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On Squirrels, or: The Joy of the Unwilling Photo Subject

by Andrew Johnston 12 days ago in art

The best subject is the one who works best for you - even if it doesn't want to work with you.

There's a story behind my first squirrel picture. I was coming home from a different photo opportunity - a little concert in an indie music store, perfectly lit to the eye but it might has well have been half a mile below the surface to the camera. As I passed through a small park, I noticed a single squirrel skulking around in front of an adjacent business. Inspiration struck: As long as I'm carrying this gear bag, why not try to get a shot of the little furball?

Fortune must have favored me, because I didn't scare him off. If I didn't know better, I'd swear he was cooperating with me.

Squirrels made for fine subjects back then, because they were always available. It was a college town and a regional tourist spot - they were used to being fed and lacked that primal fear you see in some other wild animals. And there's no such thing as a missed opportunity. Frighten one away, and another will soon come; and if you somehow can't find any at all, a brief walk in a random direction will surely turn up more.

But there are no squirrels in China, or at least none of that particular free-climbing, tree-dwelling variety. There are other animals here, and pigeons can often fill that same role. Even so, there's something haunted about the squirrel-free trees here. It's funny how quickly we adapt to seeing little mammals scurrying around in every tree, and stranger still how much one can miss them.

In the end, they were my best subjects.

I've never been fond of landscapes. No offense is intended to those who do like taking pictures of mountains and ruins and such, but it's hardly appealing to me. It must be the predictable nature of the whole thing - set up a tripod, take the same shot that thousands of other people have, then process it until the original picture has all but melted. The result is a very beautiful picture that everyone has seen a hundred times.

Action photography is an entirely different beast. Get a hundred people to snap photos of a performer, you'll get a hundred different shots - some better, some worse, but all with their own particular character. Capturing a subject in motion is down to many factors: Technical skill, of course, but also position, reflexes, judgment, patience, and even luck. A well-shot action photo can't be so easily recreated, and therein lies the appeal.

There are many varieties of action photography, each with their own challenges. There's sports photography, event photography, photojournalism (which adds an element of peril to the mix), but wildlife photography is maybe the most interesting. Not only do you have a subject who isn't cooperative, but one that doesn't even want its picture taken.

A squirrel has no concept of a camera, and thus no clue as to what the cameraman is doing. One abrupt motion while raising the camera to eye level, and the squirrel sees his own death - perhaps a hawk swooping down - and races for the security of the trees. Yet this can be a positive as well. Pictures of wild squirrels, even when staged using food as bait, are still innately authentic. Squirrels don't pose, either.

As it turns out, I'm not alone in this. There is an entire world of squirrel photographers - some hobbyists seeking easy subjects, some professionals with a particular fascination for the tree-dwellers, and some total amateurs who lucked out with a great shot of the funny squirrels in their backyards and kept going. Some of them have thousands, even tens of thousands of shots of squirrels, and will expound at great length on what it takes to make those pictures really shine.

But I'm not here to talk about squirrels, not really. I'm just here to share what was once a minor obsession, and to encourage everyone to find their own fixation. You don't need to choose the same subjects as everyone else - go with what challenges you, even if only for a while.

And hey, I'll always have pigeons.

Andrew Johnston
Andrew Johnston
Read next: 4 Ways To Find Inspiration As A Beginner Photographer
Andrew Johnston

Educator, writer and documentarian based out of central China. Catch the full story at

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