Foxes are highly coveted subjects for wildlife photographers. They’re beautiful, playful, intelligent and express strong family bonds.
If just a glimpse of a fox is a treat, finding a den full of fox kits is like winning the photography jackpot. Dens offer a wealth of different photo ops, from tight portraits to compelling action shots, kits wrestling each other and practicing their stalking techniques, and parents bringing home rodents for meals.
In North America, we have six species of fox: red, gray, swift, kit, island and arctic. Red foxes and gray foxes are the only species that can be found in suburban and urban areas. Given this accessibility, their dens are easiest for us to locate, and thus these two species tend to be the most photographed. Dens might be located in an old woodchuck burrow or in spaces under a barn, shed or porch. They may have several entrances.
The months of March and April find a mama fox snuggled up in the den with her kits, nursing them, while the father brings in food for her. The kits don’t emerge until they’re about four to five weeks old and then begin to explore their world. Mother’s milk is supplemented and then replaced by the meat of animals brought home to them.
Both parents hunt and tend to the young (typically four to six kits) through the spring and summer, until they have learned to fend for themselves and go off to seek new territory. It surprises many people to learn that father foxes are very devoted parents, serving as both fierce protectors and gentle groomers for their young. Their strong bond moved me when I spent a long time one spring in a blind near a red fox den and witnessed this firsthand.
Basic Field Ethics To Photograph A Fox Den
How best to photograph a fox den once you’ve found one? This requires a lot of careful thought and decision making, both in terms of photography potential and—more importantly—the safety and welfare of the fox family. Foxes face many challenges and lead short and brutish lives. Their life expectancy is said to be about two to three years. They are killed for sport, for fur, or out of fear and ignorance, hit by cars, poisoned by rodenticide, preyed on by coyotes and vulnerable to diseases like mange. In many states, they are the victims of barbaric killing contests, which seek to kill as many foxes in a day as possible.
If foxes feel their den is in jeopardy due to a perceived threat from one or more humans, they may move their kits out of that den to a different location. That other location may not be as safe or as carefully chosen as the original one. As a photographer, I know that I would never want to be the cause of that, and so my decisions must be made extremely carefully in recognition of the potential effects of my presence.
I strongly recommend the use of blinds for fox dens. A blind might be a pop-up tent blind, or it might be your car. The few exceptions to this are places where foxes are used to people out in the open, such as the island foxes on the Channel Islands off California or the red foxes on Prince Edward Island in Canada. These foxes are not persecuted or hunted and are considered a tourist attraction. But in most places, foxes are not safe from human persecution; they are sadly still considered “vermin” by many who do not appreciate their beauty or their importance in the ecological health of our natural communities. For these reasons, habituating them to human presence can present a risk, and thus as much as we can hide our human form, the better.
Of course, the fastest way to habituate a fox is also the best way to shorten its life: feeding it. A fed fox is a dead fox. Even if it’s just you feeding that fox, the fox will assume all humans may hold out that potential, and the moment it begins to approach people with hopes of a handout is the moment it begins to be in great danger. Feeding foxes for the sake of a photo is truly the unkindest thing you can do for them.
As it’s not uncommon for foxes to den near roads, many people are able to photograph them from their cars. The foxes are used to cars going by, and as long as your car is not too close and you remain quietly in your vehicle, you may well be able to be an observer without any disruption to the foxes’ routines. Pull over to a safe spot, turn your engine off, rest your lens on a beanbag or other window support, and keep your movements to a minimum. When other cars come by, pull your lens in and do your best to avoid bringing attention to the den. This is crucial.
A caution: It’s fun to share our photos of fox families with others on social media. They’re a popular subject, and the den can very quickly become a top destination for other photographers and observers. But sharing locations with others carries many risks for the foxes. Added human pressure, even from considerate observers, can cause the foxes to move their den. Our responsibility is first and foremost to the foxes and their welfare.
Placing A Pop-Up Blind
In many cases, using a pop-up, or tent blind, is the best way to photograph a fox den. The ideal situation is on private land—with permission from the landowner. Does someone you know have a den on their property? Contact them and ask if you can put up a blind, in exchange offering them a print of their choice from the photos you get. It can also be a wonderful opportunity to educate them about how to co-exist with the fox family.
With blind placement, the critical thing one must do first is make observations from afar to establish baseline behavior norms. This will inform both how you position yourself for best views and photos and also how normalcy looks for this family before you and your blind have affected their behavior. Consider factors such as:
- Is there an area where the kits like to play?
- Do the parents tend to go out or enter the scene at a particular spot?
- Is nursing happening out in the open when mama returns from a hunt?
- Do the parents rest outside of the den?
- How do they act when they feel threatened? Many foxes will pin their ears back, like our domestic dogs, or may give short barks.
