When speaking with wildlife and bird photographers, the subject of camouflage always initiates a rousing conversation. Some are surprisingly dismissive, others are all-in and, of course, there are those of us in the middle, who understand the benefits, but are not quite ready to order a complete ghillie suit. In fact, camouflage gear is not a panacea, and all photographers should agree that your location, movements, techniques, scent, and even breathing have more impact on getting that great animal photograph than what you are wearing or under what you are hiding. However, camouflage is beneficial and, more than just clothing and face paint, camouflage-patterned gear and accessories are important to getting the shots you want and keeping your equipment in good shape.
Before we mention some suggested camouflage gear, let’s look at what camo can and cannot do to improve your wildlife photography. For starters, it will not help you with research, preparation, gear decisions, camera settings, composition, or timing. It will only help you blend visually into your environment and avoid detection, assuming you are able to stay quiet and still.
An important point to remember is that photography is not hunting and is certainly not warfare. Our goal as photographers is not always to get the closest, most direct shot of an animal; a photograph that incorporates the animal’s environment or behavioral movements may be a much better photograph. Also, while some animals have excellent vision, most animals utilize their senses of smell and hearing to detect threats, and common camo gear does not help with that.
My point in mentioning the obvious is to stress that it is never necessary to overspend to improve your photography, but if you are at an intermediate stage in your wildlife photography practice and have developed the skills to be patient and prepared over long periods of time, often in uncomfortable or formidable settings, then camouflage accessories and coverings will help you get a shot you may otherwise have missed. For some people, “donning the uniform” helps to get into the proper mindset and this can improve your skills. There is also the simple fact that many folks, me included, like camouflage designs and, given a choice, might choose camo-patterned accessories simply because we like them more than black or other color options.
Of course, there are more than one kind of camo pattern and you should match with the environment and the season in which you expect to photograph. Whether working in snow, in fall colors, mid-summer greens, or in brush or marsh, there is a pattern that is best for you. Many photographers may work in a range of locales and cannot buy a new set for every spot, so a generalized camo set of forest green camo is a safe option. Also, factor in which animals you are photographing. Birds generally have very good eyesight and see colors, so blending in is important. Also, with birds, you are often on the edge of a meadow or tall grass, so camo should mimic those colors as much as possible. Deer and other larger animals will not see color as much as profile within a pattern, so trying to mimic the patterns of the surrounding brush and trees and to diminish your profile with a digital breakup pattern is more important than color choice.
Let’s consider some accessories that will help keep you out of sight and also protect your equipment and provide a bit of comfort in harsh conditions. Tripod leg protectors are available in a range of camouflage patterns and can be swapped out easily if you work in varied environments. They also protect your tripod from scratches, give you a soft place to hold, and provide a thermal barrier when the tripod legs get cold. Likewise, camouflage lens skins disguise and protect your lenses, particularly important because of the long lenses used in wildlife photography. LensCoat and easyCover Lens both produce a wide variety of neoprene camo skins custom-sized for most lenses. There are also many options when it comes to camouflage camera body skins, in silicone or neoprene. These coverings may also prevent glare from bright sun reflecting from your equipment and potentially spooking your subject.
Other accessories that are made with camouflage patterns include beanbag camera supports, such as this beast from MOVO Photo, a classic Domke shoulder bag, straps by ONA, and a gimbal head from Leofoto. An interesting camo-patterned set of hunting tools that can be helpful to photographers comes from BOG—monopods, bipods, and tripods that can also serve as walking sticks, a seat, and camera support. Jobu Design makes a 31" Camouflage Tripod Bag to complete the look.
Covers, Tents, and Blinds
Perhaps the most effective camouflage item for the intermediate photographer is a blind or tent that can provide almost complete covering for photographer and gear and enables a degree of concealed movement for body adjustments and lens changes. LensCoat makes a series of blinds in varied camouflage patterns and different sizes, up to approximately 7' (2.26 m). Some are water resistant and all offer a mesh viewing window, a cinched opening for the lens, and a slot for a flash unit, as well as internal pockets for storage.
