The European roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) is a medium sized ungulate that is both widespread and abundant throughout much of Europe. However, as a result of its timid disposition, this beautiful and beguiling deer is a difficult species to photograph behaving naturally.
Working with wild roe deer in the countryside is a constant learning process, and in this article, I will describe a number of ideas that are designed to help you with your photography.
As you go down this page, you will no doubt notice that the number of tips on the technical aspects of deer photography are relatively few in number. The reason for that is because most of the challenges you will face when working with roe deer are not technical; they are mainly related to field craft, along with the nervous nature of the subject and the required overall approach to the photography.
So, without further ado, let’s get started.
Tip 1 – Choosing the right site
Even if you live in a large city, there’s a very good chance that there is viable population of roe deer living within 50 miles of your home. So, finding a reasonable site shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
A possible location is often chosen after a tip-off from a friend, or from an incidental sighting of a deer whilst you are driving, etc.
But, how can you distinguish between a chance sighting of what could be just a single rogue deer, which just happened to be passing through an area that it wouldn’t normally call home, or whether it was part of a sizeable local roe deer population?
To help you determine whether the habitat is a suitable one for photography, the following points are common features that make up the majority of good roe deer home ranges:
18 to 54 % of woodland / bushy cover, particularly young woodland cover.
A variety of physical aspects, giving the deer shelter in adverse weather conditions.
A wide variety of plants available, particularly agricultural crops, although not oilseed rape, since it contains the toxin haemolysin dimethyl disulphide, which is tolerated by red deer, but not by roe.
General lack of disturbance from people and their dogs is preferred, although more and more roe deer are starting to inhabit urban environments, such as cemeteries, in recent years.
So, if roe are commonly seen in an area which contains the above features, there is very reasonable chance it could become a viable site for deer photography.
Tip 2 – Use a long lens
A zoom lens that has a focal length of up to 400 mm is a reasonable starting point, but 600 mm is much better. Roe are not big animals, so you're going to need a lens with a high magnification power to give you the 'reach' needed to make the deer large enough in the frame.
Tip 3 – Go out at first and last light
Roe deer are crepuscular, so they are most active at twilight. Therefore, your greatest chance of seeing them are during the first and last hours of the day.
Tip 4– Use a camera with excellent low light capabilities
The best photographic opportunities normally come when the light levels are low, so many of your best images will be made with the ISO in the thousands, rather than in the hundreds. Fortunately, many of today's new cameras are excellent in this respect.
Tip 5 – Use a body with a high frame rate
When the deer are moving around, especially through thick vegetation, a small blade of grass blocking out an eye, etc., can make or break an image, and the time difference between capturing an acceptable photo and one that will be deleted, can be a fraction of a second.
So, you can increase the probability of success by shooting a large number of shots in a short space of time, and hoping to get the one you want. But this advice does come with one important caveat….
Tip 6 – Use a quiet camera
The sound of the mirror and shutter moving inside the camera is not a natural one, so the noise made when making a photograph can be enough to spook the deer, or at the very least, put them on high alert. This especially important when taking a number of shots in quick succession.
So, it pays to use a quiet body. But there is a problem with this: The quietest DSLRs are not usually the ones that have the highest frame rate capability, and the fastest DSLRs are normally the nosiest cameras of them all. Therefore, you have to compromise between ensuring you shoot enough images to stand a realistic chance of securing the image you want, and not having the camera make so much noise that it scares the deer.
However, the new mirrorless cameras are much quieter than their DSLR cousins, so, it might be worth considering a mirrorless system.
Tip 7 – Shoot in short, quick bursts
Linked the previous two tips, when using the camera's high frame rate ability, do not be tempted to rattle off a very large number of images in one go. This is sometimes called 'machine gunning' – named after the similarity of sounds between an actual machine gun in operation and a DSLR operating at its fastest capacity for a protracted length of time.
Machine gunning is the recipe for disaster with roe; the continuous clicking coming from the camera is likely to scare the deer.
Solution: Very carefully pick your moments when to make your shots, and just take a few at a time, then wait a bit, and take a few more. This is far more likely to be tolerated by the deer than one long continuous drone coming from the camera.
This is an important skill to master, since if you make a mistake, your time with the deer will be a brief one, and your photographic opportunities will be correspondingly fleeting. However, get it right, and you can spend an hour or more with the deer, and be able to record them behaving naturally.
Tip 8 – Basic camera settings
In my view, once you have acquired the basic equipment and selected a viable site, success in deer photography is mainly going to be determined by field craft and persistence, and after those comes luck and technical ability with the camera.
Various tips in this article will help with your field craft and general approach to photography, but luck very much varies as a function persistence – the more you shoot, the ‘luckier’ you will become.
Now, if I have experienced any success with photographing roe deer, very little of it has been due to any technical ability with the camera; operating a camera system and getting the very best from it, is certainly not a strength of mine; it’s a good job that camera bodies and lenses are so good these days!
But, for the record, I will briefly describe the general settings that I use and when I use them. I don’t stick to these 100% of the time – they’re just a basic guide.
For a stationary or slow-moving deer in low light:
Shutter time: 1/200 to 1/320 s
Aperture: f/4 or f/5.6
For a stationary or slow-moving deer in bright light:
Shutter time: 1/640 to 1/800 s
Aperture: f/4 or f/5.6
Note: Shutter speed is kept on the high side to facilitate the capture of a sharp image if yawning, grooming and other unexpected movements suddenly takes place.
