Updated: Mar 7
Ah, lovely autumn. Chilly mornings, dew on the grass, golden leaves, and roaring stags. It's my favourite time of year, and I love to get out and follow the deer rut. It's the best time to see and photograph deer as they're not only less afraid of people, but also most active. I missed the rut last year, as I was in Australia photographing kangaroos and wombats instead, so this year I was especially keen to be out and enjoy as much of it as possible.
In photography generally, I enjoy switching my attention to lots of different subjects and locations, but deer are one subject I come back to again and again. Perhaps because they're one of the few subjects I enjoy photographing which are genuinely local - just 10 minutes from home. I live in Bedfordshire, close to Woburn Deer Park, which has a large population of deer spread over a wide area. Access is a little stricter than other deer parks in the UK, as visitors are restricted to public footpaths. But these criss-cross the park, allowing the opportunity to find deer if you have the legs to put in some miles, and the opportunity for repeat visits.
One thing I like about the rut is how it's a micro season in itself; following a familiar pattern of activity and change in the deer. I like to see how they change as the month progresses. And the weather changes too, with gradually less and less sunshine, and shorter daylight hours.
I like to challenge myself to capture a range of images over the season, both in terms of deer behaviour and my visual style. Maybe that's due to a lack of discipline / attention span, but I like to think it's a good thing. It keeps things fresh, and keeps my mind active - working on different ideas. So this blog post contains a bumper set of photos (way over the 6-10 I usually aim for in one post), and they're broken up into the different types of images I achieved this year.
As the temperatures drop, we get dew on the grass at sunrise. The deer aren't especially active yet, but they start to split up from the herd, and graze alone.
This large stag stopped to look at me. They'll often do so as they pass by. I can't imagine what they think of me, but I was pleased to see him.
Sunrise and sunset are great times to play with back-lighting and side-lighting, to see what effects can be achieved...
I liked the antlers on this stag. I would have liked a slightly more straight-on angle, but the light was good, so I can't complain.
This encounter came shortly after sunrise, when this stag was scraping at the ground with his antlers, picking up grass.
The cold mornings, and shorter daylight hours trigger a hormonal change in the stags, and they begin to call, or 'roar'. Just a few to begin with, but as time goes on more and more start to compete. Of course, he with the loudest and deepest roar wins.
Deer rut or not, one thing many people love about the autumn is the beautiful misty mornings it can deliver. With sunrise coming in at a relatively comfortable 7-7:40am during the rutting period, it's much easier to be out for, and it's well worth getting up for a misty morning. This sunrise was about as perfect as I've seen for a few years. Pastel pink sky, low-lying mist, and roaring stags...
The photo above was taken angled away from the rising sun, shortly before it broke the horizon. Below, I positioned myself facing the sun, with the back-lit mist and roaring stag in between us. The difference in results is dramatic. Admittedly these were two different days, but it shows how natural light can be used in different ways for differing effect.
I love a silhouette, and I'm fortunate to have a couple of favourite locations to catch them - if the deer play ball and walk those ridges at sunrise or sunset.
Below, a sika deer at sunset...
And a shortly after sunset, a red deer stag...
I like the silhouette of the leaves in this shot, which help frame the deer.
I've noticed over the last few years, that red deer like to call from under a large tree. I think they realise that the tree gives their roar a deeper sound. It certainly does affect the acoustics, and I don't think it's a coincidence that so many stags do it.
It's not often I manage to find the larger deer in the woodland areas of the park, but I like the look of those photos when I can do.
This occasion was a rare moment of calm away from the noise and chaos of the main rut. It's nice when you get those, in contrast to the more active images.
Meanwhile this male is dashing through the trees, chasing a female in an attempt to maintain his harem. From what I see at Woburn, the females are pretty much doing what they want, irrespective of the males posturing and ideas of control. They are prepared to let the males think they're in charge as long as that suits them, but if they want to go elsewhere, they do, regardless.
I guess the box office behaviour of the rut season is when the roaring doesn't settle things, and it comes to a fight. This year I was lucky enough to witness a fight fairly close-up, in a strong sunrise light. I took a few different photos, playing with the light in different ways.
This was the moment the two first tentatively locked antlers. They were very much measuring antler spans at this point.
It didn't take long before things escalated, and it's surprising how much a bit of twisting by one deer (on the right below) can leave the other vulnerable, as they're forced to adjust their footing.
But he was able to react, and he retaliated with a drive forwards of his own. It can feel like a rugby scrum at times, as each attempts to drive the other back - antlers engaged.
Below, two tired stags spa in the rain, towards the end of the rut.
Sika are native to Asia, but are now wild in some areas of the UK too, due to some cheeky escapees from deer parks around the country. They're sizeable animals, and without a red deer next to them, you'd say they're large deer. Like reds, they also rut during the autumn, letting out a very strange high-pitched call.
Sika deer don't normally allow people too close to them, but this stag boldly walked right past us, stopping for this curious looking flehmen display. Fortunately he wasn't sensing any female sika pheromones coming from me, so he carried on past.
I was caught out by how close this stag came. I'd have been better off with a shorter focal length really, as I struggled to fit his antlers in shot.
Of course all the posturing, roaring, and fighting by the stags is to win the favour of the ladies. It's not as easy to get so close to the female deer, as they remain considerably more skittish than the males. But when they do allow me within a reasonable distance, it's always nice to photograph them too. Below is a female sika deer.
Black and White
Sometimes the light and the textures in view are suggesting to me that this would be best shown in black and white. It's hard to explain how I make this decision. Sometimes it's that the colours just don't seem right, and other times, it's that I positively know black and white will simplify the image for a greater impact. Generally speaking, for a good black and white, I like a range of light, from bright highlights to dark shadows, and a subtle framing of the subject. This portrait is one of my favourite deer photos for quite a while. It probably wouldn't stand out to many other people, but I like the framing, the contrast between the subject and background, and the way the sun is lighting the leaves in the trees above. The grass hanging from his antlers are the icing on the cake.
I only managed one trip out in the rain this year, which is a shame, as I quite like the aesthetic it offers. Unfortunately the deer weren't helpful on that occasion, but I caught this moment, as this big stag stopped roaring to shake the rain from his fur.
This one is a slightly experimental shot of two deer with antlers locked. Rather than push all the way to white, I thought I'd see how an off-white background worked. I'm not sure it's a success, but it's an idea I might try again in the future.
This last photo is another favourite of mine, along with the portrait in the trees above. The big empty sky, dry grass, and clean horizon reminded me of the kind of imagery coming out of African safari photographers. So I've consciously processed it in a style based on the classic fine art photography of African species, particularly inspired by Nick Brandt, who I've written about before as a huge influence in my creative direction.
You've done well if you got this far. If you want more of the same, I've written about the deer rut a few times before, so check those posts out too.
And I'll leave you with this guy, who was keen to be included...