Not Your Everyday Banana

by Bart Arondson

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I live in an area that has a lot of urban foxes and I've been wondering for a while if I could get some interesting photos of them. A web search turned up this article and wonderful pictures, but sadly I just don't have the time to devote myself to a project like a professional wildlife photographer would.

So I'd like to know if anyone has hit on a successful but more lightweight way of photographing urban foxes. I've got a DSLR, good range of lenses and some flash guns. I only ever see the foxes at night, so I'm wondering if a remotely triggered set-up would be best. If so, is there any affordable ("strobist"-level) kit available for doing so?

That sounds like a few questions in one so let me sum it up: how do I photograph urban foxes in my spare time without spending a fortune?

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3 Answers 3

Sometimes you get lucky, but in general, wildlife photography takes time.

I expect your foxes are also active during part of the day, which would make things much easier. Spend the time to learn their habits, and if possible, for them to get used to you. Even so, you're still probably going to see foxes at a distance and for short periods at a time. This means you want the longest lens you can get your hands on. Auto-focus is also a real plus. Critters have a way of running off just as you finished carefully focusing a long lens. Remember that if you have to pick one part of a animal to focus on, pick the eyes.

A tripod will enable some shots, particularly if the light is low, but it can also get in the way. You probably want to go out with a tripod some times and without other times. You will get different types if shots that way. If your camera has a fast sensor and you have a fast lens, you may do better most of the time without a tripod. If the lens has image stabalization (another very useful feature for wildlife photography), then a tripod will only be for those shots where you set up on something specific and wait for it to happen.

I don't think using a flash is a great idea. Perhaps you can get something interesting by setting up a camera trap to go off in the night, but those are rarely "nice" pictures. They usually look clinical and artificial. If you are after scientific recording rather than "Ooh, that's a nice picture", then the strobe and camera trap will be more useful.

A handheld strobe will be worse than useless. It won't provide much light at the expected distance, will scare off the wildlife immediately, and will cause them to associate you with the flash. How are you going to focus when it's so dark that you need a strobe?

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Thanks Olin, some great tips in there. –  Mark Whitaker Oct 18 '13 at 13:33
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Good question. As with any wildlife photography, knowing your subject is key. If you're seeing foxes at night, I'd start by recording some observations -

Where and when. Foxes are territorial and will usually range over the same area unless some outside influence causes that to change (more on that later). If you're seeing a fox at roughly the same time and in the same place, it's highly likely to be the same one. Look for different fur patterns, is it a dog or vixen? (might be hard to tell from a distance)

If you know you're going to be likely to see a fox, you're halfway to getting a photo!

Time of year will make a difference.

January-February is mating season, where they're intensely vocal and then the vixen will go looking out for a breeding earth

March-April, cubs will be born and will be underground, so any foxes you see are likely to be fathers bringing food to the vixen, or non-breeding females

May-August, cubs will come above ground, grow up and parents will be bringing them food.

September-November, cubs will be properly adult size and the family group will start to break up. That's when you'll get territories shifting, as the cubs will be looking to find their own place. December, they'll start getting more vocal as mating season approaches.

So, photography then. Foxes have good hearing and sense of smell, but pretty poor eyesight. So leave the aftershave at home :)

Which comes back to knowing where to find your foxes. I'd tend to avoid flash, as they'll get spooked. The urban landscape is rarely completely dark, so I'd go highest ISO you can, longest lens and tripod. Or try going wider, putting the animal small in the frame for context to it's surroundings.

See if you can catch one walking through a pool of light cast by a streetlight. You could try baiting particular spots with peanut butter sandwiches (they love them!)

Persevere, good luck and I'd be happy to join you :)

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City-foxes in my neighborhood come to as close as four meters distance before they notice me, if I stand still. They watch me, size me up for threat analysis, and after a moment they just slip away. They don't make any sound at all. I've had a dog in leash with me when a city-fox came to five meters distance. My dog did not notice it, even though it is of a sheep herding breed and so should be very alert to everything.

Direct head-on flash looks bad, as usual, but here especially. But as they do come pretty close to you a bounce flash will reach them, if only there is something to bounce from. If you can remote trigger a flash that would be good, but use bounce or diffuser even then. They move in the dark hours, so focus is a problem, as is a preflash too. I'd use no longer than 50mm lens and manually adjust exposure and focus and flash power beforehand, and just wait, as I don't have budget for trap triggers. If you have, then this should be an easy exercise of learning the regular paths they use and then setting up the trigger and camera gear. I've never had a camera with me when a fox has come about.

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