Morning sunlight filters through trees and enters through the open window of a small, rustic cottage in the town of Bispgården, Sweden. A kettle whistles and there is a tinkering of cups and saucers as a fresh pot of tea brews on the stone countertop. Moving to the window, wildlife photographer Geert Weggen peers through the viewfinder of his camera, adjusts the focus, and waits.
A rustling of leaves introduces a wild tree squirrel as it dances across a branch onto a small outdoor table resembling a stage. Here, it plays with an assortment of props: a miniature tennis racket, a cocktail parasol and a toy car. It moves quickly, spending only a moment with each item. Geert is barely able to capture a handful of shots before the squirrel darts back up the tree it came from.
This routine has occupied Geert’s morning for five years. His practice of photographing animals began when he befriended a fox who frequented his home in the woods. He realised he could photograph interesting images of the animal by luring it into unusual situations, like sitting inside a box. Similar relationships formed with other creatures, like a Russian bird who fed out of Geert’s hand, and he set up scenes to photograph them more closely. Eventually, squirrels began visiting Geert’s indoor-outdoor studio and have been the focus of his work since.
The genre of Geert’s photography is hard to pinpoint, as it is neither wildlife nor still-life. It seems to lie somewhere in the middle, with a fantastical element tying it together. When asked to comment on his style, Geert admits that he finds it hard to define.
“I am often thinking about this. I used to call my style ‘magic realism’, because of the fairy-tale, fantasy-like situations the squirrels are captured in. Another style description is ‘life in still-life’, because I set the scenes and then wait for a life to come (an animal)”.
Some of Geert’s favourite images are those captured when the squirrels are in playful or amusing situations, like ‘playing tennis’ or ‘reading’. These took days to photograph, and require extraordinary levels of patience. However, Geert notes that it is his connection to the animals that allows him to capture such intriguing images.
“I have a special bond with the squirrels. They sometimes sit on me while I am taking photos and some allow me to pat them on the head. It gives a wonderful feeling when wild animals trust me”.
Geert’s ‘studio’ space is a 12-square meter stage outside his kitchen window with a half-open roof. With this setup, rain, snow and sun can enter without damaging the equipment, allowing him to frame the animals with the sun in the background.
“I always photograph with backlight... It gives a wonderful shining aurora around the squirrels when there is sun.”
As the animals are always on the move, Geert also recommends a zoom lens as it provides some distance between the photographer and the subject, making quick movements easier to follow.
Close up of red squirrels eating an ice cream at a table - Nikon D7100, ISO 400, f/4.8, 1/320 seconds, AF-S DX NIKKOR 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR at 105mm
The nature of photographing animals requires certain camera features. It is important for Geert to use a high-resolution camera to allow for ease of cropping (he uses the Nikon D7100 as well as the Nikon D810, the latter of which comes with 36.3 megapixels and a full-frame image sensor). A quick autofocus system is also necessary, and a continuous shooting speed option.
Making a living as a squirrel photographer requires consistent effort to stay inspired and be creative. However, Geert reveals that having a relationship to animals has taught him to be more present and true to his own style.
“When I am in a bad mood, it seems that they do not mind. They just accept me the way I am. I love that they are wild and free and come, go and do as they want”.
Geert explains that this attitude is especially relevant for artists, who often become entrenched in imitation rather than forming their own style and ideas. Perhaps the secret to feeling inspired is as easy as getting out in nature, being consistent, and reconnecting to the smaller, simpler beings around us.
Geert Weggen is a 49-year old wildlife photographer from Holland known predominantly for his work with squirrels. He resides in the small village of Bispgården in the middle of Sweden, where winter usually spans five months. His images of squirrels have been featured in National Geographic where he received an 8-page editorial.