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Inspiration

Photographing red deer during the rut

Clash Of The Titans two stags locking antlers

Introduction

Every year there are numerous wildlife spectacles that can be witnessed in the UK, and one of these is fast approaching. "The Deer Rut", from late September to early November Red, Fallow and Sika deer compete for the right to mate to pass on their genes.

The focus of this post is on the UK largest land mammal, the red deer, although the principles and guidance can be used for fallow and sika deer too.

Let's get started!

Safety first

I appreciate that we all want to get out into the wild and create award-winning shots and have fun. But before we do, I have outlined a few things that we should be mindful of. When photographing the rut, we all need to adhere to a code of conduct; protecting the safety of the wildlife is the most important consideration.

  • Never harass or crowd the deer, as this will stress the animals and can potentially increase the risk of a human-animal conflict. Always leave them plenty of space and routes to move off.
  • Keep your distance! Do not approach any deer to within closer than 50m.
  • Take special care not to intrude on rutting male deer (particularly red stags or fallow bucks), which may be fighting, roaring, displaying or otherwise defending their hinds. They may see you as another intruder who needs to be repelled.
  • When photographing stags ensure you are always aware of other deer in the vicinity. You don't want to get between two stags or the hinds as this is a dangerous place to be.
  • If a deer starts walking parallel to you and glancing at you out of the corner of its eye, it is a sign that it may be considering you as a threat - move away immediately.
  • If you find a deer advancing towards you or acting in a threatening manner, do not shout or wave at it. Back off slowly if possible

Now to the fun stuff. If you are new to photographing the rut or a seasoned shooter, I like to think there is something for everyone. If we aren't continually learning and pushing ourselves, we will never improve and become the best we can be.

Planning

A little research beforehand will pay off 10-fold, whether you are stalking deer in the highlands or in your local park. The good news is that this starts off in the comfort of your home. Firstly, find a location where there are deer; there are many throughout the UK. I have added suggestions at the end of the post as a starting point.

If this is your first outing, I'd recommend going to a local deer park. The reason being is the animals will be more accustomed to humans, and it will be easier to get images. Please note they are still wild and have the potential to cause harm.

  • Find the best location that is nearest to you.
  • Research the location, try and understand the lie of the land. Better still, go ahead of time to familiarise yourself with the location to gauge the best spots.
  • Before you go, find out sunrise and sunset time and where these will be. I personally use the photographer's ephemeris (app and Web), but there are many apps out there.
  • Think about the types of shots that you want to try and capture; more on this later. Try searching social media to see what people have achieved in the past.
  • If going to a park, check opening times and parking opportunities inside and outside the park; this will save time
  • Learn and understand the weather. Embrace all conditions, come rain or shine; trust me, you will get a more varied portfolio of images

Best time to shoot

The best time to shoot will be during the golden hour of sunrise and sunset. This will give you the greatest opportunity to get dramatic light of the rich golden/orange hues. It's also when the deer are most active. If you catch a break, you will be lucky to get the morning mist. This is just a dreamy, magical moment and can create some beautiful, diffused light. As a rule of thumb, there will need to be clear skies overnight, a drop in temperature with no or little wind to create these conditions.

If in doubt, keep an eye on the weather forecast websites; in the UK, this will be the met office.

I highly recommend setting that alarm and getting to the location a good 30-60 minutes before sunrise.

Don't fret if you're not an early riser; you can also create some impactful shots during the day of the deer rut, try and avoid the harsh midday sun, find a wooded area that will diffuse the light.

Also, don't be put off by shooting in grey, overcast or rainy conditions; more time in the field means more opportunities and interactions.

Rutting Behaviour

I am only going to cover the basics here, but this should give you a grounding in what to watch out for to increase your chances of capturing that special moment during the UK red deer rut.

Let's start out on how to determine likely rutting spots known as "Rutting stands" these are usually open grassy areas where hinds will congregate as the grazing is more plentiful and more nutritious.

Look out for herds of hinds (females). They will regularly travel between rutting stands trying to determine the best grazing and the most suitable stag. Essentially, it's the hinds that call the shots, and the stags will take all the necessary steps to maintain a harem to secure the right to mate.

The Stags (male) red deer will lay claim to the most favourable "rutting stands", which he will maintain and defend from other stags. Whilst observing the rutting stands, you will see the stags herding the hinds; this is him trying to keep the harem together under his protective gaze, stopping them from wandering off and mating with other stags.

When a rival stag enters another stag's stand, it's time to determine whether to fight or flight. The actual rutting activity isn't taken on lightly as there can be serious consequences that may result in death.

There are well-established rituals - behavioural interactions that will take place before the last resort of clashing antlers.

