How to Photograph Red Deer
The red deer is justifiably one of the most popular species for wildlife photography in the UK. Our largest land mammal, the red deer is a magnificent creature, and is one of the most impressive sights to be seen amongst our uplands and forests.
Compared to many other mammals, red deer can be a relatively easy species to photograph. There is no doubt that the UK is one of the best places in the world to capture images of these animals – so, where do you start?
Where to find red deer in the UK
Red deer are numerous in the UK – indeed, Scotland is home to around 30% of the total European population of the species. Estimates of the total UK population start at 350,000, but the number may be far higher.
A lack of natural predators, due to hunting and habitat loss, has lead to serious conservation issues. Whilst the red deer’s preferred habitat is native coniferous and deciduous woodland, widespread deforestation of the UK’s native forests has forced the species to adapt.
Now, the vast majority of the UK’s red deer are found on the open hillsides and moorlands of Scotland. They are particularly numerous throughout the Highlands, and can be found in varying numbers in almost any upland area here.
Many Highland estates have maintained unnaturally high population densities, so it is possible to see herds of several hundred individuals in some areas. There are some particularly well-known locations for seeing red deer in the Highlands, including Glen Muick in the Cairngorms, and Glen Etive in the Western Highlands.
Other populations of red deer exist in the UK, in particular in Cumbria, Exmoor and the South West, the forests and heaths of East Anglia, and parts of Northern Ireland.
First steps in red deer photography
There are two aspects of red deer photography that must come above everything else: the animal’s welfare, and your own personal safety. Red deer are large and exceptionally powerful, and can be dangerous if you approach them incorrectly.
Even a young stag could potentially cause you serious injury, or worse, if you approach too closely. This is particularly the case during the rut, which will be discussed further below.
Always maintain a good distance between yourself and any red deer. If you are amongst a group of several photographers, keep even further back, and do not surround or corner the deer. This is to avoid unnecessary disturbance to the animals, and to reduce any risk of danger to yourself.
Arguably the easiest way to photograph red deer is to visit one of the UK’s royal deer parks, where ‘feral’ populations of deer have existed for hundreds of years. Richmond Park and Bushy Park in London are the most well known, and are popular locations for photographers.
The deer in these parks have lost most of their fear of humans, and are therefore easy subjects for photography. The parks themselves are also attractive locations, with ancient trees and open woodland, and there is no denying the beauty of the photographs which can be produced here.
If you have never photographed red deer before, these are great places to start. However, these deer are only semi-wild, and there is some debate as to whether this counts as wildlife photography at all.
In Scotland, a few estates offer (for a fee) the chance to photograph deer which they feed on a daily basis. This can be a great way to photograph the animals amongst the Highland landscape, and the deer will be willing subjects. However, one disadvantage is that your images may end up looking very similar to the work of numerous other photographers.
At this point, it is also important to note that red deer are culled extensively every year in the UK. Try to ensure that you do not get in the way of any stalking activities, and abide by any temporary local access restrictions put in place.
Finding red deer throughout the seasons
The red deer mating season, known as ‘the rut’, occurs from mid-September to mid-November. Mature stags go in search of hinds with whom to mate. The hinds will congregate in groups at rutting sites, and the stags will compete with rivals for the right to mate.
Stags will roar in competition with each other, with some contests ending in chases and violent locking of antlers. It is important not to disturb deer during the rut, as this could prevent mating. Also, the stags are full of testosterone and are potentially very dangerous to people. You should keep a considerable distance away from rutting sites, particularly at dawn and dusk, during the peak of activity.
However, stags will often move some distance away from rutting sites during the middle part of the day. This can provide good photographic opportunities, as they will usually continue to roar sporadically for hours.
After the rut, the stags will typically separate away from the hinds, and may be found congregating in loose groups. The deer are generally quite tired in the weeks following the rut, so can often be quite unsuspicious.
As the winter starts and the weather becomes colder, both stags and hinds typically start spending more time low down in the glens and woodlands, where there is more shelter and food is more plentiful. Red deer are generally easier to see during the winter months, when it can be common to spot them by the roadsides in the Scottish Highlands.
Indeed, driving slowly along some Highland glens will often provide some excellent close-up views. Early morning and evening tend to be best.
Calves are born in early summer. They are vulnerable to disturbance in the early weeks of their lives so, if you happen to come across one at rest, immediately leave it alone. As the summer progresses, the deer increasingly spend their time higher up in the hills, and become harder to see.
In many areas of the Highlands they will head to the highest ridges and hillsides, and become far more shy than they are during the winter months. It is often still possible to find deer low down in the glens during the summer, but they are generally fewer and further in-between.
