Badger Photography Tips by Elliott Neep

Thank you for choosing our field badger PhotoArks™. Open-country badgers, like these, can be notoriously shy and wary animals. Significant time and effort has been invested, habituating this hedgerow badger clan to the sound of camera shutters and regular feeding, as well as the comings and goings of people and vehicles. The design of these hides has been a real breakthrough as the badgers are so used to seeing similar-looking ‘pig arks’ all over the farm along with the accompanying noisy occupants inside. I hope you benefit from my efforts as they are wonderful animals to photograph! EN

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Essential Kit:

  • Camera body (there is room for two side-by-side)
  • Minimum 300mm EQV focal length lens with lens hood
  • Tripod head
  • Fully charged batteries
  • Empty memory cards
  • Small torch
  • Food & Drink (something to pee in)
  • Dark clothing (think about something warmer if you’re staying through the night)
  • Fully charged phone

Recommended Kit:

  • Back up body or second for video
  • Teleconverter if using less than 300mm lens
  • Sleeping bag if staying through overnight

Badger Behaviour

After experimenting with different hides at various setts, these Badger PhotoArks™ were finally set in place in 2016. The new generations that emerged that year and since have only known the hides being there and treat them as though they are part of the landscape. The adults grew accustomed to them very quickly as the neighbouring fields are dotted with similar looking livestock arks.

With the odd exception, the badgers are very comfortable with the sound of camera shutters. A blaze of frames from a Canon 1Dx or Nikon D5 might temporarily send them scurrying for the undergrowth, but they will return. The best methodology is to play it safe and slow, just take one or two frames when the badgers raise their heads off the ground to sniff the air. That’s the thing with badgers… they’ve always got their noses on the ground, snuffling for worms.

Badger Senses

The surrounding pastures are full of livestock, making all the natural noises that you and I make, so coughing and sneezing are not an issue. The main thing to avoid is Velcro, any rustling of GorTex style fabrics, foil, cracking plastic, and sudden/loud bangs from inside the hide – above all, you must TURN OFF YOUR PHONES.

Although a badger’s eyesight is fairly poor, their sense of hearing is brilliant, but this pales into insignificance compared to their sense of smell. Their olfactory sense is, quite frankly, epic! The hide does an extremely good job of retaining your human scent, but in a southerly or south-easterly breeze, smells from the hide can drift toward the sett.

I strongly recommend avoiding strong-smelling foods before entering in the hide and especially when inside. This is also the main reason I ask my clients to arrive so early for the evening session. We need time for any scent that we leave on the trail into the hide to dissipate and disperse – ideally two hours before the badgers emergence time of roughly 7:30-8:00pm. Badgers are known to spend over an hour in their sett entrances, just sniffing the air to make sure the coast is clear.

When the badgers emerge

When the badgers do emerge from the burrows, they spend a few minutes around their sett scratching, sniffing, visiting their latrines and having a play. Then they approach through the nettlebed and hedgerow on the left and out to the feeding site in front of the hides. Slowly and tentatively at first, then more confidently.

You’ll hear the vegetation move, as they’re not particularly stealthy, then a flash of white as they poke their heads out. This is THE precarious moment. I recommend leaving the badgers to settle and feed. Allow them to gain their confidence (being out in the open in daylight), before taking your shots. If you rush this moment, then you may have nervy badgers that scuttle off each time you rattle-off some frames. Be patient, let them feed and you can enjoy a much more relaxed session. Remember, it’s not usual badger behaviour to be out in the open in sunlight.

Exposure

The entire area in front of the hide is a green mixture of short grass and clover, backed by a field of bright yellow canola – a set-aside crop for bees. So, the scene is not an issue for metering systems. Even the badger’s back is a perfect midtone grey.

The potential issue lies when either: having a close up on the badger’s face; or if your metering system is linked to focus points on the badgers face. The thick black and white stripes can play havoc, so use Matrix Metering. Then your camera can take an exposure reading from the entire scene in the viewfinder.

On sunny evenings, try underexposing with the [+/-] manual exposure compensation and dial in -1/3rd to -2/3rds stop. This will help prevent the badger’s white stripes and silvery feathers from burning out, plus saturate the colours from the evening sunlight.

Focussing

The main feeding area is about 10m away from the hide, but the badgers can come within 3-4m of the hide. Badgers are constantly moving, whether it’s snuffling around over the bank, or simply their heads bobbing and twitching as they burrow their faces into the grass, rooting out worms and peanuts. Just check out the video above…

Even though they can seem to be rather stationary, I’ve found you do need to keep up the shutter speed to 1/100th minimum, ideally 1/200th and use Continuous (AI Servo) mode to keep the focus acquired. Mostly, I usually use a single focus point to keep the eyes and face pin-sharp.

If you are shooting with a telephoto, the depth of field will be fairly shallow (see table below) and even a moderate movement from the badger can leave the eyes out of critical focus – hence why I shoot Continuous (AI Servo). Remember to rotate your camera and shoot both vertical (for portraits) and horizontal. I know it sounds obvious, but it’s amazing how many photographers are so rigid in their approach that they hardly ever rotate the camera.

Depth of Field (DOF)

As the main feeding area is roughly 10-12m away, you can happily shoot wide open and have sufficient depth of field for a crisp shot. For example, a 500mm lens and full-frame DSLR combo at f/4.0, focussing at 10m gives you about 9cm depth of field – enough for a badger profile. If you’re shooting with a 600mm, you’ll have to be a little more careful and exacting on focus point placement. If you close down the aperture to f/8, you’ll double your DOF, but at significant loss in shutter speed.

And that’s the essential element here. These are nocturnal animals, coming out in crepuscular hours where light levels are continuously dropping. You need all the shutter speed you can get. So, my advice is to shoot wide-open and raise the ISO for a faster shutter speed and diffused backgrounds.

Typical DOF values on full-frame cameras like the Nikon D800 or Canon 5D mkIII at a focus distance of 10m
Focal Length Vs Aperturef/4f/5.6f/8f/16
300mm26cm37cm52cm104cm
500mm9cm13cm18cm36cm
600mm6cm9cm13cm25cm
Typical DOF values and on crop factor cameras like the Nikon D3200 or Canon 7D mkII at a focus distance of 10m
Focal Length Vs Aperturef/4f/5.6f/8f/16
300mm16cm23cm33cm66cm
500mm6cm8cm12cm23cm
600mm4cm6cm8cm10cm