I have been an avid bird photographer for 45 years, and my favorite way to photograph birds is from a floating blind. It is a special feeling to be in the quiet waters of a bay at dawn with hundreds of birds that pay little to no attention to you.
My floating blind photography season begins in late April, when the ice melts near my Idaho home. On calm mornings, I drive to the lake and park close to the shoreline in a public parking area. I carry the 12-pound blind and photo gear 30 yards to the shore, mount my camera and lens to the Wimberley gimbal head that is attached to the blind, and slowly walk into the water. When the water is 2.5 feet deep, I slip under the camo cover, rest my elbows on the float tube, and off I go.
The camouflaged floating blind resembles a round muskrat home. The one I use is built by MrJanGear. It has a plastic frame, two float tubes, a camo cover with supports, and a board for attaching a gimbal head to support the lens. The floating blind is not a boat. It conceals me and floats my photo gear, but I wear chest waders (recently upgraded to a dry suit) and walk slowly along inside the blind through shallow wetlands. A water depth of 2-3 feet is ideal. I do not go in water too deep to touch the bottom.
I can photograph in water as shallow as 1 foot by lying down inside the blind. Of course, lying down puts the front of the waders under the water at times, and that gets you wet, so that’s why I now wear a dry suit. But if you are careful and do not go to the extremes that I do, chest waders work. If you’re worried about getting expensive camera gear wet, don’t be. In the hundreds of times I have been out on the water in a blind, I have never had a close call.
Another floating hide maker is Schatech. I have not tried this blind, but it looks good. If you are handy at simple construction projects, search online for “how to build a photographic floating blind” to see plenty of ideas.
The ideal spot for floating blind photos is a weedy small lake or pond that is home to many water birds — the more, the better. Of course, you must have access to the water. All my spots are public waters, typically a reservoir, and open to fishing boats. I have never had any conflict with boaters as they tend to fish farther out in the lake, while I photograph within 30 yards of shore in the shallow weedy areas birds prefer.
I do know of some floating blind users who photograph in the eastern U.S., but the best opportunities tend to be in the western states and Canadian provinces. Far more ducks and grebes breed on the western lakes, providing much greater opportunity than a lake in southern Michigan, for example. Light is important, too. In the morning, I go to places where I photograph toward the west shoreline as that works best with the rising sun in the east. In the evening, photographing toward the east is best.
Weather is crucial. The water must be almost flat calm. Ripples make it difficult to photograph in the floating blind, and waves make it impossible because anything that floats bobs up and down. Smaller shallow ponds and lakes tend to work best as the water is still more often.
The photo gear is simple enough. I use a Canon R5 because it has eye focus and shoots 20 images per second with the completely silent electronic shutter that does not disturb my subject. My favorite lens is the Canon 600mm f/4, and I frequently extend the focal length with the Canon 1.4x teleconverter to create an 840mm f/5.6 lens. When I want the subject to appear larger in the viewfinder, I set the camera to the 1.6x crop mode. With the 600mm by itself, that produces a field of view of a 960mm lens. And with the 600mm plus 1.4x extender, that is a 1344mm field of view. This lens, camera, and teleconverter combination is exceedingly effective for wildlife photography.
To save money, you can do well with a less-expensive Sigma or Tamron 150-600mm lens on a crop factor camera. If the crop factor is 1.5x, that produces the reach of a 225-900mm lens. The bottom line with the floating blind: It is best to maintain ample working distance between you and the subject. You need a lens equivalent to about 800mm. Options include buying an 800mm lens, using a long lens with a 1.4x teleconverter to reach that 800mm range, or using a lens with a camera that has a crop factor to reach a field of view of 800mm. You could also use a 600mm and crop the image in processing. Anything shorter than 600mm is simply too short. The floating blind is ideal for videos, too. And even if your interest is primarily watching birds, this is a fantastic way to become “invisible” in the marsh, allowing you to observe birds behaving naturally at close range.
