As a photographer, it can be hard to come up with inspiration. It’s so easy to go online and see fantastic photos of exotic places, get complacent with our own surroundings and think, “What’s the point of shooting in my yard or neighborhood when there is nothing interesting to see?”
Photographer Ashly Deskins has reminded us that there are fascinating subjects no matter where you live. It all started when Ashly woke up to witness four baby squirrels that had fallen from two different nests. After watching one mother squirrel rescue her babies, Ashly and her husband attempted to save the other two abandoned squirrels by rushing them to a wildlife center. Sadly, the injured babies did not survive, but the encounter sparked a special interest in the squirrels, which Ashly says caused her to appreciate and enjoy them during her daily routine.
As Ashly’s interest in the squirrels grew, she moved from simply observing them to shooting images of the squirrels in their environment. Eventually setting up full-blown stylized shoots on her patio, Ashly now has a calendar’s worth of images, and then some! Photographing the squirrels exploring the little worlds she created for them, Ashly not only captured some charming images, but has also been able to give back to a squirrel-friendly charity with her work.
Ashly was kind enough to answer a few questions about the project and her approach to shooting backyard wildlife.
How did the stylized shoots start? Where did the idea come from?
Ashly Deskins: Simply stopping to watch the squirrels eventually led to leaving almonds out for them every couple days. Two squirrels in particular started visiting regularly to find almonds.
I would photograph them eating and running around the patio. However, I decided to get a little more creative and create a little ‘dining room’ for a backdrop. The setup with fairly simple, but super adorable—complete with a framed squirrel image.
How do you draw the squirrels into the scene? How do you connect with them?
AD: I let the squirrels come to me. If they visit the back patio, then I know it’s time to set up a scene and wait.
If you have ever photographed wildlife, you know it takes patience above anything else. I will have scenes set up for 4-6 hours at a time and may only photograph the squirrels for a total of 40 min during that time. The squirrels are quick and don’t always stay to eat the almonds. Most of the time, they are collecting the almonds (2-3 in their mouth at a time), running away to bury them and then repeating this throughout the day.
Most of the squirrels are very skittish around me and want to stay as far away as they can. Many even get scared when I bring out the camera or make any sudden movements. There have only been two squirrels so far that have actually explored the scenes and spend the most time with me. They don’t mind the camera—one even climbs on it if I’m not looking!
Neville is a young male squirrel who is quick and typically takes the almonds and runs. He is fearless and has even made visits inside my apartment searching for almonds or plants to bury his food in. If there is food up for grabs, Neville will come running from across the parking lot when I call or follow directions when I point him to a scene set up on the patio. He most certainly has the biggest personality out of all the squirrels and you will know it the second you see him or meet him.
Luna is a pregnant female squirrel, though I believe she has given birth now, as I don’t see her as often any more. She is calm, very friendly and always sits in the scenes for long periods of times eating as much as she can.
Did you leave any other snacks besides almonds for your models?
AD: I was giving them only almonds until I started doing more research. I realized that while almonds are perfectly safe for them, squirrels really need a well-balanced diet, including berries and other foods.
After some research I tried some other foods like carrots and grapes, although the only food the squirrels would eat, other than almonds, was avocado. Every now and then I will set out some avocado slices for them, though I do not feed them every day. I try to limit how often or how much I feed them, as I hope they are still searching for food on their own and finding multiple sources.
What equipment do you use to photograph these scenes?
AD: I use a Canon 5D Mark II with a 70-200mm Tamron VC lens. I love this lens because I am able to stay out of the way, allowing the squirrels to explore and run around. With this lens I can zoom in to get tighter ‘detail’ shots, and zoom out to get a wider angle that captures the entire scene. I only shoot during the day while the squirrels are out, so I do not use any lighting equipment.
What kinds of settings or techniques do you use to have the highest rate of success when capturing photos of the squirrels?
AD: I like to shoot at high shutter speeds since the squirrels are very fast. I need to be able to capture their movements. I also shoot using burst mode, as I need to be able to shoot as many images as I can while the squirrels are in front of me. They move quickly and sometimes are only in front of my camera for 5 seconds, not leaving much time to shoot. I use back-button focusing to achieve accurate focus.
Every scene is a learning experience where I have to determine what I think the squirrels are willing to jump on or navigate through, and how I’ll be able to capture it. Not every scene I set up works out.
What was the overall reaction when you began sharing the images?
AD: I had actually hesitated sharing the very first image, as I wasn’t sure how people would react. I was pleasantly surprised that everyone who saw the photo loved it. Several people suggested making a calendar with more images, and the project snowballed from there. I started creating scenes for each month, and the calendar came together quickly.
Do you have any advice for someone wanting to photograph wildlife?
AD: The best advice I can give is to have patience. I have spent several hours a day setting up to photograph the squirrels and ending the day with no images to show for it. Remember, you don’t make the rules when photographing wildlife—you work on the subject’s schedule and their comfort level.
I also recommend taking time to just observe the creatures you are photographing. Learn their behavior, learn their personalities, and be patient. I have spent a lot of time researching squirrels to learn about their “tail dances” and teeth chattering. I know when they are warning other squirrels, and when they are sending warnings or “hey, back off” statements to me. I spend time around them with and without my camera to get a feel for how they behave. I am still learning and will continue to learn as new babies are born, new squirrels arrive, and new personalities emerge.
For more squirrelly images, follow the adventures of Neville and Luna on Instagram @squirrels_party_of_two, and if you’d like a piece of furry fun for your wall, you can purchase a 2017 calendar featuring Neville and Luna’s antics. A portion of the proceeds goes to the Native Animal Rescue in Santa Cruz, which provides rehabilitation and facilitates release of injured, sick and orphaned wildlife.
About the author: TJ Hansen is a freelance photographer from Columbus, Ohio that works at Midwest Photo Exchange. You can see more of his work on the MPEX Experience blog. This article was also published here.