a while. My father always got a laugh when he told about shooting from an outhouse. I remember him employing an old refrigerator box to film a Spotted Sandpiper’s nest. It was the only thing available.

For years and years, my brother and fellow photographer Dave Maslowski and I have been using what in the 1960s served as an ice-fishing tent. It has a light aluminum-tube frame assembled with bolts and wing nuts. A canvas cover slips over from the top. The blind is not especially convenient, but it has its advantages.

First, it is roomy — about 50 inches square at the base and nearly 60 inches tall. The dimensions help overcome claustrophobia, allow plenty of room for gear and a chair, and seem to be cooler than smaller blinds. Second, it has a specially sewn cover that provides variable lens locations and viewing portals at appropriate places. And third, the whole thing is fairly easy to hold down with just a couple of logs or rocks on the tubes that form the base — which is good because the blind’s size and square shape make it vulnerable to wind. We have kept the blind in operation through lots of repairs.

Another wildlife photographer we know uses a section of construction scaffold. It’s about five feet tall and roughly five or six feet square. Over that he drapes a custom-sewn piece of material that has plenty of camera slits and viewing windows, all of which can be closed when the subject is really wary.

In addition, a number of commercially available photo blinds can be found on the Internet. Each size, shape, and manufacture has its own virtues, but generally, they all offer adequate room, a number of lens ports (including at least one that can be adjusted higher and lower by means of zippers), and places to see out. Hunting blinds sold at sporting-goods stores also work, although many suffer a lack of camera-accommodating refinements. Still, they are light, portable, easy to set up, and cheap.

And I mean cheap in both senses of the word. Hunting blinds can be especially inexpensive when on sale before turkey or deer season, but they fall apart quickly. Their thin fabric tears, or the support springs lose their tension. In addition, sometimes the fabric fails to provide full concealment. Bright sunlight can penetrate the cover and let animals see movements. Nevertheless, buying one doesn’t overexpose a wallet.

Like father, like son

Steve Maslowski’s father, Karl H. Maslowski, was a trailblazing filmmaker and photographer who was one of the first to photograph wildlife with color film. In addition to writing five decades of columns for the Cincinnati Enquirer and hundreds of magazine articles, Karl produced more than 70 nature documentaries and contributed to several Walt Disney films. He died in 2006.

Cover-ups
Still another concept is a cover-up, a simple wrap of camouflage cloth or gauze. A cover-up provides a handy-dandy-on-the-spot blind substitute that can also double as padding in a camera bag. A dozen feet or so of a bolt from a fabric store should provide enough to cover even a husky photographer. You’ll also need a camp stool or other seat. Cover up, sit down, and hold still while the bird works its way in close. Cloth provides more complete concealment than gauze, but gauze makes seeing a lot easier. Photographers playing songs to lure birds in spring often find cover-ups very useful.

Other popular blinds include cars — they are the tour de force at wildlife refuges — and house windows. The biggest problem with house windows may be light orientation. All too often, the house throws your subject into deep shade while the background stands in full light or you look directly into the sun. We prefer not to shoot through the glass of a window, even in winter. I am embarrassed to say I have never tested to see what happens, but I do know this: My resolution test on simple UV filters showed that even filter glass diminishes resolution — not by much, admittedly, but still there was some effect. If you shoot at an angle through a window, forget it. Sharpness will be affected severely.

Considering the steroid-enhanced lenses widely used today, many bird photographers may never employ a blind other than a car or family-room window. Still, blinds seem especially useful in at least two places.

One is at a feeder. A lot of birds won’t come in if you are just standing there. A blind lets normal feeder activity resume and gives you the flexibility to move to take advantage of the best light and background. We have used blinds at feeders so often in our yard that birds follow the blind — because that’s where the food will be. Birds routinely perch on the blinds, and wrens even come inside to see if we have dropped or stirred up anything edible.

Shooting at nests
The other place is at a nest. Photographers who shoot here shoulder a special obligation to work responsibly. (See 8 habits of responsible bird photographers below.) Not only will a blind help you avoid stressing the birds, it will get you close enough to use a short lens, with its wide depth of field, and avoid branches, which abound near nests. The farther away you shoot, the greater the chances one will get in the way.

