A few things I have learned when photographing deer. Firstly, in the thirty plus years that I have been living in the New Forest, deer sightings have become more common and on most walks you’ll spot them, making them quite easy to find and photograph. This is not really a surprise as, at present, deer numbers in the UK are estimated to be at their highest level for 1,000 years. Currently, the UK is experiencing what’s called a deer population explosion. It’s estimated that there are currently two million deer in the country. To many, they are cute and the Red deer, in particular is a majestic wild animal but at present levels, deer have an adverse effect on biodiversity because of the browsing damage they cause, particularly to woodlands. Sadly, it is estimated that they are also involved in 74,000 road traffic accidents per year in the UK. For the foregoing reasons deer need to be managed and culled. However, despite all the issues associated with them, they make excellent wildlife photographic subjects.
To photograph deer sucessfully, you need patience and a basic understanding of their behaviour and ecology. Firstly they are prey animals and know it! They have been hunted and culled for centuries so are naturally wary of humans and will take flight if alarmed or disturbed. In order to photograph them, you need to slalk them but with a camera and not a gun!
The deer’s primary senses are smell and hearing so try and keep downwind and walk steathily – not always easy in woodland with dead branches and other debris underfoot. Try and keep a tree between you and the deer as you get closer but DON’T get too close. Once they clock you and take flight don’t try and follow them as it will only distress them and force them further away – deer can move and disappear very swiftly. Like other prey animals, the deer’s eyes are on each side of its head unlike ours which point forward. This gives them wide 270 degree peripheral vision to detect threats and movement all around them. Their vision is poor at focussing on a single subject but excellent at detecting movement even if the are not looking directly at you. Sudden movement is a dead give-away.
I see many photographers wearing camo which helps break up your outline but dark neutral clothing that doesn’t stand out from your background is generally more than adequate. However, avoid blacks as they will stand out in the deer’s vision as a solid block. In terms of their colour vision, deer are unable to distinguish the difference between green and red but they can see blue very well making you easier to spot, paticularly if you wear a black top and blue jeans! I wear gloves to help disguise the movement of lifting the camera to take the pic and I always wear a green hat to cover most of my face. Another word of warning – unlike us deer also see in the UV spectrum and most washing powders these days contain UV brighteners so freshly washed clothes could stand out like dandruff in a disco to deer! In low light situations, clothing emitting UV will cause you to “glow” from the deer’s perspective. Try washing your stalking gear in a natural soap solution or don’t wash it too often. Movement, sound, smell and UV emissions are the biggest give-aways.
When photographing deer, if it detects you with any of its senses it will often move its head from side to side while looking in your direction to check things out. If this happens, stand perfectly still or take cover from the deer’s eyeline if you can do so without much movement. If it detects your moving it will be off in a flash but when it’s looking in your direction, it also presents an ideal photo opportunity. If the deer decides to take flight, you usually have 4 or 5 seconds before it does so to take your pic, but move the camera slowly or it will hasten its departure. The less you move once you’re in the vicinity of deer, the better your chances of a good shot – find a spot in which to sit up and quite often they will drift in your direction. Patience is the key. On no account should you try to get too close and into their comfort zone – some male deer can be dangerous and unpredictable particularly during their annual rut when they are fueled with testosterone. Conversely, at certain times of the year you may find them more mellow and tolerant but don’t assume this will be the case.
With regard to equipment for photographing deer, I’ve obtained many decent shots of deer with a Nikon D750 camera and Nikon 70/300 zoom lens at full zoom but a longer lens enables you to operate at a greater distance from the deer with less risk of disturbance.
I now use the Nikon 200/500 zoom lens (pictured above) when photographing deer which gives plenty of flexibility and is an excellent lens for hand held photography. Output is also dependent on the quality of camera’s image processor and these continue to improve with each new model release. A good image processor that gives images of 20 megapixel or more is a good starting point. The better the processor and higher the megapixels, the more opportunity it provides to crop the image further in post production with Adoibe Photoshop or other similar apps. These apps are now the equivalent of the old dark room with 35mm film. Most pics in my collections were taken with my Nikon D750 but I have recently upgraded to the Nikon D850 which boasts an excellent processor and 45 megapixels and is an awesome camera for wildlife!
For more general information on deer found in the New Forest, visit the Real New Forest Guide