Professional photographer, Terry Donnelly, is well known and respected for his sports, editorial, PR, property and promotional images, but he’s also a passionate wildlife photographer and he’s captured some amazing images of leaping squirrels in his garden.
He kindly agreed to speak to me over Zoom to explain his set-up and how he captured such amazingly acrobatic shots. Terry explains everything in the video below, but there’s also a summary lower down if you’d like to give it a try.
Like many wild animals, squirrels are creatures of habit. That means that it’s well worth spending some time observing what they do and where they go before you attempt to photograph them.
Terry found using a trail camera useful for this as he could leave it recording and then check the footage to see where the squirrels like to visit in his garden.
02 Start to entice the squirrels
Once you’ve discovered where the squirrels like to go in your garden, start placing some food (ideally fresh hazelnuts) near by to attract them towards where you want to photograph them.
03 Create the jumps
After the squirrels have become comfortable with taking the nuts from your desired photographic location, build your framework to create the jumps.
Keep in mind that if you put food at the top of a post, the squirrels may just run up it to get a snack. If you want them to leap from one post to another, you have to put a bucket or something similar over the top of the destination post so that the only way they can get there is by jumping from an adjacent take-off post.
04 Mount a long lens on your camera
Although they can become quite tame, squirrels are naturally shy so you need to set-up your camera a good distance from them. An effective focal length of 400mm makes an excellent choice, allowing to to stay away from the squirrels while still framing them tightly. On an APS-C format camera, that means using a lens that’s at least 266mm in length while a Micro Four Thirds camera can use a 200mm lens.
05 Set-up your camera
If you can, hide the camera inside your house and shoot through an open window or door. Alternatively, you could use a shed or create a small hide.
Support the camera on a tripod and set it to continuous shooting, ideally in silent shutter mode with a shutter speed of 1/2500sec. Terry aims to keep the shutter speed to at least 1/1600sec.
Using a fast shutter speed means you may need to push the sensitivity (ISO) up and/or use a wide aperture.
06 Set the focus
Position a stick or something convenient between the two posts at the point you want to photograph the squirrels. Focus on the stick and switch the camera to manual focus so that it doesn’t shift when you press the shutter release.
Once you’ve got the lens focused, remove the stick.
07 Get ready to shoot
With everything in place, it’s just a case of waiting for a squirrel to come along. Patience is key here. When squirrel comes into view, try to stay still and keep quiet.
Watch the squirrel and start shooting just before it takes off. Shooting continuously should mean you capture it as it passes through the plane of focus.