Before putting up a blind at a nest, let the eggs hatch. Birds desert eggs fairly readily, but once the young arrive, the parents seem to make a quantum leap in attachment to the nursery. (With precocial species — that is, ducks, sandpipers, and other birds whose young leave the nest soon after hatching — you just have to guess when the eggs are due.) The closer to hatching day, the stronger the parents’ urge to care for the eggs.

Start setting up a few days before the expected day so you can be present when the eggs hatch — otherwise, you will be too late. It’s advisable to set up a blind two or three times its final distance from any nest to help the birds acclimate. Then, after a few hours or a day (depending on the species), you can usually make the first of two moves toward your destination, allowing adjustment time between each move. If erecting a scaffold, do your construction over a period of days.

Some people say blinds attract predators. Even after all these years, I cannot agree or disagree. Dave and I have set up lots of blinds on successful nests and lots of blinds on nests that got predated. I have found even more nests that were destroyed before we ever had a chance to do anything. The rate of loss in areas where many raccoons, opossums, and black snakes are present is appalling. Because of them, whenever I find a nest of a warbler, gnatcatcher, or other really accommodating species, I try to start shooting that day. Tomorrow may be too late.

8 habits of responsible bird photographers

1  Understanding patterns of animal behavior.

2  Never stressing birds or exposing them to danger.

3  Acquainting yourself with the fragility of the ecosystem. Stay on trails.

4  Always exercising restraint and caution.

5  Using appropriate lenses, and moving back when an animal shows stress.

6  Limiting the use of recordings, and forgoing the use of recordings in heavily birded areas or for attracting species of concern.

7  Staying back from nests and nesting colonies or using a blind and taking advantage of natural cover.

8  Using artificial light sparingly.

Sources: American Birding Association, Code of Ethics (www.aba.org/about/ethics.html) and North American Nature Photographers Association, Principles of Ethical Field Practices (www.nanpa.org/committees/ethics).

No substitutes
It’s amazing how quickly most birds accept blinds. One of the wariest of birds is the Wild Turkey. A turkey’s little head may not hold many brains, but it is chock full of paranoia. Yet a hunter can walk into the woods, set up a blind, and shoot a bird from it as if the blind had been in the woods all along.

Still, blinds don’t always work. We once tried to photograph a Great Horned Owl nest where the adults were inordinately spooky. (Wariness is generally impossible to determine before setting up.) After staying in the blind until midnight a couple of times without success, I resolved to spend the night — a very long night. The adults called from time to time but never came in.

The next morning, I was cold, tired, and bummed out. I started carrying my equipment back to the car, more than a quarter mile away. When I returned about 30 minutes later, a partly eaten carcass of a coot was in the nest. The female had waited until I was out of the blind to deliver it. That afternoon, I took down the blind and left that owl family alone, preventing a lot of stress on everybody involved.

And trouble can arise unexpectedly. A friend reported that beavers were building a dam in a creek close to his house. Beavers are generally nocturnal, especially in the Cincinnati area, where we live. The proximity to the house meant I could run extension cords to power flood lights and shoot video.

I set up the lights and let them run a couple of nights to help the beavers acclimate, then decided to try shooting. It was December, but the weather had been mild. Not knowing how wary the beavers might be, I got in the blind and stayed still. Around midnight, they came out and made repairs to the dam, then left. It was exciting, so I waited. And waited, all the while holding still and getting colder and colder. The beavers didn’t return.

When the morning finally arrived, I could see why: A half inch of ice covered the stream. The temperature must have dropped to a single digit that night. Before I thawed out enough to try the blind again, a flood washed away the dam and the beavers never returned. Thank goodness.

Perhaps these bad experiences stand out because they are so rare (or maybe they really were that bad). On the plus side of the ledger, I conservatively estimate 25 percent of our bird photos have been taken from blinds, every one shot with a sense of pleasure. Nevertheless, I like the fact that today’s bazooka lenses let us work more comfortably outside of the confines of a little tent.

But when I think back to watching that Ruby-throated Hummingbird, or Pied-billed Grebes fussing with their nest, or Barn Owls delivering pocket gophers to their young in a hayloft, or to any one of hundreds of other encounters with wildlife within a few yards of me, it’s plain to see there is just no substitute for a blind.

Steve Maslowski and his brother Dave are widely published wildlife photographers whose work appears regularly in Birder’s World (Maslowski Wildlife Productions, maslowskiwildlife.com).