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Low-Key Deer Photography

In the past I've often shared blog posts of new photos from the autumnal deer rut season. This autumn was a particularly good one for me, and I took so many photos there's too much to share in one post. So I'm splitting them up into a few posts, each with it's own theme. And I'm leading with my favourite set; the low-key portraits.

'Low-key' is a pretentious-sounding term, which I use a lot. Either because I'm pretentious, or because I haven't yet found a better term for what I do. Perhaps a little of both. It basically means 'low-light', where not all of the subject is fully lit. I like this visual style because it's a way of simplifying an image; distilling down the complexity and removing distractions until just the essentials are left visible. I suppose it's a form of minimalism, in that respect, which is something I like in all aspects of life but especially visuals. I think the more I write, the more that needle is swinging towards 'pretentious'. So maybe I'll get into some photos.

A red deer in low-key against a black background
Red Deer In The Dark

I took the photo above shortly before sunset. The first and last few minutes of light are the best for this type of photography, because the light is soft, warm, and highly directional. I've used artificial / flash lighting with some domesticated subjects in the past, but for deer that's totally impractical. So all of these deer photos are taken in natural light.

Generally speaking, I prefer the look of these shots in natural light, although it's a lower probability of success, with so much out of my control. It really makes me reliant on making many visits in order to tip the odds of success in my favour.

Red deer stag, photographed side-on in low light
Red Deer Profile - On Black

This side-on profile photo demonstrates the beauty of a strong side-light. When the background is significantly darker than the subject, the camera can only cater to one of them, and the image is instantly simplified.

Red Deer On Black

OK, let's rewind the clock to 2010. I took this photo; Red Deer On Black, and the way I decided to process it got me started on this journey, experimenting with low-key portraits.

A red deer with large antlers, in low-key black & white
Red Deer On Black

Initially, what was bothering me about the mechanics of wildlife photography generally, were the distracting backgrounds. Every now and then, either by luck or skill of the photographer, you get a documentary nature photo where the background was perfectly complimentary to the subject; adding context, or a story, without distraction. But most of the time, they were a complete nuisance. As I started to pursue more artistic portraits rather than naturalistic images, I wanted to eliminate the background altogether. When I took this photo, the subject seemed so compelling, I wanted to try and 'paint-out' everything else, to create a kind of spotlight effect. I really enjoyed the process and was thrilled with the result. It went to to be one of my most popular photos, and I started to create many more in this style.

But as time went on, my tastes evolved, and my skill with a camera refined. Over the years I was using less and less editing, and learning to capture images closer to the intended final look in-camera. This almost always results in a more realistic final image. By the mid 2010s I'd lost my reverence for this photo, and started to feel a bit embarrassed by it's shortcomings and my technical naivety back when I made it. The lighting is not natural enough, the top of the antlers are motion-blurred, and there isn't enough space at the bottom of the image. It was also taken with my first dSLR camera, with a pitifully low resolution by modern standards, and nowhere near as sharp as the lenses I use now. So I took it off my website gallery. I'd already been trying to take another one like it, but now I was without it in my portfolio, I really wanted to replace it with a better version. I've been trying to get a better version of this photo for 10 years now, and this year, I think I did it. Twice!

Red Deer On Black II

This year, I took this photo, and as soon as I got home to look at it I was thrilled with it. The texture detail in the antlers and fur are way above anything in the original, and the light was just perfect, straight out of the camera. Years of chasing this photo had now taught me how to find and use light like this, and after many oh-so-nearly's and missed opportunities, I'd done it.

Red deer grazing, photographed in low-key black and white
Red Deer On Black II

I was, and still am, very happy with this photo. But a couple of days later, I was out photographing the deer again, and I discovered an absolute monster. An older red deer stag with the most incredible set of antlers I'd ever seen. He was an absolute brute, but it didn't really hit home how colossal his antlers were until I was going through my photos on the PC a few hours later. I decided then that I had to try and find him again, and photograph him as much as I could; including another iteration of Red Deer On Black - if that was even possible.

Red Deer On Black III

I still can't really believe this. It's got everything I wanted. Dramatic light, space around the subject, and an epic rack. The perfect subject in the perfect light, and I managed to capture it with the perfect exposure.

A large red deer with enormous antlers, photographed in low-key black & white
Red Deer On Black III

I'm probably blowing my own trumpet here, but that's not really my intention. I'm certainly not one to say my own photos are brilliant. I just want to share the story behind these photos, and the satisfying feeling of progress in my work. It's very rewarding to have so much long-term thought and practice pay off. I've made so many attempts at this photo over the years where the subject isn't quite dead-centre, or the head's at a slight angle, or there's an awkward leg sticking out and ruining the symmetry. Photography is not like painting or sculpture, where you can keep reworking and refining the image. If it's not close enough to what you want, you have to go out and start again from scratch; finding the right subject in the right light, and getting the right shot next time around. Doing that can be frustrating and exhausting at times, but that's also why it's so addictive. Because you're chasing the one-in-a-million, which does sometimes come off.

A Unique Headset

As unlikely as it sounds, I got to learn where this old-timer liked to hang out, and over the course of a fortnight, I was able to take a few photos of him in different lighting. The final three photos are all of this same stag as Red Deer On Black III, in low-key light, at sunset. This one's called Red Deer Chandelier. It looks like three or four sets of antlers layered together in Photoshop, but believe me this is one shot.

A red deer with large antlers, photographed in dark low-key style
Red Deer Chandelier

Another angle on this majestic deer. He really does look very regal here.

Close-up portrait of a large red deer in low-key style on black background
Red Deer Portrait

This last photo, I nearly deleted early on, because he seems to have has such a daft expression. But I really warmed to the slightly cartoonish quality of it. And I loved the strong side-light, and the super-close-up framing of it that makes it such an intimate portrait. It's like he's let us in, to see a soft side of him that can rarely be witnessed. I like the identifying little bald-patch he has between his pedicles; where the antlers grow. And the relatively low-contrast nature of the light, which softens a subject when the sun is just moments from sinking below the horizon.

Close-up portrait of a red deer in low light
Red Deer Close-Up

This close-up hints at the headset that's out of the frame, but belies the true extent of the antlers. Unfortunately that's one of the compromises I have to make with deer portraits. After a certain point, the closer we get, the less of the antlers I can include. Most of the time, I choose antlers over intimacy, but I really like the character he's revealing here. Or at least, the character I see in it.

From the Portfolio

At the end of each of these posts of 2021 deer rut photos, I'm going to include some deer photos I've taken in the past which also fit the subject for that blog post. In this case, I've only got two other low-key red deer photos in my On Black Gallery. This one, I took earlier this year...

Red deer stag during summer antler-growth, in low-key style
Red Deer Velvet - On Black

And this one which I took back in 2015...

A red deer in low light, against a black background
Last Light Red Deer

That's it for now. It will take me several months to share all these new deer photos via my blog, as I don't like to post stuff too often. But there'll be a fresh variation on the theme each time. My social media feeds have taken a back seat recently too, so if you know someone who'd enjoy these photos, please share this post with them.

If you want a print for the wall, take a look at my Deer gallery, which includes a few of the new photos from this post.




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