By Colleen Gara
My favourite way to photograph wildlife is on foot, whether hiking or snowshoeing, or walking out to a quiet spot in the woods to sit and wait.
But sometimes, circumstances such as the proximity of the animal, type of animal, or weather can prevent me from venturing out too far. This is when my ‘mobile blind’ comes in super handy. A blind is a shelter (usually camouflaged) that is used to observe and photograph wildlife and often I will use my car as a type of blind, allowing me to photograph wildlife both safely and discreetly.
Shooting from a vehicle definitely has its advantages and some of my favourite images have been captured from inside my car. I know it doesn’t sound as adventurous or exciting, but the reality is that, sometimes, it’s the only, or best, option available.
Also, for some photographers who are unable for various reasons to walk long distances, or might be limited physically from setting up or sitting in a blind, a vehicle can be a great way to get out and explore and enjoy nature.
Below are some advantages, as well as some tips and tricks I use, when photographing from my car:
Dawn and dusk are excellent times to see wild animals as it’s generally when they’re most active. During these times, wildlife will often use roadways to travel as there aren’t a ton of cars and they provide for an easier route. Bare pavement can often be easier to navigate than dense bush. Being on the road at these times can often lead to fantastic sightings.
I use a beanbag when shooting from my vehicle. Beanbags provide for great stability (especially during those low light hours). They are incredibly versatile and easy to use. I use a Gura Gear beanbag, which I fill with beans from the supermarket. Beanbags are easy to travel with as well. If I’m travelling by plane, I’ll carry mine in my pack empty and then fill it when I arrive at my destination.
Beanbags are great for stability but can also help prevent you from balancing your lens directly on the window, which could lead to scratches or even damage to both the lens and car. I always keep my beanbag on the console between the front seats so that it’s easy to grab if I spot an animal.
Shooting from a vehicle can be great camouflage. Often an animal will be very hesitant and wary with someone walking outside a vehicle but become completely comfortable once that same person is tucked away in the car. You suddenly become less of a threat. I once photographed a family of swift foxes from my car for hours and even though my vehicle was relatively close, they didn’t have a clue I was there.
I have a sunroof in my vehicle that I use a lot when photographing wildlife. It allows for a different vantage point and also frees me up quite a bit so that I don’t feel as constrained as I do in the front seat. If you plan on shooting from the sunroof, I highly suggest investing in some quality seat covers (I learned this the hard way by basically destroying my cloth seat covers one spring haha).
I always shut my car off before shooting. I find it’s better for the animal (less distraction), better for the environment (less pollution) and better for the resulting images (creating less vibration and camera shake). I also keep the temperature in my car as close to the outside temperature as possible. This means that in the winter, I’ll have the heat off (and seat warmer on) so that the inside of the car remains cool. Once the window is open and I’m shooting, there is less distortion from heat waves, and less fogging up of glass. This will usually result in much sharper images.
When travelling in my car, I’ll usually have my camera bag open on the passenger seat so all my gear is within easy reach. If I have someone with me, I’ll usually ask him or her to sit behind me in the back seat. That way, we can photograph an animal from the same side of the vehicle. It can make it a bit harder to chat but it’s worth it when you see that wolf on the side of the road!
It can sometimes be a challenge to manoeuvre a big telephoto lens in a vehicle. I’ve definitely banged my 500mm lens on the dash or console a few times. If conditions and the situation permits, often a better choice is to use a smaller telephoto lens (I’ll use a 70-200mm or 100-400mm). These lenses will give you more room to breathe.
If the weather permits, I’ll usually drive with my windows down. It’s happened where I’ve been so excited to see an animal, I pulled over quickly, turned the car off, and then realized I hadn’t put the window down. Or I’ve scared off an animal from the sound of my window going down (certain wildlife will be more sensitive to noise).
It’s always fantastic to be able to photograph wildlife in their natural environment, away from the roads. But shooting from a vehicle can be a great option for some people and situations, and can still lead to great shots!
Colleen Gara originally wrote this article for our private online photography community here at OFFBEAT. There are dozens more where that came from. If that sounds like something you like the sound of, sign up for our community!