Use your Car as a Photography Blind

Beanbag for photography
Using a beanbag for wildlife photography from a vehicle.

Using a blind for wildlife photography can be highly effective. One of the most useful, ready-to-use mobile blinds that many of us already have is our vehicles. If you drive beside a wetland full of birds and get out of the car, most will immediately fly away. But if you stay in your car, many birds will continue going about their business. They know you’re there, but they’re used to seeing cars going by, and this seems less threatening than a person out in the open. We do a lot of wildlife photography from a vehicle, especially bird photography where we find wetlands next to a road.

Redhead ducks, Saskatchewan
These Redhead ducks seemed content to continue swimming around when we stopped at a wetland beside the road and photographed from the car.
Ring-necked pheasant
Ring-necked pheasants are quite difficult to approach, so photographing from a vehicle is often a good alternative.

Photographing from a vehicle is useful for big critters as well, not only to keep from spooking them, but for your own protection as well. Photographing a bear, moose, bison, or rutting elk at close quarters on foot is simply a bad idea. In many African wildlife parks, where something might eat you, you’re not allowed to get out of your vehicle, so photographing from your car is the only option.

Bison, Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan
This bison in Grasslands National Park was close enough that it felt a lot safer to photograph from inside the car.
Lions, Kruger National Park
You definitely want to be photographing from inside a vehicle when close to these guys.

Some photographers go all out by putting a screen over the open window with an opening for the lens, making it more like a traditional blind. While we haven’t found it necessary to go that far, it is important not to make sudden movements and to stay as quiet as possible. If your camera has a silent shutter mode, that might be useful as well, especially if you’re quite close to your subject. Sometimes when you pull up beside a wetland the birds may be wary at first and some might move away. But if you sit there for a while, they soon realize that you’re not a threat and they won’t worry about you getting close.

Yellow-headed blackbird
This yellow-headed blackbird came almost right beside the car as we were stopped beside a marsh.

Different Strategies

Since using a tripod in a vehicle is not practical, we need some other way to keep the camera and telephoto lens stable. Photographers use a variety of options, such as clamps attached to the car door with a tripod head attached. While certainly useful, we prefer a beanbag, which as a bonus is also a much cheaper option. This is essentially a bag filled with beans or some other material (we use dried field peas) that has enough give to it that you can nestle a big lens into it to keep it stable. You can buy them commercially or make one yourself.

This meadowlark was on a fence post right beside the road as we drove by, making it relatively easy to photograph.

Our favourite design is a bag with two “legs” that drape over the car door, with a large enough base on top to hold a long lens steady. One reason we prefer a beanbag over something that clamps on is that it’s much easier and quicker to put on and remove. A lot of our photography involves driving along dusty gravel roads, so it’s nice to be able to close the window between stops. A beanbag is also ideal for overseas travel. Once emptied, it takes up next to no room and weighs next to nothing. We always take ours when going to Africa, then buy something to fill it when we arrive.

Pronghorn buck, Saskatchewan
This pronghorn only stopped for a couple of seconds as we were driving by.

We also carry small pieces of water pipe insulation. You can buy them in most hardware stores for a couple of dollars or so for about a metre length, enough to cut into three or four pieces. Made of foam, they have a slit along one side and are meant to slip over the hot water pipes in your house to keep the heat in. However, the slit also fits perfectly over the glass in a partially opened car window. While it certainly doesn’t take the place of a beanbag, it’s quick and easy to grab if a beanbag isn’t handy. Having something to rest a long heavy telephoto lens on helps significantly to keep the camera steady enough to get a sharp photo. As an alternative, some photographers use pieces of foam pool noodles, with a slit cut to fit over the glass.

Photographing from a car
Using a piece of pipe insulation to rest the lens on the window glass.

The foam is also useful when we need to adjust the height. For example, we might come across a hawk sitting in a tree beside the road. If it is part way up the tree, put the foam on the window and turn up the window to the proper height to rest the lens on. We find these pieces of foam so handy that we leave them permanently under the front seats of our vehicles.

Swainson's Hawk, Southern Saskatchewan
We often find Swainson’s hawks sitting on fence posts as we drive around.

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3 thoughts on “Use your Car as a Photography Blind

  1. I found this to be very interesting. I purchased a fancy scope mount for windows from Cabela’s it works but take a bit to get setup. I’m getting a piece of foam first chance I get thank you.

    1. Thanks for your comment Ron. I’m sure that you’ll find both useful – the window mount for the best stability and a piece of foam for when you need to grab something quickly.

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