The Truth About Camouflage

You see it everywhere these days. Camouflage  Its on coffee mugs, dresses, dress shirts, ties, seat covers in trucks, and wildlife photographers standing along the side of the road photographing next to their vehicles. Somewhere along the way, camo made the evolutionary leap from utilitarian dress to fashion and a distinguishing mark of culture.

But is all of this necessary  Of course coffee mugs and dress shirts are a fashion statement, but do we as wildlife photographers really need to deck ourselves out in the latest Real Tree, Mossy Oak, or Shadow Grass patterns to be successful photographers? Producing camo these days is big business. How much of this is really necessary and how much of it is just designed to separate you from your money?

I’m order to understand the how, when, and why of camouflage, its critical that we understand exactly how animals see in the first place.


First things first… Rods and cones. This is not a biology class so I will keep it short. Rods are for gathering light while cones are for gathering color. Depending upon when an animal is most active determines the number and ratio of rods to cones in their eyes. This alone can tell you quite a bit about how your wildlife subject sees the world. If its a nocturnal animal, it probably has little need for cones and therefore color. If its a strictly diurnal animal, color takes precedence over night vision. Animals that are active at the edges of light will have a more even ratio.

The very first thing you need to understand about the way animals see the world, is that very few outside of the primate family actually see color like we do. In fact most mammals only see one or two colors, and many do not see any at all.

Case in point: the law that mandates all hunters where a certain amount of blaze orange while in the woods. The idea behind hunters wearing this bright and exceptionally noticeable color, is that it makes you visible to other hunters. This is a safety measure to keep you from getting shot.

The reason that blaze orange was chosen is because it is a color that is instantly noticeable to humans, stands out from all other colors in the woods, and is completely invisible to deer. You see, deer cannot see red. So anything that is red or is a red based color is nothing but grey to them. What research does show however is that deer can see blue, green, and potentially some ultraviolet colors which humans cannot.

It wasn’t all that long ago when the hunting clothing of choice was red flannel shirts. With alternating patterns of black and red, this looks like black and gray to members of the deer family and ultimately helped break up the shape of a human.

now when I say deer, I’m not just talking about whitetail deer. This also includes mule deer, elk, and the biggest deer of them all, moose. All members of the deer family have basically the same type of vision.

Deer of course are not the only “color blind” animals out there. Canines are as well. Wolves, coyotes, and foxes are red green color blind. This means that reds and greens appear gray to them. The red fox may very well be red because it helps conceal it from coyotes. Likewise, out here in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, you find that basically every species of ungulate ( hoofed mammal) such as bison, elk, and moose have red colored babies. This red fur in turn visually conceals the offspring of these animals from wolves and coyotes.

Bear on the other hand have very similar vision as that of humans. Red wavelengths are still a bit of a problem for them, however they can see it in subdued forms. The reason that bears see colors similar to us, and reds at all, probably has much to do with their diets. As bears are omnivorous and have a similar diet as we would in nature based communities, it was important for the bear to be able to differentiate different colors when foraging for food.

So let’s stop here for a moment. When it comes to photographing big mammals in North America, the above mentioned species pretty much sums it up. There are a few missing off the list like bighorns and mountain goats of course but you get the idea behind all of this.

So if we take the majority of big mammals and break down what it is that they can actually see, we quickly realize that color is of little importance. Red might just be the best color to wear in the woods next to gray, and blue is the one color you definitely DO NOT want to wear.

With this in mind, you can probably begin to see that modern day expensive camouflage clothing is design more for consumers than it is for concealing. In fact, most of the high end camo designs actually HURT your ability to conceal yourself! That will be part two of this series. . .

This entry was posted in The Inner Game of Outdoor Photography, Wildlife Photography.