Deer parks offer practically unrivalled photo opportunities. Plus, it just feels amazing being so close to the red deer stag, our largest land mammal. Photographing ‘wild deer’ like the stag below, requires immense effort and a huge investment in time – researching locations, learning and perfecting your field craft, trial and error, travel expenses, etc.
Many photographers are passionate about wildlife but simply don’t have the time or financial resources to embark on a tour of The Highlands. Deer Parks offer every level of photographer the opportunity to photograph these magnificent mammals in a safe and accessible location. Below is my guide for getting the most out of your visits to a deer park, plus some sage advice to completely avoid pressuring the deer. A big “No! No!”
Why Visit Deer Parks?
For any photographer, but especially beginners, heritage deer parks are a photographic gold mine. The parks themselves, especially Royal Parks, are legally protected and have been for centuries. They have an established ecology all of their own, with birdlife, insects, invertebrates, fungi and flora, all in great abundance. Park red deer are particularly great subjects for wildlife beginners because:
- they can easily be captured with today’s SLRs, compact cameras, and even smartphones and tablets;
- red deer are monotone and mid-tone so present little to no challenge with exposures (as long as you watch the background);
- they are a large subject, easy to focus on, relatively slow-moving;
- red deer stags, with a full head of antlers, are visually stunning;
- red deer offer a variety of behaviours and changeable appearance throughout the year.
Some Example Deer Rut Photography
My top tips for photographing park deer
It would be fair to say that I cut my ‘baby teeth’ at Richmond Park NNR. This is probably one of the most well-known deer parks in the country and, as I was London-based, it was close enough to my home that I could easily be there before sunrise. Richmond Park feels like a very peaceful place with the hum of London all but lost across the immense open space that covers 2,360 acres. During the rut, however, this stillness is regularly punctuated by the bellowing mournful calls of the stags and the sudden rattle and clash of antlers. So, how do you capture this? How do you get the most out of your visit to the deer parks?
1. You need to know about deer
As with any wildlife subject, understanding behaviour and ecology enables you to capture the best images. Yes, I know it’s not particularly exciting and I know you just want to get out there. But, knowledge of your subject is the foundation to great wildlife photographs.
This guide focusses on red deer, but it’s equally applicable to fallow deer or sika deer. There are plenty of online resources for learning about deer. Check out this page by the The British Deer Society or this page by The Mammal Society. With some basic knowledge, you’ll anticipate when things are about to happen and hasten your reaction times. For example, recognising posturing, will give you that edge to prepare and position yourself for an imminent stag battle.
2. Go for the velvet, not just the rut
Red Deer have two distinct cycles in the year. These are key life-stages that make for the best photographs. Antlers shed at the end of winter after the rut are re-grown in spring each year. Covering the new growing antlers is a highly vascular skin called velvet, which supplies oxygen and nutrients to the growing bone. These are beautiful! Especially when backlit with warm sunlight! Check out my mate Richard Peter’s stunning shot here.
As summer approaches, the deer rub off the old greyish winter pelt, leaving a coat that is reddish-brown and darker. Once the stag’s antler have achieved full size, the velvet becomes an itchy irritant. The stags thrash their headgear against sapling trees, bracken, and brambles in order to strip off the velvet. Once stripped, the antler bone hardens and dies. This dead bone structure is the mature antler. So many photographers just go for the rut alone, they fail to capture this range of behaviour-filled images.
3. What is the “The Rut”?
In short, the rut is the red deer’s mating season. In September, as the days shorten and the nights become cooler, the largest mature stags abandon their bachelor groups. Over the past month, they’re appearance has changed, growing a thick shaggy mane and developing muscular necks to carry the weight of their new antlers.
They take up guard on traditional rutting sites, areas of quality grazing that will eventually attract grazing females (hinds). When the hinds arrive, the stags herd them together to establish harems. The stags patrol the borders of the harem, protecting their mating rights from intruding stags. Karen McComb of the Large Animal Research Group, Department of Zoology, Cambridge reported that:
“Roaring in red deer advances ovulation and that harem-holding males can improve their mating success by regular calling.”
Each female can only mate for a few hours in a year, so the stags are always on standby, constantly following them around the pasture ground, smelling their rumps for signs of mating readiness. Be ready to grab a shot of this and the stag grimacing with a flehmen response. Sometimes the stags wallow in wet mud and the stag’s own urine (great photos opp.). The stag really likes to look and smell at his best for his hinds, adorning his antlers with thrashed vegetation and urinating on himself for that extra olfactory punch.
4. Predicting the stag’s battle
The control over a harem sparks territorial battles and fights for the right to mate. When two stags confront each other, there’s a phase of parallel posturing, roaring, and eyeballing. If the stags are equally matched in size, then a battle ensues. Usually, this is over pretty quickly with a clash of antlers and a shoving match. When stags are equally matched in weight and power, the battle can be long, fierce and end in severe, even mortal wounds.
