Autumn deer increasingly feels like the highlight of my annual photography cycle. Even in years when I've had several trips overseas it's always been good to return to photographing a familiar subject in my local patch. Deer are something I can really specialise in, and revisit over-and-over. I spend most of the year looking forward to the autumn, when the deer are most active, thinking about ideas to try next time around. Then the time arrives, and it flies by in a blur of misty sunrises, striking sunsets, dewy grass, tired legs, and hot chocolate. Then I find myself whittling down the photos, deleting all the blurry and dull ones, processing the ones I like, and looking forward to sharing them with the world. And here we are!
Overall it went pretty well for me this time around. Not as many close encounters as last year, but I got some interesting photos to add to my back-catalogue of existing Deer Photography. I've split this year's haul into two posts because there were slightly too many to cram into one.
This photo is the first frame I took at the start of autumn, shortly before the sun came up.
I wasn't to know at this point, but this individual was to become something of a regular model for me over the following couple of weeks.
As the sun did come up a couple of deer locked antlers for a scuffle, and they went on to test their strength like this for some time, allowing me to take plenty of photos.
It's slightly disappointing that these photos don't really reflect the seriousness of this fight. It looks quite tame here, but they weren't holding back. Meanwhile I was scampering around left and right, trying to keep the sun behind them, because I love the effect of this warm back-lighting, especially when there's a hint of mist, like there was on this occasion. These conditions both help for visual interest, while also reflecting the classic seasonal atmosphere.
As the sun rises further the light can get a bit harsh, and I no longer want any sky in the photo, due to the high contrast it introduces; being so much brighter that the subject I'm shooting. But we can still benefit from that warm colour by using the back-lit trees and damp grasses which catch and diffuse the light.
Here the light is more harsh than I'd usually shoot. In truth I was walking back to the car by this point. But the combination of bright low sun, mist, dew, and back-lit leaves was too much to resist. Especially as it framed this more peaceful scene of a grazing red deer stag accompanied by two of this year's fallow deer fawns.
It's beginning to feel like the whole UK nature photography community only really kicks into gear when we get some mist. And it's true, it does help to add atmosphere, and simplify images. But I have to say I think I'm done with photographing deer in the fog. They're a lot more cautious when one of their defensive senses is compromised. And to be honest, I'm not sure I've ever really captured a genuinely interesting photo of a deer in the fog. But here's the best I managed on a difficult, tiring morning.
OK, this is more like it. I enjoy the scenic photos I've taken in the past, but there's nothing like making an actual connection with an animal, and capturing that two-way experience. This was a complete fluke encounter, and I lucked out with the sun in the trees behind.
I visit the nearby Woburn Deer Park for my photos, where they roam some 3,000 acres across several environments from grassland to hillsides, woodland, and ferns. The photo above was a rare opportunity to encounter a deer in the ferns, but it was the first of a few this year, including the next couple, too.
I use a tripod when I photograph deer, which seems to be a minority choice. I very rarely see other people lugging a tripod around. And it's easy to see why. It's cumbersome and it slows me down - missing moments sometimes, as I faff with the legs or adjust the height to frame a shot. But personally, I have no choice. I was blessed with the slight frame of middle-distance athlete, but all the limb-strength of that wildebeest calf the lions single out early doors. My camera and lens of choice combine at a weight of over 3kg, and my little arms simply can't hold the thing steady. But despite the practical obstacles, using a tripod does provide some pay-offs that most deer photographers must lack. It enables me to shoot sharp photos in lower light than those hand-holding, and I can also frame up a shot like this one below, and then sit and wait for the deer to bellow, knowing I have the camera fixed, ready to capture it. For those with the choice, there's no wrong or right, but I feel like I get more benefits from the tripod than I do drawbacks.
Deer of the Year
Last year one individual took the spotlight, including posing for a photo I'd waited ten years to take. This year, it was this recognisable stag that I encountered on several occasions (including the photo at the top of this post), and he proved very compliant, posing for several photos. I nicknamed him "John Deer".
He's got lovely curvy antlers, with those three identifiable double-points on the right-hand side, as we look. What separates him most from the other deer is his light, golden coat. Next to other deer, the colour was quite noticeable. For the benefit of anyone else from my generation, he reminded me of Sandy the horse from 'Dogtanian'. And yes, I'm still dropping Dogtanian references in 2022.
For the photo above I was faffing with the tripod again to make sure I framed him in the middle of the golden yellow tree behind him. I'm sorry I don't have any photos framed any other way, to illustrate the point, but for me the combination and overlap of the colours in this photo are so important. It just wouldn't have worked if I had John half overlapping with a tree the same colour. The very thought of a sandy/gold subject in the middle with a gold background one side and green background the other makes me shudder. Always watch your backgrounds, folks.
Here's John on another occasion. These are exactly the conditions I like to look for. Angled sunlight on the subject, but not on the background. But something here doesn't quite add up. It might be his posture. I don't really like the back-left leg, and he's looking at me as if to say "Not you again". Which is a shame because I thought we were mates. But I think the light isn't quite right either. Maybe it was just a little too late in the morning, and the light was too contrasty. But still, it's a nice shot, and one I'll continue to take in future.
This photo was a few minutes later, as he moved into shade, and then back to half-sunlight. I prefer this one because it's more of a subtle light, and the angle better shows the curves and angles, creating a more three-dimensional result.
This is probably my favourite photo of this blog post, when I managed to capture John Deer in a soft morning light, which almost seemed like it was created solely for him.
As I framed it up, I was influenced by a photo by Roberto Marchegiani, which won the 2020 Nature Photographer of the Year award. Influence is an interesting thing in all forms of art, and I take my inspiration from everything from other photos, to films, adverts, music, psychology, and low-budget 80's cartoons. But I found the tone of Marchegiani's "Jurassic Park" photo immediately striking in it's muted colours, and framing through the forest. I love the combination of grey & greens he used, and that photo has lodged itself in my mental pinboard of inspirations ever since. In reality, my photos (above and below) are quite different to his, which is of course a good thing. I'm seeking to build on my influences, rather than lean on them, but I think it would be unfair not to acknowledge them, and also take the opportunity to point you towards his photo, if you haven't seen it before.
Personally, I'm really chuffed with these two. Visually they strike a tone which I think is new to my previous deer photos, taking in the more dense areas of woodland and ferns, and the soft, direct sunlight was just perfect for this warm spotlight effect. The results almost have a dream-like quality to them. In fact, speaking of which, the setting also brings to mind the background scenery and staging of Maurice Sendak's illustrations from Where The Wild Things Are.
So that's the first half of this year's red deer photos, and the end of the 80s references for now. These were all captured relatively early in the season, when things are quiet, peaceful, serene. That is until the rut really kicks into gear, which is where we'll pick things up next time around.
If you like deer photos, you can check out more blog posts here, and a gallery of deer photos available to order as wall art prints here. If you don't like deer, you've done well to get this far, so thanks anyway.