an arctic fox trots toward the camera

How to get this shot – Arctic Fox Trot

The arctic is a truly magical part of our planet.  It’s home to sensational wildlife and has been the focus of centuries of ardent exploration, yielding grand stories, and even grander discoveries.  If you are headed to the arctic on your own adventure, the sense of exploration is palpable.  While there are virtually limitless landscape photos to be had, the wildlife tends to be the most sought after, due to its rarity and splendor.

One of my favorite places in the arctic to photograph wildlife has to be Churchill, in arctic Canada.  Not only is it home to the most well-studied polar bear migrations on earth, but its unique position between Tundra, Boreal forest, and the marine ecosystem of the Hudson Bay, it attracts much more than just bears.

If you get a chance to be up in Churchill, and encounter one of the amazing arctic foxes that reside in the area, be sure to follow the steps below so you can get a great shot of these magnificent creatures.  No doubt one of my favorite things to photograph in the entire world!

  • First, you’ve got to put yourself in front an arctic fox–no easy feat!  Because of their biology, and need to largely scavenge after polar bears, they take off from the land and onto the ice around the same time of year as the polar bears of Churchill, which is usually around the first week of December or last week of November.  Combine this with the fact that arctic foxes take on a much darker, summer coat earlier in the year, and your ideal window is in October and November of each year.  This is your moment!
  • Apart from putting yourself in the right place (Churchill) at the right time of year (October and November) you’ve got to have luck on your side to spot one on the prowl during your daily photography sessions like those on a Polar Bear Photo Adventure.  They are fast, small, and challenging to spot.  For this reason, I’m always scanning to see if I spot one of these small foxes curled up near a rock, in the willows, or darting across the horizon.  They are the size of house cats, so you’re looking for something much smaller than a typical red fox, which is about twice the size of their arctic cousins.
  • Fortunately, your camera settings are not highly specialized.  That is, the same settings you may have programmed to photograph polar bears, snowy owls, red foxes, or ptarmigan, will suffice for photographing arctic foxes, too.  What you’re going for is a fast-ish shutter speed (1/320th of a second or faster…ideally faster), shallow depth of field (f/5.6, f/4, or even smaller), and a reasonably high ISO (ISO 400, 800, or 1000) to account for the fast shutter speed.
  • The only special consideration you’ll need to make is to perhaps getting a FASTER shutter speed, like 1/640th of a second or faster.  The last thing you want is motion blur because of the moving animal.  With the often white-on-white setup, high ISOs have fewer negatives, as white doesn’t display the noise or grain from ISOs as much.  Thus, don’t be afraid to potentially shoot at ISO 1000 or higher to be absolutely sure you’re freezing the motion of the moving animal.
  • I often advocate that when photographing in snowy conditions, which could or could not occur during the transition months of October and November, you do two additional things.  First, you should set your white balance to “sunny” to inject more blue in your photo, to give it that arctic “cool” look.  Second, you should OVER expose your shot by 1/3 or 2/3s of a stop.  This preserves the nice bright whites in the foxes coat.  Otherwise, if you leave your exposure meter on zero, or even, the camera’s metering system could make the coat look wrongfully gray or dull…these beautiful foxes deserve better…
  • Finally, if you haven’t already done so, make sure that your camera’s drive motor is set to continuous, high frame rate.  Each camera brand has a different terminology for this, but you’re basically making sure that your camera takes as many shots as it’s capable of each second.  The better the camera, the more FPS, or Frames Per Second it can take.  Having this capability can be the difference between a great photo and an exceptional one, as shooting many photos of a single moment can give you minute changes in angle, expression, and even lighting on an animal.  It eats up memory, but it’s always been worth it to me, each and every time.

And that’s it!  Easy, right?  Well, there really is not “easy” set up for wildlife photography, as it’s a mix of excitement, apprehension, attention to detail, and luck.  However, if you put the time in, make sure you’re in the right place, at the right season, your chances are good.  Then you just need to follow these tips and you’ll be returning home with some amazing photos of these little beauties.

Good luck!

Court Whelan Signature