The PATRON Tent from Novoflex is a large solid-colored olive tent with three openings for viewing and lens placement, and Japan Hobby Tool has a camo-patterned tent with multiple large openings.
For gear protection and to help blend into your surroundings, numerous “raincoats” are available for lens and camera. Made from breathable poly tricot material, LensCoat markets several in a range of patterns and sizes, and some offer foldaway arm sleeves for easy access to lens and camera controls. In addition to blocking stray light from entering your lens, TravelHoods are an effective way to disguise and protect the end of your long lens as it sticks out of a blind or bush. Because they are very light and fold flat, they are also a practical alternative to the often large and expensive lens hoods made for ultra-telephoto lenses.
As mentioned, remaining still is one of the biggest challenges of wildlife photography and, after hours in any one position, the body needs to move and adjust. An option to maintain comfort after long hours in a tent or blind is the BOG 360 Ground Blind Chair, which collapses to be portable and swivels for easy angle adjustments.
When it comes to clothing, there is an almost-infinite number of camouflage options available; remember, again, to match yourself with your environment and wear earth tones, even if not wearing full-on camo patterns. Even the classic khaki photographer’s vest can be a good option, along with the Glacier Glove Outback Hat. If it’s a damp day, a simple green or black rain poncho can serve. Finally, have a look at the fingerless gloves from Glacier Glove with Realtree camo pattern.
As we mentioned at the outset, the need for camouflage in wildlife photography always seems to spark a rousing debate, and we’d love to hear your thoughts about your setup in the Comments section, below.
Wildlife photography covers a lot of ground. I also agree it often sparks a rousing debate.
I shoot with 600mm f/4 and also a Astro-Tech AT80EDT F/6 ED TRIPLET REFRACTOR at approx 1000mm.
Concealment while a worthwhile pursuit; nothing beats long range.
One of the #1 mistakes I see wildlife photogs make is that of a lack of patience AND, arriving at the wrong time.
Depending on ones subject, it is always advantageous to arrive while still dark, early morning..find a comfy spot and wait; this is where patience pays off. Showing up at 10am at a marsh and hoping to get a pic of that rare feathered friend would be luck.
Do I wear camo? Sometimes, depends on where I am shooting.
Generally however dark clothing is usually ok and th elack of movement and noise.
Thanks for the comment Pete, good points all. I like this tip the best: "find a comfy spot and wait."
I cannot tell from the picture of the person hand holding the long telephoto lens resting on a rock/tree stump on top of the cliff if he has some kind of shoulder harness/vest kit. No mention in the article of the gear in that picture. Please advise as it gets tiresome free handling the long lens without some support - I like to walk around a lot to find better spots in national parks.
Thanks John S for reading Explora. Yes, the person in that image is using a chest mount support, perhaps similar to this one.
I have been in bird photography for several years now, and am totally convinced that camouflage does help. Just from common experience. Would put it in a few words: the more camouflaged you are, the closer you can get to the subject! That factor is enlarged by learning to reduce your noise and to reduce your movements as much as your strength, sometimes holding 8-10 lbs equipment, or your age permits. Coupled with all this, comes your sight and hearing capacity. Because how many times happens that a wonderful bird flies from very close to you when you are doing your best for not being heared or seen, but you didn't see or hear that subject! It lets you get close because all your techniques but if you didn't see it, then it finally flies in front of you and you didn't see it still!!!!
In my opinion, there are colours that are not friendly to birds. Blue colors are not good if you want to get the extra closeness to birds. They don't like jeans or any other blue clothes. Forget red, bright yellow or brilliant greens, even in small details. Blacks, beige, dark greens and browns are ideal. Have the patience of cutting away any tags or stripes with those colors, from shoes to hats. There is no room for vanity on showing any brand tag. Birds have such a sharp view that will be able to count how many threads per inch your tag has from hundreds of feet away! Some lens covers fail dramatically in being unseen when they leave areas uncovered, and a white line appears there. Tripods are almost impossible to camo. You can apply camo stripes to the upper part, and make all the bright bolts and elements to vanish. But extendable legs are not able to be disguised. Choose tripods with dark/not brilliant legs.