For rapidly moving deer in all light conditions:
Shutter time: 1/800 to 1/1600 s
Aperture: f/4 or f/5.6
Motion blur is to be kept to a minimum.
Focal length used is anywhere from 200 to 800 mm.
Manual mode in operation.
Auto ISO is selected.
Moveable single point focus and in continuous servo mode is used.
Frame rate: As fast as possible, but the images are shot in short bursts to reduce the probability of disturbing the deer.
Panning is used, where appropriate.
A tripod is available.
Note: The settings above apply for when there is a single deer that I want to be in focus in the image. Where there is more than one deer present, the aperture is narrowed to f/8 all the way down to f/13, depending on the situation. The closer the deer are to the lens, the narrower the aperture (i.e. higher the ‘f’ number) needs to be.
Tip 9 – No need for camouflage clothing
It may surprise to you to find out that I don't wear camouflage clothing, or anything like that. I've tried it a few years ago, but I found that it did not make enough difference to justify all the hassle of using it.
Instead, I wear just a normal looking green outdoor type jacket and a woolly hat – again no sniper / bank robber style balaclava – just a normal black / green hat, to keep warm.
If you follow the other tips given below, you don't need to don camouflage gear. You can use it, but it's certainly not essential; knowledge, good field craft and persistence will get you close enough to your subject.
Tip 10 – Don't base your approach on hiding from the deer
Linked to the previous tip, trying to go undetected is not recipe for consistent success with roe. If it was, there would be many photographers with a complete portfolio of roe deer images.
After all, how hard is to put on some camouflage clothing and wrap your camera equipment in a similar thing? Easy, right? And how many people have tried it, only for them to be quickly spotted by the roe and for the deer to flee?
For what it's worth, my advice is don't try to defeat the roe's excellent senses. These are animals that are designed to live in areas of the world where there are lynx (in Europe) and tigers (in Siberia), so trying to go undetected by them with our clumsy movements, large physical profile and strong scent, is almost certain to fail.
So, what's the answer?
Tip 11 – Concentrate on a low threat approach, rather than trying to hide from them
It's true, concealment and an 'undetectable' approach will get you shots of a roe deer, and some really good ones, too. But the trouble is, the encounters will be short in duration and the number of shots you get will be limited by how long it takes for the deer to ‘suss’ you out, and do the off.
Instead, if you base your approach on allowing the deer to know that you’re there and not to perceive you as a threat, your time with the deer can be an extended one, rather than just a fleeting glimpse.
Tip 12 – Don’t rely on a hide
Hides are very popular for wildlife photography, especially for birds and other animals where you can pull them into a certain area by regular feeding and / or providing them with water.
But when it comes to deer photography, in my experience, employing the use of a hide will limit the number of opportunities you’re likely get to photograph them.
Hides certainly do work, especially when you’ve got a specific object you want in the background or foreground. However, whenever I’ve opted for a static approach, whether it’s from a hide or concealing myself in a little hidey-hole, I’ve nearly always regretted it. As soon as I’ve decided to be proactive and go out looking for the deer, I invariably find them and create opportunities that I’m convinced wouldn’t have materialised had I remained sat in one spot.
Tip 13 – Learn about the biology of the roe deer
Reading articles about their behaviour, life patterns and what they feed on, will help you enormously in the field. Knowing what influences their behaviour and why they prefer certain areas within their home range, will allow you to anticipate their actions, which makes photographing them so much easier than what it would have been without possessing this prior knowledge.
Learning this information needn't take a lot of time or expense; I've already done all the hard work you; all you have to do is just read the articles on this website.
Tip 14 – Get to know specific deer
The level of intimacy you can show in your images will be related to your relationship with the deer.
Now, when you first get to see a given individual, the level of trust between you and the deer is going to be low. So, the chances are (unless you’re very lucky) you will only be able to take the sort of images that have been made many, many times before by other photographers – which will invariably show the roe glaring directly at the camera with its ears pricked forwards.
It’s worth being aware of this: Whenever you make an image and the roe looking wide-eyed in the direction of the camera and both of its ears are pointing directly at you, you’re not photographing its natural, undisturbed behaviour. What you’re photographing is a deer on a relatively high state of alert, which will need very little extra stimulus to flee.
Making images showing the deer behaving like they do when no-one’s present is something that I’ve found very difficult, but it can be done.
There are three ways you can do this:
Concealing yourself, so that the deer doesn’t know you are there.
Using a remotely triggered camera.
Getting to know a small number of individuals, so they don’t see you as a threat, and therefore, tolerate your presence.
It’s the last method that I personally prefer, but it does take a lot of time and subject knowledge of the roe to make it work consistently.
Tip 15 – Concentrate your efforts on one or two sites
If you do this, you can get to understand the general behaviour patterns of the deer in your area and then time your visits to give yourself the greatest possible chance of seeing them.
Tip 16 – Choose local sites
The main advantage of staying close to home is that it will mean you’ll be able to visit the area frequently. Certain behaviours, such as when bucks touch noses, are relatively unusual to witness. So, you can put the odds in your favour by making frequent visitations, and that will only become feasible if you haven’t got to travel a large distance to get to the site.
