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Red Deer

Despite having lived in Scotland for 6 years, I've only photographed Red Deer once. And that was during my last month there before relocating to Bristol... So I have lots of lost time to make up for! With Ashton Court Deer Park right behind my university campus, I really have no excuse now.

I picked a Saturday afternoon when the forecast was for slightly overcast skies. Another reason why I should have done this in Scotland - the skies are always overcast! However, if I was going to finally photograph red deer, I wanted to get the shot I saw in my mind's eye - a backlit 'haloed' silhouette (title image). I wanted the sunset to burst through the clouds, casting strong rays to backlight my concept image.

I think it's always a good idea to have some initial ideas floating around of how you want to photograph something. In my case, the "halo effect" idea is inspired by the work of two nature photographers - Miguel Lasa (whose backlit polarbear was awarded in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2008) and Andy Rouse (who often uses this technique with African big cats). This is a shot that I've wanted to do for ages, and it appeals to the theatre photography side of my work, which is all about dramatic lighting. Nothing says drama and atmosphere like good backlighting so, with this shot in mind, I headed up the hill towards the deer and the setting sun.

The rutting season was still in heat, so the hind deer were grouped together under the watching eyes of the stags. This made picking out individuals with the camera quite tricky, as any hind that strayed too far fro the herd was put back in its place. The sun at least was where I wanted it to be, so I fired off a few shots with both stag and hind in frame.

These first few are gently backlit with some sidelighting. Exposing for this kind of shot is pretty easy, but it takes some guts to do so, as it does mean shooting into the sunlight! The deer were feeding in front of a forest and, as the sun set lower, its rays cut through gaps between the trees. I was shooting at roughly a 45 degree angle from the sun, giving this soft halo effect and retaining detail in the hind's face. Backlight, however, is achieved when you shoot directly towards the sun (in other words, 180 degrees to it), resulting in a pure black silhouette with no detail.

For now the light was best for sidelighting, and the glowing forest provided a warm background which was thrown out of focus with my low aperture. This hind's ears look truly fantastic lined with gold light, but in my opinion the right side of the image below is a bit lacking. I decided to shoot portrait, meaning that I could get the hind's backlit chest and legs as well, giving a stronger composition. This was a good idea, as the light was very low, giving a firy red quality.

At 5:30pm, the sunrays were practically pushing through the leaf litter, and the forest was no longer exuding its warm glow. Through the camera viewfinder, it appeared almost black, and I underexposed a couple of stops to drag my original landscape composition down into a moody backlit silhouette. This is my first attempt at backlighting in nature photography, a rather pleasing monochrome of black and bronze - and my homage to Miguel Lasa's polar bear.

Thanks for reading and have a great month!

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