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Light is the key to deer photography

By Tony Orman

How many deer do you need a year to keep your freezer topped up? I reckon one and a half to two - fully utilised with all the meat recovered - should be ample for a couple. So, just because your freezer has a good supply of venison stashed away there’s no need to hang up your boots - pick up a camera and go deerstalking with it.


Wildlife photography has the hunting element in it and you spend time just looking for deer, analysing them and learning more about their habits. It's absorbing considering the challenges involved.


I’m finding one of the key challenges is “light”, avoiding some conditions and using it to advantage in others. Of course, you cannot expect a deer to sit around while you angle to get the light right, but you can load the dice in your favour.


Starting with basics, top wildlife photographers talk of the “golden hour”. That means when the light is low and slanting which translates into the first couple hours of morning or the last couple before dusk. Fortunately, these “golden hours” coincide with periods of greater activity with game animals - it's when they’re likely to be out feeding.


I prefer the mornings, but in evenings I’ve also turned up some photos that have given me real satisfaction. I mostly avoid the few hours in the middle of a sunny day. Those high sunshine times mean you encounter strong contrast between sunlight and shadow. Bright light will usually over-expose parts of the deer, while the shaded face and the underside of the animal will probably be lost in heavy shadow. The photo suffers as a result.


A hind and yearling in the summer twilight, just after sunset - a low contrast situation that avoids harsh sun/shadow contrast.


To get the best light for a wildlife photo you need to minimize contrast and eliminate shadows from important areas, particularly across the animal's face. This involves choosing the direction you approach an area to hunt.


The other morning I walked into the hills with the aim of photographing a deer or two. I deliberately chose early morning - although not too early - I needed just enough light for the camera. I deliberately chose to hunt in an east to west direction for two reasons.


First, I would have the sun at my back, and secondly, any deer would likely be looking into the low, rising sun putting them at a disadvantage. Well that’s the theory anyhow. Despite allowing for this, I know that deers' eyesight is significantly better than ours even looking into low sunlight.


“To get the best light for a wildlife photo you need to minimize contrast and eliminate shadows from important areas, particularly across the animal's face. This involves choosing the direction you approach an area to hunt.”


I’d tried this gully in the late afternoon but then I was looking into the lowering sun, putting me at the disadvantage.
Every advantage is worth grabbing and that’s why I prefer the morning for this gully.


Then there's the breeze or air drift. Hunting deer with the camera follows the same basic rules as hunting with a rifle. I wanted the breeze in my face. One whiff of human scent and the deer are gone. You cannot under-estimate their ability to smell.


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Researchers at Mississippi State University found that a deer’s sense of smell, like a dog’s, can be 500 to 1,000 times more acute than a human's. Deer can detect human scent from at least 800 metres, and under ideal scenting conditions even more.



A brief account of a hunt just a few days ago will illustrate the point about light. The gully ran in the general east /west direction and the isobars on the weather map indicated a westerly wind drift. But the topography here; gullies, valleys, ridges and spurs, can play strange tricks, causing a breeze to eddy and even be quite different from the prevailing drift.


The wind can be complex and needs a bit of analysis. Even so it’s a gamble. Luckily the air drift was down the gully that I ascended. I was in shadow on the valley floor and ahead the sun's first rays were lighting the ridges and summits. I soon came across a hind and a youngster. They were in the sun and the bright light was hitting them side on. I thus avoided shadows on the animals and photographed them.


Further up the gully I spotted a stag on a spur looking directly into the sun. I crept in closer, staying in the shadow. Again, the sun was striking him directly side on, but another aspect of light came into play. The backdrop was the shaded slope of a higher spur.


This situation gives you a great set-up, i.e; the deer in sunlight, the background dark. Whenever I see that situation - a deer in the sun with a dark background, I try to grab the opportunity. Look at the photo and you’ll see what I mean.


When you're photographing deer the sun can allow you to create something different and perhaps adding impact to the photo. Your position relative to the animal and to the sun, and in the case of the stag, the shaded background, lets you manipulate the variations in the light.


A late evening capture of a red hind showing the low contrast.


You don’t always need sunlight. In the evening the twilight provides different opportunities. Silhouettes can be striking. Just after the roar last year I encountered a couple of stags on a spur. Again, the light was important and although the detail of the deer was not there because of the fading light, the afterglow of the sun gave a lighter background to the image.


In this instance shooting the subject against a brighter background, the twilight sky, provided a great opportunity. Once the sun is below the horizon the contrast between sky and deer has the potential to create a striking silhouette.


In the forest strong sunlight can be a pain given the extremes of light and shade. For that reason a lightly overcast day, perhaps with just high cloud, is best. This allows you to click the shutter on your subject in very even, low-contrast light.


If recounting these experiences gives the impression that I score satisfying photos every trip into the hills, I have to repeat the words of the Gershwin song, “It ain’t necessarily so.” I don’t always score a photo. When you're hunting with the camera don’t expect instant results - patience and perseverance are needed.

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Recently I came across a nice stag and at 80 metres in fading light, snapped off several shots. Some were fuzzy but one or two came out well. They were acceptable as a record, but I felt I could have done better. Afterwards I realised I should have used my nibbie (walking pole) to steady the camera. It’s an invaluable multi-use aid, and makes an improvised camera stand of sorts.


“The beauty about stalking with the camera is you are not killing an animal. If your venison supplies back home are ample or you’ve already bagged a deer earlier in the day, it’s a great way to keep hunting.”


I should also add that expensive gear (camera and high-grade telephoto lenses) are not a necessity either. I use a Canon PowerShot SX50HS which has a 50x zoom that goes from 24mm to 1200mm. The 50-times zoom is built into the camera. You’re not lugging around a couple of heavy telephotos, and in the hills that’s important!


As one review says of the Canon PowerShot SX50, “That’s an extraordinary range capable of capturing wildlife from afar. And while you’ll want to use a tripod for the sharpest results, Canon’s optical image stabilisation is excellent, allowing you to use the zoom with the camera held only in your hands.


An example of shooting into the sunlight. The subject matter is in shadow resulting in a loss of both detail and depth of field.


The cost, somewhere around $500, is reasonable. If you want to get something that gives you even sharper definition and go up in the price stakes. But for me the PowerShot SX50HS is ideal.


I’ve been amazed at the low shutter speeds I have taken good photos. I’ve taken hand-held photos in poor light at 1/30 of a second thanks to the camera’s image stabiliser. The images may lack ultra-sharp definition but they're a good record of a memorable moment.


The beauty about stalking with the camera is you are not killing an animal. If your venison supplies back home are ample or you’ve already bagged a deer earlier in the day, it’s a great way to keep hunting.


There’s other subjects too beside game animals. Birds and even insects can make interesting subjects. Getting out with the camera is a good excuse to go hunting very week of the year. You’re getting physical exercise, great mental therapy just being there, and every trip gives you a better understanding and appreciation of wild deer.



Tony has written for NZGUNS before about hunting deer with a camera. With no pretensions of being an expert, he says using a camera is great fun and a good excuse to keep heading for the hills even when your deep-freeze is full.



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