Tip 17 – Wear the same jacket / coat on every trip
Linked to the above, I would suggest you put on the same outer layer of clothing on every trip you visit the deer. That way, the deer will start to recognise your visual appearance, and assuming you don’t do anything to startle them, they will tolerate your presence for longer. You can then begin to photograph them exhibiting relaxed behaviour, rather than having the deer look like they’re ‘on edge’ all of the time.
Tip 18 – Go alone
Roe deer are naturally nervous of humans, so if you attempt to photograph roe whilst in the presence of other people, the task will be much harder than if you went alone. The only exception to this would be if you’re in the company of a more experienced photographer and they are guiding you into the various dos and don’ts about being in the vicinity of roe.
Tip 19 – Anticipate rather than react
I mentioned earlier about getting to know the individual deer, and this is one of the reasons why; by having observed previous behaviour, you can anticipate what they are about to do next in a given situation. Some things happen so quickly that is very difficult to react fast enough to capture a good image.
For example, let's suppose you want to capture a sequence of the deer yawning, from the very start of the yawn, through to when it closes its mouth again. By previously observing the deer, you can read the signs indicating when it's about to start a yawn. You’ve then got time to compose the shot and move the focus point onto the eye in the view finder, before the yawn commences.
And you want to aim to photograph the whole yawning process, because there will only be a couple of frames in the sequence where the head, eyes and jaws are in exactly the right position. For example, the images towards the end of the yawn often show the top and bottom part of their jaw out of alignment, which can look odd. The best images are often those around the middle of the sequence, when there's the highest probability of having the mouth open at its widest extent and their upper and lower part of the jaw in alignment.
Another situation when it pays to be prepared before the behaviour occurs is when the deer touch noses. You've got to be ready in this case because it only lasts for a very brief period of time – in the order of one second. And if you miss it, you'll be annoyed, because roe deer do not touch noses very often.
Tip 20 – Feeding the deer is a very bad idea
Feeding deer, simply to get them to be a certain spot for photography, is not a good idea – for one main reason….
Assuming the roe deer in your area are well fed by natural food sources – which they probably are – giving them additional, unfamiliar food does run the risk of them consuming a food substance that they are unable to digest. This is why understanding the biology of the deer is important; to prevent good intentions causing more harm than good.
A roe deer’s gut consists of four main chambers: The rumen, reticulum, omasum and abomasum. The first two chambers, the rumen and reticulum, contain large populations of microorganisms or microbes; around half of these microbes are comprised of bacteria and protozoa. It is these microbes that break down / digest the food taken in by the deer. The bacteria do the majority of the digestion, and the protozoa (which are single celled animals) help to regulate the bacteria numbers and eat some of the plant material taken in by the animal.
And here’s the key point: Different gut microbes are required to digest different types of food.
So, if a deer was to consume a food substance that it can't fully digest because it doesn’t have the correct microorganisms present in its gut, the animal can become malnourished and suffer a build-up of gas, as well as suffer from a whole host of other negative side effects that affect its health and wellbeing. In severe cases, the deer can die, even though it has a belly full of nutritious food.
Now, please bear in mind this: What I’m saying is that feeding roe deer for small-scale photography purposes should be refrained from. Controlled feeding operations, run by appropriately qualified personnel, which is carried out on large estates is a very different matter.
Tip 21 – Avoid distractions
When you're in close vicinity of the deer and maybe waiting for them to get into a good position, don't take your eyes off them. Do not let your attention to be drawn to that pair of cock pheasants noisily showing off to each other, or staring at that flock of geese flying overhead. Or even fiddling around with your camera, looking at an image you made a few minutes ago, to check focus accuracy, etc.
I've made all those mistakes, and some have been very costly.
On one occasion, I was watching a master buck casually feeding in a field, about thirty metres in front of me. Having been with him for about half an hour and taken a few reasonable shots of him a little earlier, I found myself flicking through the images, just checking the exposures, etc... But after a short time, probably thirty seconds, I heard a strange scuffing noise that made me glance up.
It was the sound of the area's two dominant bucks frantically pawing at the turf and thrashing their antlers around in the grass, displaying to each other right in front of me! The other adult must have materialised from the bordering woods – completely unseen because of my carelessness. And because of that, I'd missed the opportunity to photograph the approach of the interloping buck and the reaction from the adult I was initially with.
A few images were made as the two beasts clashed heads, but because the tripod was a bit too low and the shutter speed was too slow, the resulting pictures were disappointing, to say the least.
Being present when two adult bucks have a brief tussle out in the open, does not happen every week, and I’d blown it.
Lesson learnt (again): Concentrate, concentrate, concentrate!
This also applies on a more general basis, when you're out looking for the deer. My advice to you is this…
The main thing, is to keep the main thing, the main thing.
In other words – if you're really serious about making some good images of roe deer – do not let your attention wander onto other things.
In my view, if you want to be consistently successful, you must focus, focus, focus.
Concentrate your efforts; if you’re walking around your site and you haven't found the deer yet, keep looking. Have you looked everywhere? Really, everywhere? The deer are still there, so try again, try harder – hard work will pay off.
You will find that when you are single mindedly looking for deer, you will get your 'eye in'.
What this means is that you'll be able to spot the subtlest tell-tale signs of a roe's position from a great distance and / or among dense vegetation; signs that portray its presence that many other people would miss.
Remember, roe deer are prey animals and they are designed to be hard to find, especially when they're laying down and resting. And you will miss most of them if your mind is on other things.