During the battle, the stags crash into each other head-on. Each stag tries to lock antlers on the other, to twist his opponent off-balance and then shove him backwards. The stag that clearly shoves his opponent backwards is the winner. The loser will turn and flee, chased by the victor who will then prance and posture in front of the females, roaring to confirm his dominance. From my experience, the winning stag will then seek out a female almost immediately and try is luck. All fantastic camera fodder!
5. When is the best time for action?
Red deer in rut are active 24hrs a day. It’s not an absolute rule, but early morning and evening are the most active periods for rutting deer. If you arrive for mid-morning, the action will be over and the deer will just stand under shade of trees, sleep or graze. This is fine if you want standard portraits, but rather dull otherwise.
If you want gorgeous light, atmospheric mists, and the deer’s breath hanging in the air, be there early and stay ’til late. It’s never a problem locating the deer and the action. Just follow the stag’s roar. If you spot a group of female deer (hinds), you can guarantee a stag will be close by. If you spot a group of photographers, keep walking and find another.
6. How do you get close enough? (Richmond & Bushy)
Typically, there is no need for camouflage or stalking with park deer as they’re habituated to people in everyday clothing. In fact, if you creep around the bushes wearing camo in parks like Richmond or Bushy, you will probably cause a stampede! You’ll also be frequently quizzed and interrupted by passers-by! Pretty annoying, so don’t bother.
Although the deer are mostly tolerant of the public, this tolerance boils down to the fact that the public are generally always on the move and walking around and away from the deer. This is how a jogger in red spandex or a dog-walker can appear to get so close, but they appear skittish when you walk directly toward them. To the deer, you’re behaving suspiciously and acting like a predator. To a stag, you’ll look like a rival aiming to seize one of his hinds. How do you think that will end?
Please use your common sense
Do not stress a deer stag in rut! They are huge animals, fast, powerful, and well-armed. Imagine two of the largest rugby players you’ve ever seen running at you with arms full of daggers! Deer can charge at people and dogs with disastrous consequences. I have observed some photographers working in pairs to push / herd deer towards each other. Or groups of photographers ring-fencing the deer, stag included.
Can you imagine how this affects a rutting stag that is trying to control his harem and mate? With their hinds pushed too and fro, the stag grows increasingly frustrated. Please do not pursue this method, nor ring-fencing the deer with dozens of other ‘togs. Go and find your own and enjoy a session in solitude. Too much pressure can actually cause the rut to fail. Please act responsibly. If you don’t believe me, just check out this video clip showing a pumped up stag chasing a passerby!
Photographing in a deer park should be a beautiful experience. But the pressure from photographers and wildlife watchers is mounting. It’s becoming such an issue that there are statements from natural history and land management professionals stating that the annual rut within deer parks is on the verge of failure due to too much pressure from us photographers. I can believe it too. Yes, I have written this article, but I hope you will use your common sense and not pressure the deer. While you are here, please read this article featuring Adam Curtis, assistant manager of Richmond Park.
7. Try the Fly-by approach (Richmond & Bushy)
Personally, I like to visit alone on a weekday morning and approach deer using a ‘fly-by’ technique. It’s much less stressful for the deer since they’re not being driven away from their pasture ground, you’re the one doing all the walking. It takes time, but it’s really worth it. Basically, if you’re always moving past or away from the deer, they stay more relaxed.
You can make multiple passes, with each pass being closer than the previous. It may take half an hour or an hour, but the deer are seemingly unaware of your increasing proximity. Meanwhile, as you pass, you can check the best angles, considering the light direction and background. When you pass at your closest, have the rising sun in front and to the side with the early morning or late evening sunlight backlighting or side lighting the deer – preferably with a nice uncluttered background too.
8. Avoid being seen
For parks such as Bradgate Park and The New Forest, the deer are ‘wilder’ and there are far less people walking about to habituate the deer. These deer require a more skilled approach. Here, we employ the field skills of a stalker – wearing dull, muted or camo clothing and taking extra care when walking about:
- Keep your back to cover and do not expose your outline to the horizon;
- Use trees and vegetation to stage and cover your approach;
- Only move when the deer’s heads are down and feeding and stop when they look up.
Deer only see in shades of grey, so their eyesight is somewhat limited. But, they make up for that potential shortfall in other ways. At close range, they can detect unnatural materials by the way the light reflects (or does not reflect) from the surface and it’s this rather than bright ‘colours’ that alerts the deer. However, deer are equipped to detect movement at a considerable distance. Their peripheral vision is superb! For a deer’s point of view, imagine wearing two 20mm lenses on the side of your head! Their eyes even can rotate in their sockets to maintain a horizontal view and they’re quick to spot movement, even at a distance.
