Baby It’s Cold Outside

Canadian Mountain Wilderness | Beebower Productions

He couldn’t ignore a triple dog dare.  But you knew what was coming next.  One lick and Flick was stuck to that flagpole.  Stuuucck.  Stuck!  The whaling and crying was epic. 

That classic scene from “A Christmas Story” sums up the trouble with shooting in freezing weather.  Moisture.  While you probably won’t be stuck to your camera (unless you decide to lick a metal part), shooting in freezing temperatures can be tricky thanks to moisture. 

One of Dad’s most popular landscape photos “Canadian Mountain Wilderness” took him to the far frozen parts of Canada and Colorado.  To capture the images that would be merged into one photo required dangling above a partially frozen river and braving temperature around -15 degrees.  (You can read the full story here  .)   Moisture abounded in the forms of snow, splashing river water, ice and sleet. 

When Dad and I venture into such chilly, wet conditions, we always make sure our gear is protected from those obvious moisture sources by using a rain cover.  Aquatech and Lenscoat make rain covers for a variety of cameras and lenses.  Naturescapes.net and B&H also carry a wide variety of jackets that keep your gear nice and dry.

Even if it’s not snowing or sleeting, another form of moisture can cause a headache for photographers.  Condensation forms on the outside of the camera when it’s brought from a very cold location to a warm location.  It can even form inside the camera if you changed lenses while outside.  Like Flick and the flagpole you know that’s a train wreck waiting to happen.

When we shoot in cold weather, we do a couple of things to keep the moisture away from our very valuable gear.  First, don’t change lenses outside.  Avoid getting invisible moisture trapped in the camera body by sticking to one lens while outside.  Condensation doesn’t have a chance to form inside the camera in warmer locations if you just shoot with one lens.

Second, we put our camera gear in Ziplocs or large, sealed garbage bags before moving from a cold to a warm location.   The condensation will form on the outside of the bags rather than on our gear.  For the same reason, we also use waterproof containers for our camera cards. 

Deep Snow Chase | Beebower Productions

Dad followed this practice when shooting “Deep Snow Chase”.  Temperatures dipped to -20 degrees at Sun Valley Ranch near Grand Junction, CO on the day of the photo shoot.    Dad shot for 30 minutes and then covered his gear with garbage bags as soon as he was done to prevent condensation from forming. Then he gradually warmed up the gear by putting the cameras in the unheated wood shed for about an hour before bringing them into the coldest part of the cabin.  The next morning he removed the bags and was ready to shoot again.

Those tips should take care of the moisture issues.  But that’s not all you have to worry about when it’s cold outside.  I mean really cold, like negative temperatures.  Your camera, full of nifty but delicate electronics, gets a bit testy when the temperatures dip below 32 degrees. 

You may notice sluggishness when snapping photos.  The LCD display may be slow or even gray out.  And the batteries may stop working all together even if you just charged them.  But that’s nothing compared to the days of film.  When the film froze, it became brittle and actually broke.  Be glad you don’t have to deal with that nightmare.

If you’re heading to the frozen tundra, pull out your owner’s manual for any gear you’ll be taking to check the temperature ratings.  That will help you trouble shoot any potential cold problems before you’re frozen like a popsicle without many options.  Knowing your gear’s limitations before you’re in the field helps ensure you get the photo you really want.

A Winter Pack Trip | Beebower Productions

Batteries will be your biggest worry.  They tend to shut down in extreme cold even if you just charged them.  We always take extra batteries that we put in Ziplocs and stuff in coat pockets to keep them warm.  Once the “drained” batteries warm up the charge returns, so it’s good to have multiple warm batteries you can rotate through the camera.  We also take multiple cameras if it’s going to be a long shoot.  You can rotate the cameras just like the batteries.

During Dad’s photo shoot of “A Winter Pack Trip” -10 degree temperatures and a huge snowfall the night before made shooting interesting.  But Dad was prepared.  He brought two cameras in case one of them protested the low temperatures.  The Novatron flashes on the building and in the fence light were triggered by slaves and powered by batteries that Dad kept warm.  All of these things ensured a successful photo shoot. 

Dad in Snow Bank | Beebower Productions

It goes without saying that you’re just as important as the camera gear.  Depending on the severity of the temperatures where you’ll be working, hats, facemasks, gloves, boots and a super duper coat are definitely in order.  Hypothermia and frostbite are always a danger if you’re unprepared.

One of Dad’s models came very close to hypothermia during a snowy photo shoot.  He wasn’t wearing enough layers for the 10,000’ elevation and a snowstorm dumped on the mountains.  Thankfully Dad and his assistant were able to not only get the guy down to the ranch house, but also warmed him up with a very long, hot shower and then layers of blankets.  So make sure you bundle up before heading out.

We do have one other piece of clothing we love, a special pair of gloves. These puppies are thin and have a textured surface that helps you grip dials and switches on your camera. Foxgloves Grips are a cheap price to pay for fully functioning (and not frozen) hands in the field.  You can buy them here.   

Dad says, “Your feet and your hands are the things that take you down.  Don’t let them get wet or frozen or you’re gone.  Felt-lined boots with rubber socks and warm gloves are a must.”

If you plan ahead you can have a successful cold adventure that doesn’t involve flagpoles or fire department rescues.  We’d love to hear about your cold-weather photography escapades.  Drop us a line and tell us all about it.

In Disguise Part 2

Osprey in Full Flight | Beebower Productions

I know you’re here just to see Dad in his snicker-inducing ghillie suit I told you about last week.  Yep.  He really does look like a cross between Sasquatch, the Swamp Thing and a fuzzy, wuzzy bear all rolled into one.  You’ll need to keep reading all about Dad’s other wildlife camouflage set-ups before you get to see that photo.   

The suit’s coming soon, but first Dad had to learn that just because you use camouflage doesn’t mean you’ll be successful.

Pop Up Tent | Beebower Productions

Dad took the lessons he learned with the camo kayak and floating duck blind from last week and decided to try his hand at shooting hawk photos.  He thought a pop-up camouflage tent would provide all the covering he needed to catch ospreys in flight.

Dad knew that like the wily great blue heron, all hawks have amazing eyesight and are very cagey about humans.  He needed a something to draw the ospreys into his shooting area.  So Dad used the hawk’s competitor to lure it to a brushy area near the lake.  He built and set up an owl decoy in the field.  (You can watch our  “how-to” video on the owl decoy here.  )

Dad thought the tent would completely cover him and most of his gear during the hawk shoot, thus foiling the bird.  He thought it would also allow him to sit comfortably on a stool in the tent and keep his extra gear close. However, something about the tent must have tipped the hawks off.  Nothing happened.  He sat there for hours shivering in the cold.  When it was clear nothing was going to happen, Dad went back to the drawing board, very disappointed and a bit frozen. 

After doing a bit more research he concluded the blind must have looked out of place in the brush-filled field.  In future shoots, Dad would use the pop-up tent with additional tree limbs and grasses piled on and around it to give the tent a more natural look.

“That Suit”

But while researching the tent technique, Dad had stumbled upon the snicker-inducing ghillie suit.  Hunters use ghillie suits all of the time to help them blend in with trees and grasses.  Dad was doing a different sort of hunting, but he thought the suit might just do the trick with the hawks.  He was eager to test it out.  So he ordered the suit and some lightweight camouflage gloves from www.allpredatorcalls.com.

Ghillie Suit | Beebower Productions

Dad found the suit was perfect for this type of shooting.  It allowed him to quickly change locations, work with his camera gear and camouflaged him so well you could walk by and miss him completely.  In fact, Dad almost couldn’t find my husband, who was also dressed in a ghillie suit, while on this photo shoot.  The amazing part was Dad knew where my husband was supposed to be in the field and he still had trouble locating Jonathan.

The ghillie suit disguise when combined with his hidden pop-up tent worked very well.  Dad kept his extra gear that he might need during the shoot in the tent.   That left him free to move around outside in the ghillie suit.  Having extra gear on hand stopped Dad from having to leave his position to return to the van and possibly alerting the hawks he was in the area. 

Ghillie Suit Disguise | Beebower Productions

Despite loosing his camouflaged son-in-law, the suit/tent combo worked!  Dad soon had an osprey circling the owl decoy and it didn’t notice him at all.  He rapidly fired off shots.  And an amazing thing happened.  The osprey lost interest in the owl and came straight toward the clicking noise (i.e. Dad).  It actually heard the camera’s shutter advancing and accurately pinpointed the noise’s origin.  That’s when Dad shot “Osprey in Full Flight”, a major victory for him in stealthy bird photography.

The Rolling Blind

So far Dad had discovered three things that will tip off wildlife even if you’re wearing camouflage:  things (like a tent) that look out of place, sudden movement and unusual noises.

But his next adventure would prove that under the right circumstances animals could be conditioned to accept all three of these things.  Dad discovered at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge in Texas massive numbers of snow geese, ducks, herons and egrets are so used to seeing cars they no longer spook when one passes them.  Dad used a van as a rolling blind to get shots of these wild, winged characters.

Rolling Blind | Beebower Productions

It’s a simple concept really; someone drives you slowly along fields or the lakeshore where the birds are located.  The side door to the van remains open so you can shoot out the door.  As long as no one exits the vehicle the birds seem to remain calm.  Dad used this technique to shoot “Snow Geese Symphony”.

The key to the rolling blind is finding a driver who doesn’t mind creeping along at less than 5 miles an hour all day long while you shoot.  You might need bribe your driver with a free lunch or possibly a lot of gas money.  I’m not saying that actually happened, but it’s a good idea.

