Wildlife hides designed specifically for photography are all the rage at the moment.  Inspired by the competitive and commercial success of Hungary’s ‘invisible photographer’, Bence Máté, whose cutting edge designs are still the gold standard for wildlife photo hides, numerous professional wildlife photographers have seized the opportunity, and specialist hides have sprung up all over the place.

African fish eagle

African fish eagle at Zimanga’s lagoon hide

There’s no shortage of wildlife photography enthusiasts queueing up to use them, and it’s easy to see why.  A professionally designed hide takes most of the legwork out of finding good subjects, offering the opportunity to capture high quality images of hard-to-photograph wildlife without the foot slog of fieldwork.  Of course, this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and for many photographers it’s the research, fieldwork, time and patience that make capturing your own unique images all the more rewarding. But if you’re looking for great subjects in sweet light, and all-but-guaranteed high quality images, these hides are hard to beat, and great fun.

Grey heron

Grey heron at lagoon hide

For photographers on our African safaris, the hides at South Africa’s Zimanga private game reserve are certainly among the highlights. They are the first African hides designed by Bence Máté, and the attention to detail has to be seen to be believed: perfectly situated for the best light, backgrounds, and range, they represent the culmination of months of planning and careful thought.  The diversity of subjects is staggering – African fish eagle, storks, herons, stilts, hamerkop and more at the lagoon hide, the chance to photograph elephant, buffalo, rhino, leopard and lion at the newly opened overnight hide, a rainbow-coloured assortment of small birds including waxbills, melba finches, pink-throated twinspot, oxpeckers, kingfishers and barbets at the reflection hides, a vulture hide soon to open – it’s clear why Zimanga is the hottest ticket in South African wildlife photography.

Faced with the near certainty of great subjects at close range, these specialist hides can make you feel like a kid in a sweet shop. As the adrenaline kicks in it’s easy to get carried away with the excitement, and sometimes forget the basics of technique.  So it’s important to take pause and think a little about how best to make the most of your hide time.

Planning your approach should start before you even arrive at the hide.  Hopefully when you book a place in a specialist hide you should be given a detailed briefing note on what to expect and what to take.  Make sure you know:

Redbilled oxpecker

Redbilled oxpecker at Zimanga reflection hide

Best time to photograph. This can be influenced by your subject (e.g. very early morning for a black grouse lek) and by the light.  A well designed hide will generally be positioned to make the most of sweet light, meaning it may only be at its best in the early morning or late afternoon.  On Zimanga, the Mkhombe reflection hide is a morning hide, the Bhejane reflection hide an afternoon hide, for example.

What time must you arrive at the hide, and when can you leave? You don’t want to be arriving in the middle of the action and disturbing your subjects, and with some hides that can mean arriving very early and waiting patiently.  Depending on your subject, you may not be able to leave the hide, even for a comfort break, until you’ve finished photographing.  With vulture hides, for example, the sight of a person may spook birds for the rest of the day. If you’re planning a long session, limit your fluid intake early, to avoid discomfort later!

Is there a bad weather contingency? Some hides can be a complete washout in poor weather, others can offer the chance of a special image that stands out from the crowd.  Will you get your money back if conditions are unmanageable, or an alternative slot?  What are the cancellation terms if you decide not to bother at the last minute?

Blue waxbills

Blue waxbills at Zimanga reflection hide

What lenses will you need? This will depend on the likely range of your subject, and on subject size. For example, the vast majority of birds at the Mkhombe and Bhejane hides are photographed drinking or bathing at the edge of the water, 5.5m or 4.5m from the camera. A 400mm or 500 mm is perfect, but if you’ve an old model Canon or Nikon 500mm or 600mm lens, make sure you check the minimum focus distance. If you want to try to capture flight shots of these small, extremely fast birds, a 300mm is useful. And if you’re lucky, and a warthog (or even a leopard) turns up for a drink, you’ll want something like a 70-200mm to hand.  At Zimanga’s lagoon hide, on the other hand, where many of the subjects are larger waterbirds which wade very close to the hide, a 70-200mm or even wider can be used for a lot of your shots.

