Sometimes it’s not necessary to get too far off the beaten track to see wildlife up close, but there’s a few things worth remembering if you’re going to maximise these often fleeting opportunities. These photos were taken from my car window whilst driving around the Canadian Rockies.
Be Ready At All Times
This is perhaps the most important point because wildlife is usually unpredictable. It’s absolutely imperative that you have a lens mounted to your camera, and have a camera within arm’s reach at all times. There might not be a chance to get out of your car once you find your subject, so keeping your gear on the back seat, or in the trunk, will cause you to miss shots – I guarantee it. If I’m traveling alone then I keep my camera on the passenger seat, and if there’s somebody in that seat then I tuck it between the two seats on the arm rest. Whilst I have all manner of awesome camera bags, none of them are big enough to hold a camera that’s already attached to a super telephoto lens with the lens hood in place. Instead, I just use a simple duffle bag that I found at MEC. The whole top opens up so it’s easy to pull a camera in and out of it quickly, and this one is waterproof so I also use it when I’m photographing from a kayak. You don’t need anything fancy for this purpose, just something large enough to hold your particular setup in a read-to-go fashion.
A Smaller Lens Might Be Better
Over the last couple of years I’ve worked with a variety of lenses from my car, and it has become clear to me that bigger is not always better. My main wildlife lens is the monster Canon 200-400 f/4 L IS 1.4 ext. Although not quite as physically large as a 600mm, it is as big as a 500mm and even a little heavier due to all the zooming optics inside it. The size and weight of the lens makes it hard to handle in a vehicle, particularly if I’m driving and therefore have the steering wheel in front of me. The weight of it also makes additional support (detailed later) a necessity in hours of low light, and that adds time to the setup process.
Alongside this lens, I’ve also shot extensively with the Canon 100-400 f/4-5.6 L IS II, and the Tamron 150-600 f/4.5-5.6, both of which are much lighter and physically smaller lenses. There have been numerous occasions where I’ve been able to quickly grab my camera and get a shot with one of those smaller lenses, that I know I would have missed had I been trying to set up with the much bigger 200-400. As a Canon shooter, the Tamron 150-600 is a very nice lens, although I prefer the 100-400 despite its shorter reach. I appreciate that not everyone has a big long-lens selection, but my advice would be to have a physically smaller lens mounted to the camera if you can, and then switch to your larger lens once you have determined that you have a subject that’s going to stick around for a while. I personally keep the 100-400 on one camera, and the 200-400 on a second camera. Once I’ve got a few shots in the bag with the smaller lens, I’ll take the extra time to set up the big one.
If you’re shooting with a long lens then you’re going to find it pretty cumbersome to wave it around in all directions whilst looking for your next subject. Windows, rear-view mirrors and head rests get in way! Having a pair of binoculars or a monocular is going to make life a lot easier, and if you don’t already have something, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the reasonable pricing of very useable solutions. Coming in at just over $100, I often use the Vortex 10×36 monocular because it’s easy to carry in my backpack, or keep in the glove box of my car. If you’d prefer to use the more traditional binocular style, it’s very hard to beat the quality of Nikon’s offerings, with the Monarch series being particularly popular. If the Monarchs are a little out of your price range, the Aculon series offers great value for money as well. They aren’t as robust as the Monarchs, but if they are just for in-vehicle usage then this likely won’t be an issue.
Prepare Your Windows
I’ve been making notes for this article in a notebook for some time. I always write from my own experiences and a couple of weeks ago I added another scribble in my Field Notes book that just said “WINDOWS!!”. Yep, I even capitalized it in frustration. I’d been scouring the prairies of Alberta for quite some time in search of great grey owls. When I say “quite some time”, I’m talking several day trips spread over the last 6 months, because that’s just how it goes with wildlife photography sometimes. Having determined that I had found a likely location for them, I returned to the same spot on several of these occasions, and just recently had my first sightings exactly where I had predicted them to come. As I attempted to get closer to one of the two owls that appeared, I pulled into a small side track that ran down the edge of the field they were hunting in, and as I did this, one of the birds flew right in front of my car, not 20 feet from the windshield. The owl landed on a fence post next to my car, and I thought for one brief moment that I was going to get the shot I had been envisaging for so many months. Wrong!
Unfortunately, I had my windows up and it dawned on me pretty quickly that I had screwed up. When trying to photography such skittish animals, the sound of electric windows is likely to scare them away, and that’s exactly what happened to me. There I was, just feet from this beautiful bird, and as soon as I gently touched the window button… gone! Damn it!
Once you have found your intended subject, if you need to move your car closer, make sure you wind the windows down before you position your vehicle closer, just in case you inadvertently find yourself so close that the noise will scare them off.