Tip 22 – Don't use callers
Deer callers are devices that can be used to mimic the sound of an amorous doe seeking a buck to mate with, or the sound made by a fawn calling out to attract the attention of its mother.
The use of callers tends to create photographs that show disturbed behaviour i.e. images that show a roe on full alert, normally with it staring fixedly directly at the camera, where the deer has an intense / startled look to it – the archetypal 'deer in the headlights'. Callers also produce pictures of a deer suspiciously walking around an area with exaggerated high steps or strides, as it tries to figure out what’s making that sound, even though the area will smell of a human, instead of roe, which it would do, if the call the deer heard was a genuine one.
After the deer has spotted the phantom caller – the human – and worked out the whole thing was a hoax, it will then trot away, sometimes with its light coloured bottom hairs fluffed up displaying uneasiness / alarm – so the time spent with the deer will be a short one.
Using callers is not beneficial to the deer’s way of life. It will disturb their natural behaviour, and will unnecessarily take the deer away from getting on with his or hers courtship, interfering with the natural procreative behaviours, and / or take a mother away from her dependent young.
Tip 23 – View the work of others
But not just those who work with wildlife, all genres of photography. Look carefully at their images; what do you like about their work? What do you dislike about a certain picture?
Find a series of photographs you particularly like or dislike; are there any common factors? If so, how can you apply what you've learnt to your own photography?
A word of caution though; don't be tempted to replicate. Trying to convincingly copy is futile, or at the very least, not sustainable in the medium to long term.
The style of other peoples’ work is as unique as their voice or writing style.
My advice to you is this: Be selective about what characteristics of other artists you allow to influence your work, and do it in such a way that it refines and clarifies your own style in a synergistic way, rather than by replication.
Tip 24 – Do it on your own terms
We’re living in a world of information overload, and as the old saying goes, “we’re drowning in information, but starving for wisdom”.
Looking at books, magazines, websites, etc. you read things saying that you should do this, should do that, never do this, never do that, etc. Use a wide aperture, use a narrow aperture, include motion blur, freeze action, under expose, over expose, the list goes on and on. In the final analysis, all of these are so-called ‘rules’ are just someone else’s opinion, and everyone’s got an opinion – but not all opinions are equal, right? So, be selective.
Using the knowledge you pick up from videos, websites, etc., is a balancing act; you’ve just got to pick and choose. Choose the ones that suit you, your photography and where you want to take it.
Tip 25 – Make behavioural images as well as portraits
Generally speaking, capturing portraits of deer is much easier than making photographs showing their behaviour.
Portraits make for lovely images – and my own favourite deer photograph is indeed a portrait – but the trouble is, they're relatively easy to take, since the subject is likely to be moving slowly or stationary. And as result of that convenience, many of our images can end up looking a bit too similar.
To get variety in your work, you've got to take more behavioural shots, but these are much more difficult to make.
There are five main reasons for this:
Firstly, deer spend far more time in 'portrait mode' – resting and looking around – rather than actively doing something.
Secondly, linked to the above, behaviours tend to fleeting in nature, so you have to be alert and ready to shoot, as soon as something happens. There's often no time to fiddle around with aperture and shutter speed, like you can with taking a portrait image – you have to act fast.
Thirdly, many of the most interesting behaviours – such as a mother feeding her young, playing, mutual grooming, mating and fighting – involve more than one individual. So, your field craft skills have to be particularly good, to ensure you don't disturb the deer; two, or more sets, of eyes, ears and noses to contend with, instead of just one.
Fourthly, you're probably going to want to take a series of shots to ensure you capture a key moment, but the problem with that is the noise. The sound coming from your camera could easily disturb the nervous deer, so you have to be mindful of limiting the number of shots you take, to ensure you don’t spook your subjects.
Fifthly, as you know, roe deer are most active at either end of the day – so that's when you're most likely to witness interesting behaviour – which means the light levels are going to be low, necessitating an increase in the ISO.
Since behavioural shots will involve the deer moving in the frame, shutter speeds have to high if you want to freeze the motion, especially if you're using a long lens, which you probably will be. So, noise levels and dynamic range can become a problem.
But in spite of these challenges, it pays to persist.
Sacrifice some technical image quality and get the shot, whatever the ISO.
Keep the shutter speed high enough to capture a sharp image, and deal with the noise later.
Otherwise, what's the alternative? Miss out on making a great image because you're worried about some noise?
That's no solution at all, that's just squandering a great photographic opportunity, which you may never have again.
The fact of the matter is that the only people who are put off by noise in an image are pixel peeping photographers. The general public really couldn't care less about noise; as far as they're concerned if a photo is interesting, it's a great photo – period.
Tip 26 – Realise the importance of location
After the maxim, ‘first do no harm’, location must be your next priority when it comes to successful roe deer photography.
Obviously, no matter how good your equipment is, how sublime the light may be and what fantastic compositions you’ve got set up, they are completely redundant unless you’ve got subject to photograph – you must put yourself in the vicinity of the deer.
Pinpointing their location comes down to leg work, often lots of it.
But where do you start?
Past experiences should be your first guide; search out their favourite feeding spots and areas where they lay down to chew the cud (called ruminating).
Have you seen the deer in the past couple of days? If so, have you checked those areas?
One interesting point here: We all know that roe have favourite spots where they like to frequent, but these areas are cyclical in nature; some long-term, others are much shorter term.