Firstly, you will see stags thrashing the ground and vegetation with their antlers; this is called "adorning" not only does it leave an obvious scent mark, but it also results in vegetation being caught in the antlers Its believed that the mud-caked, vegetation-adorned antlers make the stag appear larger and/or more formidable to its rivals. A simple strategy, make yourself look bigger, so you don't have to get into a bout.

It's inevitable that stags will fight; first and foremost, it will start with the challenge. This will start off with bellowing. "Roaring" gives the stags a good gauge of each other's size and stature. In the case of stags, a deeper louder roar signals a large animal.

If the roars are evenly matched, the stags will up the ante and move onto "Parallel walking". This is where both stags will walk side by side a few metres apart; the purpose of this exchange is to assess each other's size and condition. This can last a few seconds to a few minutes. If they are both evenly matched and neither backs down, this is where the final contest will take place.

The stags will turn on each other and lock antlers; this is known as "Clashing". Just like a rugby scrum, this is a shoving match and a test of power and endurance. Inevitably there can only be one victor; the winner will chase the rival away and will sometimes continue to roar and strut to show off to other rivals or hinds

It's an impressive event to observe and photography, but please be aware it can be a gruesome spectacle to witness if one of the stags is injured, so be mindful of that when you are out in the field.

The video below shows two evenly matched stags rutting. Apologies for the video as I was trying to handhold it.

Types of shots

There is no hard or fast rule here; it's down to you and your creative vision of what you are trying to achieve. To get you started, I've given some examples to start you off on your deer rut photography journey.

Environmental

This style of the image will capture the subject in its surroundings and will give a broader context to the story of the photographic message you are trying to convey

Portrait shots

These can be categorised into two main areas: the environmental portrait and the full-frame portrait.

  • Environmental portraits focus more on the subject but give context to the surrounding; the subject will be bigger in the overall frame
  • Full frame portraits, simply put, this is a frame-filling shot that focuses on the subject in all its beauty

Behavioural

To create a real connection with the subject, try and capture the essence of the behaviours that occur during the rutting season. This will add drama and convey a powerful message.

Why not try and capture some of these moments when you are out.

  • Stags Wallowing
  • Stags Bellowing (breath shots)
  • Headdress
  • Defending the harem
  • Parallel walking
  • Rutting locking antlers
  • Intimate moments between the stags and Hinds
  • Hinds showing dominance in the family
  • Resting Stags

Push the boundaries and experiment, don’t be afraid to be creative and try and capture something new or unique. You don't see that many panning or intentional motion blur (IMB) deer images.

Have fun and enjoy!

Bellowing Stag
A stag bellowing in the morning light during the autumnal red deer rut

Gear & Settings

I'm not going to drone on here about gear, yes it's important, but it's not as important as the vision and creativity that you bring to your shots, hence why this is so far down in the article.

First and foremost, use what you have, and get the best from it. If you feel that you need more reach, I recommend hiring a lens from one of the many companies in the UK.

If you are starting out, I think having a zoom lens would be the best option as it gives you a lot more flexibility with your composition.

Some focal ranges I'd consider are:

  • 100-400mm
  • 200-500mm
  • 150-600mm

Camera setting/shooting modes is a personal choice, whether you shoot in manual or semi-automatic. I personally flip between Aperture priority and manual depending on the situation.

A good starting point for the rut would be using aperture priority, why you may ask. Well, for me being able to control the depth of field is a high priority. Keep an eye on your shutter speed, too. It’s easy to increase or decrease your shutter speed. To do this you will need to adjust the ISO.

Typical shutter speeds for wildlife:

  • Stationary subjects: 1/250th sec
  • Walking Subjects 1/640th sec
  • Running Subjects: 1/1000th sec

*The above is just a guide; play around with the shutter speed and depth of field to get the results you are after.

I always shoot handheld, as it gives me more freedom to move, but you can use a monopod or tripod if you wish

Quick setting:

  • Aperture priority
  • Single spot metering
  • Continuous autofocus
  • Image stabilisation on the lens or body

Red Deer Locations

Red deer are the easiest to spot in open habitats and are a regular sight in the Scottish Highlands. However, the best way to see the species is in the many deer parks that exist across the UK.

  • New Forest, Hampshire
  • Isle of Jura
  • Gosford forest park
  • Bradgate park
  • Richmond Park
  • Woburn
  • Galloway Forest Park

Note that this isn't an exhaustive list. I highly recommend undertaking your own research and planning your trips.

Final word

I hope you have found this article useful and informative to aid you on the deer rut photography extravaganza. If you have any comments or further suggestions, please leave me a comment below.

If you see me in one of the Royal Parks or the New Forest, please come and say hello, as I am here to help and always interested in connecting with other likeminded people

Get out there, have fun, experiment, be patient and wildlife doesn't always play by the rules and please photography ethically.