How to Photograph Hedgehogs
Our adoration of hedgehogs can be traced back to 1905 when Beatrix Potter wrote The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-winkle. We fell in love with her, and we fell in love with hedgehogs. Once so common, snuffling around our gardens after dark, we probably took them for granted.
Unfortunately, the situation is now far more serious. Hedgehog numbers have sharply declined from an estimated 30 million in the 1950s to 1.5 million today. Not only is this a wildlife tragedy, but it has two important implications for photographers.
The first is for many of us, including myself, that we have no hedgehogs visiting our garden or neighbourhood – wild hedgehogs are not readily “available”. The second is that, because of their precarious future, should we really be working with a declining, nocturnal, wild mammal?
This spiky, ethical question is a personal one and the use of any images must be weighed against the stress and disturbance that photography might cause. However, there are excellent alternatives.
The first is to use camera traps that do not use flash. Since I don’t have any hedgies in my garden, this is something I have not done. I have used camera traps extensively with the badgers that visit my garden – and therein lies one of the reasons why I don’t have any hedgies!
The second, and arguably the most ethical way, is to work with rescued hedgehogs. So, with this in mind, let’s take a look at how to photograph hedgehogs with the help of a rescue centre.
Approaching a hedgehog rescue centre
There are many hedgehog rescue centres dotted around the United Kingdom, and so they are not hard to find. Some “centres” are actually individuals who work just within their local area. Others are more elaborate, larger set-ups.
Your first approach needs consideration. You are hoping that they will trust you with one of their resident hedgehogs. Make an appointment first, and take along a selection of your work. Consider not only what you want out of the relationship, but also what they may want.
Always offer all your images you intend to take for free, even if you don’t think that they will want or need them. An offer of free food (for the hedgehogs!) will go some way to building trust.
On your first photography session, I would suggest that you work at their property with the handlers helping you. This will allow them to see how you work and how careful you are with their hogs. It also allows you to get a feel for how the hogs behave, how to handle them, and what opportunities are possible.
The ultimate end game is that the centre trusts you enough to allow you to take one of the hogs away with you, and which will create the opportunity for new images.
Taking photos of hedgehogs
Before you go charging off with your hedgehog, you need to think carefully about what images you want to create. If you have a suitable garden (or know someone who has one) then this is an excellent place to start.
Before you collect the star of the show, walk around the garden with your camera and lens of choice (500mm, mid-range zoom, or wide-angle). Select a range of areas that you want to work in which are safe for the hog – and, crucially, where you won’t lose it.
Until you gain experience, I would suggest you work with someone else who is prepared to handle the hog (thick gloves are needed). This allows you to concentrate on creating images without having to worry about the hog constantly wandering off.
Background research is always necessary when working with any new animal. Learn about any potential behaviour that it could show and how you might capture these in your work. In the case of hedgehogs, they have a bizarre piece of behaviour called self-anointing. It’s definitely not pretty, but it is a hog thing.
Some hedgehogs may be very cautious, and so should you be. I always use the silent mode on my camera whenever I work with any new animal. It is most likely that the hog will be curled up into a ball when it is placed out into the garden.
As it unfurls, there is a great temptation to take a shot – but remember this is when it is most nervous. It has just been plonked down into a very new environment and it doesn’t know what to expect. A sharp click from a camera only a few feet away may cause it to curl up straight away again. If your camera is totally silent, like many of the new mirrorless models, then you could probably take a range of images as it unfurls.
Your body position is important
As the hog opens up, it is more likely to be alarmed if there is a huge shape looming above it. On your first session, I would suggest that you use a longer lens (a 500mm or 100-400mm zoom) and either kneel or preferably lie down (a mat is useful for this) five or more metres away. Another advantage of this is that your backgrounds within your image will be far smoother, especially if you are laying down.
You can practise this before the day of your first shoot and then you will be able to see any distracting grasses or objects in the background or foreground. You can then either remove them or choose a better position. You can also experiment with your aperture and ISO so that you have a good idea of the depth of field within your image. I personally tend to shoot with very low f-numbers on larger lenses, regularly at f/4 because I love the soft, blurry backgrounds it creates.
