by Mike McNamee Published 01/12/2009
Your writer has always been a bit leery on the subject of camouflage clothing. While a number of people wear army surplus clothing because it is cheap, there are a small proportion who do so because they like to look like off-duty SAS warriors! This is typified by a 60-something local who struts about our town's Asda in a camo outfit, complete with spats.
The fact that he almost always has his elderly mother in tow rather destroys the image, but you get the point. Sadly, inappropriate wearing of camouflage is often accompanied by an unhealthy interest in guns and hunting. The research for this article involved looking at a number of websites populated by the biggest bunch of slack-brained, socially inept, weapon-toting misfits you are likely to come across. Much of the material was in video form. One particularly unpleasant character filmed himself holding up the head of a 10-pointer stag. 'What a beautiful stag', he murmured ecstatically over his victim. What a jerk! It was a much more beautiful stag while it was going about being just a stag before this bastard shot it with his bow and arrow for his own personal gratification.
The only relief from the depressing litany of animal cruelty occurred when a post was made by some redneck bow hunter who had fallen out of a tree and very seriously disabled himself - one is tempted to write in and suggest that he now knows what the 50 per cent of stags which are injured, but not killed, by bow hunting, actually feel like! The depressing coverage of deer being mortally wounded was only relieved by a clip showing a stag turning on a hunter and kicking the living daylights out of him. The fact that the idiot had brought the incident upon himself by spraying his own mouth with some sort of elk scent only made it more amusing. Sadly the deer was unable to inflict any life-threatening injuries on the hunter.
So it is against this background that we write about camouflage for use in nature photography - just don't go into Asda wearing it and don't go anywhere near the bank! Disruptive pattern materials (DPM) as they are known in the military are the product of much research and they have filtered their way into the catalogues of nature-watching suppliers. There are some differences; the modern DPM has to avoid detection by both satellite and digital sighting devices which are not an issue for getting close to birds and mammals. Indeed, compared to humans, most (all?) mammals have only two cone receptors (dichromatic) rather than our three and so animals see a different range of colour. Conversely they have acute abilities in other ways, such as detecting movement, smellsand, in some instances, 'seeing' outside the range of human vision.
Siberian dwarf hamsters have two classes of cone: one with maximum sensitivity in the ultraviolet (c. 360nm), the other with peak sensitivity closely similar to that of its rod; and Syrian golden hamsters have a class of cone with peak sensitivity at about 506 nm, but they lack a second cone type. Snakes have good infrared detectors in their tongues. The popular expression 'red rag to a bull' is inaccurate it should be quoted as 'any rag to a bull'; it is the movement, not the colour!
Camouflaging yourself against a natural backdrop is very much locationdependent; camo for the desert is quite different to that for the Arctic or dark woodland. Also, what an animal considers a threat is very complex.
Two glass marbles on the ends of a stick will terrify a blackbird (it thinksit is an owl), a stickleback will attack a pencil stub with a blob of red paint on it (it thinks it is a rival male). Successful concealment, then, depends upon a knowledge of the subject species and its environment. Shape is important and the less you look like a human and the more you look like a bush the better you will be. This is an advantage of a hide which has a much more visually neutral form to it. The problem with a hide is mobility and getting it into position should you have to move.
Having decided that a hide is not your favoured approach then you have to be dressed for stalking. Your first decision is how warm or waterproof you need to be. If you already own good quality outdoor clothing then a thin over-top in camouflage will be sufficient. Bushwear provide suits, some of which use RealTree fabrics (www.bushwear.co.uk - http://www.realtree.com/camo/ ). These start at £75, rising to around £140 (for the fancy die-cut, leaf suit). If you are squeamish about buying froma hunting supplier then www.wildlifewatchingsupplies.co.uk may be more politically correct for you, although the base materials designs are almost always the result of military funding. The new venture by Stealth Gear (www.stealth-gear.com) is reviewed by John Fairclough at the end of this article. McNamee went to a local army surplus outlet and got kitted out with a warm jacket, trousers and a balaclava for just £47.
When it comes to camouflaging your photographic equipment, opinions differ. Most people seem to agree that field craft is more important than covering every square inch of your tripod and lens in camo material. The white Canon lenses are regarded with some suspicion although many put camo covers on them for protection against scuffs and scratches.
No matter what you do, there is always the problem of the big scary eye called your front lens' element. This can be made slightly less conspicuous by photographing from within the hide and not pushing the lens out of the hide at all, so that the front element is effectively in the shadows. This requires a deeper hide and certainly rules out the seat hides so popular with rifle hunters. There are always the compromises to consider between having to clatter about the undergrowth with a heavy bulky hide and a more fleet-footed approach of moving carefully in the open. One thing that is almost certain is that your clothing should not make rustling noises when you move. Noisy SLRs are another problem which is ever-present.
The absurdity of it all was confirmed on a recent trip to watch fallow deer. We had worked our way close to a group of males contentedly chewing the cud in the late-summer sunshine, some 20 yards from a road and using a small cluster of trees as cover. There we were, all camo'd up and feeling smug when a car pulled up and out popped a Japanese tourist, followed swiftly by his high-heeled wife. He raised his little compact camera but decided his lady needed a more natural background. So off she set at full speed, running over to stand among the stags and have her picture taken. The stags for their part looked on with amused patience and carried on chewing! So much for stalking.
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