I am always surprised by the number of people who approach me after a photo runs or is posted and say something along the lines of “Jeez, what the heck! Do you always have a professional photographer with you at all times, or what?”
I do have a great friend who has some nice equipment that is around here and there for some of the shots, but the short answer is . . . no. It is very possible to take great photos with the cameras built into today’s cell phones which everyone has access to. The overall task at hand is not as easy as you may think. There is a significant amount of effort that goes into producing a high quality photo.
I have learned over the years what makes for great outdoors photos — whether they be of game animals or fish, or just outdoor scenery in general. So, as the opening day of the regular firearms season looms on the horizon, here are a few tips to think about when hunters have the buck of a lifetime laying at their feet.
Trust me, you will never ever regret the extra few minutes of time spent afield to get some really great shots of anything you truly deem photo worthy. After all the dragging, the butchering, looking back on the time involved to get to this point, why haphazardly photograph the final outcome which you have striven so hard to achieve? Sure, you can have a mount on the wall as a memory, but there really is something about a photo that brings everything full circle right back to that very day and moment in time. Fifty years from now looking at framed photos on the wall with your kids — and, at that point, probably their children — you just might thank me. That’s all I can hope for.
There is no worse photo in my opinion than a gorgeous buck covered in blood, tongue hanging out, in the back of a truck bed filled with trash and garbage, empty beer cans, straddled by a hunter wearing visibly filthy clothing with a cigarette hanging out of their mouth. Do not be that guy. It really does not take a ton of extra effort and you should do the animal justice at the very least. Show respect and appreciation for the harvest.
Some real, true photographers that are in the business for a living may have a bone to pick with me about technique and such; I am sure they could certainly elaborate much more so on the technical aspect than I am about to, but here goes.
The No. 1 check mark on the list: Blood. Just get rid of it. Do everything possible to clean up or hide all visible blood or open wounds, in addition to blood on your hands which is typically very visible. Carry extra paper towels in your pack, or even better yet those little “fingerbowl” wet wipes they give you with chicken wings. They work wonders and pack very small.
Another thing to do is try and take photos on the spot prior to field dressing the animal; it is just that much less blood that ultimately needs to be cleaned up and also satisfies a few other categories I will mention in a bit. If photos are taken after field dressing, large leaves such as oak and maple work well in hiding the cut, and cams on a bow will hide most arrow wounds. Tuck hanging tongues back in as well. A roll of paper towels at this point in the game is worth its weight in gold.
Lighting is everything. Obviously, I know as a hardcore hunter myself that we don’t shoot deer with the thoughts of good lighting. Usually the lighting is pretty gosh darn poor if we’re being honest here. Wait it out, if a buck is really great, or if it’s your child’s first, whatever the monumental occasion may possibly be, just wait it out if at all possible. Obviously with 70-degree days like we had last week this is not possible; but in typical deer season temperatures it certainly is. A field-dressed and hung deer can easily be photographed the next day in a prime lighting scenario.
Overcast days are ideal but sometimes not possible whatsoever. If this is the case and the day is going to be ridiculously sunny, time photos for the softer, less harsh light of the morning or evening hours. Consider heading to the north side of a large hill or just anywhere to get out of that direct sunshine; head to an area where full sun is not beaming down upon you. Hat shadows from the typical brimmed baseball-style cap paired up with high bright sun are terrible and very difficult to even edit out. Consider wearing a beanie if presented with this scenario. Not to mention, photographs taken under glaring bright direct sunshine are very much washed out and difficult to deal with from an editing perspective.
If you are forced to take full sunshine photos, try to have the sun in the hunter’s face and off to one side or the other. Never directly behind (the worst as everything becomes a silhouette) or overhead. The photographer also needs to be aware of where their own shadow is being cast as well as to not botch the overall composition of the photo. If using a DSLR camera, that’s even better. Keep the hunter and buck close to one another and you should be able to create an incredible depth of feel fairly easily with a healthy amount of background boca (blur).
Wear hunting apparel. If taking photos after the fact, throw the apparel you actually took the buck in back on for photos. It just sets an overall better tone for a nice photo opportunity and will not take more than a couple of minutes of extra time.
No beers or cigarettes. While there is nothing wrong with having a celebratory brewski with buddies after taking a nice buck, just leave any type of alcohol out of quality photos. For one, it brings up many questions, and for another, it just looks tacky. Leave it out. Especially for the really nice ones. Same goes for smoking. I feel like a cigarette hanging out of the mouth or even in the hand of a hunter draws all the focus of the entire photo. Take a minute or so and make sure this little fact does not occur. So simple to do.
Outdoor scenery. Photos of a great buck hanging in a garage with a bloody piece of cardboard or bucket underneath him with a used oil drain pan and a set of worn=out brake pads laying in the background is not at all conducive to the composition of a quality photo. Take every measure possible to ensure photos are taken in an outdoor scenario. Even a lawn, although better, isn’t a great option. Was this deer harvested on a lawn? Chances are more than likely not. Even if it isn’t the exact same piece of timber or field or whatever the case may be, take a little bit of effort to go to a nice location for photos.
Hanging deer do not make for good photos. My favorite photo position is the buck rather upright with both front legs tucked under the chest and the hunter reaching across the back to the near side beam with his hand that is closest to it. Whatever it is about this particular position just makes for great photos.
Try to avoid “long arming,” especially with bigger bucks. There is no need to have the hunter sitting so far behind the deer that he appears to be not much more than an old school GI Joe action figure. People will call this out. Just avoid the scenario unless doing it intentionally for purely comical reasons.
Also, as a photographer assisting the lucky hunter your job is even more important. You are the sole director of this show and are the only true person that sees every angle as they come in and eventually what the outcome of each click will behold. You should constantly be saying things to help adjust and frame the photo better.
Focus is very important here as it can be easily overlooked and can change constantly. Photos that look wonderful on the LCD screen in the field once ripped and really looked at will be noticeably out of focus if just the slightest thing was off. Also, get low — like, really low. Do not be afraid to have your phone or camera inches off the ground. Which means as a photographer be prepared to be laying down or at the very least kneeling for most shots. There is something about this position that just works wonders for photographing bucks.
Minor angle changes are huge differences when showcasing a rack. Literally take hundreds of photos. This is not the age any longer of the 25-shot roll of 35mm film that takes a week to develop and be sent back, space is unlimited, results are instantaneous, so fire away.
Between the angles, odd ball lighting, goofy faces, closed eyes, proper focus, etc., there will be an absolute gem or two out of a couple hundred photos where every single thing just happens to align properly. This is the photo that goes in a frame on the wall. Happy hunting to all and the best of luck out there this season.