Wildlife photography tips: getting the best action shots

David Chapman / 05 December 2019

Award-winning nature and wildlife photographer David Chapman shares his tips for getting the best action-packed shots of squirrels in the garden.



For anyone with an interest in photographing wildlife there isn’t a better place to start than in the garden. It’s here that we have the opportunity to attract wildlife, spend time watching it and even set up a photographic studio if we so desire.

A good proportion of British mammals will visit gardens. Based in West Cornwall we regularly have rabbits, foxes, badgers, grey squirrels, field and bank voles, common and pygmy shrews and several species of bat; and occasionally we see roe deer, hedgehog, stoat, weasel, water shrew and mole. In other parts of the country the species might vary slightly but there is always opportunity for photographing them.

Some of the mammals which frequent our garden could, at times, be considered pests. I’m thinking of the rabbits which continually graze our border plants and the grey squirrels which ring-bark our trees and destroy our bird-feeders. Whatever my attitude to them I know I can’t beat them so I might as well photograph them. Not surprisingly grey squirrels make exceptionally good subjects for photography, full of activity and character and capturing it on camera provides the challenge that I love!

Photographing squirrels in the garden

In recent years I have undertaken two projects with my garden squirrels, the first came when I was trying to deter them from eating all the food intended for birds.

Photographing squirrels at the bird feeder

I constructed a taught wire between a post and a tree. I hung my bird feeders from the centre of the wire and it worked, the squirrels were reluctant to walk the very thin tight-rope. But I noticed that they would jump from the post onto the nearer feeder if it was close enough. So I made it close enough and then started to move it further and further away. Eventually I had them jumping as far as they could and then I started taking photos.

I used two strategies for photography. The simpler was from inside our conservatory using a telephoto lens. I focussed the lens manually on the gap between the post and the feeder and when I saw the squirrel was about to jump I released the shutter, taking a burst of images. After a time I got the shots and then wanted something a little different, so for the second idea I set up the camera on a tripod with a wide-angle lens looking back towards the house. Again I pre-focussed the lens manually and this time set up a remote release which I could trigger from inside the house. By doing this I got a shot of the squirrel apparently jumping over the house!

Grey squirrel leaping through the air
A grey squirrel is caught on camera mid-jump using a wide angle lens and a remote release

Photographing squirrels at the pond

My second squirrel-based project was at the pond. I made a small floating island on which to feed the birds. Soon the squirrels were starting to show an interest so I provided them with a branch along which they could run to the island. This provided me with the opportunity to photograph them with a nice reflection from the our shed, which I used as a hide.

After a period of training I replaced the straight branch with one that dipped under water for a stretch. This meant the squirrels had to paddle or jump on their way to the island. Most often they jumped to avoid getting their feet wet so my challenge was to photograph them in mid-air with reflection. The photographic technique was similar to the previous one: when it is possible to predict the movement of a creature in this way it makes sense to pre-focus the lens manually and sit and wait with remote release in hand.

I love the challenge of wildlife photography. Thinking of an idea and working it through to fruition is a real challenge, it provides behavioural enrichment for me and the wildlife, everyone’s a winner!

Wildlife photography tips

  • For action you need a fast shutter speed. Squirrels are very fast so the shutter speed needs to be 1/4000th of a second or faster.
  • To get faster shutter speeds you can increase the ISO value in your camera, but higher ISO means more ‘noise’ in your picture.
  • Use a wide aperture (small f-number) to help blur the background.
  • Use a remote release to avoid startling the animals or birds you are photographing

Using a remote release

There are various remote release systems available for cameras. I prefer to use hard-wire systems because I feel they respond faster, because of this I have purchased short remote release wires and extended them myself so I can fire my camera from any distance. There are wireless remotes available and these often work well but they rely on batteries in both the receiver and transmitter and I have found that they rarely work over the distance claimed by the manufacturers, particularly if you use them from inside a house. Some camera manufacturers produce Apps for smartphones which communicate directly with Wi-Fi-enabled cameras. These can be fantastic because you can adjust all the camera settings and review the photos through your phone but in my experience they are slow to respond which is not good for fast action shots. No doubt in years to come they will get better.

Attracting wildlife for photography

If you are tempted to feed mammals in your garden here are some tips:

Only provide a small amount of food so the animals must continue to hunt for themselves; they don’t become a pest or too dependent.

It’s probably a good idea to put the food out on a tray, when you go to bed bring the tray in again so you don’t attract rats.

For foxes and badgers put out kitchen scraps and peanuts.

If foxes are a problem in your area then it is best to avoid feeding them because this might cause a conflict between people and wildlife.

For hedgehogs put out water and cat food (not fish-flavoured) and do not put out milk.




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