How to Photograph Raptors From a Car

If you want to get close to birds of prey, your best bet may be a mobile blind.

After retiring from a job teaching high school biology, Ron Dudley took his love of natural history to the field. He now spends most days photographing raptors from a Ford F-150 in his home state of Utah.

Using your vehicle as a mobile blind has distinct advantages, he says. “Birds are much, much less afraid of a vehicle than they are a person on foot, and so you can get much closer.” Rather than use a specialized beanbag to support his camera lens, Dudley hacked a pool noodle—slitting it down its length, covering it in duct tape to keep it from squeaking, and fitting it to the truck’s window frame. He also built a lens caddy for his console that holds the camera securely over rough roads but enables him to lift it out in an instant.

Shooting from a window limits the angle of the shot, but that’s nothing some “creative driving” can’t solve—and it helps to have side mirrors that fold forward out of the way. Dudley also eschews any ride with a diesel engine (too much noise) or daytime running lights that can't be turned off. “You’d be surprised at the things that go into my choice of a new vehicle,” he says.

Here are more of Dudley's tips for using your own mobile blind:

  • If you have a tripod, bring it along for those situations that require it.  

  • You don't need a pickup truck—small cars work fine and have the advantage of a lower shooting angle for birds on the ground or in the water.

  • If possible, always turn the engine off before shooting. Vibrations from a running engine can contribute to soft shots, particularly with long lenses.

  • If you wish to avoid making enemies for life, do not get out of your vehicle while near other photographers shooting birds from their own vehicles. Even cracking your door open will often flush birds.

  • You’ll be spending lots of time with the windows open so dress accordingly. Shivering makes photography a challenge.

  • Don’t breathe on the viewfinder in cold weather, or you’ll have to wait for the condensation to evaporate before you can see through it again.

  • Open windows provide access to insects, and nothing can ruin great opportunities with birds faster than mosquitoes, horse flies, deer flies, and biting gnats (no seeums). Stash bug repellant in the door pocket.

Follow these tips, and you might just capture a photo like this: