Photographing Nature from your Car Window
window mounts that will hold your camera and lens steady
by Robert Berdan June 30, 2010
There are two main reasons for shooting from the window of your vehicle. The first is safety, if you are traveling through the National parks and encounter a grizzly bear, cougar or wolf it's recommended that you stay in the car and photograph from the window. The second reason is that many animals will flee when you open the car door, such as deer, wolves and many species of birds. When shooting from your car window many animals will ignore you and will allow you to photograph them. I also often shoot from my car window when photographing lightening its safer and keeps me dry. I have used my car as a blind to photograph a variety of birds nesting in roadside boxes, shorebirds, tundra swans, moose, foxes, deer, wolves, coyotes, caribou, and grizzly bears. Below I describe several tools that can be used to steady your camera and lens while shooting from you car window along with some of the advantages and disadvantages of each.
Lightening photographed from my car window in Calgary using an Ergo Rest Mini Window mount and Arcas Swiss Ball head.
There are several different methods for stabilizing your camera and lens when shooting from a car window including:
- Bean Bag
- Mini Window Mounts
- Custom wooden shelf that fits in your car window and rests on the door
- Puffin Pad that fits over the glass or sits on the door
- Tripod inside your car
You can purchase bean bags for photography or you can easily make one yourself. I had my mother in law sew me a couple of blue cloth bags filled with beans. Total cost a few dollars. I use these bean bags not only for shooting from the window of my car, but anytime I need to get low to the ground to photograph flowers or to steady my lens when shooting from the hood of my car.
Here I used some cloth doubled up and folded into a bag, filled it with beans and had my mother in law sew the ends.
You can can even use clear plastic zip lock bags and fill them with beans which you can buy on location and if you get stranded you can always eat the beans. Some liquor bottles come with cloth bags e.g. Crown Royal which can be filled with beans and closed at the top. You may find similar cloth bags in department stores that hold marbles or other products that could easily be filled with beans. You don't need a sewing machine just a needle and thread to seal the bag. An even better bag might come with a zipper so you can fill the bag on location with dried beans, peas, or even sand.
Bean Bag being used as a support on the ground to photograph wild flowers.
Bean bags are hard to beat when it comes to ease of use and low cost. They serve as a reasonably steady support when shooting through your car window and you can also use them on the ground or fence post. Their main disadvantage is that you must continue to hold on to your camera and lens and therefore they are not suitable for photographing lightening. Bean bags can also be relatively heavy so you are not likely to carry them around in your backpack.
Mountain blue bird photographed with a 300 mm lens supported on a bean bag in an open car window.
Mini Window Mounts
Small window mounts can be purchased for between $100 to $300. Most of these mounts do not include a ball head so that will be extra depending on what kind you purchase. If you plan to rest a large telephoto lens like a 300-600 mm lens you will need a robust ball head. Other types of tripods heads are too slow to move to be used for wildlife photography. The main advantage of window mounts is that you can lock the ball head and use them for both wildlife and lightening photography. You can also use the mounts for shooting on the ground as minipods for example in macrophotography of wildflowers.
Amazon sells a window mount with a suction cup and while I am aware that they use suction mounts in the movie industry, something about letting a big lens rest on a mount held by suction disturbs me. I use a suction mount to hold my GPS unit onto my front car window glass and it falls off frequently. If you feel comfortable with suction mounts they can be purchased for about $30.00 and up.
My favorite window mount is the Ergorest Multipod made in Finland and sold at the Camera store in Calgary for around $100. I have attached an Arca Swiss ballhead on top. The Arca swiss ball head is expensive and overpriced in my opinion, but it allows me to attach my 300 mm F2.8 lens to the mount and it feels very secure. Alternatively I would recommend using a really right stuff ball head. I always have a ballhead on the mount so its ready anytime I am in the car.
I own the Ergo Rest window mount and use if tfor taking photographs of lightening, birds and other animals and for $100 think it is a great deal if you can get your hands on one, otherwise search the web if your local camera store does not stock them.
If you are handy with wood, you can easily make yourself a wooden shelf that fits over the window, drill a 1\4 inch hole to secure a ball head and you have a pretty steady mount. A friend of mine, Keith Logan, who is an expert wood worker made me mine. I also use the mount on my kayaks and strap them down on the bow to secure my DSLR and video cameras. The disadvantage of wooden window mounts is that they can be heavy and take up a fair bit of space in your vehicle. The mount can also be used for lightening photography or if you are in a hurry you can put your bean bag on the shelf and rest your lens on top.
Home made wooden window mount made by Keith Logan
Grizzly Bear photographed near Saskatchewan Crossing along the highway using wooden window mount and 300 mm lens.
A new window mount designed by Wayne Bennett and Ken Blye of Florida is made of closed cell automotive foam with the 1/2" top layer made of memory foam, so it will return to its original shape after use. The mount slips over the car's window glass or door frame. The use of the automotive foam is important because it allows the Puffin Pad to be used on the hood of the car, or any other part for that matter without doing any damage to the finish of the car. Also the closed cell foam for the most part makes the Puffin Pad impervious to any liquids. Water rolls off it like a ducks back. The memory foam is important because it allows a lens to be cradled while in use, but rebounds nicely to its original shape after use, providing it is not abused. This lightweight unit (3.4 oz) is about 7 inches long, 5 inches in width and 5 inches in height and is economical in price $29.95 US or $35.23 CDN at the camera store in Calgary. The pad can also be used on the ground to steady a lens for bird and flower photography and can be used upside down to rest you long lens in the groove. The pad is not suitable for photographing lightening, but it does serve as a quick way to steady your lens when shooting out of a car window. Its' lightweight construction means it is easy to take with you on plane trips as part of your luggage and its price is hard to beat.
Puffin Pad window mount is available from the Camera store in Calgary or Online from www.puffinpad.com
Wayne Bennett one of the originator's of the Puffin Pad rests his 70-300 mm lens on the pad which sits on the glass window. I met Wayne in Banff National Park in early June this year while he was traveling with fellow photographer and friend David Lilly.
Setting up your tripod in your car
I have tried this on several occasions and it does work, though it takes too much time to set it up and its awkward to move about in the car afterwards. I have even tried to secure my monopod to the window and use it as a support. While a monopod or tripod can work as a support inside your car I believe the methods described above are superior.
In conclusion if you are interested in photographing wildlife or lightening from your car window, you have lots of options. Ultimately what you choose to use will depend on how often you photograph from the car window whether or not you need rock steady support or just want something to steady your lens while photographing wildlife. I use all of these options depending on the circumstances.
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