The location of roe is very much driven by the availability of undisturbed woody cover, food and shelter from inclement weather. Certain areas of their home range will be more frequently visited at certain times of the year. For example, if you’re very familiar with the area, you may notice deer are always present in such and such a field in summer, but are seen another area entirely in winter – that’s a long-term influence on their whereabouts.
When it comes to finding the deer on any given day, you’re better off relying on their short-term location cycle, and that their propensity to revisit a spot where they’ve been to very recently.
Roe can become very habitual in their behaviour, on a day-by-day or even hour-by-hour basis.
For example, one spring I devoted nine days to working with a yearling buck and his older brother, as they formed an association with each other. I was looking to study their daily movements, foods they ate, where they rested and most importantly of all, their interactions with each other.
I’d arrive at the site before sunrise, and then obviously my first priority was to locate the pair. After eventually finding them on day one, their habitual nature meant that I was to easily locate the pair of them in the same vicinity for the next six consecutive mornings.
But on day eight, the pattern was broken – and it was broken by the additional presence of an adult buck. The new male was fully territorial in his behaviour and therefore had no tolerance for any other roebucks. He’d chase them away from the immediate vicinity, and I eventually found the sibling pair in another field about three hundred metres away, where they again resided for the next few days, before they split up and went their own ways.
This is just one example of how roe will have one or two spots that they like to frequent, before something makes them temporarily vacate the area, and take up residence somewhere else. And this happens time and time again for a non-territorial deer
The factor that forces the deer relocate can be a depletion of food, but more often than not, it’s disturbance. Remember how earlier in this article I mentioned the various factors that influence the location of the deer, and one of them was undisturbed cover – and the keyword is undisturbed.
Roe deer react negatively to disturbance, so seeking out a quiet area is a major driving force in their movements.
The activities of humans are a significant source of disturbance for roe, but so are the actions of a territorial buck.
A dominant beast will chase off other males from his domain, especially those that are of a similar physical stature to himself. Another buck of his size creates significant competition, especially when it comes to courting with the in season does during the peak of the rut, in late July through to mid-August.
Another major influence when it comes to locating the deer, is the weather.
Inclement weather will shift roe from one area to another – see the next tip.
If you’re unable to find the deer by looking in all the areas where they’ve recently been seen, go back to the longer-term cycle and look in those spots where they normally frequent at the current time of year.
Tip 27 – Understand the influence of the weather
This has a major bearing on where the deer can be located at any one time.
In general, roe deer will avoid being exposed to the full force of driving rain. It penetrates their pelage (coat) and can cause a chill, so they take shelter.
They often take cover inside bushes or within a wood. However, they normally move out into the open soon after the rain stops. Other favourite sheltering spots are behind a line of bushes or a wood. When I say ‘behind’ I mean the leeward side – the side sheltered from the wind.
It doesn’t have to be raining for them to favour the lee though, a strong wind alone will be enough to move them; the stronger the wind the more pronounced the effect, especially from late autumn through to mid-spring.
In fact, I would say that the wind direction is the most important weather-related factor when it comes to influencing their movements. And because of that, it is relatively easy to find the deer during extremely windy conditions; simply look for sheltered spots.
Rain, just by itself, is not a major factor. Roe deer don’t particularly like the rain, and if they’ve been feeding for quite a while, and it suddenly starts to pour down, they will often move off to a quiet spot, to lay down and ruminate for a while. Unless hunger forces them to move again, they will often stay down until the rain eases off. Two to three hours is normally the maximum time they will lay down in one spot, before they will get up and stretch their legs.
Fog has little affect, but it does make spotting them more difficult.
Snow has the similar effect as rain, although they seem to tolerate falling snow a lot more than heavy rain. Snow that has ‘frosted’ and formed a thick layer of ice over the leaves of winter foods, such as ivy, can make them move to an area where they can feed on ice free vegetation. Deep snow reduces access to their food, as well as making it more difficult for them to walk around in, therefore, snow deeper than about 50 to 60 cm, forces them to relocate.
Temperature, by itself, is not a major factor with regard to location. How the temperature is important, though, is the effect it can have on the activity of the deer; they can become less active during extreme conditions.
Tip 28 – If the conditions are right, don’t wait for the deer to find you, you need to find the deer
There are times when the conditions are perfect; the low-lying sun, positioned just above the horizon, throws beautifully coloured rays across the land, illuminating everything in their path with sublime, soft, warmly hued light. Unfortunately, these conditions don’t happen very often – therefore, we have to make good use of them when they do occur.
However, there can be a problem: On the rare occasions when we do get these superb conditions, sometimes there’s not a deer in sight.
In this kind of situation, there is the temptation to ‘make the best it’, by taking some miscellaneous shots – filler shots, such as images of dew-covered foliage against a beautiful sunrise, or photographing footprints in the mud, etc.
But, if you’re tempted down this slippery path, I would urge you to ask yourself this question, “What have I come to this site for?”
If the answer was simply to enjoy being out on such beautiful morning and appreciate nature in all its forms, then, that’s fine, go ahead – make those miscellaneous images. They will look beautiful and certainly enhance your memories of the morning when you look back at them.
But, if your answer was to make some fantastic deer images, then those filler shots will not do it for you. You will finish the photography session with the feeling of an opportunity missed. Yes, those dewy photos will look fine and they will make very worthwhile additions to the overall roe deer story, but they were not the ones you really wanted.
