Most wildlife photographers will tell you that it takes a lot of patience to capture animals in their natural habitats, but Dutch-Swedish photographer Geert Weggen has a gift for it. His chosen subjects are red squirrels, shy forest creatures that are usually reluctant to interact with humans. However, Weggen (with the help of some nuts he use as bribes) manages to capture them up-close, in all sorts of adorable scenarios.
Weggen first began photographing wildlife around 6 years ago when he came across a wild fox on his doorstep. He immediately rushed inside to get him some food to eat, and soon the fox began returning on a regular basis. “By the end of a second week,” Weggen recalls, “the fox would come to the balcony where it interacted with various props I used for photography.” Soon, birds and red squirrels came by on a daily basis, providing Weggen ample photo opportunities. He says, “Little did I know back then that it would become my living.”
Weggen’s portfolio of squirrel photos not only show the cute creatures amongst the flowers and leaves, but they’re also captured interacting with the photographer’s homemade props. From riding on a miniature bicycle to skiing with tiny skis, there seems to be no end to Weggen’s imagination, as well as the squirrels’ willingness to get involved. In his most recent shots, the creative photographer set up a Christmas-themed set, featuring mini sleds and reindeer figurines. The mischievous little squirrels are captured curiously playing and exploring each item, resulting in adorable images that capture their charm.
If you’re feeling inspired to shoot your own squirrel photos, Weggen shares his tips in bi-yearly workshops at his studio. He also sells his images in the form of books, calendars, and postcards in his online shop.
We recently caught up with Weggen to ask him about his process. Read on for our exclusive interview.
When did you first become interested in photography?
Maybe a strange thing to say, but I fell in love with graphic novels at a very young age. I absorbed them. It is storytelling through art. I am doing the same with my photos. At the age of 16, I had my own dark room and followed photo courses. For a short while I became the main photographer for a youth newspaper and then I lost interest in photography, but the interest in graphic novels always stayed.
What draws you to capturing wildlife?
I love nature. Its purity, magic, and liveliness. Animals are honest and are only there because they trust. For me a direct contact with wildlife is filled with love and respect. That connection goes very deep. That bond can be very rare among people.
You’re able to get so close to the squirrels. How do you charm them into trusting you?
Food. Mostly it is about that. If I did not have food they would not come. Although different birds and squirrels follow me, climb on me, and visit me in my house. They would not do that if there was nothing to gain. We use each other and we share each other.
What do you like most about red squirrels?
They are beautiful. Such nice colors and fluffy long hair on their ears. The main thing is that they can do many things that humans can do. They can stand straight, they can hold something by using their hands. Besides that, their size makes it easier to work with miniature props, flowers, and plants.
Can you describe what happens during one of your squirrel workshops?
Participants have direct contact with squirrels. They do not only learn their behavior and how to photograph them, they also learn to visualize them in scenes. I call it “life in still life” as it is creating scenes with props or organic materials and hiding food in the right places and waiting for the squirrels to come. There is also a possibility to make your own props in my working place. Most of my workshops are planned when the young squirrels are born. During the workshop participants will also learn Lightroom and Photoshop skills.
Many of your images have comical and whimsical themes. How do you come up with your ideas?
Many people comment that they laugh when seeing my photos. That is not meant. I don’t see myself as a comical man. I have always been a fantasist, a dreamer. Most of the time I see things that were not there according the people around me. I would say they were wrong. The world is a big place for dreaming and fantasy. It is one big wonder. Ideas come the whole the time and they seem to never stop. When I wake up, or look at the squirrels, or see an object, the ideas come. It is like a stream of stardust. Sparkling around and I and the squirrels get touched by it.
Capturing these charming creatures must require a lot of patience. Can you describe your process?
First of all, I do not see myself as a man with much patience. I usually envision the end result of what I want to capture and that makes me greedy, because I also have many other ideas. There are many different processes involved depending on time, theme, or prop. To describe it in short: I create scenes and put food in the places where I hope the squirrels will be, then I wait.
What advice would you give someone who’s interested in taking up wildlife photography?
Do not give up. Animals do and will come when they want to. Loving the wildlife and respecting the animals is a very good start. Fear does not really fit in such relationship, but reservation is a good thing. I give the animals the choice and space for how far they want to go. Never force them to do the things, but always let them explore new boundaries by themselves.