Floating hides have gained popularity amongst bird photographers in recent years and of of the biggest reasons might be MrJan Gear, making two types of hides for commercial use. I haven’t found any other manufacturer and even if there is one, Mr.Jan Gear sure is the most well known. Most of the hides that are seen on social media are self-made, as were two of my first ones too. That is where my journey with floating hide photography began.
There are two types of floating hides. Most of them are built in a way that your feet are constantly in contact with the sea/lake bottom. These are made for shallow and hard floored areas. The photographer needs to be able to shoot and guide the float by moving along the seafloor. The other, more rare type, is a hide where the photographer sits or lays without being in contact with the bottom of the sea/lake. Moving around is done with flippers or an electrical motor. This post is about the first type, but there are many things that fit in with the second type too.
MrJan Gear floating hides
Bot of these hides are meant to be used in a way that the photographer stays in contact with the seafloor. As a side note, both are designed to carry your weight even if you loose your footing or get momentarily cast away with the wind. Classic in made of one rubber air container (pontoon) and FH2 is composed of two different air containers (pontoons). This makes it safe in a situation where you are not completely sure of the depth of the water area. Before taking of floating hides, you should try and practice swimming with a drysuit (or a wetsuit with shoes). It is very hard to swim with shoes on, it is heavy and not efficient so this kind of situation is to be avoided at any cost.
Drysuit, wetsuit or waders
In cold water your body cools down fast and depending on how cold it is, you are going to need insulation.
In Finland the best and most action packed time for waterfowl photography is spring when they are lekking. Water temperature during this time is anything from 2’ degrees celsius and up, so it is essential to have protective gear, in this case a drysuit.
The are many different types of drysuits. I have used two types with a floating hide. The other one is by a manufacturer named Ursuit, it is made from waterproofed and breathable 4TEX material. It comes with socks so you will need to have shoes with it. I have used Visions fly fishing shoes, that are made for underwater use and have a good grip on slippery rocks. I use the same suit when boating in the cold season to bring some added safety. The suit has a zipper in the front so it is possible to put on and take off without help.
Diving suit that I use is from a time I used to do underwater photography and snorkel, called the Dive Rite 905. This suit has built in boots with a soft sole, so there’s no need to buy shoes for it. This suit in not breathable and the zipper is located in the backside so you will need a helping hand or some tricks to open and close it.
I was coming back to the shore with my hide in Latvia when I noticed a thin tree flailing and moving unnaturally. I stopped to wonder what on earth was going on there and decided to take a better look through my lens. Tom had arrived to shore before the rest of our crew and was unable to reach his zipper to get out of his suit. He had then tied a string to the zipper and the other end to a tree and try to pull it open. The tree itself was too thin and weeks and swung from side to side as Tom kept trying to pull it. Luckily we were there to help him soon.
In warm water for short periods of time, a wetsuit with suit is an option. I think Finland’s cold waters need a 7+5mm wetsuit set, if you are not especially used to cold water. But I always recommend a drysuit.
In certain locations it might be an option to use very high rising waders. But in that case the bottom of the lake/sea needs to be very hard and firm and depth of the water quite shallow. You need to be able to bend quite low when shooting so there’s always a risk of the waders taking in water from the front. So this is an option, but it contains risks!
Clothing and insulation
Here are my tips and things to consider based own my own experience and knowledge. These are suited for water temperatures around 2-4’ degrees Celsius.
- merinowool socks, fuzzy warm socks and woolsocks
- merinowool undergarment pants, college pants (or other type of loose fitting pants), a fleece undersuit (made for diving in the winter)
- merinowool undergarment shirt, a padded sweater, light down/hybrid jacket, a fleece undersuit (made for diving in the winter)
Head and hands
- merinowool or fleece buff to be worn outside you neck seal, a merinowool balaclava and a beanie plus gloves of your choosing
This is everything I like to wear when entering cold water. I spend time in the water for maximum of 1,5-2 hours at a time, depending on how deep the water is and how much I will be moving around. This could be further upgraded with some type of insulating layer that would provide some air between you body and the pressure on the cold water.
As the season progresses, it gets harder to dress right. Outside temperatures climb higher but the water is still cool. In Latvia the water was a bit warmer than in Finland but the outside temperatures were way past 10’ degrees Celsius. We had submerge neck deep in the water just to cool our upper bodies off from time to time. This is of course only possible in deep enough water or else you have to lie down on the bottom.
If you know you are mostly in shallow water and weather in warm, you can dress lighter in upper body area. If you know you are going to be in deeper water, dress warm enough.
It’s wise to take a few things with you to the hide. One that you might not immediately think about is the divers best friend, a knife. In un-known waters you might get tangled in abandoned fishing nets or their strings. A string to attach you to your hide might also come in handy if you have to swim suddenly.
Back-up batteries, memory cards and extender (depending on your lens choice) are good to have with you. Whatever you take, make sure that the situation where you are in the middle of the water and your gear is in the car or at home is avoided. On hot days a water bottle is good to have with you.
Phone in a waterproof sealed bag is important in case of emergency or simply boredom. Social media is a good friend in a lonely hide.
Risks and caution
I wrote about the abandoned nets being one possible safety hazard. This is not very probable but it is a possibility. So is wooden board, nails on other sharp objects in the bottom. Finnis murky waters make it impossible to see where you are stepping, you only have to hope not have very bad luck. This is not very likely but something to consider.
A hole in your hide structure is always a possibility but I would have to be quite large for you not to be able to reach shore or some very shallow place in time. in the FH2 there are two pontoons that do not share their air compartments so there would have to be two simultaneous ruptures, which is highly unlikely. If you are building you own hide, this is something to think about. These are usually made from un-puncturable materials (not the air filled pontoon-types) but therefore are more difficult store and carry.
Handling a camera in the water is always a risk, so make sure your grip is firm and it is safely attached to the hide and that your insurance covers any damage.
As i mentioned before, a string that connects you to your hide might be a good idea. This would help in a situation where you have to swim and tow your hide, it allows you to free your hands and swim more efficiently. I have had swim a couple of times for few meters to ten meters and that is not easy nor is it fun or safe. So i would advice to avoid this at any times and be aware of the wind conditions and know your location well
Don’t go alone in un-known locations
Take someone with you if you are at a new location or if you feel any hesitation about your swimming abilities. No photo is worth drowning for!
Ethics and responsibilities
A floating hide enables you to go to places that you can’t reach from the shore. That’s why you have to be very conscious of the etchical principals of approaching animals. Do not go near their nests and be sure you are able to read their behavior and not cause any disturbance or stress to the birds.
Product links to MrJan Gear hides and suit
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Translation: Emilia Milonoff – www.emiliamilonoff.fi