You have to try harder.
I mean, go out there and look for the deer; they are out there, you just have to find them.
So, imagine you turned up at your favourite spot, the light is just getting better and better, but the deer are nowhere to be seen, that’s when you need search for them; make the effort.
Now, you’ve got accept the fact that you may not find them, and the sublime light will come and go and you’ll have nothing to show for it.
You could argue that by going out and looking for them, you made the wrong decision. At least if you would have stayed in your initial spot, you could have made those sunrise, dewy images, I mentioned earlier. Plus, the deer could have suddenly shown up. And that’s true: You could have stayed put and you could have made the miscellaneous shots and got a beautiful deer shot.
And you know what?
I’ve tried the sit and wait approach many times before, and more often than not, it is very much, sit and wait…. and wait…. and wait…… and wait…… until the light has all gone and an opportunity – somewhere – has been missed.
Overall, over a long time period, I’ve found that the more proactive approach does yield more consistent and predictable results than sit and wait.
Just before we leave this tip, I need to mention one more thing. When I advocate the proactive approach to roe deer photography, where you go to the deer – rather the deer coming to you – what I’m talking about is you obtaining a good visual location on the deer. Once you have a good visual on them, approach them very carefully, until they’re close enough to approach you, rather than the other way around.
Tip 29 – Accept failure (and learn from it)
By now, you know that photographing roe deer is not easy; roe are small, very skittish animals, which sometimes just seem to have a sixth sense when something is not quite right, and they seem to melt away into the landscape and not to be seen again for hours.
So, with that being the case, it’s important to accept that things are going to be difficult at times. But even when you come home from a photography session and you haven’t got the shots you wanted; you can always make progress.
As Napoleon Hill once wrote, “Every failure brings with it the seed of an equivalent success”.
In other words, we can learn from our failures. I say ‘failures’, but in reality, failure is the opportunity to discover something that we can use in the future.
I know it sounds like a cliché, but the reason it’s a cliché is because it’s true; we really can learn from our failures, if we choose to.
Imagine you’re out there in the field, it’s early spring and the master buck you’ve been waiting to photograph for months is eighty metres away. Even though he knows you’re there, he continues to browse on the new growth on the hawthorn bushes. You discretely get into position and wait until he gets a little closer before taking a few shots.
After ten minutes, he’s within range and you fire off six or seven shots. However, after the third or fourth frame, the big buck looks up and steps away from the overhanging bushes and glares in your direction. He looking right at you and you take seven or eight more images as he gives you ‘the look’, but it’s too much. Before you know it, he moves back to hawthorns, steps into the bushes and is gone, not to be seen again for the rest of the session.
You blew it. You had the big beast right there, staring right down the barrel of your lens and you missed your chance. But you could say, “Hey, I didn’t blow it – I got a few shots of him looking right at me!”
Yes, that’s true. That’s all you got, a few images of him glaring at right you. But, because you took too many shots, too soon, you unnerved the beast and he was off.
What you’ve got to understand is this: The master buck has been around for a few years – at the bare minimum three, possibly as many as seven or eight – and he’s got to that age by being a wise old beast; he’s learnt a lot along the way and has developed a knack for staying away from danger, otherwise, he wouldn’t have survived for so long in these lands. And you rattling off too many shots – instead of gradually getting your shots in ones and two – triggered the very response that has kept him alive for so long.
So, what can you learn?
Gradually ‘introduce’ the deer to the camera by taking just one or two shots at a time. If the deer looks more comfortable in your presence, you can increase the frame rate, but always keeping a close watch on the body language of the deer, just in case he gives you the warning signs.
The good news is that if you persist, you should get another chance. During the early spring, the master buck will be very active as he harries the subdominant males away from his domain. And when that happens, using what you learnt from the previous encounter, you can nail a greater number of shots of him behaving naturally, instead of disturbing him and just having him stare at you, like the proverbial deer in the headlights.
Tip 30 – Monitor the wind direction
As you know, getting anywhere near wild deer is far from easy. They can sense you from many tens of metres away, and even if you’re totally silent, waiting for them in ‘ambush’ (not recommended), their highly sensitive nose can still blow your cover.
If the deer are downwind of your position (where the wind blows your scent in their direction), there’s a very high chance that they will detect your presence and, at the very least, be put on edge. Sometimes, just the slightest whiff of human scent – or even worse, canine scent – will enough for a nervous roe to flee the immediate area.
When you have a clear view of the deer, you can tell whether they have detected anything suspicious or not by the frequency at which they lick their nose.
Moistening the end of the nose heightens its scent detection capability, and a roe that detects danger will frequently lick its nose, as well as raising it into the air, to catch as many windblown scent particles as possible.
How can you get around this problem?
Make sure the deer are always upwind of your position – so their scent is blown in your direction. However, be mindful of the fact that wind can direction often change, especially in the lee of a bush-line or wood, where eddies can form.
However, if you visit the site regularly, the deer will start to get used to your smell and assuming you don’t do anything to accentuate their fear of humans, they will learn to tolerate your scent.
What do I mean, “don’t do anything to accentuate the fear of humans”?
If someone does not respect the amount of space a deer needs to feel comfortable, and he or she regularly oversteps the mark, the deer will start to associate whatever identifying features the intruder has, such as scent, physical outline and the way they move, as a possible source of danger.