So there you have it, five types of camouflage that can help bring your wildlife shooting to the next level.  We promise not to laugh at your ghillie suit.  (Fine.  We might snicker a bit.)  We know, however, you’ll have the last laugh when you start getting stellar shots simply because the animals don’t know you’re there.

Snow Geese Symphony | Beebower Productions

Camouflage Tips

If you decide to try camouflage on your next trip, we have a few tips to make your adventure more successful.

  • Break up patterns:  Animals are less likely to notice you if you break up patterns.  For example, cover your hands with camouflage gloves so the wildlife doesn’t see a glaring patch of skin jumping out of the brush.  Use netting to break up the pattern of your face.  Cover your hair with a camouflage hat.
  • Take off all shiny objects:  Remove anything that could attract attention.  Belt buckles, earrings, watches, and necklaces can catch the light and alert your subjects to your presence.
  • Match colors:  Choose camouflage that blends with the terrain.  You wouldn’t want to choose a snow patterned tent if you’ll be shooting in a grassland in summer.  Remember those sharp-eyed hawks.  If anything looks out of place, they’ll skedaddle.
  • Know your subject and use camo appropriately.  Some animals like the birds at Hagerman are used to people and don’t require extensive camouflage.  Other animals like the great blue heron and osprey will test your commitment to getting the photo.  You must be invisible.  Know not only the animal you hope to photograph, but also the environment in which they are comfortable.
  • Arrive early and let the wildlife acclimate to the “new” thing.  If possible, put up your blind several days before your shoot.  The longer the animal has to get used to the new object without your presence, the more relaxed it’ll be when you are shooting.  If you can’t place your blind several days ahead of the shoot, try to get settled before sunrise and the animals arrive.
  • Limit your movements:  Movement is a dead give away.  Try to stay as still as possible when the animals are around.
  • Stay quiet:  It seems obvious, but silence those cell phones.  Don’t rustle around grabbing camera gear.  Certainly don’t talk to anyone. 

Best of luck on your own wildlife adventure!   We’d love to hear about your successful camouflage discoveries.  Drop us a line and tell us all about it.

In Disguise Part 1

Crane with Red-Wing Blackbirds | Beebower Productions

He kind of looked like a cross between the Sasquatch, the Swamp Thing and a fuzzy, wuzzy bear all rolled into one.  The first time I saw Dad wearing his ghillie suit, I burst out laughing.  Really.  It’s not something you want to put on until you’re alone in the woods. 

While it looks bizarre, camouflage like a ghillie suite really does work in wildlife photography.  And photographers don’t have to wait until Halloween to dress up in a costume.   Cleverly blending into the forest, grasslands or lake lets photographers get close enough to fill the frame with wildlife. 

If you’ve ever tried to get a good look at bird in a tree, you know that most birds will fly away as soon as you make eye contact, move slightly or make any noise.  While standing 25 feet from the tree might be fine for a birder, the photographer needs not only to be closer to the bird, but also “invisible” to the bird.  That’s where camouflage comes into play.

Dad’s first experience with camouflage happened about eight years ago when he was just getting into bird photography.  He’d found a great blue heron fishing spot in a swampy area of the Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge in Texas.  Dad watched the heron for quite a while and studied its habits.  The heron would wait for a fish to swim into the channel, catch and eat the fish and then fly in an arc to the trees along the opposite shore.  Dad knew he could get a nice shot of the bird flying.

The problem was, he couldn’t get a clean shot from the shore due to brush and tree limbs.  Dad decided to use the kayak instead.  He knew after watching the heron that it was rather wily and very nervous around the boats carrying fishermen farther out on the lake. 

In order to keep the bird relaxed, Dad knew a specially disguised kayak would be needed.  So he got to work in the “elf shop” at home and created his own camo kayak.

Dad started with a basic one-seater, Native Ulitmate 12’ kayak he purchased for about $1,200 from Austin Canoe and Kayak in Texas.  This canoe’s super power is a special feature called a tunnel hull.  The unique hull combined with the wide bottom provides more stability than the average kayak.  You can even stand up in it without tipping over.

In addition to the stability, the seat sits lower in the kayak and creates a solid center of gravity.  A kayak with a low profile is less likely to roll.  That’s a plus in anyone’s book, especially if they have expensive camera gear that doesn’t respond well to a soaking in dirty lake water.

Dad loved the basic design of his new kayak, but he needed to modify it for wildlife photography.  He created a bucket-shaped contraption almost in the center of the kayak to hold two of the three legs of his tripod.  Once in place, you simply tighten the screws to hold the legs in place.  The bucket is attached to a plywood base that is in turn strapped to the bottom of the canoe. 

