Fantastic Mr Fox - An Interview With Wildlife Photographer Sam Hobson

Often caught roaming around city suburbs to catch glimpses of urban wildlife, Sam Hobson is an award-winning conservation photographer. We caught up with him to discover more about his unconventional work capturing shots of UK wildlife...

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How did you get into wildlife photography?
My first venture into wildlife photography wasn’t exactly conventional. I grew up in a busy city and had a passion for wildlife and the outdoors from an early age, but unfortunately I didn’t have much in the way of disposable income, or access to any decent camera kit. I didn’t want to let that stop me though, so I did as much as possible to learn about photography and how to get close to the animals in my neighbourhood.

Once I got my first camera (a hand-me-down Nikon SLR with a 20mm lens) I developed my knowledge of field-craft and my local environment. This allowed me to experiment with a different style of wildlife photography, which was getting close and personal without using long lenses. These early lessons helped me develop a style that has stayed with me ever since.

What made you interested in photographing urban foxes?
When I started working professionally, I was very much focused on developing the story behind each project and image. I had plans to explore an idea on the UK’s perception and relationship with foxes but I became weighed down in research. I eventually decided to put off beginning the project until my ideas were more solid.

Then I stumbled across a location in Bristol. For once, I decided to forget about the story and just take photos for fun, not getting too bogged down on where the image could lead and who might want to buy it. This was when my interest in photographing foxes really grew. It made me realise that with wildlife photography, you have to be an opportunist and shoot when the moment presents itself. Just like that, urban foxes became my magnum opus.

Can you explain the process behind photographing the foxes at night?
Don’t be a bull in a china shop. Don’t go in to a shoot with big lenses and bright flashes chasing foxes all over the place, because they’ll disappear and then know to avoid you next time. Instead, observe and think of them as individuals. You’ll soon work out which foxes are bolder than others and who might make good subjects.

After you’ve found a location, spend the first few visits letting the foxes get to know you. Once they become accustomed to you, you can then introduce the camera. This can take a day or even a week (it depends on the animals), but it’s really important to establish that connection first.

Once you find a fox happy to be photographed, consider using a mid-length zoom lens like the 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR. In urban locations, there’s often enough ambient light to photograph at night, even with a full-frame, hand-held camera like the Nikon D750, paired with a lens like this which has a quick burst mode. Know your equipment and push it to its limits, using the highest ISO that will still produce a high quality image.

Another technique is to use a tripod or place the camera on a wall (perhaps with a battery grip) to change the vantage point. Set up everything manually beforehand, testing exposure and focus and working out where the fox needs to be in the frame. When you’re ready, move away from the equipment to encourage an inquisitive fox to investigate. When the fox is in frame, use a remote release to capture from a distance. If you keep your ISO high, you only need a very low-powered flash burst, which means the fox will not scare as easily. I tend to use an external flash to reduce disturbance and prevent red-eye.

How close were you able to get to the foxes?
I was able to get pretty close, but that only came from putting in the time to get to know them beforehand. The more wildlife photography you do, the more you understand animal behaviour. This is the difference between good and bad wildlife photographers – those who can sense an animal’s willingness and don’t just get the kit out straight away. Of course, you don’t want to miss opportunities, but I always find the best shots come with patience (and perhaps remote releases!).

How did you figure out where the best places to photograph the foxes were?
Keeping your eyes and ears open when you’re not out with your camera is the best way to get to know your local wildlife. You could be walking home from work one evening and spot an area that could be home to urban foxes. Mentally logging all these little moments and coming back at the right time is key.

And don’t forget to speak to people. Everyone has a story about an encounter with a fox, and they can provide goldmines of information. 

What’s the best shot that you never got?
The limitations of photographing at night means missed opportunities are quite common, unfortunately. No matter what kit you have, sometimes there just isn’t enough light to facilitate a fast shutter speed, so my main struggle is capturing fox action, like play-fighting for example. If you find foxes that are happy to come out in the day time, make the most of it and photograph as much as possible.

What’s your favourite story from your time photographing wildlife?
I love the planning stages – getting to know the animals and then using their personalities and behaviours to help develop an idea. Also, in a world of emails, taking two hours out of your day to slow down and get back to nature is awesome.

What would be your typical settings for a fox photo?
My main setting is to push the ISO as high as possible and the aperture as wide as it can go. Even if you’re on a sixth of a second, the fastest shutter speed you can achieve within those settings is key. Once you’ve got that, it’s just a case of observing the animal.

Of course, there are moments when foxes freeze suddenly, whether they hear a car drive past or detect a person walking close-by. Use your senses to predict when they’ll do that. If I’m focusing on a fox walking across the street and I hear footsteps, I’m ready to capture that moment.

What’s your favourite piece of gear?
The Nikon D750 is just great. With a tilt-screen monitor, compact body, full frame and unrivalled ISO, it’s the perfect body for the work I do. That combined with my Nikon 17-35mm f/2.8D ED-IF is my ideal set up, as you can focus nice and close and include plenty of background as context.

The 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II is the perfect lens for capturing mammals that are keeping their distance. It’s sharp and versatile, so you can quickly zoom out if the foxes start to get a little nosier.

It’s good to use a fast all-rounder, and for that, I would recommend the 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II. With this lens, you can crank open the aperture as wide as possible and let in tons of light, which is great for when you’re working at night.

Do you have any tips for budding wildlife photographers?
Don’t be a jack of all trades. If you’re trying to get noticed, taking ten great pictures of something local to you will stand you in better stead than ten random pictures. Young photographers often think they must build a portfolio and photograph a wide range of animals, but this can lead to a mediocre set of images. Instead, really focus on a subject and get to know it until you have the best possible pictures you can achieve.

Don’t focus on what other people are doing either. Although it’s nice (and important) to take inspiration, don’t compare your work with theirs. Original imagery comes from your own story.

Sam Hobson is a professional wildlife photographer, based in Bristol, UK. He's won numerous awards in major competitions including Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Bird Photographer of the Year and British Wildlife Photography Awards. See more here