On the over hand, if person adopts a sensitive approach, there’s a reasonable chance that a number of the deer will learn to recognise the photographer’s scent, physical profile and movements, and some degree of habituation can be established.
Tip 31 – Pay attention to the ears
The ears are the most reliable tell-tale sign when it comes to reliably assessing a deer’s state of alertness.
I don’t believe it’s true to say that that a deer will always point its ears in the direction of the loudest sound. They point their ears in the direction of the sound that they not yet accustomed to, and therefore, that which could still indicate a threat.
So, if the aim is to capture images of the deer behaving in a relatively relaxed manner, it is desirable to make sure that the majority of the images do not show the individual staring directly at the camera, with its ears fully pricked up, pointing in the same direction.
Also, uncertainty and caution are shown when one ear is angled forwards and the other one is backwards. So, if you can, try to make sure that when they’re not angled to the side, both ears are pointing backwards, or both are facing forwards.
Once a deer has got used to the sound of your camera, it’s possible to fire of a long sequence of shots, without their ears pointing at you at all. The trick is, of course, is the follow a cautious approach and for the deer to ‘accept’ you – at least from a reasonable distance. And to do that, you need patience and quiet determination.
Tip 32 – Venture out in the fog
Roe deer are very hard to photograph well in the fog. The same can be said for when you’ve got rain, snow or shine – so don’t let that put you off!
With ground level cloud most commonly forming at either at either end the day, and roe being crepuscular, fog and deer are often synonymous – particularly in winter. Although this combination can make for an evocative scene, making the resulting images can be far from easy.
There are two main problems to overcome: Acquiring focus and locating the deer.
Firstly, focusing. Even the very latest auto-focus systems on the most advanced cameras have trouble in heavy mist and fog. The problem is that there’s often not enough contrast in the scene for the focusing system to ‘grab’ on to.
In this scenario, if you can’t acquire focus by placing the focusing point over the eye, try using the edge of the ear instead, where there will be more contrast.
But, focusing is actually the least of your problems; finding the deer in the first place is by far the biggest challenge, especially when the fog is particularly dense.
The deer behave normally in heavy / fog, but, of course, they harder to spot from a distance. Although you can’t see them, they can certainly hear you as you walk around. So, you need to move even more slowly than normal.
If there are wide, open areas on your site, it’s a good idea to check those first, since their silhouetted outline will more readily show up against the white expanse of a field, compared to if you are searching an enclosed area, where background may be woody and dark.
With regard to camera settings, it’s worth experimenting with some positive exposure compensation – increase the exposure – since cameras often expose the image so the mist / fog looks much darker than it looks in reality.
Tip 33 – Don’t be put off by the rain
There are many photographers who never venture out when it’s raining, fearing that it will damage their equipment and that they won’t able to make any decent deer images.
To help mitigate possible camera damage, water resistant camera covers are readily available and can be made to fit over the largest of DSLRs and telephoto lenses.
Life for the deer carries on as normal when it’s raining, so you can certainly still make some good images; here are a few things to consider.
The colours of the deer and the vegetation look more saturated, or richer, when they’re wet, which will certainly add something to a photograph.
Capture the raindrops themselves as they fall on the deer. To do this, select a dark background and back-lighting. To ‘freeze’ the motion, use a shutter time of 1/500 s, or shorter.
Slowing the shutter speed down will show the droplets as streaks instead of droplets, the longer the shutter time, the longer the streak; 1/50 s produces an obvious trail, but you can go longer. When you drag the shutter like this, make sure the camera is kept very steady – the use of tripod is recommended.
To prevent the cold-water seeping through their coat and causing a chill, the deer regularly shake-down to throw the water off their pelage. It is quite possible to capture this behaviour, and the good news is that the deer normally give you a little warning before they shake-down.
Although I have seen deer attempt to shake-down from a semi-recumbent position, the vast majority of shake-downs occur from a standing position – this is what happens:
The ears are angled back and the head is pointed forward, to form a straight(ish) line from nose to rump. Keeping the head as still as possible, the deer will them shake their body. The looseness of their skin and twisting motion of the torso, combine to produce a wave, or ripple, effect on the pelage, which throws off the water droplets. Towards the end, they will shake their head to complete the process.
The best images nearly always come from looking along the spinal axis of the deer, from head to rump. But you can’t do that, a side view is good, too.
The extent of the motion shown in the image will depend on the shutter time; longer shutter times producing more pronounced streaks of water and more motion blur – see the suggested times above.
One important tip here: Most of the water will leave the deer at the start of the shaking motion, so activate the camera to take a rapid sequence of shots as soon as the shaking begins, if not just before.
One extra general point here: When you want to deliberately show rain in your photographs, it helps to use the ‘compression’ effect of a telephoto lens. So, if you’re using a zoom lens, select the longest focal length available.
Tip 34 – Leave the deer undisturbed after a photography session
Unnecessary energy expenditure, caused by disturbance, places an extra burden on the deer; either by forcing them to increase foraging time – which increases their exposure to all the many negative actions of man – or, depleting their body reserves – which increases the susceptibility to ill heath, especially during cold conditions in late winter / early spring, when fat reserves are at their lowest. The youngsters are most at risk of starvation since they have fewer reserves than the adults.
Also, regular disturbance will force the deer to modify their behaviour patterns accordingly. New feeding routines and resting spots will almost certainly be less optimal than their initial behavioural patterns, again imposing another potential negative impact on the deer.