9. Avoid being heard
Deer cannot visually focus on your location unless you make a noise that coincides with movement. Their ears will pan around like a pair of DOPLA radar dishes aiming to pinpoint your location. If you wear soft fleecy materials, you’ll avoid excessive noise as you pass through vegetation. Walking toe-to-heel is the quietest way to approach through grass and leaf litter. Being just slightly off-balance also makes you concentrate like mad and avoid treading on that twig.
10. Avoid being smelled out
Always approach deer (of all kinds) from downwind. You can avoid your scent being carried on the air by just zipping up your jacket. Make sure you keep your ‘deer photography’ clothes away from pet dogs and strong-smelling household items – cleaners, petrol, bleach, etc. If you want to go all out, rub broken Elder leaves and/or blossom over your clothes. The elder has a very pungent natural smell that can mask your own.
As you really want to avoid broadcasting your presence, use odourless deodorant and shower gel (normally in the ‘sensitive skin’ section). Brush your teeth too! Minty freshness is far less alarming to deer than last night’s steak dinner between your gnashers.
11. Use the right camera settings
I use Aperture Priority (Av) as this mode gives me perfect control over the creative depth-of-field and the shutter speed in the same instance. If there is a great opportunity for an extreme close-up, shoot on f/8 (light allowing) for extra detail, but the moment the deer starts to move at any speed, dial down to f/4 for a faster shutter speed and freeze-frame the action.
I generally shoot with the aperture wide open (rarely dropping lower than f/6.3) as I love diffusing the foreground / background and I’m only really concerned with getting the eyes in sharp focus. For creative blur, shutter speeds between 1/10th to 1/30th are ideal for motion-panning. The shot below was extreme at ½ second but it was practically night-time.
Panning Motion Blur
This style hit mainstream popularity decades ago but they can still generate a “Wow!” They do shout ‘Creativity’. Originality? Not so much. However, they are fun and the results are often surprisingly good. In my own humble opinion, a good motion blur has a recognisable subject with a reasonably sharp head/face. It’s highly subjective and most photographers will have their own preference. It’s always a bit of a ‘marmite shot’ with lovers and haters equally candid about this style.
As this involves sustained panning, you’ll need a very steady hand, or panning tripod head. If you’re handholding, I find it best to tuck my left elbow into my left ribs. I then rotate my torso from the waist. The effect works best on subjects moving laterally, i.e. from left to right, rather than head-on. Below is a step-by-step technique breakdown for beginners. As your skill improves, you can set the shutter-speed lower (my slowest is a one second pan) and use a manual exposure to set both shutter-speed and aperture. I’ve added instructions for both Canon and Nikon:
- Set camera focus mode to AI Servo (Continuous);
- Switch your Canon lens IS mode to Mode 2 for panning, Normal mode for Nikon lenses;
- Set the program mode to Tv (S);
- Set shutter-speed to 1/30th;
- In brighter conditions you’ll need to reduce the ISO to L.03 and/or close the aperture right down to f/22. A far better option is to use a 6-stop ND filter;
- Use centre focus-point (group or expanded is fine) and focus on the subject;
- Pan the camera (rotate your position/torso) in the same direction, matching the speed of the subject’s trajectory;
- You may find it easier to match speed by focussing for several seconds on the subject before pressing the shutter release;
- As you match speed, shoot several frames to counter the subject’s vertical motion.
12. Work with the low-light, don’t pack up.
For low-light conditions, ensure you get rock steady-support with a tripod and crank up your ISO, but even more importantly, learn to make the most of any situation. For example, rather than packing up early, when the sun dips below the horizon, I work on silhouettes and motion-panning (see above) with the running stags, or with the moving harem.
Exposing correctly for deer shouldn’t pose too many issues, especially with modern evaluative metering. The only challenging conditions are backlighting, snow or hoarfrost, and bleached dried grass. You can get round these issues by spot metering off the deer (careful not to meter off the white areas on fallow deer), or by taking a test shot in Av or Tv and reviewing the histogram. Without checking your exposures and altering the manual exposure compensation (+/– button), you will underexpose with these bright conditions. Underexposure is great for backlighting or silhouetting during sunrise or sunset, but not for snow and hoarfrost.
If the light is constant, like a clear blue sky, I take a test shot and then enter the exposure details in Manual Mode. I can then happily shoot away, knowing the exposure is spot on for every frame – just checking now and again.
14. Change your perspective
For more imposing shots of these impressive animals, photograph deer below eye-level. To capture that formidable pose, I set up the tripod without extending the legs and/or open the tripod legs wide for ground-level work, so I’m actually shooting at an upward angle to the deer. I even lie prone in the grass to create a diffused haze of colour around the lower half of the image. If you photograph deer in thick bracken or long grass, be sure to frame the deer well and leave enough room for the ‘virtual’ legs. Cropping them off will make the deer look disproportionate and dumpy, even though you can’t actually see the legs.