The European ground squirrel is a curious creature. Unlike its tree-dwelling cousins, this rodent has a stout, low-slung body and lives in underground burrows. In daylight hours, it can be seen in the open gathering roots, seeds, shoots and flowers, but this is not without risk, as the creature is an important source of food for predators such as polecats and birds of prey. It’s something of a fusspot when it comes to habitat, as it favours short grass and light, well-drained soil for excavating burrows. As a general rule, ground squirrels avoid cultivated land, and with so much grassland and pasture heading that way, they are forced to live on sports fields, golf courses, airstrips and campsites where the grass is mown regularly. Hence, it is officially classed as Vulnerable.
Austrian photographer Perdita Petzl has spent hours observing and recording the behaviour of these small animals on a sports field in Vienna. ‘There are only a few colonies left around Vienna,’ she reveals. ‘There is a big problem with houses being built on their spaces, but officials in the city don’t seem to care, they just build, build, build.’ This disregard for the vulnerable squirrels is one of the reasons Perdita photographs them so often. ‘They are cute, but they are critically endangered,’ she says. ‘I want to raise awareness about their plight – that’s one of the reasons I try to photograph them in such a romantic way.’
This romantic approach is evident in all of Perdita’s work, regardless of subject matter. Since she took up photography in 2009, she has trained her lens on butterflies, orchids, foxes, deer and, of course, her beloved ground squirrels. She describes her style as fairy-tale like, but admits it’s hard to define what this actually means. ‘I guess it’s about the colours, the soft tones and the bokeh,’ she suggests. Looking at her work, it’s clear that much of this fairy-tale vibe comes from the beautiful backgrounds she creates: leaves, grasses and flowers are recorded as wonderful washes of colour. Perdita enjoyed painting with watercolours as a child, and it’s easy to see how this early interest in art has influenced her photography. ‘I like impressionists like Van Gogh,’ she confirms.
The backgrounds in Perdita’s pictures are natural, but they are often so perfect that it leads people to question their authenticity. ‘When my work was exhibited last year, some visitors asked me if I use silk scarfs for the backgrounds,’ she laughs. ‘I don’t, but it might make my life easier if I did!’ (You can see a short video about the backgrounds at www.fairytale-nature.com.) This scepticism could be frustrating for Perdita, who goes to great lengths to get things right in-camera, but she takes it well. ‘People know that everything is easy to achieve in Photoshop and I think they often don’t know how to get the same effects in the field,’ she suggests. ‘It’s always best to get it right in-camera if you can – that should be the end goal.’ In line with this approach, she keeps post-processing to a minimum, using Lightroom to make basic adjustments. ‘I enter a lot of international competitions, and many of them do not allow much manipulation, so I don’t overcorrect files,’ she says.
While Perdita likes to keep things as natural as possible, she isn’t opposed to moving an insect if it helps to improve a composition. ‘I work before sunrise when the insects are torpid and can be moved to other plants,’ she admits. ‘Unless a location is new to me I don’t do a recce the day before, I just go out in the morning and search for suitable subjects. When an insect is in shadow I have a bit more time, but not much.’ Perdita likes to explore the meadows with her partner Henrik Spranz (the winner of Amateur Photographer of the Year 2017). ‘We inspire each other, and I think you can see that in our work,’ she suggests. ‘We are like two galloping horses, pushing each other on.’
Perdita met Henrik through an online photo forum – at the time he specialised in landscape photography and she was keen to expand her knowledge of the genre. Up until then, she was entirely self-taught, mostly via the internet. ‘I would find images I liked online and ask myself why I liked them and how I could achieve something similar,’ she reveals. ‘I never attended workshops; I just kept trying things out – it’s easy to experiment with a digital camera because you can review the results instantly and see what happens if you change the aperture, etc. It would have taken me a lot longer to get to this point if I had been using analogue equipment.’
Despite an early interest in nature, Perdita didn’t set out to be a wildlife/macro photographer. ‘I was five or six when I started exploring nature,’ she reveals. ‘I always wanted to know everything about a subject, so my mother bought me books to help me find out the names of plants, etc. I started collecting coffee-table nature books, but after a while I abandoned them so I could focus on my second love, horseback riding.’ Perdita enjoyed eventing (an equestrian event comprising dressage, cross-country and showjumping), and it’s no surprise that one of her first photographic subjects was her horse. ‘I bought a Canon 550D and tried to shoot a dark brown horse in the snow on a sunny day,’ she laughs. ‘It was hard, and I didn’t get anything usable. At that point I realised that I needed to learn how to use my camera and I needed to practise.’
These days, Perdita uses a Canon EOS 5D Mark III, often paired with a Canon 100mm f/2.8 USM macro lens. ‘I borrow a few lenses off Henrik,’ she admits, ‘but more often than not I use old manual ones.’ Perdita likes to shoot with the aperture wide open (f/2.8 or f/4) but this can create problems when areas she wants sharp do not fall on the same focal plane. Dragonflies, for example, are a real challenge. ‘I have to close the aperture down to get both the wings and the eyes sharp, but I don’t like this effect,’ she admits. ‘I am used to using a wide aperture, so when I can’t do that I find everything looks different.’ Such challenges are all part of a macro photographer’s lot.
Henrik and Perdita lead busy lives: he works as a software developer and she is a brand consultant. As a result, they have to cram as much photography as possible into their holidays and weekends. With limited time, the pair has learnt to plan their day and make the most of all conditions. ‘On a typical day we might go out before sunrise to shoot butterflies, move on to ground squirrels and then head home for some sleep,’ she explains. ‘We might go out again around 4pm to photograph European hamsters, but not every day is like that or it would be very stressful!’ For Perdita, her time behind the camera is the perfect antidote to life in a fast-paced world. ‘When I am shooting, I go into myself,’ she explains, ‘I become very focused, and all my sorrows are left behind. It’s not often that we get to a chance to experience this.’
Perdita claims that patience is an essential attribute for wildlife photographers, and when you look at her work you can see she has plenty of it. ‘You have to be patient or it just doesn’t work,’ she suggests. ‘You have to keep trying – don’t ever give up. Look at the work of other photographers and analyse what attracts you to a picture; concentrate on the stories you want to tell; work on yourself and your skills.’ While she may call her work romantic and fairy-tale like, there is nothing light or insubstantial about Perdita’s pictures: they are bold, uplifting, and beautiful.