The best photo sessions end where the animals are left as undisturbed as they were before the photographer arrived. Photographers that care about their subject make as much effort to make a discrete retreat, as they did in approaching the deer in the first place.
Plus, by making sure the deer don’t have a negative experience as a result of the photographer’s presence, future sessions stand a greater chance of being successful.
Tip 35 – Be aware of the cross-sectional area of your lens
One problem that long, fast telephoto lenses have is their size. Not only are they cumbersome to carry around, but their considerable width means that they have a relatively large cross-sectional area.
This is the circular area of glass that the deer sees when the camera is pointing towards them. For a wild deer, this is a very unnatural object for them to see, which can unnerve them.
So, in some cases – when you’re dealing with a particularly skittish individual – selecting a lens that has a comparatively narrower width, will reduce the chance of spooking the deer.
Tip 36 – Keep the camera low to the ground, but not too low
When it comes to composing your photographs, it’s normally a good idea to keep the camera at the same level as the deer’s eyes. Doing this helps create intimacy and a sense of connection between the viewer at the subject. This works particularly well when making images of the adult females.
However, there are times when it’s preferable to not have the camera exactly level with the deer’s eyes.
Let’s suppose you’re photographing a master buck and your intention is to show a sense of dominance. Then in this case, positioning the camera so the lens is pointing upwards towards the deer will help make the subject look ‘taller’ in the frame, giving a sense of seniority / superiority / command, etc.
But this technique wouldn’t be appropriate when you’re photographing a youngster, where you may want to emphasise its diminutive size. In that situation it pays to have the camera slightly above the eye level of the subject, which will make the deer look relatively ‘short’ in the frame. Looking down – just slightly – will create a feeling of submissiveness and vulnerability, the opposite of what you’re trying to show when you photograph an adult buck.
Another reason why you generally want to keep low to the ground is because it will reduce your physical profile, which will help keep the deer calm and relaxed in your presence.
Tip 37 – Don’t go too far
There are many times when you’re setting up ready for a shot and for one reason or another, you can’t seem to get things quite right, and you have to assess whether you should change position to correct the compositional problem, or stay where you are.
For example, suppose you’ve seen a roe lying down in the long grass and you want to make a shot of it half obscured in the foliage, as it quietly ruminates. You manoeuvre into position, and everything is just as you want it to be.
Except, there’s a single strand to grass just covering up part of one eye. There’s no appreciable wind blowing, so there’s little chance of timing your shots to when the wind has temporarily pushed the offending blade out of the way. You take a few shots anyway, but checking the picture on the back of the camera confirms that the pesky blade is ruining the image
Changing position – maybe getting closer – could solve the issue. But you’ve got to ask yourself this, “If I do change position, am I likely to disturb the deer?”
Moving a few inches, left or right, may be okay – if you can do it discreetly.
But getting any closer than you ordinarily need to be, in order to make the shot – that is more likely to spook the deer.
In this situation, you’re better off accepting the fact that you can’t make the shot (as you really want it to be), and leaving it at that.
Yes, you could get closer and you could possibly eliminate that annoying piece of grass from the photo, but there’s no guarantees of that. You could end up facing another problem when you get into your new position, but then, you’re even closer to the deer and your margin of error when it comes to keeping it relaxed in your presence, is even smaller than it was before.
In this scenario, the deer will certainly know that you are there, and by continuing with its current behaviour, it is tolerating your presence. But that tolerance will turn into distrust and fear, if you overstep the mark. And when that happens, the animal will get up and move away, or, it will look uncomfortable – invariably glaring at the camera – both outcomes take away the possibility of being able to capture natural behaviour.
The photographer who respects his or her subject will always carefully weigh up the realistic chances of disturbing the animal; to go too far and spook the deer, simply to possibly create the shot they want, would constitute an own goal.
Tip 38 – Care about your subject
If someone does not genuinely care about the deer, it will show up in their work; their images will show the animal on edge and not behaving naturally. If the deer are just ‘subjects’, taking close-up, intimate photographs of wild roe deer on a consistent basis will be almost impossible.
To avoid this, you have to respect the deer enough to at least make sure you know enough about the deer’s way of life and how it responds to its environment, in order to minimise the impact that you, the photographer, has on its life. Pick any wildlife photographer who consistently creates images that captures the essence of their chosen subject, and you will find that they adopt the same philosophy.
You see, I genuinely care about the roe deer and want to show them behaving naturally in their environment. So, I have taken the time to learn about their biology to order to lower their defences and, maybe, get them to trust me, at least to a certain degree.
I’m rather hoping that you may like to do the same, too. So, to save you all the trouble and time in reading through many books and scientific journals, I’ve typed up a few articles detailing some of what I’ve discovered from the literature and from my own years of experience in the field.
Well, that’s it for now. There’s still so much more I could write, but I need to stop somewhere!
I really hope that you are able to put these tips to good use and capture many wonderful images of these beautiful deer.
Also, if you’ve found the information on this website helpful, I’d really appreciate if you could share it with others.
Until next time, all the best and I wish you every success in your photography,
If you would like see how these ideas can be put into practice, you may like to consider reading Year in the Life of a Roe Deer.
In this book, using photographs and words, I describe the various trials and tribulations experienced by a group of wild deer living in a quiet corner of the British countryside – I hope enjoy reading it, as much as I did getting to know the deer and photographing them.