As a principal photographer for Ducks Unlimited, a wetland and waterfowl conservation organization, I learned long ago that getting good images means being mobile. Just like in real estate, the key to success is location, location, location!
If you want flight photos, ducks with wings cupped and coming in to land, you need to go where the wind is at your back. Want to find hens with broods? That means sneaking through shallow water with lots of emergent vegetation. Ducks feeding on wild rice? Loafing on an attractive old log? You’re going to have to walk or paddle to a lee, or windward, shoreline.
The point is, you need to be able to move. You can’t be married to one location, and you can’t be hauling a ton of stuff. Go minimalist on your camera gear, and use some of these following tools to get better duck photos.
You might be able to get by with knee boots on some days, but no duck photographer should be without chest waders. Even shallow wetlands have spots that will top your knee boots, forcing a retreat. Chest waders solve that problem while keeping over two-thirds of your body dry. They enable you to sit or kneel in just about any location.
Camouflage is important, so shop where duck hunters shop. Always look for camo patterns that match marsh coloration (true for everything, not just waders), and if you can afford it, buy ones that breathe, such as Cabela’s Breathable Hunting Waders ($220). They are more comfortable on warm days, and you can always add layers for cold weather.
Get a Sled
It’s wet out there. Expensive camera gear doesn’t like water. For several years I’ve been using a sled to transport my stuff. It floats when you enter deeper water, has high sides to keep things dry, and allows storage for camera gear, lunch, extra clothing, and blind material. You can even sit in it! Sleds also work well to drag equipment across the prairie to a pothole. The Shappell Jet Sled ($60) is reasonably priced, and camouflaged to boot.
Carry a Blind Bag
Duck hunters use “blind bags” to haul their gear. They are camouflaged, tough, very water resistant, and more affordable than the average, overpriced (in my opinion) camera packs. There are lots of manufacturers of blind bags, and most are well made. Tons of pockets, like those found in the Drake Blind Bag 2.0 ($70), enable you to stow batteries, flash cards, filters, and other camera items. Larger versions will easily hold a dSLR with a 100-400 or similar lens, as well as an extra body and landscape lens.
Be Ready to Hide
To be mobile, you need to be the blind. With outerwear in a wetland camo pattern, often just hunkering next to bush or deadfall provides enough concealment. Occasionally, though, you’ll want more cover. The simplest solution is Hunters Specialties Camo Leaf Blind Material ($20). Extremely lightweight, this spun polyester with leafy cut-outs won’t rot, and with a few short pieces of string in your pack, you can tie it easily to whatever you find out there. Although I don’t need it often, it is always in my blind bag.
Sometimes you need to cross open water to get to where the ducks are. For those moments, a solo canoe is the ideal craft. I find them better than a kayak because gear is both easier to load and quicker to access. Choose one with a nice wide, stable design, such as the Wenonah Fusion (from $2,049). I sometimes just pull it into the weeds, then climb back in, sit on the floor, and drape the camo material over it and me. Works wonderfully.