Wednesday, 26 October 2016

The 7 Stages of Wildlife Photography

The challenges of getting close to the subject :)

It is the time of year when nature takes its course and the deer start thinking about making the next generation.

Yes it is the deer rut, an annual event that has been going on well before man walked the earth, but is none the less exciting for that.

While not everyone can attend the deer ruts in places like deepest Scotland, it can be equally well seen in the various deer parks up and down the country.

The closest public one to me is Bradgate Park, a large area of moor and woodland which once belonged to the family of Lady Jane Grey, of Elizabeth 1st fame. Within the park there are herds of both red and fallow deer.

Every year without fail I plan to go, but apart from a few short visits with the wife and kids, I never seem to quite make it. This year the local camera club planned an early assault, and for once my calendar did not clash.

This required an early starts, so it was a question of getting up at 5:30 a.m for a 6:30 a.m start in order to try and capture the sunrise.

Generally in these sort of situations you already have an idea of what type of image you want to get. Two images that have proved popular recently is the one of deer(s) silhouetted against the rising/setting sun and the ones showing the breath condensing from the stags mouths. Also there is always a hope of catching the males fighting.

However it is often best not to make firm plans in these sort of events. Relying on the weather and indeed the wildlife in the UK is a bit of a fools errand.

Despite that I tend to find I go through the same stages when photographing wildlife.

1. Anticipation

The night before I go off, I cannot help but anticipate the great images I am going to take, despite experience otherwise. The night before I have to plan what kit I am going to drag with me in order to get those shots. It was hard to see past my 150-600 mm zoom, but I packed others plus a spare camera just in case.

The next question was tripod or mono-pod. A Tripod would be more stable, but heavier to carry around. A mono-pod would be more convenient and lighter, but would it be stable enough in low light?. In the end I thought convenience outweighed (sic) stability.

I always believe at this time that I am only hours away from that great image...despite experience showing otherwise

2. Optimism

One of the criteria and challenges of wildlife photography is the weather.  For the image I wanted of the deer, I needed either clear skies or high cloud in order to get a good sunrise or cold air to create a good atmospheric mist. Therefore there is much studying of the weather the night before, both through weather forecasts and looking outside. However dire the reports, I always at this point believe that the weather will turn out OK anyway. After all,  weather men what do they know?

When we entered the park it was pitch black. Its a weird feeling. All around you you hear large bodies hurtle through the undergrowth. Stag call out with that low pitched grunt they use to claim their territory. As your night vision improves, you catch sight of shapes moving either side of the path.  This is the confirmation that the rut is ongoing and therefore your hopes increase

3. Realization

As often happens. it is not long until you realize the weather is going to be, well,  British. 

We had low cloud, but disappointingly no mist. In reality the worst of both worlds. At least however it was not raining.

This meant that early morning visibility was poor and the light flat and dull. This is when you start to realize that maybe the day may not hold the promise you first hoped.

As the light increases you become aware  you are not alone. Other groups of photographers are waiting to do exactly the same thing you are.

4. Pessimism

Normally about an hour into the shoot, I start wondering why I came. The weather and light means that any shots must be taken with low speed and/or high ISO. The lens is struggling to find enough contrast to focus. You are cold, and to make matters worse, there are about 100 photographers around you with exactly the same ideas, so the chances of getting a unique shot seems increasingly remote.

The only good thing is that the Fallow deer at this time of year seem quite relaxed. One sauntered right up to us to feed to the chestnuts fallen from the tree under which we were standing.  This at least allowed some close up shots. However the big boys, the red deer, decided to keep there distance huddled in the private park areas.

5. Desperation

It is at this point that I start taking photos of anything, just to try and ensure the day is not wasted.

The light is still poor, so shots with the zoom will be noisy, but what else can I do? I start replacing quality with quantity and shoot at anything. Deer, local bird life, fellow photographers. I Just try to find an angle which none of the myriad other photographers have found, with little success.

6. Acceptance

After 2 hours I decide that this is not going to be my day and I start to wander off from the pack.

I start to forget about photography and begin to appreciate the surroundings. All around autumn is starting to show off its colours.  As you wander through the park , deer cross your path, look quizzically at you before scampering off.

Yes, it is not a great day for photography. but there are far worse places to be and it is a great excuse just to be out, walking and in the fresh air.

It is always at this point that something happens. I start seeing shots that I would otherwise not of noticed in my desperation phase. I relax and become more attuned with the surroundings.

Wandering up the hill to a landmark called Old John, I came across the main herd of red deer. Orbiting around them were all the king wannabe's trying to sneak in while the deer emperor protected his harem.  .

At this time of year red deer are far easier to approach, being distracted by more important matters than a few cameramen 

Of course what is really wanted is some stag on stag action.

In a small park like Bradgate, there is not the same level of competition as say the Scottish highlands, where the herds are bigger. While one stag was chased off, no fighting was to be seen. I find however in these situations that there is always a photographer on hand to tell you what you had just missed if you had been here hours/days before.

Still at least I get some shots of Red deer stags at their most resplendent.

7. Relief

So I get back home and  I upload the images to the computer with more hope than anticipation.

It is at this point that I find that not all the shots are terrible. Yes, they require some processing and ,no, there are no award winners, but it was not all in vain.

Also I got a good days walk and witness a small part of one of natures greatest spectacle.

To be fair, there are much worse ways to spend a Saturday in October....

Here are some images from that day...

as you can see fallow deer vary widely in colour, from white to almost vlack

Ignoring the deer, there were worse places to be

seeing off the competition

The victory dance

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