NOTE: This “8 Tips For Photographing Deer” article was originally published in Wildlife Photographic Magazine, November 2013 issue.
I have a few favourite subjects in my nature and landscape portfolio, but one animal I keep coming back to is the red deer. They have a swagger about them that exudes confidence and represents the traditional wild & historical Britain. As Britain’s largest native mammal, they provide a fantastic opportunity to the aspiring wildlife photographer due to their relative accessibility compared to other more secretive mammals. They’re an iconic creature, and along with other deer species, such as Roe, Fallow, and Sika, they make for fantastic photography subjects. With winter approaching, it’s a great time to get out photographing deer. So in this article, I’m going to offer up my top 8 tips for deer photography…
1. GO LOCAL – IF YOU CAN
This applies to most wildlife and nature photography; the species you can visit regularly is often the species you’ll have most success with. Being able to visit many times, and at short notice, gives you the best opportunity to capitalise on weather & seasonal changes, and stacks the odds in your favour. When it comes to deer, there are pockets of wild populations around Britain, with the greatest potential in Exmoor, the Scottish Highlands, and the New Forest. But there are also many more, less people-shy, herds to be found in semi-wild deer parks. Have a look online for a full list, but the most popular are Bradgate Park (Leicestershire), Bushy Park (London), Chatsworth Park (Derbyshire), Lyme Park (Cheshire), Richmond Park (London), and Woburn Deer Park (Bedfordshire).
2. PROTECT YOURSELF & YOUR GEAR
Keep a waterproof lens & camera cover with you in autumn & winter. Often the best photo opportunities come in the most extreme or changeable weather, and you have to be prepared to be out in it. Similarly, you need to protect yourself from the weather too. One thing I don’t love about wildlife watching is the associated clothing – but I’ve come to accept that the great outdoors is not a fashion show, and that practical clothing can make a huge difference to the success of your trips. You need warm waterproof layers in winter, and investing in good trousers, boots, a jacket, and gloves will see you through many years of crouching in damp or snow-covered foliage.
3. DO YOUR SUBJECT RESEARCH
Again, with most wildlife, it really pays to know more about the species you’re hoping to get close to. Get a book from the library & trawl through blogs & magazines for more information. For example, does your deer species have a particular mating season, like Red Deer? Or do they breed all year round, like Muntjac? Often the autumn mating season for Red and Fallow deer can provide a unique opportunity to see them acting out of their normal timid nature. Moving forward, as you spend more time with your local deer, you’ll learn more and more about their habits and their temperament. What sort of habitat do they prefer? What time of day are they most active? How close will they allow you to get? These factors will be similar across the board, but will definitely vary by location/herd/individuals. You can also learn from experience which routes they like to take from one area to another. They will very often follow the same paths between habitats, so once you learn their preferences, you can start to stay one step ahead. The more you know about your subject, the better you will be able to predict their behaviour, and get the best out of your time with them. There are no shortcuts with this one. You just have to put the time in. For the photo below, I could see this deer coming, and I knew he would take the route across the top of this small ridge. So I was able to get myself in place and wait for him.
4. FOLLOW THE LIGHT
At it’s heart, the best photography is about use of light. Ultimately, you’re often better off photographing a mundane subject in great light, than something rare in dull surroundings. So to combine an interesting subject with great light, it’s often best to prioritise the light. When researching locations and observing deer, always try to keep an eye on how the scene is lit at sunrise & sunset, and which areas are best for each. For the photo below, I didn’t go out walking in search of deer as a first priority. Instead, I staked out an area which the deer pass through, and waited there for a few sunrises in a row. Knowing that the light was particularly good here at sunrise, I was confident that if I got lucky with a deer crossing through at the right time, it would make for a much better shot than following a deer, and nailing an easier shot in dull light.
5. USE SILHOUETTES
Silhouettes work very well with deer for two reasons. Firstly, they have an iconic, instantly recognisable outline. Secondly, it can be tricky to find a more natural background in some deer park areas, but by isolating the subject against the sky, you’ve eliminated that problem. It’s also just a great way to produce a visually simple image, that instantly grabs attention.
6. DEER STALKING
Red deer have excellent senses of smell & hearing, and a remarkable eyesight which covers over 300 degrees around them. As a general rule, it’s pretty much impossible to get close to them without them knowing it, unless you’re in a hide – but where’s the fun in that? As a prey species, they can be very skittish, so tread carefully as you go. You can sneak close enough to stay unnoticed if you have an enormous lens, and don’t want close-ups, but for the most part, and certainly in my experience, you need to approach with the understanding that the deer will know you’re there. It’s therefore in both your interests to keep them as calm and relaxed as possible. I try to walk slowly, and once I’ve been spotted, just stop for a few seconds. I then continue the approach very slowly, taking small steps, and stopping still every few metres. It can take a while to get close enough, but the reward is worth the investment. As you get closer, try to crouch or stay low and small – still moving slowly and calmly. Generally the deer will watch you as you move. But when you stop, they’ll continue to browse for food, only reacting once you’re on the move again. Once I’m close enough to a herd of deer, I’ll sit or crouch on the floor. After I’m still for a few minutes, they start to relax and continue their natural behaviour. Despite their reputation, deer can be very accommodating to people, especially in local deer parks. But you have to be slow, quiet, and non-threatening. The golden rule is never run. It can be agonising to miss out on a perfect situation or composition, but as soon as you break into anything more than a brisk walk, it’s sure to spook the deer, and they’ll be off. By far the best technique is to spot a deer or a herd on the move, and predict their route. If you can position yourself along that route, you can wait for them to approach you. For most of the year (ie outside breeding season), species such as the red deer live in single-sex groups. Approaching the stags (males) is usually more productive, for two reasons. Firstly, they tend to offer a more attractive photography subject, with their larger stature and iconic antlers. Secondly, they’re less flighty than the females, who will usually retreat at a much greater distance than the males.
7. PHOTOGENIC POSTURES
As I alluded to earlier, the great thing about deer is the way they hold themselves. It’s conducive to a great photo when used well. I think my favourite angle is to approach from around 45 degrees off-centre, and wait for the deer to glance back across itself, as in the next photo. Straight on is OK for close-ups and silhouettes, but normally, you want this just off-centre angle when possible. It just shows the animal off to it’s best.
8. BE PATIENT
Once you’re close to a herd or an individual, just stay patient, and wait for an opportunity. If you try to force things, you’ll invariably end up encouraging the deer to move off. If you wait for them to relax, and keep watching them closely, they’ll present their own opportunities for you.