There has been a lot of talk over the last few months regarding the use of remote cameras when photographing wildlife but there are times when it quite simply is the only way, especially if your intention is to create a very different perspective on a much photographed mammal. I was at least present when the image was taken, indeed, I did take it. There were no beams or pressure pads, just me, sitting 20m away in a tree hide firing the camera by radio remote.
It’s an image I have had in my mind’s eye for number of years but for one reason or another was unable to achieve it. Having secured a number of close-ups the previous few weeks, I waited till the bluebells were in bloom then over several nights, would arrive at the scene around 6.30pm (1 1/2 hrs before they usually emerge), climb an old hornbeam, clamp the camera and receiver to a branch, cover them in plastic bags, then retreat to my platform. Once a badger emerged, which it did at 8pm, it was simply a case of waiting until it was in the desired position and hoping above all else, that it would remain still long enough so as not to be just a blur. I set the D300 to iso 1600, aperture priority f4.9 with the resulting shutter speed being 3 seconds. Lens used was 12-24mm. So as to keep any disturbance to a minimum, I waited till it was completely dark, content the badgers had wandered off to forage, climbed down from my platform then went home, returning early the next morning to collect the camera. It was carried out in private woodland and with the camera being a good 15 feet up a tree, I was fairly confident it would still be there when I returned!
I’ve been watching over this same badger sett for some 20 years now and have watched and photographed badgers there every year, bar 2. It’s in private woodland so they get very little disturbance, albeit they are just 10 metres from the edge of a field, occasionally used by dog walkers and others taking a short-cut home from work, but generally speaking it’s pretty quiet. 10 years ago I constructed a platform, alongside an old oak where I could get a much better view of this huge sett and of it’s entrance/exit holes. I built it out of dexion and with the sett in a bowl, it gave me an almost eye-level view of them and being a few feet above the top hole also had the advantage of watching without worrying about the wind direction as although they have poor eyesight, their hearing and sense of smell is incredibly acute. With the sett west facing and in a relative clearing, it was quite bright when they emerged which was often around 7.45pm. My window of opportunity however would only last for around 6 weeks, until the end of May, when the trees would be in full leaf, leaving the sett too dark to work in.
Until recently, the only choice I had in getting photographs of them was to use flash. I would clamp 2 units, a metre or so away from the camera (one as the main light source and the other, closer to the camera, as a fill-in, around 1 stop less than the main.) I would use Fuji Sensia 100 and from 11 feet use an aperture of f5.6, and this was using fairly powerful Metz hammerhead flash units! Unless the site was visited regularly, allowing the badgers to become accustomed to the flash, quite often I would get just one image as the badger would be spooked, only re-emerging when it felt safe enough to do so. But with digital, shooting at high iso’s is now possible with fantastic results and now means I can shoot up until half an hour after sunset. To keep them in view for as long as possible I sprinkled sultanas and raisins around the sett and on the main mound.
I wouldn’t usually have attempted this kind of image, above, before digital as I felt I was putting too much stress on the animal to emerge, regardless of whether it felt ok to do so. This is especially the case during a dry summer, when they may need to travel distances to find food. However, on this occasion, it took no notice of me whatsoever. Afterall, I was obscured by camouflage netting, a good 2 meres above it’s hole.
I used a NIkon D300 either with a 300mm f2.8 or 70-200 f2.8 lens with iso’s ranging from 800 to 3200 but would, whenever possible use the lowest.
Come summer, I will be forced to work on another nearby sett and will again have to resort to flash.
But watching and photographing badgers isn’t just about badgers, it’s the experience of being in a woodland at sunset and into darkness when it really comes alive. Some of my most memorable experiences when photographing badgers haven’t involved badgers at all. I recall, 18 years ago when attempting to photograph a badger crossing a stream, in a remote Welsh valley, a buzzard flying low and fast and just a few metres away between pine trees. I could hear it move through the wind and as if once wasn’t enough, it did it again the following evening too. On that same night, a wren perched less than a metre away and sang. It was almost deafening. I remember watching a vixen move through the woods with a cub held by its scruff in her mouth and more recently, a tawny owl, perching less than 10 feet away, seemingly oblivious to my presence.
About Robert Canis
Robert Canis is a professional photographer specialising in the natural world.
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