A Tale of Two Squirrels

500mm, 1/320s, f4, ISO 3200

Recently, Sal and I returned to Scotland for a holiday and it provided a fantastic opportunity to photograph some of the stunning Scottish wildlife in full festive mode. The weather was extremely kind to us, including snowing on cue for Mountain Hares! To start though, a couple of encounters with the iconic and completely lovable Red Squirrel. The first was thanks to James Moore, who has established a hide on The Black Isle and runs a variety of accompanied wildlife tours as well as being an accomplished photographer himself.

500mm, 1/250s, f4, ISO 2500

We didn't have long to wait for the first squirrels to arrive and they kept coming all morning. It was my first time up close with red squirrels and they are even prettier than I thought! They were much more intent on caching food than eating it, although they did spend a little time munching too.

500mm, f4.0, 1/200, ISO 5000

Last summer I took the plunge and invested in a 500mm lens so I was keen to improve my skills with it. The light wasn't great and the forest is quite dense so I was constantly balancing speed, depth of field and ISO but that's what I was after! I found that they are pretty swift movers – lots of fast, sharp movements then completely still so had to keep the shutter speed up at about 1/320 or so. For most shots I used f4.0 and the ISO cantered between 800 and 3200, mostly towards the top of that. I always shoot in RAW and the latest update to adobe raw offers great noise reduction which offset that high ISO! Other than a little cropping, sharpening and exposure tweaking, I try not to tinker too much with the images.

After a brilliant but freezing morning in the hide, the second red squirrel experience of the week was courtesy of Pete Cairns and Northshots down at Loch Insh in the Cairngorms.

70-200 at 200mm, 1/400, f3.0, ISO 1250

The weather had obligingly changed so we had a blanket of fresh snow, first to get through as the Northshots location is delightfully remote set amid stunning scenery! This was a really well set-up hide in a clearing with a beautiful backdrop. Pete walked us into the location and set us up with a few creature comforts in the hide before sealing us in and wishing us luck!

Once again we didn't have too long to wait before we had a furry visitor – because the forest here was thinner, we could see as well as hear him approaching and I was lucky enough to get a shot of him jumping between the trees on his way. This critter stayed with us a while, munching the hazelnuts and seemingly much less interested in stashing them away like the Black Isle squirrels! The noise of a squirrel stripping away the outer layer of a hazelnut is really pretty loud and only adds to their appeal.

For this shoot, I had left the 500mm in the bag and was using a 70-200mm lens to try to capture a little more of the habitat as opposed to a close up of the squirrel and this was ok, but in hindsight I wish I had put the 1.4X tele converter on to just extend the reach a little.

70-200 at 200mm, 1/500s, f4.0, ISO 500

Pete had given me some tips on how to catch squirrels leaping between the platforms and this little critter obligingly made his way up then leapt across the gap. I had locked the focus on the platform, zoomed out to make sure I caught the action and set the shutter speed to 1/1000s. The Canon 70-200 is a fast lens and I opened the aperture right up to f2.8, accepting the risk of the shallow depth of field. My 1DMk4 has a really fast shot rate of about 17 pictures per second which means lots of throw away images but at least I was likely to capture the action. Fingers crossed that this would be ok – at least there was plenty of light thanks to the thinner forest, clear sky and reflections from the snow. I'm pleased with my first attempts at squirrel jumping, although it's not at all up to the standards that I've seen from others so it's just given me a great reason to try again!

70-200mm at 148mm, 1/2000s, f2.8, ISO 800

 

Unfortunately the snow had obviously made the squirrels want to stay snug somewhere so this was our only visit of the morning but it was really worth it for the snow and of course the jumping. I learnt that I need to be a little less protective over my ISO figures and probably accept numbers up to at least 1600 in order to allow a sufficient depth of field. Also, I think I tried too hard to reduce my shutter speed, especially on the first shoot. This led to a lot of blurred pictures due to the sudden and swift movements of the cute furry chaps and in future I don't think I'd go below about 1/320s and probably aim for a bit higher. I was reminded of the importance of really working at getting the focus right on the animal's eyes, the importance of patience and of shooting lots and lots of images – I was rewarded with a few funny expressions for my trouble. I think I threw away well over 50% of the images I took because they were blurred! out of focus or had some other major drama. I don't get disheartened by this reject rate – squirrels are a very difficult subject and when shooting at high rate, there are bound to be lots of very similar shots. All in all, the 2 hides were brilliant – a chance to get up close to some rare and very attractive wildlife and also to try to hone some of my photography skills. I hope you enjoy the images – any feedback or tips to be better gratefully received!

 

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