Autumn is always an exciting time for wildlife photographers. Gorgeous light, shorter days and some fantastic natural events all come together for some super image-taking opportunities. Our favourite is the deer rut and this month is the perfect time to head out after these mammals.
The rut is all about breeding, with the males jostling for dominance in order to gain the rights to breed with the females. Starting in mid-September, stags begin posturing and collecting females in a bid to hold on to them through the season to breed with as many as possible. Over the coming month, other contenders will step up to the plate, forcing the stags to battle it out in order to remain in control. A simply fantastic opportunity for photography!
Where to go
Finding deer isn't always a problem, with many areas of the country having great deer parks that provide fantastic locations for seeing the rut. Most parks are open to the public, and the Royal Parks in London (my local spots) and are always wonderful to visit.
When you enter, especially some of the larger estates, driving around may be the best way to track down a good location, parking in the closest car park before walking back to the action. Look for large collections of deer on the open fields, as this is often where it all kicks off.
Remember these locations - for the best opportunities you‘ll want to be able to reach these spots at dawn, so having a good knowledge of the locations makes this far easier.
One thing that’s really important when working with deer is safety. They’re large animals and in the rutting season are full of adrenaline and highly protective. They can easily be spooked into clashing with photographers, especially those trying to get too close.
Never put yourself between a male and his females, or between two opposing stags. Approach slowly and use a long lens to keep a respectable distance. Remember that wildlife photography is all about respect for the animals you’re working with, so be wary and sensible and you shouldn’t run into any problems.
What to shoot
With deer there are loads of options for creative and interesting images. Dawn starts offer the chance to capture misty mornings, with the orange glow of the low sun caught in the mist. Working in the foliage, the bracken will be slowly turning brown, offering some great opportunities for interesting foreground and backgrounds, with deer often thrashing their antlers and rising with crowns of ferns caught in them when posturing. Remember the wider scene and pull back for ‘in the landscape’ images as well as close up portraits. Also think about slowing the shutter speed down to capture movement in your shots for added interest.
Gear wise, a 70-200mm is a perfect lens for the job, offering a good range for a mix of images. For close-up portraits a 400mm or 500mm is a great choice, offering the ability to get close to the action from a respectable distance. Remember your tripod, as the early mornings with low light conditions mean handholding long lenses and obtaining sharp images will be difficult. Also, when you’re standing for long periods waiting for the action, having a tripod positioned makes things a lot easier and more comfortable. Additionally, clothing is important - warm trousers, jackets and gloves for those early starts are essential. Often I find wellies to be the most practical for the long dew-covered grasslands the deer often feed on.
With so many possibilities for images and locations all around the UK, photographing deer in the autumn is a must. With early mornings giving some fantastic opportunities for images and the action of the rut providing additional excitement, you really can’t complain.
Tom Mason is one of the UK’s most exciting young wildlife photographers and conservationists. He leads workshops and seminars and writes a monthly blog for the RSPB. See more of his work here.