with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Under the Covers – Camouflage Techniques for Photographing Wildlife

Brent hides himself from birds by putting a flowery sheet over himself and the camera.The life of a nature photographer does have its exciting moments, especially when you get under the sheets with your camera. The use of camouflage can make a difference in how close you can get to nature. Many animals are threatened or suspicious of sights, sounds, and smells they don’t recognize. The human form and scent is one they usually associate with danger.

One of the techniques long used by hunters and now used by nature photographers is the technique of disguise, of masking your presence from your natural subject, allowing closer observation and photography. There are a variety of ways to disguise yourself, from covering your body and shape to hiding your human smells and scents. We look at a few of the different and easily available options for the nature photographer.

Planning Your Deception

To plan your deception or camouflage technique, you need to understand who you are hiding from and what their sensory sensitivity and limitation is. Understanding how the different senses work with different animals helps you structure your plan. Just as we use three of our senses (sight, sound, hearing) for self protection more than the other two (taste and touch), many animals are also reliant upon sight, sound, and hearing, though some animals depend more on one sense more than others. Finding out which senses the animal is dependent upon for protection guides your choices in camouflage techniques.

Creatures of the night, such as owls, have very sensitive hearing, but they also have an acute sense of sight, believed to be able to see objects at a distance up to three times better than humans. While tigers are thought to have the same ability to see during the day as Disguising yourself is fine, but watch the bright colored white hands flashing in the shadows. Sight sensitive animals can spot the movement easily. Photo by Lorelle VanFossenhumans, when a tiger hunts at night, its sight is six times better than a human’s. Most predatory animals rely heavily upon the ability to detect motion rapidly. Frogs and some simple vertebrates may not even see an object unless it is moving. Dangle a dead fly on a string in front of a starving frog and it will not sense it until it moves.
Sound is one of the most important ways of communicating for most mammals. Sound can travel over greater distances than sight, and can be used when vision is not possible. Members of the dog family, like wolves and coyotes, are extremely sensitive to sounds the human ear cannot detect. Bats emit sounds that are five times the highest frequency of the human ear, and moths which are prey to bats, are responsive only to the sound frequencies emitted by bats, taking evasive action when they hear it.
While humans tend to suppress their sense of smell, most social behavior in the animal kingdom is controlled by smells and other signals. Dogs, mice, bears, and many other mammals rely upon odors to locate food, recognize trails and territory, identify relatives, mating partners and the enemy. Most birds are not sensitive to smell, but the turkey vulture is able to locate carrion from the air by smell alone.

Understanding what different animals respond to helps you prepare your camouflage. Not all camouflage techniques work for every situation. Finding out which one works best with which situation is the key to successful camouflage planning.

Hide in Plain Sight

Camo Colors

Consider the habitat and sunlight when choosing camo fabrics. Type A works well in forest situations with darks and lights, though Type B works well in grasslands, or both would work in both places as the pattern and color is similar. But Type C would stand out in forests and grasslands, and probably work best in a desert where a solid colored subject wouldn’t be so obvious.

graphic of three types of camo designs

Graphic of people in a car looking at a deer.The physical presence of a human can be disguised by changing shape, form, and color. The human form is very recognizable. Changes in the shape and form can be simple such as covering yourself with a sheet or wearing items that change your shape, like tree branches on a hat. By wearing clothing that blends in with the surroundings, your shape can become invisible against the background and foreground.

Many animals recognize the standing human being as a threat. An animal’s posture is often a signal to other animals of a threat, sending visual signals to each other. Consider how your body posture influences an animal’s behavior. When approaching grazing animals, get down on all fours and look like you are grazing. Many animals are sensitive to direct eye contact, considering it part of a confrontation. Fast movements are often seen as threatening, so move slowly.

Cover the body, but also the hands which attract attention as you adjust your camera. Photo by Lorelle VanFossenTake care to cover your face and hands along with the rest of your body as you work to blend into the surroundings. Remove watches, rings, and anything that can reflect light and attract attention to you. Take care with binoculars, camera lenses, and eye glasses as they can also reflect light. Mosquito netting which covers the face and gloves on your hands works well as an alternative to camouflage paints.

Pay attention to the color of the habitat you will be working in. Traditional camouflage uniforms are fine for forests and many grass lands when green and brown colors are most prevalent. During dry spells or seasons when the foliage is absent, these uniforms stand out against the stark grey and brown background. When blending into a desert, consider grey, yellow and beige. White and light grey blend in well for snowy winter seasons. There are a variety of camouflage clothing sets available which include hats, gloves, and boot covers to suit the different types of natural surroundings.

Out of Sight

Blinds are structures that hide you, your equipment, and your movements. Blinds come in all shapes and sizes, some blending in with the surroundings, while others are just tents or Bird blind on the Columbia River, Washington State. Photo by Brent VanFossensmall structures. Where wildlife live alongside a highway or road, they become accustomed to seeing vehicles, so a stopped car can become a blind as the animal is used to seeing it. If you step out of the car, they usually recognize a human and run. Anytime a foreign Photograph through the slats of the blind, photo by Brent VanFossenstructure appears in nature, it is usually avoided by the local inhabitants. Once they have grown accustomed to it, it is forgotten. Sometimes digging a hole in the ground and covering it with a tarp coated with leaves and branches gets a photographer down to the eye level of small animals. Bird photographers often build tree-houses to get to the eye level of their subjects. Some photographers who work with remote cameras and exceptionally sensitive animals will paint empty food cans black to resemble a camera lens and place them nearby for several months, allowing the bird time to become accustomed to the presence of a camera without the risk of leaving an expensive camera outside for months.

