Getting close to birds and animals is probably the toughest part of capturing good wildlife shots. Most animals see us as predators, so at the first sign of a human being, they’re gone. Interestingly enough, though, animals generally don’t see automobiles as a threat, which allows you to get much closer to animals if you shoot from inside your car.
Letting the Wildlife Come to You
Fortunately, many wildlife sanctuaries have drives that traverse wildlife areas. The photo below, for example, was shot on the Blackpoint Drive at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Titusville, Florida. Using a 400mm lens (on a Nikon body), I was able to approach within about 20 feet of this egret hunting. I was able to photograph the bird for more than an hour from the front seat of my car.
The key is to find an active area and then shut the car off and settle in while the wildlife comes to you. The longer your car sits and the less movement there is near the windows, the more comfortable the birds or animals will become.
I often mount my camera in a rear window, find my location, sit still for a few minutes, then quietly get into the back seat. Shore birds like egrets and herons tend to return to a small feeding area where they can confine their food. If you park next to one of these areas, you’ll find the birds returning there again and again.
The only problem with shooting from a car window is keeping a long lens very steady. Yes, you can probably roll up a sweater or use an impromptu beanbag to keep the camera steady — but if you’re using a very long lens, 300mm or longer, you need a serious camera support.
The Groofwin Pod — One of My Favorite Accessories
The best window tripod that exists is called the Groofwin Pod (ground-roof-window), and it was designed and manufactured by the legendary wildlife shooter Leonard Lee Rue.
This uniquely named and odd-looking camera support has multiple uses: it can be used as a low-level tripod for macro or wildlife work by just putting it on the ground; it can be used on the roof of your car; or, it can be used as a window pod. These pods are extremely popular among safari shooters in Africa, because they can be used on the roof of a Land Rover while the photographer stands up through the sunroof.
When used in a car window, the pod uses a 9″ x 1″ lip that can either slip into the window groove when the window is down, or catch onto the window itself if the window is partially raised.
I’ve been using my Groofwin for several years (usually in a rented Ford Explorer in Florida), and it’s a joy to use. There is a sliding bolt (it sits in a slot so that you can adjust the forward/back position of the camera) that accepts a standard ballhead, and you can adjust the height of the camera platform. When used with my heavy duty Canon ballhead, I’ve used lenses up to 600mm and they are held rock solid.
I generally don’t endorse specific products, but I highly recommend the Groofwin for your wildlife photography adventures. It’s one of the best camera accessories I’ve ever owned.