With the winter season having truly arrived, award-winning photographer James Roddie shares his tips on how to photograph mountain hares.
Mountain hares are arguably one of the most beautiful sights you can see in the Scottish hills. They are true icons of the Highlands – turning white in the winter and living their lives in some of the coldest and harshest environments in the UK. Britain’s only native hare, they can only be seen in the Scottish uplands and in a small area of the English Peak District. In recent years they’ve become a very popular subject for photographers and it is easy to understand why – they are charismatic, fascinating and comical creatures. Anyone who walks in the Scottish hills is likely to come across mountain hares at some point or another – so how do you go about photographing them?
The subject of photography equipment can be a bit of a minefield so I’ll try to keep it simple! Many walkers use ‘bridge’ cameras whilst out in the hills – these are versatile cameras that bridge the gap between compacts and DSLRs. They allow a good degree of manual control and have a fixed lens which normally has a huge zoom range. With good light and conditions, and if you can get close enough, it is certainly possible to get decent photos of mountain hares with a bridge camera. However there is no doubt that a DSLR or mirrorless camera with a good telephoto lens will offer finer image quality. It will also cost a great deal more, however.
For someone starting out in mountain hare photography, whichever camera system you use will need a lens with a focal length of around 300 to 500mm. I usually don’t recommend using a tripod. To get close enough for good images usually requires crawling and a tripod can rapidly become a hindrance. A good compromise is a photographic bean-bag. These are lightweight and convenient supports which keep your camera off the ground and offer a good degree of stability.
How to get close
Before you can start trying to photograph mountain hares it is important to understand a couple of fundamentals. Firstly, hares vary considerably in shyness and their tolerance of humans. The majority of hares will not let you get anywhere near close enough for photography, and getting decent images depends on finding individuals that will allow you to approach. Secondly, if you attempt to ‘sneak up’ on a hare by hiding behind boulders or approaching them from behind, you will almost certainly not be successful. Getting close depends on gaining a hare’s trust via a slow and careful approach, allowing it to watch you and become comfortable with your presence. Always remember that the welfare of the hare has to come first.
A good way to start is to go to an area in which you’ve seen a good number of hares before. It is usually best to locate an individual from a good distance away, 100 metres or more, for which a small pair of binoculars can be invaluable. Spend a little while watching it – does it look alert or uncomfortable, or does it appear to be resting? If a hare is looking at you, sat upright with its ears pointing upwards, it is already feeling uncomfortable. You can either stay still and wait to see if it settles down, or try to locate a different hare which appears more relaxed. Ideally try to find a hare which is sat still and appears to be dozing.
You should approach a hare head-on and keep within its field of view. Start approaching at a very slow walk, stopping regularly and watching for any changes in the hare’s behaviour. If it stands up and faces away from you then it is probably planning to bolt, so stop your approach and wait to see if it settles. Similarly if it is looking at you with very wide, alert eyes, then you should stop and not move. If it settles down, continue a slow, direct approach. You should drop to your hands and knees when you still a good distance away and begin to crawl. The slower the better – you should expect to spend over an hour approaching a hare from a hundred metres away. To get really close you will need to be very patient indeed, stopping every few metres for several minutes. If there is any sign of the hare becoming nervous, you’ll need to stop for however long it takes for it to become comfortable again. If it continues to look scared but doesn’t move, you should retreat as slowly as you approached. The hare’s welfare is more important than getting the photos.
It may take several attempts before you find a hare which will tolerate an approach, and in some areas it can prove very difficult indeed. For your best chances of success, hire a local photography guide.
Where to go?
Mountain hares can be seen in many upland areas in Scotland, but their population densities depend on numerous factors. Whilst some hills may have populations of hundreds, others may only have a handful. Good places to try include the Cairngorms, the Monadhliath, and numerous other parts of the Eastern Highlands.
The camera settings you’ll need to use will depend entirely on the light and conditions you find on the day, but there are some key principles which will help you to get good images.
– Using your camera in Aperture Priority mode is a game-changer from using it in automatic. By selecting a wide aperture (a smaller f number), you allow the camera to use as much available light as possible. A wide aperture also helps to isolate your subject against an out-of-focus background, which can be very aesthetically pleasing for a subject like a hare.
– Using a telephoto lens requires a relatively fast shutter speed to ensure sharp images. Try to make sure you’re using a shutter speed of 1/500th second or faster when using a lens in the 300-500mm focal length range. This is for a hare sitting still – to get sharp photos of a hare which is moving you should ideally use shutter speed of 1/1250th of a second or faster.
– In snowy conditions your camera will often produce images that look under-exposed (too dark). Use exposure compensation to deliberately over-expose when this happens.
A few last important bits:
– You should be as careful leaving as you were on the approach to a hare. Do not just simply stand up and walk away once you’ve taken your photos. I’ll say it again – the hare’s welfare is paramount.
– In the spring and summer it isn’t uncommon to come across tiny leverets (new-born hares) sat motionless in the heather. Whilst they can be an easy and very tempting subject for photography, they are extremely vulnerable when they are this young and it’s best to leave them be.
– Take more clothing than you think you’ll need. If you’re aiming for good hare images you’re going to be spending several hours hardly moving. Avoid any bright colours and wear decent waterproofs.
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