I’ve photographed red deer in the snow before, but I’ve never been out with my camera as the snow is actually falling. Now, armed with a “weather-sealed” camera and lens combination, I took the opportunity to get some original photos of the Woburn deer in winter blizzard conditions.
It was a tough environment to work in. Minus degree temperatures, a bitter wind, and wet snowflakes all around. But it made for such a striking view, I figured it was worth the effort.
To get good views of the deer at Woburn during the winter, you have to either be patient or get lucky. In the huge estate the deer are free to roam wherever they please, whereas you’re restricted to the public footpaths. So there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to get close enough, and in the snow they seem to prefer to stay put – wherever they happen to be. So if you get there and they’re near the footpath, then you’re in luck. But if you walk around and can’t see them, you have to either cut your losses or be prepared to wait it out.
On this occasion, I didn’t get the luck initially, so I took a wander around the park for an hour or two. Still nothing but some distant views of fallow deer. So I went for a wander outside the park, and through the woods. I encountered a couple of wild muntjac deer, which posed nicely for me, but the light didn’t really make for a special photo. I continued wandering back into the park, around the back where there were some Père David Deer…
PÈRE DAVID DEER
Originally from China, Père Davids were on the brink of extinction before they were imported and bred by the Woburn estate to recover their numbers. They’ve since released hundreds back to China and to institutions around the world. As they walk, a tendon clicks in their leg (similarly to reindeer), which is thought to be an evolutionary adaptation to help them stay together in a white-out blizzard. I think it’s the fact that they evolved for these conditions, that makes them look the part in these photos.
I don’t usually take photos of the Père David Deer at Woburn. Harsh maybe, but I don’t tend to find them particularly photogenic. But in the heavy snowfall, I thought they looked very characterful. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them looking as good as they did on this occasional, and I’m sure it’s because they’re in their natural environment.
Photographing the Père Davids, I was on the opposite side of the park than I usually am. I thought I could see some red deer on the move in the distance. So I made my way back towards the exit; thinking I’d either manage to catch them on their way past, or I’d give up and go home.
By this point, I’d already been out in the snow for around four hours, with precious little to show for it. So I was really pleased to see that my patience had paid off, and I had five or six red deer stags within close range.
The photo above was exactly what I was hoping for. The red deer are really very iconic looking, and to see them with snow on their fur, and snow falling around; it’s the perfect setting for a winter portrait. I really wanted to get up close and personal, and this particular animal seemed less shy than ever.
Perhaps it was the snow or the cold that caused him to lose his usual wariness, but as he approached over the crest of the hill, he continued to walk straight towards me. After I took the photo above, he turned to face me head on, and continued to wander closer. This is very rare to see in deer, and it was by some way the closest I’ve had a red deer approach me. I’m usually the one trying to creep closer without them noticing! On this occasion, he was within five or ten feet of me. If he had wanted to show aggression, he could have charged, and reached me in a second or two. I would have loved to have taken a photo at that distance, but I was worried the click of the shutter might provoke a response, and I was too scared to take my eye off him and look through the viewfinder! So I slowly edged backwards, and moved away. He seemed defiant in his manner, and stopped to look for food in the snow-covered ground. He wasn’t the least bit concerned about me – and I just can’t overstate how rare this is.
To capture the intimacy of this close encounter, I’ve produced a couple of tightly cropped portraits, to show the stag up-close and personal.
I like the wide aspect portrait above, as it’s both a tight portrait, yet has plenty of negative space beside the subject.
The last photo I’m going to post here proved exceptionally popular on Flickr, and I’m very grateful to for the hundreds of people who kindly made it a favourite, or left a kind comment. Along with closer portraits, I wanted to show the deer in the context of their surroundings. Below, I combined this with another favourite composition; to position myself to catch the subject on the crest of a hill. This always helps them stand out amongst their environment, offering a clear distinction between subject and background.
I think the detail of the snow in the antlers really adds something to this photo too, as it gives you a real sense of the cold and harsh surroundings in which they spend their time.
In summary then, the trip was a real success for me. I was testing the weatherproofing of both the camera and myself, but I’m really happy with the photos I took. I’m hopeful we’ll get some more snow before the winter is over, so I can have another go. But you can’t count on anything when it comes to British weather, so we’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, you can see the entire set of snow photos from this day on my Flickr account. And I have a set of deer photos here which are available in print or for commercial licence.
If you have the time, please let me know which is your favourite photo from this set. All feedback is valuable to me, and helps keep me heading in the right direction.