What lens support will you need? Zimanga’s hides are provided with high quality tripods, gimbal heads, and lens base plates, so photographers only need to bring their cameras and lens and ensure they have tripod collars on their lenses. But many specialist hides don’t provide supports.  Check whether you should take a tripod (not all hides have space or the design for a tripod), or bean bags.  If you can’t use a tripod, it may be worth taking a monopod as well as bean bags. If you own a specialist bracket for attaching to windows, shelves, etc. don’t rely on that as your support without first checking it will be useable in the hide.

African spoonbill

African spoonbill at lagoon hide

What sort of wildlife behaviour can you expect? Interrogate the hide operator as to what is likely to happen during your session.  Will there be bursts of activity between long pauses, or constant comings and goings?  How will subjects behave when they show up? Do they have a favourite perch, for example? Will a kingfisher dive from a perch, hover, or simply swoop in unannounced?  How many times is behavior likely to be repeated?  In wildlife photography action is often fleeting, and may not be repeated, so anticipation is key.  If you’re photographing ospreys at a Highlands hide, then you can expect them to flop on the water to catch fish, giving you chance to focus and compose and capture a great shot as they take off with fish in talons. But an African fish eagle fishing at Zimanga’s lagoon hide will take fish cleanly, swooping low over the water and snatching its prey from the surface, so you need to spot it coming, focus track as it swoops, and start firing before it takes the fish.

What sort of camera setting should you be using? Again, expert advice from a photographer with experience of the individual hide, is invaluable. Will you need high ISO to capture action? What sort of depth of field will throw your background nicely out of focus, but give you adequate depth of field on your subject?  What shutter speed do you need to freeze a diving kingfisher or a swooping fish eagle?  Is it a good idea to underexpose in bright light to stop white feather burning out? Of course, you need to adapt to the prevailing conditions, especially weather and light levels, but good advice can give you a sensible starting point.

African fish eagle

African fish eagle in flight, lagoon hide

Make sure you’re familiar with your camera settings. It sounds obvious, but it’s amazing how often photographers arrive at a hide with a newly-purchased camera, bought for the occasion, then discover they’re not sure how to set it up.  In particular, make sure you know how to adjust settings using the rear LED display.  Many hides are quite dark, and if you are seated behind a tripod-mounted camera, then the easiest way to adjust you ISO, aperture, etc. is on the rear screen.

Consider removing your lens hood. If you are using a long lens with a detachable lens hood, the hood is probably unnecessary in a hide (unless you are shooting into the sun for backlit subjects, when flare can be an issue).  It will simply make your lens more cumbersome and awkward to handle in a confined space.

Spectacled weaver

Spectacled weaver bathing, reflection hide

Be patient and attentive. Even the most perfectly designed hide won’t alter the fact that wildlife is unpredictable and often infuriating. Don’t let your attention wonder when there’s a lull in the action, as that’s inevitably when something exciting will happen.

Goldenbreasted bunting

Goldenbreasted bunting, Zimanga reflection hide

When a good subject arrives, stay calm and think through your technique and composition. Check shutter speed, depth of field, exposure. Is the background right, or do you need to wait for the subject to move slightly? Can you adjust your position in the hide to get a better composition? Once you’ve grabbed portraits or behavior, are you ready for a bird to take off?

Try to be original. The downside of popular hides is that suddenly everyone is capturing the same images.  Of course, we all want the classic shots, but when you’ve got those, try to think of something a bit different. It may be an unusual composition, unconventional lighting, some artistic blur.  Don’t be ‘hidebound’ by convention, aim to get a shot that stands out from the crowd.

Specialist hides can help you capture some stunning shots, but not all hides are created equal, and not all offer the virtually guaranteed sightings and photographic opportunities that Zimanga’s hides do.  The perfect shots you see on the operator’s website are usually the result of many sessions of photography.  So when you book a hide session, have realistic expectations. Do your homework, use good technique, and be patient, and with a little luck you’ll achieve that competition-quality shot you’ve been dreaming of.