Paul Hobson explains why the hedgehog, that large prickly ball that snuffles through the undergrowth, makes a great subject
About the hedgehog
The upper part of the hedgehog’s head and body is covered in around 5,000 banded spines, which are 20cm long. A once- familiar sight across mainland Britain 20 years ago, hedgehogs are in sharp decline, but many people still come across them, and some encourage and feed them in their gardens.
- Location Can be found across the UK.
- Size Adults can weigh up to 2kg, and are roughly 25cm in length.
- Nest These are made of moss and leaves under vegetation.
- Diet Hedgehogs are almost entirely insectivores, loving to work through leaf litter, often noisily, looking for worms, slugs and beetles. They can eat snails, but only small ones.
- Population Hedgehogs have suffered an enormous decline in recent years, with the population now at fewer than one million compared with 36 million in the 1950s.
Hedgehogs are one of our most loved mammals and many are rescued, particularly if they are underweight in the autumn. A large proportion of the hedgehog images published are of rescued animals, especially if they are shown in daylight. In many respects it is far more responsible to work with rescued animals – you don’t stress wild ones, you support your local rescue centre and you will get far better images, as you can choose where and when to photograph them.
If you decide to work with wild animals at night you will have to use flash, but many photographers now have reservations about the impact of full flash on nocturnal animals. Remember, the welfare and well-being of the animal must always come first. In poor light you may be able to get away with using high ISO sensitivities rather than resorting to flash, but focus carefully as AF may struggle. However, the ISO performance of some of the latest higher-end DSLRs is really very impressive.
Hedgehogs are primarily mammals that live in woodlands, large gardens and small fields bounded with hedgerows. They hibernate during the winter and are nocturnal. A hedgehog out in daylight is a cause for concern and is probably ill or struggling to find food.
Get down low
To photograph hedgehogs (even if they are tame), lie on the ground with your camera (on a beanbag or tripod) set to silent shutter mode. This is important, as it is most likely that the hedgehog will either curl up or at best flinch when it hears the shutter. Choose as long a lens as possible (200mm-plus) to increase your distance from the animal and to create a more blurred background. Selecting a low f-stop will also help.
If you are working with a hedgehog when it is released for the first time, you should be able to choose the exact spot the animal will be placed in. Make sure there are no distracting twigs behind it or leaves in front that may block your view. If it is curled up, wait until it slowly unfurls then you should be able to take a range of shots and hopefully one or two as it lumbers off. If the light is harsh or contrasty you can use a dab of fill-in flash to lift any shadows.
Alternatively, as mentioned earlier, try to increase the ISO sensitivity, which may also give you the advantage of higher shutter speeds. Converting the image to black & white will work well with scenes with lots of tone, texture and contrast. Going mono can also be a good way of de-emphasising the distraction of a strongly coloured, cluttered background.
The onus is on you to be responsible. You will probably be with someone from the rescue centre and if you, or they, feel the hedgehog is impeded by your photography, stop immediately. You should be able to get other opportunities with other hedgehogs at a later date.
Although not part of my kit, I give a few tins of dog food to a local rescue centre to help them reduce costs, plus a set of my best images so they can use them to help advertise and raise money.
In today’s world of high ISO sensitivities, the need for stabilisation is far less as high shutter speeds are easier to achieve. However, a good beanbag helps.
After more than 20 years as an environmental-science lecturer, Paul Hobson moved into wildlife photography full time. He loves travelling around the world, but prefers working in the UK. www.paulhobson.co.uk