Any symmetric pattern or patterns with strong lines are not friendly. try to cover the letters and logos of all your equipment.
Thank you Alfonso for reading and for the insightful comment.
As a 25 year veteran wildlife photographer and veteran of multiple deployments in Afghanistan, as a Green Beret, I can speak on camo. It definitely can and does have benefits, if it didn’t you wouldn’t see it being used. There is no better camouflage than being invisible, but unfortunately that’s a secretive, classified subject. You can do your own research on that if you want, not everything about invisibility is classified, but you get the point. It’s not a technology that’s available to the general public, but it does exist. So were left with modern day camouflage and it can be very, very good. The problem is animals, mammals and birds both have a heightened sense of awareness to any movement. So you’re much better off setting up a hide and than covering your lens, tripod legs, etc, in lens coat products. Outside of offering benefits unrelated to the camouflage itself, they offer very little benefit to the wildlife photographer. So although I used to buy and use Lens Coat products and still do in some ways, it’s not for its ability to help hide me or my gear. The truth is I don’t buy or wear any camouflage when I’m doing my wildlife photography. It’s not that I’m not a believer, because like I said, I know it’s benefits and it’s limitations. I like to move and I like to hand hold my Nikon 500mm f/4E VR FL and D5 or D500. I’ve also learned so much about wildlife and my subjects over the years, behavior, environment, nesting habits...you name it. That knowledge is much more valuable in helping you both find and better photograph your intended subject(s)! At the end of the day, I know wildlife is extremely hyper vigilant when it comes to movement! Especially any animal that both hunts and is hunted, but all animals in general as well. So knowing this, and being hyper-vigilant myself, I use cover and concealment to my advantage as much as possible. Basically I use my experience and training from the Army and have adapted to my wildlife photography. Someone once said, “as Green Beret’s, we could be living in the addict in your home for two weeks, without you even knowing!” I thought that was a wonderful way of explaining what we were capable of doing and it’s translated well. Now there is no way, without spending countless hours training, to explain how this all translates. This is not my point here, my point is you don’t need camo, as much as you need intelligence. Research your subjects, learn everything you can about them and their habits, etc. This and understanding cover and concealment will help you get closer, more than wearing camouflage will. Honestly it takes years of experience, but we all start somewhere and my best tip is to read, read, read and then read some more. Literally learn everything you can about the types of birds and or other animals in which, you’re most interested in. There is nothing that will help you get closer or help you to find the subjects you’re interested in. So I personally do not wear any camouflage, but I also would never wear bright colors either. My advice to you, is save your money and buy or build a hide! In the meantime learn everything you can about hides, cover and concealment, the differences and how you might adapt those to your wildlife photography! Camouflage is not really going to help you and while it also can’t hurt you, there is way more to wildlife photography and the number one thing is prior knowledge of your intended subjects! Period!
Thank you for your experienced comment Patrick. I'm curious what you prefer to photograph, birds?, large mammals, etc.?
Camo does make a difference. I've watched bird flight patterns change when someone with white and or bright clothing showed up to shoot. As mentioned in the article it doesn't have to be camo as browns, greens and blacks work too.
Thanks for the comment Robert, interesting to hear of that experience and the noticeable difference in flight. I usually keep my tie-dyes at home when in the woods, but yes, blending greens and browns and a comfortable spot to minimize movement is good place to start....perhaps an overhead tarp (not blue!) if you're staying put for awhile. Thanks again
If camo isn't an option or isn't used but instead, greens, browns and blacks, make sure you paint your face too .... especially caucasians.
Thank you for the comment William.