I've often shared photos of deer taken in the autumn, or in the winter snow, but I have rarely been out to photograph them in the summer months. This year, as I continue to explore nature photography closer to home, I thought it would be nice to represent the aesthetic of the warm summer evenings, as well as capturing the red deer during a different period of their annual cycle.
During spring, red deer shed their antlers, and they spend the summer re-growing a brand new set - each year's antlers slightly larger than the previous. The antlers are made of bone, and as they grow they're covered in a soft, furry skin, known as 'velvet'. This velvet is packed full of blood vessels, and delivers everything the new antlers need to develop. They're the fastest growing bones in the animal kingdom, extending by up to two inches a day at their peak.
A weighty set of antlers demonstrate the health of the deer - since they represent an enormous investment of minerals and nutrients each year. And if it comes to it, they will use them in combat with their rivals, during the autumn rut.
By late summer, the deer will lose their velvet, and the pale bone underneath will be revealed. So I wanted to capture them in their current 'velvet' stage which is so indicative of the summer months.
At this time of year, the summer sunshine catches the long grass and the insects, for a view unlike the damp or misty conditions of autumn.
As you can probably tell, my favourite way to photograph deer at this time of year, is with the sun behind them - catching the light through the edges of their fur and antler velvet, whilst leaving the body in shadow. Depending on the strength of sunlight and the angle used, it's possible to achieve anything from a back-lit portrait, to a complete silhouette with only the illuminated outline shining in front of the relative darkness of the trees behind.
Black and White
I've reduced the colour saturation in all the images above, as they can get a bit OTT in such strong evening light. But sometimes it's nice to remove the colour altogether, and enjoy these images purely as combinations of shape and tone. The brightness of the back-lit antler velvet really leaps out in black and white, and provides a slightly more graphic aesthetic.
Low-Key / On-Black
Any time the light is low and highly directional, I try to capture something for my On Black portrait project, and this summer was no different. I took this with a telephoto lens, but this stag still came surprisingly close as he walked past, and I managed to frame him against a dark background to achieve this result. This posture sums up red deer perfectly for me. They always look so regal.
This last one is an extreme rim-lit, with the shadows taken right down to black. It wouldn't be possible at any other time of year, as the antlers need the velvet coating in order to catch the light like this. To capture a silhouette like this the sun has to be almost directly behind the animal, just out of shot. With enough tree-cover behind to create a back-drop in shadow. Since the camera can't cope with such a harsh range of brightness in one shot, I set the exposure to capture the highlights - allowing the shadows to fall out of range.
It's been great to have this project on the go this summer. Although the weather didn't often play ball, it was great to see the deer in a different season for me, and to capture something different for my portfolio.
I'm sure most people are looking forward to more summer to come yet, but I'm already looking forward to the autumn now, when the red deer transform once again. I'll be out in the cold and damp, hoping for more portraits of these very photogenic animals. If you like the sound of that, check out my Deer gallery, which features a whole host of deer photos, available to order in print.