Camo Kayak | Beebower Productions

These modifications are important when you need to paddle.  Obviously you can’t hold a camera on a tripod and paddle at the same time.  With Dad’s device, your hands are free and your gear is safe.

As you can see, the third leg of the tripod isn’t ratcheted down.   You can shorten or lengthen the leg if you have animals on the move and you need a different camera angle.  You’ll also notice the Wimberly Gimble head combination on the tripod.  This combo gives you additional freedom to smoothly move the lens for tracking a moving target and helps create stability for the large, heavy 400mm lens.

Next Dad added camouflage netting he purchased at an Army Navy store.  He made sure the camera and tripod were covered as well.  Any flicker of light off the metal parts of the camera gear is like a giant flashing “Danger” sign to wildlife.

To avoid such disasters, LensCoat makes an entire line of camouflage covers for all of your camera gear, including tripods, flashes, lenses of all sizes and accessories.  You’ll find a variety of camo patterns from forest to snow.  It’s important to choose the right pattern for the area you’ll be shooting because a heron will see you if you’re using snow camo in a brown, reedy area on the water.

Dad in the Camo Kayak | Beebower Productions

Donning his own camouflage gear was the last step for Dad in outfitting the kayak.  For his inaugural trip, Dad chose a brown patterned, long sleeve shirt and hat he picked up at an Army Navy store.  He hung some brown netting from his hat to break up his facial features.  You could also throw some camo fabric over yourself and the camera gear for 100% coverage.  On this trip, however, he wanted to keep the flash free of fabric in case he needed fill light on the subject.

Dad was finally ready to test his newly outfitted kayak.  He had no problem getting the 55 pound vessel into the water by himself.  Dad hid in a reed-filled, swampy area while waiting for the heron to show up.

The whole thing worked really well.  The great blue heron showed up at the fishing spot about an hour later. The bird caught its fish, swallowed and took off for the trees.  It didn’t even know Dad was there. 

Great Blue Heron | Beebower Productions

It wasn’t until Dad began panning with his camera that the bird realized someone was watching it.  The panning movement, a smooth gliding motion of the lens as the photographer follows the bird, tipped off the heron that he wasn’t alone.  Although the heron didn’t return to the fishing hole Dad walked away with a nice shot, “Great Blue Heron”.

Floating Like a Duck

After the success with the kayak, it wasn’t long before Dad devised another way to photograph birds on the water.  The floating duck blind works perfectly in shallow water situations.  Dad constructed this blind from an old truck tire’s inner tube, a sheet of marine plywood and camouflage fabric.  He cut the plywood to fit on top of the inner tube and painted it all black with marine paint.  Then he used heavy-duty zip ties to attach the plywood to the inner tube. 

Floating Duck Blind | Beebower Productions

The platform holds his camera and other gear.  In the center of the platform Dad added an attachment for his Wimberly Gimbal head combo that holds his camera and long lens.  To complete the ensemble, Dad donned chest waders and threw a camouflage blanket over himself and the rig.

Before he jumped into the water with his new rig, Dad checked the depth of the pond.  It would be pretty awful to stumble across a deep hole, lose your footing and topple the blind, camera and all.  So Dad kayaked out and used a long pole to test the depth of the water.

Dad in the Floating Duck Blind | Beebower Productions

The rest was a piece of cake.  Dad simply walked the whole blind to a good location in the pond and waited for the wildlife.  Easy peazy.

While the set up is easy, we do have a few tips regarding the blind.  Arrive early in the morning.  Wild animals are very savvy about changes in their environment.  It’s what keeps them alive.

If you can place and anchor the blind in the pond a day or two before you shoot, it gives the animals time to get used to the new object.  You’ll have more success when you do actually shoot because the animals will be more relaxed. 

On the day of the shoot, you should arrive very early in the morning, before the animals show up.  Again, you don’t want to alert them to your presence.  Seeing the human crawl in the weird thing floating on the pond will turn them off to the whole area.

We also suggest you check with the locals to find out if water moccasins, alligators or other predators live in the water.  You’re better off safe, than sorry!   During his time at the Martin Refuge in South Texas, Dad’s ranch guide told him that shooting in the water was a bad idea.  They had water moccasins and alligators roaming the waterways.  (You can read all about Dad’s adventures at the ranch here.)

Using the camo kayak and floating duck blind methods of disguise will produce great results if you’re trying to photograph wildlife that hangs out in or near water.  You might get a few snide remarks about Sasquatch, the Swamp Thing and bears from your family members, but, hey, it’s Halloween.  Your fellow photographers will not only admire your amazing wildlife photos, they’ll be doubly impressed you had the guts to actually wear your camouflage in public.  That’s what really matters.

Join us next Wednesday when we take a look at three more camouflage options:  the super cool rolling blind, pop-up tents and the snicker-inducing ghillie suit (we saved the best for last!).

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