Birds react differently to an approaching floating blind. Being in open water, they notice it but do not fear it like they would if they could see a person approaching them. Birds know the blind is odd and may slowly swim away, but many allow remarkably close approach. Many birds let me approach within 20 feet, and sometimes they swim closer — even too close to photograph! I have had Spotted Sandpipers, Forster’s Terns, and Yellow-headed Blackbirds land on the blind with me inside.
Move slowly (I call it drift speed), keep ripples to a minimum, and be quiet. Slowly move to an area where you know wild birds congregate and hang out there for a while to let the birds see the blind. While they might scrutinize the blind at first, soon they return to feeding, sleeping, courting, and other normal activities. Once they pay little attention to you, slowly approach the bird you wish to photograph and monitor its behavior. Should it begin to swim away, stop moving, and usually the bird stops, too. Often over several minutes, it is possible to approach close enough to photograph the subject well.
Some bird species are easier to photograph than others. Canada Geese tend to be wary of a floating blind, probably because they are hunted. And the normally quick-to-take-wing American Avocets and Black-necked Stilts are super easy to photograph. Often, I have approached a flock of these birds to excellent photo range, and as they continue to feed toward me, eventually they are all around the blind. Some may be too close to photograph, so I back up.
Birds get used to seeing this strange floating blind “creature.” Years ago, I remember making my first good photos of Cinnamon Teal. I found a pair, and they allowed me to approach within a certain distance and no more. Anytime I moved a little closer, they paddled a little farther away. I gave up that first morning with no usable images. But the second morning was different. Since they saw the blind the day before where it did not do anything scary but did look suspicious, they now accepted the blind being there and let me photograph them at full-frame distance. I did well photographing these small, gorgeous teal until they climbed up on the bank and fell fast asleep.
I use the floating blind dozens of times each year. Although I am 68, my time in the marsh hidden in the blind is incredibly relaxing and not physically demanding. It is a joy to watch wild birds behaving naturally at close range in their gorgeous wetland environment. Since having your arms on the float tubes and wearing chest waders or a dry suit makes you more buoyant, you do not sink into the muck that much, so walking inside the blind is easy. Insects are never a problem as the camo blind cover protects you from them. And chest waders protect you from leeches. I do not suggest using the floating blind in alligator waters. Wind and waves could make things difficult and even dangerous, but since photography is only suitable when the water is calm, I never use the blind in rough water. Should the wind suddenly blow, creating waves, I immediately walk to shore and quit until better conditions return.
Duck families are especially fun to photograph because the ducklings go from sleeping in a loose group to hyperactivity within seconds.
Summer is my favorite time in the floating blind because the water is warmer, and many ducks appear along the lake margin with their broods. Mother ducks lead their young around and spend vast amounts of time in the open but nearly dense aquatic vegetation, especially reeds and cattails, where they hide their families should a predator appear.
Duck families are especially fun to photograph because the ducklings go from sleeping in a loose group to hyperactivity within seconds. One challenge I learned is making images of a duckling diving. Lesser Scaup and Canvasbacks raise ducklings that are terrific at diving and do it frequently when actively feeding. Diving ducklings are quick. The way to photograph the diving sequence is to use a shutter speed of 1/4000 second to freeze the action, shoot at the highest frame rate the camera offers, and begin photographing before the duckling begins the dive.
A Lesser Scaup duckling takes half a second from the time it begins to rear up to dive to being underwater. If you wait for them to start the dive before photographing, you already missed the shot. Since you must start photographing them before they dive, and you do not know if they will dive, you get lots of duckling images floating on the water with no diving action. Delete all the extra images, and eventually you will capture the diving sequence.
Floating blind photography is popular in Europe, but only now is it beginning to be adopted by photographers in North America. Why don’t you do it, too? This is a unique way to view and photograph wildlife at close range and with a low photo angle that produces intimate photos of our cherished wildlife.
A longer and regularly updated version of this article is available on the author’s website at www.gerlachnaturephoto.com/blog.
This article first appeared in BirdWatching’s September/October 2021 issue.