Behind the scenes: Photographing mountain hares in Scotland
The high winds blow the snowflakes into my face, and the stinging feeling in my eyes forces me to look down as I continue to walk forward. I remove the snow that has gathered in the lens hood on my Nikon 200-500mm and, with my binoculars, I search the landscape in front of me.
Nothing to see. Not a single mountain hare.
I am in a total whiteout of blowing snow, and it's only because of the more clear and calm weather of a few hours ago that I’m aware of the the beauty of this Scottish landscape I am surrounded by here in the heart of the Cairngorms National park.
Who I Am
My name is Morten Hilmer and I am a full time professional wildlife photographer and former special force soldier in the Arctic Dogsled unit - the Sirius Dogsled Patrol. I am specialized in photographing in the Arctic regions and since 2005 I have spent more than 4 years in the amazing high Arctic nature.
(You can read more about my time in the Sirius Dog Sled Patrol on the BBC Earth website).
Beside the many publications, my photographs have been awarded in the Wildlife photographer of the year and European Wildlife Photographer of the Year photo competitions. And in Spring 2017, I published my first book: Silence of the North.
Wildlife photography for me is all about fascination, getting close to nature, feeling its authenticity, and sometimes even feeling reunited. Through my work, it is my mission to share my fascination and raise awareness of the importance of taking care of this awesome planet and all creatures living on it.
Nature Photography is also about adventures—whether the adventure is an expedition to the desolated freezing ice desert of North Greenland, or a shorter trip to the local forest. For me one is never better than the other.
Photographing Mountain Hares
A short break in the snowfall gives me just enough visibility to skim the landscape in front of me and just enough time to get a glimpse of a movement about 50 meters in front of me. I kneel down to support my arm on my knee to keep the binocular more steady. It is the the mountain hare. Instantly I feel excited and extremely lucky.
Slowly, I walk closer while concentrating on the hare and keeping my movements as slow and invisible as possible—I don’t want to scare this little guy. Not only will it destroy my opportunity to get some good shots, but more importantly, it will disturb this little hare that already has a hard time finding enough food to get through the winter.
I am now quite close and I decide to leave my camera bag behind to make it easier to crawl the last distance. I grab an extra battery and my card holder, and get my vlogging camera ready with the microphone. I fell the need to share this moment, even though it adds another challenging element that I have to record myself at the same time as I am working.
What's In My Bag
For a trip like this, I need to be able to cary everything on my back, which means all of my equipment has to fit into one Lowepro Pro trekker 600 AW. Therefore, I decided to leave my big Nikon 600mm F4 at home and instead bring the smaller, lighter and more flexible Nikon 200-500mm.
As for the camera, I am using my Nikon D5—primary because of its durability in cold, wet conditions like this one. I was tempted to bring the D850 because of the superb image quality, but I have had a few moisture problems when I've really challenged it with snow and heavy rain.
I have also brought the Nikon 16-35mm VR and, of course, some extra batteries, cards, cleaning equipment etc.
As for my vlogging camera, I am currently using a Panasonic GH5 with the Røde Videomicro and the 42.5mm and 12mm Leica lenses. I charge the batteries for this camera with power banks.
If you want to dive deeper into my equipment, I explain it in a little more depth in this video.
How I Set Up My Camera
Everything is ready and I move a little bit closer. Through the viewfinder, I can sometimes see the hare and sometimes it disappears, hidden by the blowing snow.
I find myself using almost the exact same camera setup and setting whenever I capture wildlife photography, regardless of which camera and brand I am using. I primary shoot with Nikon, but I have also worked with the Canon 1D X Mark II, the Canon 5D Mark IV, and the Sony A7S.
My camera is set to manual exposure, and because of the constantly changing light I turn on auto ISO. I use this setting because I want to be able to set both the aperture and shutter speed myself to get the perfect level of blurred background, and at the same time use the shutter speed that gives me the exact level of movement in the blowing snow that I want.
This way, I get the best from both the worlds of aperture and shutter priority programs, allowing only the ISO to be the variable factor. Yes, I do run the risk of noise, but I always keep and eye on how high the ISO goes as I shoot.
I set my AF to 3D, and assign the function button on the front to single point AF—I am ready.
An Amazing Experience
It is interesting how looking into the viewfinder can make everything else around me disappear. I reckon all photographers know this feeling. Only me and the little hare—nothing else exists. I watch how he sits there in his little snow bed and, only every now-and-then, he moves a little bit. I don’t dare to take my eyes from the viewfinder.
Suddenly, the hare raises and stretches his long leg and then, without warning, he rolls around in the snow. The time he gives me to react is too short but what did I expect—this is what us wildlife photographers have to deal with all the time, and I assume it's also one of the things that makes us keep going out again and again... all these photos that we have seen but haven’t been able to capture.
I manage to get a few shots of the rolling hare, but already before I look at them, I know they are not totally in focus. This is fantastic—so intense.
The little fellow sits for a moment looking at me and I pray that he will not run away. He decides to stay. He starts eating the sparse vegetation and with his small paws he scrapes away the snow on top.
I don’t know for how long I have been here, but it is getting quite dark and I am getting colder laying in the snow. My thoughts starts to travel to the side pocket of my backpack where I keep my thermal with warm coffee.
As I walk down the mountain I think about this little hare who is still sitting up there on the mountain in the blizzard, patiently waiting for the Spring. It is so fascinating how they manage to survive in such conditions. It is my first time photographing wildlife in Scotland, but definitely not the last. It has been an absolutely fantastic experience to spend some time with the hares in highlands of this amazing country and tomorrow I am going further up north to find and hopefully photograph the impressive stags.
A Few of My Favorite Settings
Set custom button to preview
One of the most important things for me is that I want to have my left hand on the lens— at the ready to zoom in or out, and to take over manually when autofocus fails. Therefore, I always set one of the custom buttons to preview the image, and another to zoom the image 100%.
I like to have the preview button as the lowest function button on the front of the camera, so that I can press it with one of my fingers without having to move my index finger from the shutter and the thumb from my AF-lock button.
Predefined AF on custom button
Before I start photographing, I alway choose the autofocus method that I believe will do the best job. In my case, it is often the 3D AF on the Nikon D5—either that, or single point AF. Then I try to predict which other AF method I will need, and I set the top button on the front of the camera to use this method as long as it's pressed.
Auto ISO on/off
Because of the option of doing exposure compensation in manual mode with auto ISO on, I use either this setting or full manual almost all the time. I call Manual with Auto ISO: MAI. To be able to make a quick switch between M and MAI, I setup one of the custom buttons near the release button to toggle Auto ISO on/off.
Behind the Scenes Videos
In November 2017, I started a new video project that takes other photographers and nature enthusiasts behind the scenes on my travels. In a series of 4k YouTube videos, I share my experiences from my trips and expeditions around the world.
Below are Part 1 and Part 2 of Photographing Mountain Hares:
Morten Hilmer is a professional wildlife photographer and former Danish special forces soldier in the Sirius Dog Sled Patrol, an Arctic dog sled unit. For the past 13 years, he's specialized in capturing Arctic landscapes and wildlife. You can find more of his work on his website, or by following him on Instagram and Facebook.
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