Three techniques for photographing red deer bellowing
Red deer bellowing: a sight worth photographing
Red deer are certainly some of the most beautiful European animals for photographers to capture. This is especially true in the autumn, when the bucks are looking for mates and bellowing. A picture of a buck calling for a doe is truly worth getting. While a lot of people have heard the deer bellowing in forests, actually finding them and taking a good picture is difficult in the wild. There are several different techniques that can be used. They all require some practice and skill, but they often pay off.
The first technique: photo-walking
The first technique used to photograph deer is called photo-walking. In this case, the photographer does not have a particular strategy. He goes into the woods in search of whatever subjects he can find, and takes pictures of all those that he finds interesting. I use this technique with a lightweight 300 mm lens. Longer, heavier lenses are difficult to use for hand-held photographs, and carrying a tripod during a photo-walk is cumbersome. Usually, by the time the tripod is set up, the animal I was trying to photograph is already gone.
When we use this technique to look for red deer, we move as silently as possible, whether on roads or in the forest. In the autumn, the dry leaves make it hard to be quiet. They crunch underfoot, creating what we call ‘the chips effect’, since it sounds like someone is out in the woods eating potato chips. The deer have excellent hearing, and they hear us before we see them, which makes it hard to take pictures of them.
Photo-walking has one major drawback. The animals are disturbed and worried by the presence of humans. To them, we are predators and represent a danger. When a doe has fawns or a sow has piglets, the presence of a photographer always creates a stressful situation for the animals because they think they have to get their young away from us. Photo-walking should always be done carefully and quietly, acting in a way that will not frighten the animals.
The best time for photo-walking is when it has rained and the leaves and roads are wet. The sound of our footsteps is dampened, and it is easy to move quietly.
The final approach: a tiring but rewarding technique
The final approach technique is a way to sneak closer to an animal that we have spotted, especially if it is too far away for us to take a good photo. In order to do this, we keep as low as we can, whether that means walking bent over or crawling on all fours. For this method to work, we have to be upwind of the animals. Having the sun in a good position is a bonus.
A good final approach requires a lot of training. The photographer must be invisible and very quiet, because the slightest sound will alert the animal, and it will immediately run away. When an animal has been spotted from far away, this is the way to approach it or move until it is in the right place in the composition. We frequently use this technique to photograph wild pigs, because their vision is fairly poor, and we can come within a few yards of them. The final approach works in either the forest or a meadow.
The main problem with this type of approach is that it can be hard to see when the animal is in the right place. It is important to stop in the right place, because once the tripod is set up, the photographer will only have the opportunity to snap a few pictures before the animal hears the camera and runs away.
Even though it is physically difficult, the final approach is the best technique for creating good compositions because the photographer chooses the position of the animal in the photograph.
When photographing red deer, the final approach is a technique we use a lot. In the absence of a doe, solitary bucks are often so engrossed in their bellowing that they do not notice a photographer approaching from ground level.
Photography from a blind: more relaxing, but sometimes tricky
The third technique used to photograph red deer is to photograph them from a blind. The photographer selects a place where deer frequently walk. It should have a nice background and good lighting. The blind should be placed carefully, where the photographers have a good view of the path, and where the deer will not notice it. It should also be very comfortable, because we often spend hours waiting for the animals to come.
The blind should make the photographer invisible to the animals. They are concerned enough by the noise from the camera and the light reflecting off of the lens without seeing people there. This is the most important thing. The animals must not be able to detect our presence. There are many possibilities for constructing a good blind, ranging from a man-made dome blind to a natural blind made from branches and leaves.
Hiding in a blind is not as tiring as photo-walking or a final approach because the animal comes to the photographer, instead of vice versa. However, the photographer must be very patient. We love photographing from a blind because it is a good way to enjoy the beauty of our surroundings, and we have time to sit and think. It is often in these moments of communion with our environment that we have come up with our best ideas.
The major drawback of using a blind is that the photographer does not choose the distance between the lens and the subject. The animal is the one who moves and decides where to stop. Sometimes we have been very frustrated because the animal was a little too close or too far away. However, with experience, we have learned to position ourselves where the animals will be in the right place. By looking at the tracks and other sign left on the ground, we can often figure out fairly reliably where the animal will stand.
A blind can also be used after a few final approaches or photo-walks. It is a nice way to rest for a couple of hours after a long walk.
Knowledge of his field, knowledge of animals’ behavior, and patience are the photographer’s best assets
These three techniques, photo-walking, final approach, and photography from a blind are work well for taking pictures of bellowing deer. They require training, and they have their advantages and disadvantages, but they are very useful. A good photographer must never forget that knowledge of his field, knowledge of the animals’ behavior, and patience are his main assets. European wildlife photography is a complex and difficult field, but patience is always rewarded.