If you opt for a big lens, you may need a camera support. I always use my tripod because it allows me to relax far more. When you buy a tripod, I would suggest that you get one without a centre column so that the legs open up completely and the tripod can be fairly flush with the ground. If that’s not possible, then use a beanbag (or any soft object like a camera bag or an old cushion). The use of a support allows you to be able to work at slightly slower shutter speeds – and consequently lower ISOs, thus reducing potential noise in the image.
However, most new cameras can produce incredible results at what were once considered ridiculously high ISOs, such as 1600 or above. You will need to create a good speed because even though hogs are fairly slow and measured in their activities they are constantly moving. A speed of 1/250th or 1/500th should be able to freeze the hog well.
Choosing the best weather conditions
The weather, and light, is always something photographers are obsessed about. It may be that you have to book a day with your rescue centre and you have to go with what you get, be it sunny or overcast. Your preparatory work in your garden will have shown you the best places to work in if the sun does shine.
However, hogs don’t like bright sunshine anyway (unless they are very tame) and so I would always try to pick an overcast day. If you can’t, consider working within the shadows. It’s not easy, but it may be the only way you can get the hog to cooperate.
Whatever you do, don’t plonk the hog into bright sunshine as it could easily overheat.
Your first session will probably create a number of questions, but it should also give you many ideas for future sessions. One aspect that many photographers like to explore is the use of wide-angle lenses, such as a 16-35mm. This type of image is very different because the background is now a dominant and compositionally important part of the image.
The use of these lenses also means that, in many cases, you will be placing the camera very close to the hedgehog. A confident hog is a great advantage now. However, if you are not sure and your camera is silent, then it is possible to fire the camera remotely (cable release or wireless) so you are not laying or kneeling right next to the hog.
Working at night
Hedgehogs in the wild are almost exclusively nocturnal. The usual exception to this is if they have been disturbed or are struggling, possibly being seriously underweight or ill.
To create a night-time feel to your images, you will have to think about adding lighting. This could be from either flash or a handheld device like a torch or specific photographer’s light. If your hog is nervous and easily stressed, I suggest you don’t try to work at night.
However, if you have a confident hog, probably one that has been in the rescue centre for some time and is used to being handled, and you have worked with it a few times, then this type of image is far more natural.
Read more: Does Flash Photography Harm Animals?
If you choose flash, use it on very low power and choose a higher ISO to compensate. Remember, a hedgehog’s eyes are adapted to working at night. My preferred method is to use a photographer’s light on a small tripod – this is a continuous light source rather than a burst. I can alter the white balance on the light, creating either a bluer tone or a warmer, more yellow tone that represents something like a street lamp.
The light has variable power settings, so I can use it at quite low levels and choose a higher ISO (1600 or above) at low f-numbers (f/4 or f/5.6).
I tend to take night images with wide-angle lenses. I work with a 16-35mm zoom and often choose higher f-numbers, such as f/16, to get more of the background in. I compensate with higher ISOs (2000) and risk lower speeds (1/20th if the camera is on a tripod) and I hope that the hog stays still for long enough for a few sharp images.
Moving out of the garden
Once your experience and confidence has grown (as well as that of the rescue centre and of the hedgehog), you can consider taking the hog out of the garden and create a much wider range of images.
The time of year will help to add context. Autumn leaves in woodlands always look great. Use both longer lenses at low heights as well as wide-angles to highlight the woodland settings.
When I last worked with a rescue centre, they wanted a series of images to highlight the dangers that cars create for hedgehogs. I chose to work in a car park and set the hog in a variety of positions to try to highlight this danger. The hog was an incredibly confident one and had been injured in the past and had been kept by the centre for many months before it was released back into the wild.
Don’t be afraid to use the rescue centre itself to create a series of images, too. Photos of young hogs being fed are very cute and probably ones the centre can really use to further their conservation efforts.
Hedgehogs do make great subjects for a photography project and, unlike many of our declining mammals, there are rescue centres that may provide subjects that can open up a myriad of image possibilities.
With the right approach, your images can help to make a positive difference to the running of your local hog rescue centre. It can be a win-win situation.