Reflection pools add an extra dimension to wildlife photography. Although purpose-built reflection pools have been around for a while, Bence Mate really popularised them a few years ago and recently the number available to hire has mushroomed. I've used quite a number of these pools over the years and thought I'd share notes about a few of them here.
Bence Mate's Hides
Bence is both a remarkable photographer (he has won numerous prizes, including Wildlife Photographer of the Year) and an innovative engineer. He has built an impressive array of hides at his farm in Kiskunsagi National Park, Hungary, as well as Costa Rica, Brazil and - most recently - South Africa, in partnership with a private game reserve. Bence pioneered the use of optical quality one-way reflective glass, which allows him to photograph very close to animals and still move around unobserved behind the glass. This freedom and close proximity is a real revelation and makes it possible to capture great images.
The Forest Drinking Stations
Of the dozen plus hides at Bence's farm, three are 'traditional' reflection pools (Bence refers to them as the 'Forest Drinking Stations'). Each consists of a permanent shallow pool constructed with a distant uniform background of trees. The hide window is set level with the water at one end of the pool. The pools are positioned so that they have the light behind them at one end of the day and in front of them at the other. Each is situated in a clearing in dense woodland and this gives nice green reflections in the water on sunny days and a nearly black water surface when the weather is dull. Bence doesn't use bait at the pool - birds come to drink and bath in spring and summer. The species I've photographed at these hides include Goshawk, Sparrowhawk, Buzzard, Golden Oriele, Black, Green and Great Spotted woodpeckers, Jay, Hawfinch, Greenfinch, Chaffinch, Long-tailed Tit, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Yellowhammer, Nightingale, Spotted and Pied Flycatcher, Robin, Starling, Blackbird, Song Thrush, Turtle Dove and a few others.
A 300mm lens is sufficient for most species. For larger birds, a 70-200mm is ideal, for smaller birds at the longer pools a 200-400mm or 500mm can be used effectively. If you look at the image data below images here you'll get an idea of how things look with different lenses. (Each image is taken in the hide discussed in the section that it appears in). The payback for using one-way concealing glass is that it reduces light reaching the camera by around a stop, so wide aperture lenses and cameras with good levels of high ISO noise work best.Tripods are a must, and to ensure that the birds don't see you, dark clothing (and dark covers for any white lenses) are essential.
As the pools are shallow birds regularly bath in the water which can produce some interesting images with water drops flying about all over the place. The edges of the pools vary - some parts are mossy, some stone, others have tree bark - which gives a nice variety to photos. There can also be interactions between birds as they compete for the right to access the pools.
In addition to photographing birds at the water's edge and in the pool, perches placed strategically around the water provide further opportunities, as do the branches of nearby trees.
The 'Underwater' Hide
This is Bence's latest hide, set in the water in a marsh reed bed. The hide is waterproof and sunk below the surface of the water with the shooting window level with the water itself. The hide has built in tripod heads (Uniqball Arca-swiss fit) and comfortable chairs. An air circulation system prevents the large window from misting over in colder weather and lights on top of the hide can be turned on for night shooting. In front of the hide is a large pool surrounded by reeds on each side and, in the far distance, trees and more reeds provide thebackground. I've photographed Herons (Grey, Squacco and Black-Crowned Night Herons), Great and Little Egrets, various Gulls, Black Storks, Godwit, Hooded Crows and Magpies here.
The hide is orientated to give backlighting in the morning and more conventional lighting with the sun behind the hide in the afternoon. The lights can be used to shoot early and late in the day when natural light is faint, as well as at night. This variety of lighting coupled with the superb low shooting position make the hide a joy to to photograph from. It's currently my favourite of Bence's creations. Shorter lenses are best here - 70-200mm for larger birds, 300mm for smaller subjects at the end of the pool.
(Image: Back-lit Grey Heron hunting. Canon EOS 1DX, EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II, 1/4000 sec @ f/3.5, ISO 800, tripod, hide)
The ability to use floodlights on top of the hide allows for saturated blue skies early in the day as correcting for the light white-balance (halogen) has the added effect of shifting the natural light towards the blue end of the spectrum. At night, the lights illuminate birds but leave the surrounding area in blackness.
The ' Theatre' Hide
The Theatre hide is an amazing piece of engineering. A tunnel under a lake provides access to the hide itself, which is under the water, with panoramic windows at water level both in front and behind the photographer. An ingenious rotating chair and tripod arm system allow cameras to use both sides. The hide is carpeted, heated, has de-humidification to prevent build up of mist on the windows, mains electricity and 100Mb wireless broadband. There are even two bedrooms and a small living/working area at the land end of the tunnel.
The hide looks out onto a large marsh pool with distant reed bed backgrounds and attracts many wading birds. I've photographed Black Stork, Night and Grey Heron, Magpies, Hooded Crows, Redshank, Avocet, Godwit, Spoonbill, Buzzard, various Gulls and even White-tailed Eagles (during the winter). It's possibly the busiest of Bence's hides in terms of bird activity. It provides the opportunity to photograph birds from extreme close-up to more distant shots that encompass the landscape. I've used lenses from 16mm through to 500mm with 2X extenders with success here.
The lighting changes from front to back lighting as the day progresses allowing for saturated blues in the early morning and beautiful sunset silhouettes at the end of the day.
As the one-way glass windows in the hide are several metres wide, shooting action shoots is easier than in the other hides. There's plenty of opportunity to photograph birds in flight over the water.
The Shore Hide
This was Bence's first water level hide in the marshes. It's a floating hide with a floor to ceiling one-way glass shooting window. The floor of the hide (and bottom of the window) are level with the water surface. This means that the photographer has to lie on the floor to get water level images. This can get a little uncomfortable after a few hours, but it's worth it for the images. The species here are the same as those found at the 'Theatre' hide. The background is different - a small pool is contained within an island on the main lake. Lenses from 70 to 400mm work best here, although extreme close-up encounters can also make a wide angle quite useful. Photography is best done with a beanbag or a tripod that allows near floor-level shooting.
There is one more shore hide - the 'old shore hide' which I haven't used, but I understand that this offers a wide view onto a marsh lake. In addition to reflection hides, Bence's farm also has three European Roller hides, a Hoopoe hide, Bee-eater colony hides (also good for Sand Martin) and a tower hide from which it is possible to photograph Kestrel, Cuckoo and other birds if luck is with you.I plan to talk about these in more detail in a future blog post.
Accommodation at the farm is basic - sharing a bedroom is the norm. There's free wifi available. Bence usually arranges for a cook to come in and prepare a typical Hungarian dinner in the evening, guests make their own breakfast and lunch from a selection of ham, cheese etc. in the fridge. Days can be very long - you'll need to be in the hides at dawn and leave at sunset, with a break in the middle of the day. At the 'Underwater' hide, shooting can continue through the night thanks to the halogen floodlights. Bence can arrange taxis to / from Budapest airport - roughly a 2 hour drive away.
Full details of the hides in Hungary, and Bence's other locations, can be found on his website: