1. BECOME A NATURE DETECTIVE
Before even thinking of shooting, research is paramount. A good film starts with a good story and the best natural history documentaries have teams of dedicated researchers, who tirelessly track down the best contacts, stories and locations. Good research can make the difference between getting the shot and coming home empty-handed.
As an independent film-maker or stills photographer like myself, it's important to develop your own research skills (as well as being the camera operator, director, producer and sometimes editor!). Firstly get online - there are always incredible stories to discover locally once you scratch the surface. Local wildlife groups are a great place to start, but even local community groups on Facebook can be a goldmine. People often have a fox down their street, a hedgehog in the garden or some bats roosting in the roof and are more than happy to share.
Get chatting to people when you are out and about - busy cities with lots of people means lots of eyes to look out for wildlife, so don't be shy.
Get on Twitter and follow local birders, naturalists and wildlife enthusiasts as they often share pictures and local sightings. Get chatting to people when you are out and about - busy cities with lots of people means lots of eyes to look out for wildlife, so don't be shy and you'll find that most people have a wildlife story to tell. I've discovered some of my best locations after a tip-off from an unexpected source. People who work long and unusual hours like security guards, night-bus drivers and street cleaners can often point you in the right direction and help you track down the wildlife that's out at night or in the early hours.
2. KEEP TO THE SHADOWS
Cities might be hustling and bustling, but that means there's lots of food for wildlife to scavenge. It's easy to find the bold and brazen animals - just visit a park at lunch-time, when city workers are eating their sandwiches and you'll quickly find a squirrel or gull eyeing up their next meal, but the shyer animals can be a bit more elusive. They often keep to the quietest and most out-of-the-way parts of the city, like cemeteries and allotments, where there are fewer people and more importantly, fewer dogs.
Maximise your opportunities, as even in the middle of the night there can be enough ambient light to photograph and film in the city.
Be curious and explore - if I see a little gap behind a billboard for example, I'll investigate and often find a sneaky cut-through, covered in scrubby wildflowers that leads to another part of the city.These secret places often attract the best wildlife, like urban foxes and badgers, but they can also attract kids with spray-cans and a fair share of weirdos, so be extra careful if you are heading out alone with expensive kit!
3. BE A NIGHT OWL
Early mornings or late evenings can be the best times to go looking for wildlife.With the streets at their quietest and people tucked-up in bed, the night-shift begins and nocturnal urban animals feel a bit safer to come out under the cover of darkness.
Maximise your opportunities, as even in the middle of the night there can be enough ambient light to photograph and film in the city, and don't be put off by bad weather - rain can ruin a shoot in the daytime, but at night, wet streets create nice reflections and the streets are even quieter.
If you have a strong suspicion that an animal is using a location, but can't be certain, use a cheap trail camera to recce the area. Before you set up, look for tracks, signs and trails and use your nose to smell for scent markings. look out for droppings too - badger latrines, otter spraints and fox poo are all reliable territory markers.
When you've found a well used trail, set the camera up at a 45 degree angle to it, as side on and you'll probably get a late trigger and just catch the tip of the tail, or straight down and it might trigger too early. I use Bushnell NatureView Cams and either just tuck them away or padlock them to something to deter the opportunist. Time-stamped pictures and video from trail-cams can help you determine what wildlife is using an area and when it's there. Be prepared to look at plenty of pictures of the neighbourhood cats, but it's worth it when you find something exciting and know exactly what time to go and film it.
5. PLAN AND PREPARE
Keeping a wildlife diary or at least a notebook can help you out immensely. For example, if you spot an interesting bird that could be a good subject, think about how you are going to get the best pictures or footage and when is the optimum time to do it.
What time of year does it nest? How many broods does it have? Does it migrate? Does it roost communally in the winter? Will it be more active in the morning? Will the angle of light be better in the evening? Or maybe if you find a badger sett in the winter, ask yourself similar questions and note down the answers so you can plan your shoot. What time of year are badgers most active? Will it be better when they have cubs or will the undergrowth be too thick by then? What time of night do they come out? Perhaps around midsummer, you might see them in daylight, but is it likely that kids might be hanging out in the area in the summer? Or perhaps if you notice a bush in a cool location that you know is good for birds or insects, you can make a note and return to find the wildlife when it's in flower or producing berries. Planned shots or images always have more impact.
Urban animals are used to the smell of humans, so wind direction doesn't matter, but instead, wear some scruffy clothes, keep quiet, move slowly and get down low.
Lastly, a few other things it might help to remember when you're out photographing or filming urban wildlife... Remember to use your fieldcraft, as unless it looks like a postbox, a camouflaged hide is pretty out of place in the city. Urban animals are used to the smell of humans, so wind direction doesn't matter, but instead, wear some scruffy clothes, keep quiet, move slowly and get down low. I never chase after wildlife, as all you get is a picture of its back end disappearing into the distance, but if I'm photographing foxes for example, I'll let them know I'm there, get down on the floor, act non-aggressively and photograph them on their terms - if they want to, they can and often do come over to investigate.
For more flighty subjects like urban deer, a car works well as a replacement hide. Again, I don't follow them, but the fact that it's mobile, means I can get in front, compose my shot and wait for them to appear. Finally, remember to use the urban context as part of the story. By using a telephoto lens and cropping in too tight on the subject, you can edit the story out of the picture. By using shorter lenses and looking up or down a street to create a diminishing perspective or by using repetitive patterns and stark man-made lines to create dynamic compositions, you can transform the clutter of the city into something beautiful and get a much more interesting shot.
There are endless opportunities to be had in the urban jungle, so it can be difficult to pack it all in to a short film. My advice is to think small, focus on something accessible, find the story and most importantly, just get out and shoot as often and as creatively as possible.
Over to you now to find your urban wildlife story - perhaps it has inspired you to enter our Eden Shorts wildlife film competition.