As a wildlife photographer, getting close to subjects is a key part of the job and sooner or later you’ll discover that sometimes we need a little more than just great tracking skills to get the shots we want. Hides give us the ability to conceal ourselves from our subjects and blend into an environment for close-up image that often wouldn’t be possible any other way.
Just like cameras and lenses, hides come in all shapes and sizes and each has its advantages and disadvantages…
A simple form of hide, bag hides often resemble a large camouflage cape that pulls over a photographer and tripod. These disrupt the outline of the photographer, removing the human shape and helping you blend into the environment. Due to their small size and lightweight nature they’re excellent for taking with you out into the field for short to medium length stakeouts.
Probably the most frequently used type, dome hides offer a tent-style design that conceals a photographer on location. Due to their more semi-permanent nature they can be left in position for many weeks or even years at a time to help them become part of the landscape - especially handy if you’re working with more skittish subjects. Due to their design, dome hides are far more comfortable than bag hides as they offer space for home comforts such as a camping chair and small table. Perfect for making those long projects and stakeouts a little easier! Also, being fully waterproof means you can carry on working in all but the worst of weathers.
Static hides are often wooden structures and are a common sight at many nature reserves in the UK and around the world. Being permanent, the wildlife that surrounds them quickly becomes accustomed to them, offering good regular views. However, they’re not always the best photographically (unless specifically designed and installed by a photographer, such as those offered to rent by a number of pros), as they’re geared more towards birdwatchers and so aren’t positioned with creative images in mind.
Before setting up a hide, you always need permission from the landowner. Farmers will often be happy to help, but always respect any wishes before going ahead and putting a hide in place. Hides work best on private land far away from footpaths in order to help avoid additional disturbance.
Of course, you first need to find a spot where your target subject visits regularly and then work from there to develop the hide. Think about the light, where the sun moves through the day, and especially focus on morning and evening light as these times often not only provide the most dramatic and interesting conditions, but also coincide with periods of high activity for most species.
After setting your hide in the ideal spot, “bushing up” (adding a few twigs, sticks and local vegetation) can really help to blend it into a habitat, helping to make the wildlife more accepting. Leave a cardboard tube sticking out of the hide window, as this will get your subjects used to the notion of a lens coming out of the hide.
In terms of photography, be sure to shoot some test frames to check your background, focusing distance etc before finally getting into the hide. There’s nothing more frustrating than weeks of work to then see an annoying twig in the background of a final image. Use a small soft toy roughly the same size as your target subject to help you make sure everything's looking perfect.
Working from hides involves a lot of hard work in order to get the perfect final images. Setting up and positioning branches, twigs etc can take a long time to get right, but when it all comes together it’s a very rewarding experience.
Tom Mason is one of the UK’s most exciting young wildlife photographers and conservationists. He leads workshops and seminars and writes a monthly blog for the RSPB. See more of his work here.