Every bird photographer knows that patience and preparation are key to getting great shots. But sometimes that just isn’t enough. Maybe, after weeks of searching, you’ve found that Belted Kingfisher’s perch—yet no matter how carefully you approach, the skittish bird catches sight of you and flees.
The solution is to go undercover with the help of a portable blind.
Portable blinds conceal you and your gear, allowing you to get close to the objects of your affection without spooking them. Some, such as the hides highlighted here, blend into the environment. Others don’t pretend to be natural camouflage but still do the trick. “I do work a lot from my car,” says photographer Melissa Groo. “I’ll park on a dirt road in forest, or a parking lot where there are Killdeer nesting in the gravel. Sometimes I’ll even get in my car in my driveway to photograph the birds in the yard.”
Whichever option suits your fancy, make sure to set up before the sun rises for your best chance at a successful shoot. As always, make sure to respect birds and their environment, and take special care not to get too close during nesting season.
Type of blind: Shaggy blanket or set of jacket and pants
Best for: Blending into tall grasses along a river, or a tree in a forest. “I like to go to a warbler trap, where the birds stop to feed as they migrate, and set up against a tree,” Groo says.
Pros: Provides maximum mobility, plus is light and breathable.
Cons: May snag on vegetation; gives the wearer an uncanny resemblance to Chewbacca.
Example: Cabela’s Leafy-wear Pro II, $120*
Type: Drape with dedicated camera opening
Best for: Settling in at one spot for the day. Say, for instance, you find evidence that birds are using a particular tree—perhaps one dripping with sap that might attract a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, or one whose base is littered with shavings from a Pileated Woodpecker. Get to the site early, find a good place for your chair, and then disappear under the drape.
Pros: Entirely hides camera gear, chair, and tripod, concealing hand movements that might tip off birds to your presence.
Cons: A little more cumbersome than a ghillie suit, and on hot days it might be uncomfortably warm because air doesn’t circulate beneath the drape.
Example: Kwik Camo II Photography Blind, $120
Type: Small tent
Best for: Leaving set up at one spot to return to again and again. Groo says a pond that draws a variety of species—like herons, kingfishers, and waxwings—is one ideal location to deploy a pop-up blind. “You want to set it up a few days, or even a week or more, before you inhabit it, so that the animals get used to it as part of the landscape,” she says. Then enter the blind before dawn to ensure you remain undetected.
Pros: Completely hides the photographer and all gear. These are the roomiest blinds, with some being large enough to fit two people.
Cons: Offers the least mobility, and as a larger, more noticeable structure, it might require more planning and time to deploy in the field.
Example: The Tragopan V5 Photo Blind, $239, specifically designed for wildlife photographers with customizable windows and a variety of lens sleeves. A cheaper option is a hunting blind, which lacks the special touches and is constructed from less-rugged material, such as Ameristep’s Doghouse Hunting Ground Blind, $80.
Type: A buoyant platform covered with cloth
Best for: Shooting in lakes, ponds, and marshes (ideally with even bottoms and without a lot of deep spots or currents). “The blind also allows us to get water-level shots that create very pleasing and intimate portraits,” says photographer Sparky Stensaas, who regularly takes his two floating blinds out into the expansive cattail marshes near his Minnesota home. He’s captured close-ups of a wide array of birds, including ducks, grebes, geese, swans, loons, herons, egrets, and bitterns. “I'm still waiting,” he says, “for my shot of an Osprey plucking a trout out of the water right in front of me!”
Pros: Ability to approach water birds without spooking them, as happens in a canoe or kayak.
Cons: The few floating blinds on the market are quite pricey, so many photographers opt to build their own, which can take days or weeks. Taking pricey equipment onto the water is always a risk, and moving the structure around can be tiresome.
Example: The Floating Hide, one of the only floating blinds on the market, retails for about $1,050. For comparison, Stensaas built his floating blind in one day for about $100. He used four-inch PVC pipe for the base, topped with decks made from rot-resistant cedar plywood. A canvas sling seat supports his weight, and a deck-mounted Wimberly head holds his camera and telephoto lens. For the cockpit, he draped two layers of camouflage mosquito netting over crossed tent poles that fit into the deck. A few extra tips from Stensaas, who documented the blind’s construction in a YouTube video: Wear a camo hood (the kind bow hunters wear that obscures your face) and waders that come up to your armpits, or a wetsuit. Photographer David Stimac also built his own floating blind for around $250, and chronicled the process on his blog.
*For all products we list the manufacturer’s suggested retail price, though many blinds can be found for less online or in stores.