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Hunting For Good Photography Gear
© Michael Furtman
The business, and passion, of nature photography demands good gear. That may seem obvious, but what might not be so obvious is that much of the best equipment and clothing I use is not intended for photography. It is intended for hunting.
Besides photographing wildlife, I am an avid hunter. Have been my whole life. So when it comes time to buy field gear, I rarely purchase items made by photography manufacturers, but from companies like Cabela's, which cater to hunters, anglers and campers.
Why? Well just try to buy a camera bag that isn’t some rooty-tooty color, or is really made to withstand the elements, or doesn’t cost a ridiculous amount. And many of the items I need in the field simply aren’t available from those companies that cater to photographers. Items such as waders, blind materials, packs, and gear bags are essential to my work, but if you’re not a hunter you probably don’t know what’s out there, simply because you don’t get the catalogs from places like Cabela's, or visit their online or brick and mortar stores. But you should be.
The Importance Of Camouflage
I realize you’ve seen plenty of photos of wildlife photographers wearing outdoor clothing that isn’t camouflage. Typically they’re crouched down, photographing a mere few yards away from penguins or some other wildlife that has never seen a human before, or are on a photo safari in an African game preserve, photographing animals accustomed to the endless parade of eco-tourists and the like.
This is NOT the way most wildlife photography is done.
Most animals and birds, even those that are pretty acclimated to people, do not tolerate near approaches, or sudden movement. The need to mask your movement and alter your profile so that it doesn’t immediately shout HUMAN is critical. While mammals do not see color, they do see shading, gradients, and outlines – hence camouflage is important. And most assuredly birds do see color – that’s why they are often so colorful. They use it to recognize each other, especially for mating purposes.
Sometimes the difference between a good photo and a great photo is just a matter of a few yards, or a few seconds. I’ve had many a bird nearly land on me because I’ve blended into the background, and had large mammals allow me to get nearer because they’ve been confused by my camo clothing. They’re looking at me, and sizing me up, but the extra few moments of confusion on their part because I don’t present a typical human profile has yielded great shots. Often times they’ll grow relaxed and give me the chance to photograph routine behavior, rather than just that static profile shot that every photographer has.
If you’ve guessed I’m a strong proponent of camo clothing, then you’ve guessed right! But what kind? What pattern? One look at the Cabela’s catalog will reveal that hunters today have a pattern for just about every background in nature. Too many, perhaps. A lot of these patterns are very small, and because of that, I think less effective for photography. What you are looking for is a pattern with larger blocks of colors and shapes. The intent is to break up your outline. For that reason, I really have grown fond of Cabela’s “Outfitter Camo” pattern. It has large blogs of tan, brown, gray, etc. that blends into a myriad of backgrounds, and is very effective at altering your shape.
Warm, Silent, Waterproof
I photograph in all kinds of weather. I don’t like to photograph in the rain, but you can’t control what happens once you’re afield. It may have been sunny when you left the truck, but that doesn’t mean they day won’t turn lousy!
Clothing for wildlife photography, in addition to being camouflaged, needs to be quiet (rub your nails against it – if it makes any sound at all, it’s too noisy!) and should, in most cases, be warm. Fleece is an excellent choice, as is wool. Neither is noisy, both retain warmth when wet or damp, and both come in camo patterns, including the Outfitter pattern mentioned above. In addition, you’ll want something waterproof. It used to be that rain gear was intolerably noisy, and if you’re buying stuff made for back packers and the like, it still is too noisy. Fortunately many new garments, backed with Gore-tex (the breathable, waterproof membrane) are available to hunters in completely silent material. I have an older set of Cabela’s rain gear (jacket and pants) that have been worth every penny I spent (Gore-tex is generally not cheap). They don’t make that particular model any longer, but perusing their catalog, I see that they offer something similar called MT050 Quiet Pack jacket and pants. It also comes in the Outfitter camo (my older stuff isn’t that pattern). When and if my older raingear craps out, this would be the stuff I’d check out.
I’m sure there are other manufacturers of similar clothing – I’m not shilling for Cabela’s. I just happen to buy a lot of stuff from them because of their selection, and because they make really good equipment. Wherever you shop, or whatever you buy, do yourself a big favor and buy quality items. You can have all the best camera bodies and lenses in the world, but if you can’t stay afield because you’re cold, or wet, or if you frighten away the subjects because they can see you or hear you, then you’re just shooting yourself in the foot.
Some Specialized Gear I Like
Places such as Cabela's sell a lot of packs and bags that make great tools for wildlife photography. For instance, I happen to use their Ultimate Hunting Bag in X-Large for my camera bag. No, it doesn’t have all the little dividers inside like “real” camera bags do, but it is one half to one third the price, is built way better, is available in camouflage, is extremely water resistant, and has a zillion little pockets inside. The bottom is rigid waterproof material so when I set it down in a wet canoe or damp ground, I don’t have to worry about my gear getting wet. The top opens one-handed, which is great for keeping motion to a minimum when in the blind. It has a neat little pocket and tie down for my thermos (or water bottle), and a comfortable shoulder strap.
I can fit my camera, with 100-400mm lens attached, easily in the bag, as well as another body with short zoom attached, several other lenses and tele-converters, and all the flash cards, batteries, snacks, etc., that I need for the day in the blind. Because it doesn’t have dividers, I tend to put each item in small, fleece stuff sacks (a friend sewed them for me), and the camera bodies are protected by fleece stocking caps! Yes, fleece stocking caps. They’re cheap, cover a body nicely, and when the temperature drops, I actually put one on my head. Go figure…
I have another “blind bag” (that’s what hunters call them) made by Browning, called the Salt Creek Waterfowl Bag in the large size. Although I wish it had all the handy little pockets that the Cabela’s bag has, it does have a similar rigid, waterproof bottom. I use this bag when I want to carry a larger lens and body assembled inside (such as the Canon 300mm f/2.8 with hood). In case you’re wondering, I do NOT take my lenses off my bodies when in the vehicle or the field, and so want bags that hold my gear already assembled. Too many great shots are missed because gear is tucked away and disassembled.
OK. So we’re warm, dry, quiet and camouflaged. Our gear is inside a tough, camo bag. What else might you need that you can’t find at the camera store?
I suggest you just spend some time perusing the Cabela’s website, paying particular attention to the sections devoted to archery hunters, turkey hunters and waterfowl hunters. These hunters need to get near their quarry – just like you. So there are all kinds of portable blinds, neat clothing, camo material, bags, footwear, etc. that will be an aid in your nature photography.
One more item of clothing that, because I photograph waterfowl and water birds so extensively, I can’t be without is a good pair of chest waders. Don’t scrimp here and buy cheap, and don’t buy hip boots. Get a really good pair of breathable chest waders in camouflage. I had a pair of Cabela’s Dry-Plus Breathable Hunting Waders (Dry-Plus is a breathable fabric similar to Gore-Tex) that I wore for ten years before I needed to replace them – which, if you’ve owned waders you know is a heck of a long time! Obviously, when I bought a new pair last fall, I bought the current version.
There you have it – when it is time to buy field gear, don’t limit yourself to what you see on camera websites or camera stores! There are a lot of great items made for hunters that any serious wildlife photographer will immediately recognize as useful.
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