Red deer in the UK vary drastically in terms of their shyness towards humans. Whilst some individuals will flee when you are still several hundred metres away, others display almost no fear at all towards people. However, it is best to approach any deer with the assumption that it will be very shy indeed.
Using a hide for red deer photography is usually pointless, as they are constantly on the move. In general, you have to go to them. It is normally extremely hard to get close to red deer whilst out on an open hillside. It is best to try areas with plenty of natural cover, such as the edge of a woodland in a Highland glen.
As with many species, the red deer uses a combination of its senses to perceive the world around it, and any dangers which may exist. Whilst their eyesight is not exceptional, red deer have good hearing and an extraordinarily acute sense of smell. Always keep downwind on any approach, moving very slowly between any natural cover.
Try to keep low to the ground, wearing dark or camouflaged colours. Do not approach any rutting or mating deer, both to avoid disturbance and for your own safety.
Arguably the easiest way to photograph wild red deer is to use a vehicle. As mentioned above, driving along some Highland glens on winter mornings can provide very close views. If you come across any deer by the roadside, slow down gradually whilst winding down a window, and there is a good chance the deer will not flee.
Try to keep a low profile within the vehicle and don’t make sudden movements. Do not try to leave the vehicle, or you will probably spook the deer. Stay aware of any other vehicles on the road, and do not block any passing places or access tracks.
In general, the tamest red deer frequent areas where they are used to seeing humans – often around popular glens, and remote villages in the Scottish Highlands. In some cases, these deer will be fed by humans, and may actively approach you.
It is important to remember that any red deer is potentially dangerous, so it is wise to keep your distance.
Red deer are often found amongst beautiful and impressive scenery, and for this reason they are a species which is ideal for a wide variety of compositions and focal lengths. Whilst there is no denying the appeal of a tight portrait of a mature stag, you may also wish to include the wider environment in your images.
Also, as these deer are often found in herds, you may find yourself having to rapidly change your composition or focal length as other animals enter the scene. For this reason, I often recommend a telephoto zoom (e.g. a 100-400mm lens) as an ideal single lens for red deer photography.
Of course, if you are shooting from a considerable distance away, then a telephoto prime will allow greater cropping capability. In some areas of the Scottish Highlands, where you may come across deer very close to your vehicle, it is also worth taking a standard zoom (e.g. a 24-70mm lens).
Low light conditions can be a problem in the winter months, so a full frame camera is recommended, as these will usually produce higher quality images at high ISO values.
Some of the most interesting images of red deer include the wider landscape around the animal. If you are shooting in misty conditions at dawn, in one of the royal deer parks, for example, why not try and include some of the misty trees in your composition?
Similarly, if you are shooting on a day of dramatic clouds capping the hills in the Highlands, consider how these conditions could assist the strength of your composition.
Read more: Composition in wildlife photography
In terms of camera settings, these will depend entirely on the behaviour you are trying to capture. If you are lucky enough to be photographing fighting stags, ensure you are using a fast shutter speed of 1000/sec or quicker. The same goes for any running deer.
Alternatively, you could opt for a slow shutter speed in order to create a more abstract image, suggestive of movement, rather than freezing it. When it comes to selecting aperture, it is worth remembering that red deer are very large animals. If you are photographing an animal which is quite close to you, you may need to select a mid-range aperture in order to ensure the entire face is sharp.
If shooting in heavy snowfall or rain, you will probably find that autofocus acquisition becomes far less accurate than normal. The snow/rain in the air and the lack of contrast can make the camera’s autofocus system ‘hunt’ for focus. In these situations it can sometimes be worth using manual focus, if the deer are relatively static.
Using a DSLR camera trap
For photographers wishing to achieve the widest-angle images possible, using a DSLR camera trap is perhaps the best option. Red deer leave substantial tracks and well-used trails, so it can be really quite easy to identify commonly used deer ‘highways’.
If you have the time, patience, and skills, setting up a DSLR camera trap on one of these deer trails can yield some really powerful results. This can be a great way of capturing the deer in a wide-angle, landscape image.
However, DSLR camera trapping is normally a substantial investment in time and effort, sometimes with little success, so this can only be recommended for the most advanced wildlife photographers.
Read more: 8 tips for wildlife camera traps
Once you have had that first experience of a stag walking straight towards you and your camera, you will understand why red deer are such a popular species for photography. They are impressive, beautiful animals, found amongst some of our finest landscapes.
Take your first steps in red deer photography, and I guarantee that it is a species you will almost certainly want to revisit, time and time again.