Welcome to part three of the Wildlife Photography/ How to Get Close video series. To quickly recap what we’ve covered so far, in part one I covered the ever-important topic of proper wildlife photography etiquette, which is the foundation for everything else I’ll be covering in this series. So if you haven’t watched part one yet, please be sure to do so. In part two, we looked at the topic of using wildlife photography blinds as an effective tool for capturing some fantastic images, and in this third installment we’ll look at a similar topic, and that is the use of tree stands in your wildlife photography endeavors.
When it’s all said and done, I’ve probably spent a couple of years’ worth of my life in tree stands. It’s a long story, but long before I got into wildlife photography, I was first and foremost a hunter, as I still am, as my family and I prefer to eat wild, natural, organic protein sources that we responsibly harvest directly from nature, just as wild animals themselves do. Essentially, this is what true hunting and fishing are all about, which is also something that I’ve made many videos about and have written extensively on. As a hunter, I routinely spend days, weeks, and even months at time up in tree stands, and I can tell you that it’s absolutely amazing how much you learn about the natural world as a result of spending hours upon hours of time sitting in a tree observing a wide variety of wildlife. There’s simply no substitute and no better way to learn about nature than by spending quality time directly in nature, and having mother nature herself as your teacher. All that time spent in tree stands over the years is what initially inspired me to pursue wildlife photography.
What is a Tree Stand?
Tree stands are commonly used by deer hunters, especially bow hunters in places such as the Midwest, where deer and other commonly pursued game animals live in heavily wooded areas. Along with the use of a photography blind as we looked at in the last episode in this series, tree stands are another highly productive tool that can be implemented for wildlife photography purposes, which essentially is a matter of “hunting” with a camera. Now obviously, using a tree stand will only be productive if you’ll be photographing animals that inhabit areas with a lot of trees. But if you will be spending a lot of time in the woods with your camera, then using a tree stand can be a great way to get a bird’s eye view of your subjects, to scout out an area more thoroughly, as well as a means of minimizing your presence by staying out of sight of most ground-dwelling animals. Using a tree stand is also an effective way to minimize your human scent, as in many cases your scent trail will remain above your subject animal as seen in the image below…at least longer than it would as compared to photographing from ground level. Depending on what the wind is doing though, animals can and will still detect your human scent even when up in a tree, so as I constantly preach, always watch the wind and set up for your photo shoot accordingly.
Just like photography blinds, tree stands come in a wide variety of models, from huge, hotel room-sized, more permanent fixtures, all the way down to small, lightweight, packable units that can be set up, taken down, and moved around quite easily. Some models attach to a tree with a chain, others with heavy-duty straps, and there are also self-climbing stands available that essentially stay in place by leverage. Stores that sell deer hunting supplies typically have lots of options for tree stands available. A word of caution though, tree stands can be very dangerous! If you plan on using one, be sure to do your homework. Research each style, check the safety ratings for the models you’re interested in, and after you purchase a stand, practice setting it up, using it, and taking it down many times before actually using your stand in the field. Also, if you’ll be on public land, make sure that using a tree stand is legal, as they are restricted in some areas.
If you’ll be doing a photoshoot on public land in wilderness areas where deer hunting is common and tree stands are legal, there’s a good chance that you may come across some of those more permanent, homemade tree stands that hunters have built over the years. These can be used very effectively for photography purposes, just be sure it’s not the hunting season though, as invading someone else’s tree stand is not looked kindly upon. Also, some of those old homemade tree stands can be quite unsafe if not maintained properly. So if you come across such a stand and want to try it out for a potential photo shoot, make sure it’s in good shape before climbing up.
Essential Tree Stand Accessories
Along with a sturdy, safe, tree stand, you’ll also need a tree ladder or tree steps, which likewise come in a wide variety of models, from screw-in steps, which aren’t the most recommend as they can damage trees, to the more modern, tree-friendly design of lightweight strap-on climbing sticks and take-down tree ladders. Another absolutely essential piece of equipment that you’ll need for using a tree stand properly and safely is a full body tree stand harness. Every year people needlessly die by falling out of tree stands, usually as a result of falling asleep, and not wearing a harness. Please keep in mind, while tree stands can be fun to use and can be very effective for wildlife photography, they can also be very dangerous! So exercise tremendous caution at all times and realize that when you use a tree stand you do so at your own risk. Finally, another handy accessory for using a tree sand is tree stand accessory hooks for hanging up and securing your pack and any gear you want to keep readily accessible.
How to Properly Use a Tree Stand for Wildlife Photography
I’ll be doing a much more in-depth blog and video on the topic of scouting in the future, but before you set up your tree stand, the first step is to make sure you’re hanging it up in a prime location where your subject animals are active. And that means to put in some time doing some in the field scouting by focusing your attention on ideal habitat and looking for fresh sign, such as tracks, scat, and other tell-tale indicators of your subject animal’s presence. Now as I mentioned in part one of this video series, you always want to be respectful of an animal’s primary living area, such as feeding and bedding locations. If animals are pressured too much in the areas that are most important for their survival, there’s a good chance they’ll leave those areas and as a result put themselves in danger…which is obviously not good and should always be avoided. This is where a tree stand can really be effective. With a properly placed stand and a good telephoto lens, you can get the elevation you need to get great photos of animals in those areas of prime habitat, while still staying a safe, respectful distance away and not invading their turf.
After you scout out an ideal spot to hang your stand, you’ll want to set up in a healthy, sturdy tree that you can safely and easily get in and out of. Of course, you’ll always want to be mindful of the primary wind direction and act accordingly, and it’s also very beneficial to wear camouflaged or earth-toned clothing while in your tree stand. It’s also a good idea to pick a tree that has some cover, such as limbs and other trees around it. Sometimes those ground-dwelling animals such as deer do look up, and if they spot you, they’re gone. So make sure you blend in as much as possible, even when up in the treetops. Also, try to avoid what’s known as “lollipop” stands, which are skinny trees with few limbs and that is out in the open. Sitting up in such a tree will look very unnatural and will alert all the wildlife in the area to your presence. If possible, try to set up your tree stand ahead of time and let it sit for a few days before using it. Setting up a stand can be a bit noisy, so it’s important to be as quiet as possible and to let the area settle down after getting your stand ready to go.
When you’re ready to use your stand for a photo shoot, you’ll want to do so at the most ideal times, which will depend on the animal you’re trying to photograph. Generally speaking though, this is typically in the early morning and late afternoon or early evening hours. This may require you to get in your stand well before sunrise and exit after dark, so be sure to bring along a headlamp or flashlight, and again, be very, very careful at all times with your tree stand! Getting great wildlife photos is simply not worth getting seriously injured or dying over.
Well my friends, that’s an overview of how to use a tree stand for your wildlife photography efforts. In the next blog and video in this series, we’ll explore the topic of calling techniques. Check out the video below to see more…