Robert Fuller: Backdrop, camera, action for perfect wildlife photos

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This year’s stunning autumn display has inspired me to get out and capture the blaze of colour on camera.

I wanted to photograph the way in which the October sunshine lit up the beautiful russets and golds to use as a backdrop for my paintings.

I often paint directly from photographs and create my compositions by first photographing a wildlife subject and then placing it against a background photograph of seasonal foliage.

A recent composition of mine featured a fieldfare among a windfall of autumn fruits. I attracted this winter migrant bird by putting apples out in my garden and photographed it from my kitchen window. More apples were needed to make the perfect picture, so I grabbed a few from the fruit bowl to copy onto my painting in the studio.

Once, I was given a tiny hoglet to hand rear, which I kept in my back porch until it was big enough to survive on its own. It seemed fair enough to employ it as a painting model in exchange. And so one day, when it was over half grown, I placed it in a colourful pile of autumn leaves. I was poised to capture the moment it unfurled.

To get the best shots, I often have to create somewhere for animals and birds to live and breed first. I even go on to provide them with food to guarantee regular visits. Once I’ve got them established in an area I will then build a set around this location. This will feature props for them to pose on, a hide close by for me to photograph them from as well as surveillance cameras so I can study their movements 24/7.

Last year I encouraged wild weasels into my garden by putting out food for them in a specially designed ‘feeding’ box. Next, I found some elderberry roots and put them over the top of the box, so that the weasels would scurry in and out of the roots and give me a chance to capture their elusive movements.

To make the scene seasonal I placed leaves around the elderberry. I wanted to capture the weasel as it emerged through the pile of hawthorn and maple foliage. I was aiming for a picture that really encapsulated autumn, the rich colours of the leaves complementing the warmth of this animal’s soft brown pelt.

But the project soon came to a frustrating halt. Every time I arranged the leaves, a gust of wind would blow them away. After thinking this over, I decided the answer was to nail each leaf to the entrance.

I used fine panel pins which would be small enough not to show up in the resulting photograph. Unfortunately these were new and had a bright metallic sheen that gleamed through the leaf litter. So I decided I needed to turn them a complementary colour and returned to my workshop to burn them with a blow torch in a bed of wood shavings. This took the shine off the pins, turning them a dark, dull grey. To make them a rusty orange colour to match the leaves, I then sprinkled salt on them, sprayed them with water and left them outside for a day or two.

My plan worked a treat. They rusted quickly and I spent a couple of hours collecting leaves and then nailing the leaves to the elderberry entrance. It was a beautiful, cold, autumn day and it was refreshing to spend some time outside since at this time of year I’m usually ensconced in my studio painting for my annual Christmas exhibition.

Happy with the set, I retreated back inside to wait for the weasel to emerge. This didn’t take as long as you might think as I’ve been feeding one particular weasel in my garden for the last few months and I knew what time he usually arrived. I’d also rigged the feeding box with CCTV cameras so as soon as he showed I could see him feeding inside the chamber and only had to wait for him step out onto my prepared set.

One of the photographs of the weasel as it peeped out through the burnt-gold setting won me the British Seasons category in this year’s British Wildlife Photography Awards. I think the scene will also make a good painting.

The weasel has since disappeared and a stoat has taken over his territory. I managed to persuade it to pose against an old ash stump by putting out food, and chose the best photographs to paint a picture entitled ‘Sitting Pretty’.

This autumn I tried to improve on my work from the previous year with the weasel. I wanted to take even better seasonal photos of this new stoat. I spent some time picking up the individual leaves of hornbeams, quince, maple, dogwood, cherry and beech, choosing the brightest, most beautiful leaves for the project.

This time I arranged them carefully around a beautiful piece of burr elm I had got off a friend. The section of this fallen tree had a stoat-sized natural hole - perfect for this project.

Again I used panel pins and placed the arrangement in front of an area I knew the stoat frequented.

I waited to see what would happen. Thankfully much of October was relatively dry and bright so the backdrop was beautifully lit. For two weeks, each morning I enjoyed the task of replacing the leaves that had become dull or dislodged with freshly gathered colourful specimens.

So I was all set when the perfect opportunity came, one afternoon, when the stoat walked onto the set, popped its head out and posed perfectly amongst the leaves. Then it licked its lips and disappeared.

PUBLIC INVITATION TO GALLERY TALK

Robert Fuller is currently holding a new exhibition at his gallery in Thixendale in the Yorkshire Wolds.

It features his most comical wildlife moments which includes the photograph of the stoat that visits his garden which looks like it is poking its tongue out.

“It made me laugh out loud and was just what I needed to show at the event,” Robert said.

The wildlife artist is giving a talk and slideshow tonight - Saturday - on how Animals Do the Funniest Things at his gallery from 7.30pm. Tickets cost £9.50 and are available via www.robertefuller.com. His exhibition of paintings, comical photographs and funny animal video clips continues at the gallery until December 4.