Wildlife Photographer of the Year: rethinking our wild cities
When the city goes to bed, it's playtime for the metropolitan fox. It's also the moment photographer Sam Hobson picks up his camera.
While it may look like a lucky snapshot, this picture was many nights in the making.
It is featured in Wildlife Photographer of the Year 52, the Museum's exhibition of the world's best nature photography, alongside 99 other stunning images.
Finding a family
Sam spent two months getting to know a family of foxes in his home city of Bristol before getting close enough to the animals to introduce them to the camera.
He says, 'When I first moved to Bristol I expected the foxes to be bold, like the ones I had seen in London. In the capital city, you get some really bold ones - they'll come and sit next to you at the traffic lights.
'But in Bristol they are much shyer and tend to hide. I had to build a relationship with them.'
Sam looked for a suitable area of town to begin his search, asking street cleaners, night bus drivers and security guards where they had spotted foxes wandering at night.
'Tapping into local knowledge was so useful. You get some good tip-offs.
'Usually you find a large male fox roaming the territory. You can then follow him - although not too closely - and he will lead you back to the group. In this case, he introduced me to the cubs.
'I got to know the area where the cubs hang around. They stay in one territory during the summer, and then disperse in the autumn.'
A gentle approach
Sam went to the same area of town every night, slowly forming a relationship with the wild animals. He introduced himself each time by making the same squeaking noise, and the family came to recognise him.
He says, 'I sat with them for as long as they would tolerate me. Getting my camera out early on would not have worked because it took a while to become a member of their group.
'They became very curious, coming right up to me. I could tap on a wall and they would jump up to have a look. I had to be very careful with my kit because they would pinch it.'
Using a very soft flash, Sam managed to capture both the personality of the foxes and the urban environment in which they live.
He explains, 'Using a flash with nocturnal wildlife is a contentious issue. Lots of people question the use of it, especially out in the wild when you are working with sensitive species. Many animals are not used to artificial light and a flash can cause temporary blindness in some species.
'But with urban foxes it felt different. They are used to artificial light, so a low-powered, indirect camera flash is no different to the sudden reflection of a car headlight. I introduced it very slowly, observing their reactions at every step.'
The urban environment
Urban photography comes with its quirks, as Sam has been finding over the years on the job.
For instance, city centres present a considerable workplace hazard: other people.
Sam says, 'One of the benefits of being in a city is that you can go and get warm. You aren't stuck in the middle of nowhere. That's great if I've been out in the winter, waiting for hours on a car park roof in the freezing cold'.
'The animals can be more habituated to humans, so you tend to be able to get closer to them. But people also want to talk to me. I enjoy it but it can sometimes cause problems.
'If I've been staked out for hours and someone wants to chat just at the crucial moment, I often have to tell ask them politely to wait.'
Urban backdrops provide a new opportunity to be creative with colour and composition.
'You can create different stories in a city. There is a lot of scope to create an ugly picture, but there are opportunities to use perspective, and the lines of roads and buildings, to put together something really visually interesting.
'I think I will always work in this environment. It's where I grew up and it's where I feel at home. I hope that what I do can trigger a connection between wildlife and where we live.'
Sharing a home
Foxes have become part of the ecosystem in Britain's large cities. They're often spotted darting across a road, blending into the bustle.
Sam credits their popularity to their setting up home alongside us.
He says, 'They are a great subject. We are all so used to them being there. I have to remind myself it's a wild animal.
'There are decent-sized carnivores walking around the city, which is an amazing thing.
'Everyone has a fox story, and most of the time they are really positive. I think that's why this photo has got people's attention.'
His aim is to connect city dwellers with nature and remind them there is wildlife on their doorstep, if only they look.
He adds, 'Although the photo has not got an obvious conservation message, I am reminding people that wildlife lives among them. If I can spark an interest in the wildlife on people's doorsteps, perhaps that will lead to them caring more generally about conservation and environmental issues. That is a very valuable thing.'
Visit the exhibition
The exhibition featuring Sam's image has now finished. Check out the latest Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition.