Wildlife Watching Supplies standard hide
Compared with other types of photographers, bird photographers are at a disadvantage. Most birds are small, and therefore best shot from a relatively short distance, but birds can see far better than people, and are generally wary of humans. Thus, a bird photographer is forced both to use long lenses and to get quite close to the intended subjects, albeit the subjects object to this. This is where camouflage comes into play. Although birds can see very well, they seem to be fooled easily by camouflage.
A useful thing to remember is that, in this context, camouflage is anything that hides the human shape. Although most wild birds are wary of humans, they are often indifferent to human-made objects, like cars and buildings. There are several reasons for this. The first is easy to explain. When humans are around in the wild, often they do so for the purpose of hunting birds. In fact, birds in the wild are more shy than those in urban settings, where humans are often seen around and hunting does not take place.
Most birds see cars and buildings very often, and have learned by experience that these things don't hunt birds. Birds simply don't draw a link between humans and human-made structures: for them, buildings are an accidental part of the landscape, and cars are just another uninteresting variety of cow. Therefore, camouflage only needs to be something that hides the human shape and movement, and does not look too different from the surrounding landscape. A small wooden outhouse, for instance, is easily accepted by birds in an area where buildings are present. Any permanent structure is accepted after a while, even if it is blaringly artificial and different from anything else in sight. It can even be moved from day to day, without causing alarm.
A third reason is that most birds, unlike mammals, are not guided by smell. Therefore, the precautions that e.g. deer hunters take in order to disguise their smell are not necessary with birds. In my experience, birds in urban settings are not guided by sound, either. I have recently begun to photograph birds from a hide set up in my garden, and can attest that most birds are totally indifferent to moderate noise. I have been clearing my throat loudly and repeatedly while shooting small birds 2-3 metres away from my hide, and even talked to them, with no visible reaction at all. Larger and smarter birds like magpies and crows are an exception. They seem to understand that a human voice means a human is close by, even if not in plain sight. The clicking of a SLR or DSLR camera may alarm birds at the beginning, but they quickly get used to it.
Given the above, a specialised hide for photography may seem unnecessary, except for field work in the wild. However, while a shack or a camping tent may provide enough hiding, these structures are not made with photographers in mind. Hunting hides are closer to a photographer's need, and may be adequate in some cases. Still, a hunting hide usually does not provide the best settings and view for photography. Fortunately, there are a few companies that market hides designed specifically with photographers in mind. Wildlife Watching Supplies is one of these, and is owned by nature photographer Kevin Keatley. This page discusses my (so far limited) experience with their standard dome hide.
This product is a dome-shaped cloth hide supported by two flexible metal poles that cross at the top. It is available in a variety of camouflage patterns and sizes, and several accessories can be added. My hide, shown below, is in "Advantage" pattern. Other patterns are available, and also additional covers and scrims to throw on top. It is 1.2 m square at the bottom and 1.35 m high, so it will accommodate a medium-sized photographer sitting on a rather low stool, or a large photographer sitting on the ground. It is easily assembled, and the pole segments are kept together by elastic ropes when disassembled. Entrance is through a slit at the back. This model has no ground sheet, but one can be purchased separately, or a piece of waterproof tarp can be used if desired. The hide has a rather large front window for shooting, and two smaller windows on the sides. All windows can be closed with external flaps. The cloth is thick, strong and water repellent, while the weight and size when folded are reasonably low. This company supplies several larger, smaller and lightweight models as well, in a variety of shapes.
The above pictures show the hide in winter settings with all flaps closed, and with a tripod, camera and long lens in shooting position. The front leg of the tripod is seen passing through a slit provided for this purpose.
It really shows that this hide has been designed by a photographer, and refined through experience of its practical use. All windows have internal curtains of semi-transparent scrim (the front one in two partly overlapping portions, for inserting a long lens in the middle). The front window also has a mosquito net inside the scrim. There is a vertical slit below the front window for inserting the front leg of a tripod, thus providing more room inside and moving the lens forward to allow a wide swinging angle. It also allows the tripod legs to be opened widely for added stability, if your tripod can do this. The slit may also be used to shoot from close to ground level. All flaps and openings are designed to keep out rain, are secured with velcro tabs, and in addition there are numerous, strategically placed eyelets and strings to fasten the flaps and curtains close or open. Should you decide that velcro is too noisy, you can cut a provided extra length of velcro pad in pieces, and fasten it to the velcro tabs of the hide. In this way, only the strings are used.
The hide is fastened to the ground with lightweight metal pegs in the corners (and optionally at the centre of the back flap). Cords and extra pegs are supplied to tie down the hide (see pictures). This makes the hide very well anchored also in rather strong winds. The poles are strong enough to carry a moderate weight of snow, and the dome shape prevents an excessive amount of snow from accumulating on top (in the picture above, about 20 cm of snow had fallen overnight, but most of it had slid down the sides of the hide). The dome shape is also resistant to wind and rain. A traditional hide with flat top and sides, in comparison, has several problems, including a lesser strength, a tendency to turn into a fairly good sail, and to hold a pool of water or melting snow on its roof.
In conclusion, you may spend less and buy a generic hunting hide, but you must be prepared to spend time and money on modifications and additions, if you want to achieve a measure of comfort in using it for wildlife photography. Very cheap hunting hides have several drawbacks, which include low durability of the materials, and sometimes a cloth so thin that in sunlight your silhouette may be visible from the outside, thus revealing your every movement inside.
My experience with this hide has been entirely positive. Although I often tinker with my equipment in order to add small details or modifications suggested by practical usage, I have had no reason to do so with this product. Everything needed is already provided.
In practical usage, I have noticed that it is better to keep the side windows closed (unless you need to use them), and shoot only through the front window. Otherwise, enough light can enter through the side windows to reveal your movements inside through the front scrim. When shooting birds at very small distances (2-3 m), it seems that birds sometimes can see my movements through the front scrim even with the side windows and back entrance closed. Because of this, I pull down also the internal mosquito net, which has a much finer mesh.
Although camouflaging the lens and lens shade does not seem to be strictly necessary, I usually wrap a loose piece of scrim around the front portion of the lens. I find this more useful than a tight-fitting lens cover, because a loose scrim masks the lens shape better, fills the gaps between lens and hide curtain, and avoids my hands showing when I need to manually adjust the focus and zoom rings.
Of course, there is no practical way to hide the front lens element and the interior of the lens shade. Some birds seem to be slightly alarmed by the lens diaphragm closing at each shot (which is visible at close distances), in addition to the shutter noise. Large lenses seem to be more threatening than smaller ones. Some birds are visibly frightened by the "eye" of a 300mm f/2.8, while a 300mm f/4 is more easily accepted. A lens that swings rapidly is also cause for alarm, so you should strive for a slow, smooth movement. Most birds are not fooled even by a very slow movement, but they get quickly used to it. Sometimes, birds can be "trained" by moving the lens intermittently a few times, before pointing it directly at them. Using a viscous-dampened video head on the tripod helps to achieve smooth movements.