How to Photograph Wildlife From a Hide
May 23, 2020
Most of us are familiar with that fleeting moment when a sparrowhawk weaving through the washing line and over the fence both arrives and is gone quicker than you can say its name. But view one up close and you see a captivating intensity transmitted through yellow staring eyes. But a nervous tension means the click of a shutter or camera movement and the opportunity is lost. Other than having a lucky encounter, to have good repeated opportunities for photography requires being a little inventive. This is the story of how I created that opportunity with a little bit of innovation.
Wildlife photography has evolved from its earliest beginnings nearly 150 years ago through ingenuity. Back in the 1890s the pioneering Kearton brothers gained celebrity status as nature photographers through the wacky ways they got close to birds, most famously using a hollowed-out cow as a hide. This was as much for practical reasons as it was a marketing ploy to generate public interest in their pictures. Less well-known photographers were already using simple cloth hides to conceal themselves with no less success.
For a century the simple cloth hide changed little – small innovations in design arrived with new materials and pole constructions to make erection quicker and simpler, yet the basic design has survived and is still used today. To photograph some of our shyest birds of prey some photographers have gone to great lengths building wooden and sometimes stone hides to conceal themselves. But the issue of lens movement has always hampered this type of photography.
In 2005 a Spanish nature photographer by the name of José B Ruiz built a raised pool at his home in Alicante to which he attached a hide. This style of pool became known as a reflection pool but the hide was the real game-changer. Instead of having his lens stick out the front, José sat behind a sheet of reflective one-way glass. He was invisible to the birds and the glass helped dampen the sound of his camera’s shutter. Nervous species could be photographed acting naturally in their environment, oblivious of human presence.
It was also around this time that a talented Hungarian wildlife photographer, Bence Máté, was experimenting building hides with one-way glass. He has gone on to take hide design to another level, popularising the use of one-way glass in hides worldwide. Such hides are becoming an increasingly popular addition to photographers’ gardens. Based in Finland, Jari Peltomäki has gone a step further by installing a 4x2m window in a room overlooking the garden at Villa Finnature guesthouse allowing photography without leaving the house.
On a summer’s day four years ago a sparrowhawk landed by a small pool I had constructed in a small woodland in North Norfolk. Sat in a small canvas hide with a poor view, my tiny lens movement to frame him was met with a pitiless glare then a flurry of wings. You guessed it, I missed the shot.
I resolved that day to build my own hide with one-way glass.
Building the hide
My first decision was where to site it. It needed to be open enough for sunlight to reach the woodland floor throughout the year. As there was a lack of water I decided the main feature in front of the hide should be a pool. Most wildlife photographers like to shoot at a low angle to their subject – as the more on the level you are, the more intimate the picture feels. To create this opportunity required building a sunken hide, so first I dug a hole around a metre deep and 3x2m in area. In retrospect I got a bit carried away with the digging but I used the excavated soil to bank up one side, so my pool would be level, as the ground was on a slight slope. Before investing in a wooden structure I erected a makeshift hide made from weed control cloth hung around a wooden frame.
Once erected the next job was to create my pool. Although reflection pools have become extremely popular, I have never been a big fan – drinking birds often look like they are standing on the edge of a drop, which they are. So my intention from the start was to create something that had a natural feel with good backgrounds. Shallow pools work best as birds like to wade in to bathe and sparrowhawks often sit for minutes at a time in summer, as if lying in the bath. I made my pool 6in deep but with a deeper area in the centre so it would retain water and attract pond life. Once the pool was filled it soon started to attract visitors. I left a camera trap to record and discovered common buzzards, roe deer and a host of small birds coming to drink.
It was time to invest in a professional-looking hide. If you have ever taken pictures through your kitchen window you will know that any old glass is not going to be good enough. Some of my early experiences using hides with glass in mainland Europe were disappointing. Some hide sessions resulted in soft pictures, clearly not every hide had the highest-quality glass fitted. So when I began to look for a glass supplier I contacted some Spanish friends of mine who run Photo Logistics and have built more than 80 hides across Spain.
The gold standard brand for one-way glass is Stopsol. Roger Sanmartí from Photo Logistics who lives in Barcelona personally inspects each piece of glass he buys, ensuring it is clear of any imperfections. I knew by dealing with Roger my glass would be of the highest quality. In April 2016 I drove down to Barcelona, spent a week photographing with Roger and drove back to Norfolk with a car full of Stopsol glass.
Once my hide was built by a local shed maker and the glass fitted I was in business. For the first 18 months opportunities were slow: birds visited but sporadically and sparrowhawks tantalisingly flew past but never landed. By spring 2018 vegetation had started to grow up around the pool and the increased cover gave birds added confidence to drink and bathe.
During the winter I put out roadkill to lure buzzards in. Then one day a photographer who had rented the hide for the day showed me a picture of a male sparrowhawk sat on top of a dead partridge we had put out. That same male sparrowhawk then continued to visit during the summer, to bathe in the pool.
Sat in the corner of my office is a large freezer and throughout the year if I see any birds dead by the roadside I stop to pick them up. Before long I had accumulated a good number of wood pigeons and these have proved to be the perfect lure to bring the hawks in. I put out food every three to four days which keeps them keen and ensures they are not reliant on
In summer when they come to bathe these visits are often the best photographic opportunities, as they are generally very relaxed and can linger for more than an hour. Opportunities to photograph four different sparrowhawks this past winter have been outstanding. But it’s not just the sparrowhawks the glass has helped with. Buzzards are regular visitors too, as are many other woodland birds.
The benefit of being behind the glass means you can move your camera around with impunity to catch in-flight shots and bursts of action. Above all, sitting in a hide looking out through a window at the natural world beyond is very relaxing and you never know what you might see, and photograph, next.
How to create a hide
Hide glass options
There are a number of options when buying one-way glass, however Stopsol 4mm Classic Clear made by AGC is regarded as the best. You lose 1.5 stops of light when shooting through it but as long as you ensure you get your supply from a good batch of glass then you’ll see little, if any, noticeable degradation in picture quality, as illustrated by the images in this article.
How to set up a hide
When setting up a hide with windows it is important to slightly angle them so the ground is reflected, to deter birds from flying into the glass. You should also use a net set a few inches from the glass if there is still a danger of this occurring. A net will also deter birds such as pheasants, which can aggressively attack their own reflection both stressing the bird and potentially damaging your expensive glass! Whenever I’m not using the hide I always ensure the windows are covered.
Hide light problems
Light sources inside the hide need to be avoided. Simple things like light reflected from a mobile phone screen on your face may alert sharp-eyed birds to your presence. Photographer Jari Peltomäki (an early adopter) recommends hanging a black curtain at the back of the hide to help keep it dark inside and he sometimes wears black clothing and a black balaclava if setting a hide to shoot into the light. Long eaves help in this situation too. The larger the piece of glass you use the bigger the light problem.
When designing the hide ensure you have plenty of ventilation. Air flow in front of the glass will prevent it from steaming up. I have vents either side at the front. Some photographers I know have developed an electric fan system to blow air on to the glass.
David can source the highest quality glass for interested photographers. He can be contacted via his website www.davidtipling.com