Bird Photography using a Chair Hide

If, like me, you are keen on wildlife photography, or if you like just sitting and watching the birds and wildlife, then a small, portable hide can be really useful.  The question is which one to get, and are they any good?
I love photography, and in particular taking pictures of the birds and other wildlife in our woods.  Even with good long lenses, it is difficult to get close enough to the subjects without having to crop the images, thus losing definition and detail, even with the best of cameras and lenses.  With a good, fast 300mm lens from Canon or Nikon costing upwards of £5k, and longer lenses costing considerably more, the realistic solution for most of us is getting closer to the subject rather than buying a longer lens.
There are a wide variety of hides available.  You could build a semi-permanent hide using camo tarps and a wooden frame, or even from straw bales, and we considered this.  The problem is, at least in our woods, that the feeders are close to the building (for obvious reasons) and any semi-permanent structure is an invitation to people to come and do harm.   It also isn’t portable – but a lot of the birds don’t come to the feeders and we have to go to the birds, rather than having the birds come to us.  Many birds are territorial, so you have to be able to move around the different territories in the woods, particularly if one breeding pair has decided to nest in a location that is hard to photograph.
There are a range of portable pop-up hides available, similar to lightweight pop-up tents.  Although they are portable, unless your knees are made of steel, you will also need a chair to sit on to make use of them.  Added to the not-inconsiderable weight of photography gear (camera, lenses, tripod), this can make quite a burden.
So I ended up looking at the pop-up hides based around a chair or chairs.  Stealth Gear supply one-man and two-man hides.  The advantage of the latter is that you can either have somebody in there with you, or you have some extra space for your clobber.  But it is bigger and heavier and more complicated too, and since I am usually the only person who is daft enough to sit out in all weathers trying to get that one wonderful shot, I opted for the one-man hide, costing around £85 online.
The hide is based on a standard folding canvas chair, with canvas arms and the usual drink holder in one of the arms.  To this has been attached a clever folding canopy, which can be unfolded a bit like a slinky toy to give a chair with a camouflage covering.  In the covering are various windows of varying sizes.  Each window is covered with camo netting, so you can observe without being seen.  The window can also be unzipped to allow you to poke out a lens, binoculars (or even an air rifle if you are after rabbits or squirrels). The front also unzips to give a much larger field of view, but with the disadvantage that you are much more visible.  The canopy can be pinned down with tent pegs to minimise flapping, reduce drafts (very important in winter!) and stop it blowing away. The lower front opens to allow you to crawl in, but I have found it easier to flip the front up, sit down, then pull the front back down again and secure the pegs from the inside.
It isn’t completely waterproof – there are little gaps here and there where the zips have been stitched in – but it is a million times better than standing out in the open, or trying to stand under a camo net or tarp that you have erected yourself.  It is pretty windproof unless you open the windows, although there is a bit of a draft underneath, which can make it pretty cold around the feet and your bottom after a while.
The chair is quite small – you wouldn’t want to be a very well-built person – but large enough.  I am only 5ft 2ins, but it seems to have enough room for my husband who is larger.  However you can’t store stuff underneath it, so you need the room at the front of the hide to put your camera bag down.  The problem with that is when you use a conventional tripod, there isn’t a lot of room for the tripod, your feet, your camera bag and a nice flask and box of sandwiches.  I have switched to using a smaller tripod that has a large central column and takes less floor area (made by 3-Legged Thing), and this is great – I have room for my feet, a camera bag and my lunch.
So are the birds fooled by it?  Amazingly, yes, provided you have sited it such that the camouflage works.  Set it against the light, and it will be a looming object that the birds don’t like.  Set it into an existing bush, or so that the light shines onto it from the perspective of the bird, and it blends in surprisingly well.  Indeed, I have had a robin sitting on top, singing away (quite deafening), and lots of blue tits and great tits perching on top of the hide too.  It is worth putting the hide up a little while before you go into it, so the birds can get used to it.
You DO have to keep quite still.  This means largely keeping your hands on the camera for the birds can see your hands move rapidly up to the camera if something interesting comes along.  You have to move slowly, and not swing the camera too quickly either.  Opening the side windows also lets light in, and lets the birds see you, so it isn’t a bad idea to wear camo gear inside the hide.  Keeping still inevitably means you get cold, and in the winter I took to wearing ski gear to keep warm (as well as a flask of coffee).  I also found that a gimbal or ball-and-socket head on the tripod was much easier to control than a standard pan and tilt head as you made less in the way of movements of your hands.
And when you want to move, it folds up and clips together such that it fits into a bag that you can carry like a rucksack.
And it works.  It is a relatively cheap way of getting closer to your subject, massively cheaper than buying a long prime lens, and massively more convenient than making your own.  You are somewhat limited in the viewpoint you take (all your pictures are from sitting height).  You definitely get much closer than you can just sitting there with your telephoto lens on the camera.  Indeed, I have been too close on occasion, a few birds coming within the minimum focal distance of my lens (1.8 metres).   It may or may not be robust – I have yet to use it for a whole year, so can’t comment on that – but I think it has already proved its value.
Some tips for taking good photographs from the hide
  1.  Site the hide about an hour before you get in it to let the birds get used to it.
  2. Site the hide where it blends in, and doesn’t give a looming presence from the perspective of the birds.
  3. Try and site the hide where there is a good background (not too confused), and where the lighting is good (I find side or sometimes back lighting is good for getting definition on the bird’s feathers, rather than flat straight-on sunlight)
  4. Go for places where there are birds (do your homework).  Either where you know birds are hanging out or alternatively put up feeders.  If you do the latter, you will find it almost embarrassingly easy to take pictures of birds on feeders.  Try and observe where the birds are approaching from and what intermediate perches they are using.  Then you can get pictures of them on the way to or from the feeder, in a more natural setting.
  5. Use a good tripod with a ball or gimbal head.  A gimbal head allows you to move the camera naturally as if you were holding it by hand, but provides all the support you need, at least up to 400mm.
  6. Unless your camera has very good autofocus, go for manual focus and pre-focus on the favoured perches.
  7. Use exposure compensation – your birds will often be backlit, or appear against a bright sky, and you will need to over-expose by usually 1 to 1 1/3 stops to avoid the birds appearing as dark little bird-shaped silhouettes.  Learn how to use this feature on your camera without looking at the controls.  You won’t always be able to check the exposure on the screen, so use a best guess or bracket the exposures.
  8. Try and get the birds doing something interesting:  fighting, flying in or out, in a natural pose (such as the head-down pose of the nuthatch), about to take off, with a seed in their beak , or even with a dynamic pose or interesting expression.
  9. Enjoy the common birds as well as the rare ones and take lots of photos of them – that way you will get use to photography in the hide, and won’t mess up when the rare bird makes a fleeting appearance.  I must have taken thousands of photos of blue tits, but I love these little birds, and could watch them all day.  It means when a reed bunting, or yellowhammer, or willow tit flies in I’m on the ball and used to taking photos, and can get a decent result, rather than an over-excited, under-exposed blur.
The photos in this article were all taken in a single afternoon using a Canon EOS5D Mk III with 100-400 zoom lens, and a Three Legged Thing tripod with ball head.  Before buying the hide, it would take weeks to get just one shot as good as some of these.  My verdict – if you like your photography it is worth the money.

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