I started taking photos from my car when my local wildlife refuge began enforcing a rule that required people stay in their vehicle on the wildlife drive. I wasn’t happy at first, but I soon learned using a car as a mobile blind could be a great advantage, allowing me to observe and document natural bird behavior at closer range than when I was on foot.
Many years later, when back issues no longer allowed for me to lug around my long lens, years of practice had prepared me for a more complete transition to car-based photography. Today, I’ve learned lack of mobility doesn’t have to hinder my work. In fact, it’s not only a more comfortable way for me to shoot—it’s also my preferred choice.
Here are some tips for nailing great shots from the front seat. Just always remember: Put the car in park first.
Ideally, I like to place my camera on a window mount with a ball head. This allows me to be totally ready for fleeting photo opportunities. You can also use a beanbag or a pool noodle, partially slicing it through so it can fit over your slightly raised window and support your lens. Turning off your car, radio, and lights will complete your blind. If you leave your car running, vibrations can affect your photo, and you give up your low profile.
I keep a camera with my 500mm lens and a 1.4 teleconverter within easy reach on my passenger seat, wedged between my bag and pillows. Some people may even want to use their seatbelt to secure everything, though I find that gets in the way of being ready quickly. I have my camera settings preset for any action I might encounter.
If you’re in the market for a car, you might want to consider factors like the size of the window and the ability to (safely) turn off the headlights at will. Ideally, a window should be large enough to accommodate a mount, ball head, and camera with some space to move freely. Vehicles with a more square-shaped large window are the most suitable. If a back-seat passenger is also taking photos, you’ll want those windows to roll all the way down too.
Choose parking areas and roads with little traffic, where you can safely sit to the side for extended periods of time. Sometimes, I’ll actually hang back a distance to allow for birds like Short-eared Owls to feel comfortable and become active. Once they’re hunting, I will slowly move my vehicle, easing up to where I’ve noticed their favorite perches. Because you are likely limited in the ways you can maneuver, be aware of natural light and the backgrounds of your subjects when you situate yourself. A cluttered background will distract from your image and could also make it harder to focus. While placing the light behind you is ideal, backlighting can also be effective, so don’t despair if birds cross the road.
If you see a perched bird while driving, they are apt to fly away if you slow down or stop suddenly. It’s better to have your camera equipment ready before you approach, even if it means driving by and turning around. If that is necessary, maintain an even speed that is normal for that road while passing by. A change of speed alerts a wary bird as much as stopping too quickly. If you are using a window mount, get your equipment mounted and locked down on the window before you begin your approach. Ideally, time your approach while opposing traffic is moving at the same time to distract the bird and make it less likely to flush. Do this when there are no cars in the lane coming from behind you—keep safety first. Once you’re repositioned and safely off the road, turn your car off and you are ready to photograph. This is best done on quiet back roads where traffic is less of a concern.
Knowing the behavior of your subject really helps predict where and when to set up. Part of my time in the field is always spent studying birds, and a car gives you the ability to observe unobtrusively.
For songbirds, look for food sources. Knowing what they eat and in what season will increase your odds for extended time with them. Parks are good places to find quiet spots to photograph. Be patient and wait for the birds to feel comfortable with your vehicle.
Birds can also have favorite perches and flight paths that can help you decide where to go. For example, knowing flight behaviors helped me capture a shot of a Brant goose from a parking area where I could move freely. I noticed a small flock moving from water to shore, and knowing that birds in a flock don’t like being alone, I predicted the stragglers would move soon. I situated my car so that the flying bird would be well lit and then focused on one in the water showing signs of being antsy. I guarantee that this couldn’t have been done if I were on foot—a walker had already twice flushed the birds even from a distance away.
If you have mobility issues or just can’t lug that heavy gear around anymore—or even if you can—your vehicle can provide an excellent way to enhance your photography. Pack your patience and get back out there doing what you love.
Diana Whiting is an award-winning photographer hoping to tell the stories of wild creatures that will connect viewers to their world.