This overlook acts like a blind as the animals and birds tend to ignore it, photo by Brent VanFossenTake care in approaching the blind. Walk or crawl slowly and keep your movements few and close to your body, making little noise. Consider spending a lot of time inside a blind after you enter it waiting for the animals to return, or enter it at a time when the animals are elsewhere feeding or sleeping. Pat and Tom Leeson, well-known nature photographers and specialists on eagles, found that eagles could count. If two people went into a blind, and one came out, the birds would stay away, waiting for the second person to leave. They finally came up with a system where two people would enter the blind but then one would leave with a coat on a hanger, resembling the second person, and soon the eagles would return.

Blinds You Already Own

Photograph out the window, behind an open door, or from behind the vehicle.
Duane Hansen photographs along the side of the road from within the car. Photo by Lorelle VanFossenA bedsheet in natural and floral print drapped over you and your camera gear hides your movements and blends you into the background.
A big enough hat can cast a shadow over your face and upper body, masking you while hiding behind a bush or tree.Using a regular tent, Brent photographs birds at the water edge. Photo by Lorelle VanFossen
A tent placed in a spot for hours or days gets ignored by wildlife nearby as they become accustomed to it.
Large Umbrella
A big golf umbrella painted in natural colors can be set up and used to hide behind. A hole cut or slit cut into it allows camera lens access.
Refridgerator/Oven Boxes
While they aren’t visually pleasing, cutting access and view holes in an oversized carton may seem like child’s play but it can also serve as a temporary blind. Leave it in place for a few hours or days without rain and you have a cheap and easy blind. Be sure and dispose of it properly afterwards.The deer along Hurricane Ridge in the Olympic National Park are accustomed to people so they often come up to check you out. Photo by Brent VanFossen
Use your imagination and find other creative ways to disguise yourself to get close. Use common and practical sense and make sure that you can escape if threatened.
Use Familiarity
Photograph in areas where animals are accustomed to seeing humans like national and local parks. This famiiarity means you can hide in plain sight with no special equipment.
Long Distance Chat
Brent and I use headphone walkie talkies to communicate over short distances when working with wildlife. Brent will be positioned with the 500mm lens to photograph the bird or elk, and I will be at a distance speaking softly into his ear through the walkie talkie, giving him instructions on the approach of the animal. Working in tandom this way allows us to improve our chances of getting great wildlife images.
Lorelle with headphone walkie talkies hiding in the grass. Photo by Brent VanFossen

If They Can Hear You, They Know You are There

Most animals respond to sound long before you are close enough to see them. Their ears are finely tuned for self protection from predators. They can often hear sounds we don’t hear, and can frequently hear sounds over great distances. If you are with others, whisper or work with pre-arranged hand signals to communicate. Learn how to walk quietly through the forest, avoiding snapping twigs. Move slowly, paying attention to the sounds you make as you move. Is your pack clanging or rubbing? Are your car keys jangling against the change in your pocket? The slamming of a car door can echo through the mountains. A single sound may not indicate danger but many animals become increasingly alarmed at a series of strange sounds. Sit still in your vehicle for a few minutes before leaving and pause for a moment or two when you do make a loud noise separate the sounds you make.

Sensitive Noses

Many animals are reliant upon scent for protection as well as identification. Human scent is very distinctive in the animal kingdom. Think of all the products you use every day with scent in them: shampoo; soap; face, hand, and body lotion; hair spray; laundry soap; makeup; and deodorant. Even walking through a room with cooking or smoke smells, your hair and skin pick up those scents. Some animals with a keen sense of smell can detect scents from more than 30 yards (27 meters) away.

Wildlife and bird blind in the desert near Eilat, Israel, photo by Lorelle VanFossenCamouflaging your scent involves several steps. The first step is the elimination of scents on your body and clothing. Then consider your equipment. Your camera bag and back pack can also carry scents. Food tucked inside can be smelled by some animals even through plastic containers. Sun and hand lotion can rub onto your camera equipment, bringing those scents with you. Take care to clean these items thoroughly with scent neutralizing soaps. Next, consider using cover scents, scents from animals or nature. Take care to choose a scent that matches your surroundings. When you are working with deer or elk, using a wolf scent would not be appropriate, but deer and elk scents are readily available at many sporting goods stores.

Going Under Cover

Smoking is a Clue, Too
Animals associate certain smells and sounds with humans. For years, many hikers wore bells to ward off bears. Bears learned to associate the sound with humans and food, attracking bears with a dinner bell. Many animals associate cigarette smoking smells with humans, too. A pungent smell, it can be smelt across a greater distance than many other human produced smells. Even if you are not smoking, the scent of tobacco on your clothing, skin, and hair can be enough to alert the animal. Besides, Smokey the Bear would love you if you kept all fire starting materials far from his forests.

As you develop your camouflage plan, studying the sensitivity and limitations of your subject’s senses, don’t forget personal safety and respecting the ethics of working with wildlife. Many nature photographers and naturalists consider it a privilege to get to know their subjects intimately through close-up study. They take a great deal of time to learn about their subjects. When they see a tourist or careless photographer brazenly and ignorantly strut up to a moose or elk and snap its picture, the naturalist sees the results of that “attack” on the animal. It shies away in fear or attacks in defense, reinforcing the fact that humans represent danger. Take care and respect the responsibility that comes with working with wildlife, keeping both you and the animal safe.

One Comment

  • Joseph Davis
    Posted August 3, 2008 at 14:28 | Permalink

    Thanks, that’s all I’ve got to say.

    Thanks, every little bit helps when it come to photographing wild animals.

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