How to : Photograph Red SquirrelsWe all love Tufty don’t we? The Red Squirrel would make most people’s top ten list of British Wildlife and they rate highly on the ‘cuteness’ scale, but how should you go about capturing Tufty on camera?
How to : Photograph Red Squirrels
A bit about Red Squirrels
There are two species of Squirrel in the UK, the Red and the Grey; the Red is our native squirrel whilst the Grey, often portrayed as a bullying murderer of the Red, was introduced to Britain from North America. The Reds are much more scarce than the Grey, are smaller and shier and, sadly, in decline as a species in the British Isles.
Luckily there are strong populations of Red Squirrels located in places that we humans like to spend our leisure time in the UK – namely Scotland, Cumbria, Isle of Wight, Wales and Northumberland. But unless you are a very serious photographer and want to travel, the Red Squirrel might be a good project to save for a holiday.
Red Squirrels are much more closely associated with coniferous forest than Greys; in fact a recent study has suggested that Reds do better in coniferous forest than Greys and that this might be a key to ensuring their survival.
Red Squirrels are also aware that only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun, as they tend to rest up at this time and be seen more commonly early in the morning and late afternoon/evening.
Clearly Red Squirrels are creatures that spend their time in and about the tree tops, but they do venture onto the ground frequently, in search of food.
Their natural predators are other arboreal animals, such as Pine Martens, Stoats, Weasels, bird of prey and also Foxes. The main threat to their continued existence in the UK is the Grey Squirrel, which not only out-competes the Red for food resources, but also carries a virus that is fatal to the Reds but harmless to the Greys. In 2008/09 over eighty percent of the Red Squirrel population in Formby was wiped out by the virus from Greys.
What you need to get the image you want:
Once you have found your Red Squirrel, getting them on camera can be quite a performance; they are of course creatures that spend most of their lives in trees and consequently you tend to see lots of them from below – never the most flattering angle for a photograph. They will, however, come to the ground frequently to forage for food items and many have become accustomed to visiting feeding stations in search of easy pickings. So unless you have Tarzan-like climbing abilities, then staking out a feeding station is likely to be your best chance of getting some good images.
They do tend to be very timid creatures and although I have been lucky enough to have Red Squirrels feeding from my hand and sitting on my shoulder, they are more often likely to scurry up the nearest tree if you alarm them, so as with most nature photography you will have to remain still, calm and as much out of site as possible.
If you are lucky enough to live in an area with a Red Squirrel population they can be tempted to come to you, but you have to have patience and supply a regular amount of food for them.
If you are feeding with the intent of photographing I would recommend using only natural food from the UK (e.g. hazel nuts) not only is it better for the squirrel, but it also means that you will get natural looking photographs. Whenever I see an image of a Red Squirrel eating a money-nut I think it is like seeing a Golden Eagle eating a pork pie, it just wouldn’t happen in the wild.
The technical bit:
From a photography point of view Red Squirrels are not only great subjects because they have a high ‘cuteness’ rating, but also because they don’t offer too many technical difficulties.
However, ‘Red’ is a bit of a misnomer as their fur colour can range from almost black to very light tan. If you are photographing Red Squirrels and there is more than one about remember to be aware that a much darker coat might require different exposure than a very light coat. I have photographed Red Squirrels that have virtually white tails and that can cause problems of over exposure in bright sunshine.
Reds are nothing if not flighty, they move like lightening when the mood takes them, so your best bet to get good images will always be when they are feeding or approaching food. A nervous animal may scatter at the first sound of your camera so be prepared for a long game while it recovers its courage.
Getting the eye in focus is all important, but you also need good boy details for an animal like this, so an aperture of at least f/8 is required – wider is the lighting conditions allow. If the Red is sitting eating don’t be fooled into thinking you can use a slow shutter speed – I’ve fallen into this trap before and while the head or body is sharp you will find the claws and jaw are blurred by movement.
If you are trying to photograph Reds in trees and in ‘action’ you will have more of a challenge; the forest is obviously darker and the animals movement harder to capture. That shouldn’t stop you from trying, but you will need to alter your camera setting accordingly.
We all love Red Squirrels and they make great photographic subjects, you just may have to travel to find them.
The best images of Reds are in natural settings, so try to avoid photographing them on bird tables and nut feeders.
Above all, respect the animal and its environment and don’t do anything that could be harmful to either.
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