Badger Photography Tips by Elliott Neep

Photographing from the hide…

Thank you for choosing our Downland Hide to photograph our hillside badgers. The open-country badger, like these, can be notoriously shy and wary creatures. Photographing woodland badgers, by comparison, is relatively straight forward. Significant time and effort has been invested over the past two years, habituating the badger clan to the hide and some feeding, as well as the comings and goings of people and vehicles. We hope you benefit from our labours as photographing these badgers has become a labour of love. They are wonderful animals to photograph!

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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 (charging point is available, but you need your lead)

Recommended Kit:

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

Badger Behaviour

European Badger (Meles meles) foraging on grass bank, Wiltshire, EnglandThe Downland Hide was constructed in Autumn 2013 when badger activity had died right down. The new generation that emerged in 2014 have known nothing but the hide being there and treat it as though it is part of the landscape. Hence, we have a mix of badgers that are innately at ease with the hide and those that are still just a little cautious. However, the hide has been there long enough for all the badgers to come out in the open, relaxed and confident.

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 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. 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 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 will be drifting toward the sett. We strongly recommend avoiding the consumption of strong smelling food. This is also the main reason why we ask our 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 approximately 8pm. Badgers are known to spend over an hour in their sett entrances, just sniffing the air to make sure the coast is clear.

European BadgerWhen the badgers do emerge, they spend a few minutes around their sett scratching, sniffing, visiting their latrines and having a play. Then they approach through the nettlebeds and out onto the bank. Slowly 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. We advise leaving the badgers to settle onto the bank and get stuck into the the peanuts – growing their confidence, 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.

Exposure

The entire area in front of the hide is a lush green mixture of grass and wildflowers, backed by a steep grass bank, with nettle beds on either side. So, the scene is no issue for metering systems. Even the badger’s back is a perfect midtone grey. The 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

DSC_2559The main feeding area is approximately 12m away from the hide. The badgers can come within 6m of the hide and are still photographable at 20m on some of the further banks. The badgers are constantly moving, whether it is 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. Even though they can appear to be rather stationary, I’ve found you do need to keep up the shutter speed and use Continuous (AI Servo) focussing to keep the focus acquired. Actually, Nikon’s 3D Focussing works remarkable well, keeping the focus firmly latched onto those bold graphic stripes. 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 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 bank is roughly 12m away, you can happily shoot wide open and have sufficient depth of field for a crisp shot. For example, a 400mm lens at f/4, focussing at 12m gives you about 20cm depth of field. Plenty for a badgers face. If you’re shooting with a 600mm prime, with a full-frame DSLR, shooting on f/4 at a subject of 12m gives just 9cm, so you have to be a little more careful and exacting on focus point placement. If you close down the aperture to f/8, you’ll gain about 8cm DOF, but at significant loss in shutter speed. So, my advice is to shoot wide-open for a faster shutter speed and diffused background.

Typical DOF values on full-frame cameras like the Nikon D800 or Canon 5D mkIII at a focus distance of 12m
Focal Length Vs Aperturef/4f/5.6f/8f/16
300mm37cm53cm75cm150cm
500mm13cm19cm26cm53cm
600mm9cm13cm18cm36cm
Typical DOF values and on crop factor cameras like the Nikon D3200 or Canon 7D mkII at a focus distance of 12m
Focal Length Vs Aperturef/4f/5.6f/8f/16
300mm24cm34cm47cm95cm
500mm8cm12cm17cm34cm
600mm6cm8cm12cm23cm