Supporting Your Lens
Most wildlife is going to be active at the beginning and end of the day when light levels are low. Usually that means using relatively low shutter speeds, even if you crank your ISO up pretty high. Combine that with a long focal length, and it’s clear that you’ll want to have some kind of support for your gear if you’re going to get sharp photos.
The simplest solution is a beanbag, although most people fill them with rice (heavy) or buckwheat hulls (lighter), you might want to read this post on what you should use as fill for your photography beanbag. They come in a variety of sizes, and many of them are designed to straddle the two sides of your door. If you want something that’s easy to travel with, the simple bags are a great and cost-effective solution that can be packed easily in a suitcase when empty. I’ve used bags from several brands over the years, but my favourite these days is the LensSack from LensCoat. I like to use the RRS Panning Clamp with it so that I have a perfectly smooth panning motion! It’s much less bulky to set up than using a full gimbal in my car.
Many of the larger options that have solid mounting plates on them for your clamp, ballhead or gimbal. If you have the space in your car, and don’t mind the extra cost, these are definitely a nice thing to have if you’re using larger super telephoto prime lenses. Consider the size of your car window though! The simple panning clamp solution works great for me as I have a relatively small car. I’m not sure I could even fit my gimbal in that space if it were already raised on a bean bag.
The third option is the Kirk Window Mount that’s pictured below. This is expensive at $250, but it’s easy to set up, and relatively small to travel with. A huge beanbag with a mounting plate is a cumbersome thing to keep in your car all the time, but the Kirk mount is small enough that you can tuck it under your seat and forget about it until it’s needed.
Turn off the Engine
This one is quick and simple: Turn your engine off so that vibrations are not transmitted to the camera. Your photos will be much sharper!
Embrace the Extender
Extenders, sometimes called teleconverters, multiply the focal length of your lens, allowing you to fill much more of your frame with your subject. The optical quality of modern extenders has been greatly improved and I’ve used them at many point throughout my career. I consider them to be essential parts of my kit, and regularly use the Canon 1.4x and 2x ones. I’ll even use stacked 1.4x extenders if they’re needed. I’ve previously written an extensive guide to extenders, and I don’t want to repeat all of that here, so if you have any specific questions about the advantages and disadvantages of them, or want to see lots of examples, take a look at that previous post.
In relation to wildlife photography from a car, extenders help us to solve the lack of flexibility you can be stuck with when it comes to shooting from a static position. If you haven’t managed to get your vehicle close enough to the wildlife for the perfect shot, an extender might make the difference. The longer focal length of your lens+extender combination can also help to further blur distractions that are in the background of your shot. If you were on your feet in a normal shooting situation then you could probably just change position to overcome this problem, but in a car you are much more limited.
Prepare Your External Support
Once you’ve got some shots from inside the vehicle, there may be an opportunity to get out and set up for a different angle. Of course this depends greatly on the type of animal your are photographing, and also the position that you have been able to park your car in. Safety first!!
If you’re shooting with a long focal length then you’re going to want to support your camera once you get out of your car. Usually that would mean setting up a tripod, but it can be problematic in this situation. If you have a big tripod, possibly with a gimbal on it, then it’s unlikely that you would have space for it in the front seat of your car. That means when you get out, not only do you have to open your door, but you’re going to need to head to the trunk, or open another door to retrieve the tripod. All of this extra movement and noise, plus time to set up the tripod, will often scare the animal away or at very least move them on a little further away from where you had wanted to photograph them.
One way you can combat this is to use a monopod instead of a tripod. A monopod can often provide you enough support for a situation like this, and usually you can fit them down the side of the driver’s seat, making them easy to retrieve. They are also much quicker to set up than a tripod! The second option is to keep your tripod set up and ready to go so that you can grab it from the trunk and splay the legs out instantly without having to extend them all individually. If your trunk isn’t big enough to hold a tripod with legs extended, you can also use a roof box like the one on my car in the photo below! This is actually designed to hold skis, but if I lay a blanket inside it, I can keep my Really Right Stuff TVC-24L tripod set up with a PG-01 gimbal. The roof box is quieter to open than my trunk, and also requires less movement since it can be opened directly from the driver’s door, rather than having to move to the back of the car. I’ve never seen anyone else use a roof box in this way before, so I’m letting you in on a little secret of mine here 🙂
Sometimes it’s not possible to head to far-off lands in search of hard-to-find critters, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get good wildlife photos. With a bit of research, and some simple preparation, you can still capture great images, and maybe even take some friends and family along for the ride.
Have you had success when shooting from your car? I’d love to hear your stories so please share them in the comments below!