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Gear 4

Photos

 

Since most of my time with squirrels is spent photographing them, it made sense to have a page dedicated to that. In this section I will go over the important aspects (for me) about the equipment that I use, budget options, video, settings and processing, but also what I think I get wrong about it all and what I would do differently if I started again...

Camera Types

You might be lucky and find squirrels that play out in the open, but I don't so getting god images of their lightning speeds, scurrying around in the shadows is improved massively by full frame sensors and the fastest lenses I can afford. I'm almost always dealing with grain, so DxO PureRAW is my friend and for all of these reasons I don't recommend using film cameras. The grain and motion issues will likely be unbearably off-putting. 

 

I started out photographing squirrels with a Fuji S2 Pro, DSLR in 2002. See my best squirrel photo taken with that camera below, or click here to see my review of that camera. This was a little tricky but I was lucky to find the squirrel out in the open during 5 minutes of sunshine. The lens was terrible, but actually worked OK for closeups here and the 6mp resolution was probably the most it could cope with. Not having live-view back then I had to lay on the wet floor to get this and even then the eye is not in focus.

I almost exclusively use the rear screen to frame squirrels if I can, they are almost never at eye level. Modern DSLRs have live-view so you can use the rear screen, but not all of them are tilt-able and almost none of them allow fast animal eye auto focus. In that regard mirrorless cameras are simply light-years ahead of DSLRs so this would be my recommendation for any wannabe squirrel chasers.

My Equipment

Most of what you see of squirrels on my website are either taken on the Sony A9 or A1. Although the former is now one of my best modest budget options (second hand), the latter is perhaps the most expensive full frame camera you can buy. It won't get a value award any time soon, but it does allow you to shoot high resolution RAW images, with animal eye auto focus, up to 30 frames per second, in complete silence and without rolling shutter issues. It makes even the highest level pro DSLR look like a pinhole camera for shooting this kind of subject, but it is undeniably overkill for even most of these situations. 

Processing

If you're wondering why I still struggle with cutting edge cameras, some of the fastest lenses around and still run most of my images through denoising software then perhaps this comparison image will demonstrate why. This image was shot with actual morning light so was only ISO 400, but unfortunately that's just before the dual-gain of the Sony's sensor kicks in, so is pretty much the worst case scenario. The squirrel is mostly in shadow, so I ended brightening it up 4 stops here. That makes it more equivalent to ISO 8,000 after processing.

Lenses

Rather than using large and very expensive long telephoto lenses to shoot wildlife I tend to seek out more friendly specimens so that I can use faster, smaller portrait lenses. I started out using 85mm f/1.4 lenses on DSLRs (Nikon). They have good image quality but things can get much better. Mirrorless lenses like the Sigma DG DN 85mm f/1.4 Art have amazing image quality for the price/size, but things got even better still when I started using modern 135mm f/1.8 lenses. Sigma has a great one, albeit rather heavy, Sony's is lighter and focuses really fast, but my favourite here is the Samyang version (only for Sony FE currently) because it's lighter and much, much cheaper!

Budget Gear

Camera gear can be intimidatingly expensive, but there are some bargains to be had, so I wanted to show that you don't need the most expensive equipment to get good results. Of course they help, but the most important factor is spending time with nature to get them comfortable with you. You'll get the most interesting results like this. Of course, you can use your phone for this (assuming you're not one of the very rare sensible ones), but in my opinion a proper camera will still provide much nicer looking images. Over the next few paragraphs I will show some different options for progressively more modest budgets and what I like about them. These budgets will be for second hand equipment, but they will include both a camera and lens, thus should represent what you will would need to get going...

▼▼  €100 - 200  ▼▼

Nikon D100 + Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 AF-D

  • Entrance Pupil: 28mm

  • FF Equivalency: 75mm f/2.5

  • Weight: 935g / 2.1 lbs

  • Year (C/L): 2002 / 2002

  • Cost ratio: 30 / 70

Pros

  • Cheap

  • Lenses

  • Robust

  • Ergonomics

  • OVF

Cons

  • Crop sensor

  • Sluggish operation

  • Small buffer

  • Poor battery life

  • 6 megapixels

  • No Live-View

  • Slow & noisy AF

  • relatively heavy

This budget will require digging up some of the most vintage digital equipment, but I still think there are good reasons to do that creatively. You might assume that a modern smart phone camera will be able to do better than this, but I don't think so. Firstly that will cost you a lot more, but more importantly I don't think a phone camera can come close to replicating the quality of blur or general look that a proper camera and lens like this will provide.