Observe the directionality of the light through the day. Is the situation best for a morning shoot or afternoon? What will it be like at golden hour at either end of the day? Does it take a while for the rising sun to clear the trees or a rise of land? A best-case scenario is when the fox den faces the south; this will yield the most hours of light on the den.
Of course, the position of the fox den vis-à-vis the sun doesn’t matter that much if the action is happening outside the den in a larger area. As fox kits explore their environment, they begin to extend their range. Ideally you will want to position yourself such that you will have a wide angle of view. Keep in mind, you can shoot out of other sides of your blind than just the one that faces the den.
Don’t shy away from photographing directly into the sun at the end of the day. As the sun gets lower, opportunities for dramatic backlit photos will present themselves—a fox’s fur can make for stunning rim detail.
Setting Up A Pop-Up Blind
After a couple of days of observing baseline behavior, it’s time to set up your pop-up blind. I recommend using one that allows you to sit and shoot out at different levels—from a stool or camp chair as well as from the ground in case you want to get low-angle shots. Tragopan Blinds are my favorite as they provide various options for camera height. They also have ports for tripod legs to stick out.
Set up your blind a good distance away from the den. As time goes on, you may be able to move it closer, but to start, try to be about 50 to 60 yards away. This distance has less chance of causing concern to the foxes. Stake it down very well so there’s no chance it will blow away if a strong wind comes up. This can also be avoided by leaving a couple of the windows and doors open when you leave the blind so that wind can easily move through. Put some kind of seat in there, as well as a tarp or yoga mat that you can sit or lie down on if you want to shoot low.
Avoid occupying the blind for at least a couple of days so that the foxes have a chance to get used to it as a nonthreatening part of the environment. During this time, observe the parents’ behavior from afar and compare it to the baseline behavior you’d observed before putting it up. It’s really the parents’ behavior that’s most important. You don’t want them to feel intimidated or restricted by you or your blind to do the urgent work of protecting and feeding their young. Do they seem very wary of it even after a couple days? Are you seeing parents continuing to return with food? Is the mother nursing the kits in the open when she returns? Do the adults look relaxed while out of the den?
Kits, especially when they’re very young, are much like the young of many species, often overly trusting and carefree, and may not pay much attention to the blind after their initial curiosity. When both parents are absent, the kits may come out and play with abandon, but when mama or papa comes back and is nervous about the blind or your presence in it, they will signal to the young, through vocalizations and their own behavior, to hide. Over time, you will see the kits become more wary of you as well as everything else. This is in their best interest. Just as a fed fox is a dead fox, a wary fox is a survivor.
Equipment & Technique To Photograph A Fox Den
For photography of a fox family, you’ll want a telephoto lens of at least 300mm and a shorter lens like a 70-200mm or even a wide angle. Though the telephoto will allow you to get close-up shots, a wider angle can also be great for experimenting with larger views that depict the foxes in their environment. Close-up shots are wonderful, but they’re also really common, and sometimes a larger scene can be unique and beautiful.
If you have a camera with a silent shutter, this is the perfect time to use it. Even just a couple clicks of a loud shutter can send foxes running. You’ll also want a tripod (or, if in a car, a bean bag), which will allow for slower shutter speeds in low light and will minimize your movement. Maybe you have a light telephoto lens and don’t mind handholding it as needed; keep in mind that any movement of the lens as you lift it up and out or off the fabric of the blind will likely be seen or heard by the foxes, and they may stop what they are doing or even take off. Remember, their senses are much sharper than ours. The truth is that much of the time foxes know you are in the blind, but it’s the fact that you are hidden and quiet that will put them at ease.
As for camera settings, make sure you use continuous, single-point autofocus, and high-speed continuous shooting. Turn on image stabilization if you have it. When you have decent light, keep your shutter speed as fast as you can so you’ll be ready for interesting behavior. Fox kits can burst into play at any moment, rising up on their hind legs and facing off, and you don’t want to miss that peak of action. Or an adult may return with prey and very quickly run into the den. Don’t be afraid to increase your ISO if you have to. Foxes can be quite crepuscular—meaning more active at dawn and dusk—so you will want to keep your shutter speed relatively speedy and be prepared to push your ISO to the limit at times. There’s nothing worse than capturing exciting behavior only to find out later it’s blurry. Also, make sure to shoot in RAW for maximum latitude in exposure adjustments in post-processing.
It’s a great joy to capture the moments of love and tenderness that are consistently expressed within a fox family. Take the opportunity to show these creatures for the marvelous, emotional and intelligent individuals they are. Find ways to open the eyes of others to the wonder of foxes and the value they bring to our landscapes as necessary members of a natural community. It’s the best way to give back to the fox family that has given you and your photography such gifts.