BY ROB COTTLE
Once again, his Macroness @geraintradfordmacro and I took over Olympus Instagram stories on Sunday 11th October, this time in the company of the ‘walking coat racks’ and their female companions. Friends, fresh air and fine weather made for another enjoyable day and we even managed to take a few photographs.
If you would like to recapture the day in all its chaotic glory – and let’s be honest, who wouldn’t? – it’s now up on the highlights section (and this blog may even make more sense). If you are really lucky, you’ll also come across last month’s lakes special.
As per last month’s lakes blog, there’s simply not enough time or space on Instagram to explain the techniques and thought behind the shots or indeed show you the results of what we were pointing the camera at. Besides Sir Geraint of Radford, my constant companion was the OM-D E-M1 Mark III with the 100-400mm F5-6.3 attached, which is just a super versatile combination. Just because I have a bit of a devil may care attitude, I even added the 1.4x TC on occasions, I know! I’m just crazy!
It was a rather leisurely 10.30am start for us, normally we are not only up before but also cooking the lark’s breakfast however this location – possibly down to the elevation – has never responded well to the sun’s early rays. So, we had our eye on it melting into the Mumbles coastline later on, something that has served us well in the past. All the technique or ‘bestest’ equipment in the world won’t improve a poorly lit image and wildlife images respond so well to the warm sympathetic and directional lighting of the first and last hours.
So after the always unpleasant hill climb, unlike last year, in which it took most of the day to locate the red rascals, this time we found the herds at the first attempt. Unfortunately, with one hoof he giveth and with the other he taketh away, they were in one of the worst places possible from a photographer’s perspective, corralled by King Stanley Stag onto a rather bland grassy hill side in bleachy overhead sun. No sympathetic background, no depth, no sense of space, just greenness, okay for leprechauns but not photographers. Background is often overlooked in the final make-up of an image, if you want a subject to pop out, background is equally as important. Now besides just simply taking in their majesty, photographically speaking there wasn’t much to be gained. We contemplated retiring for a cup of something and maybe a rich tea or bourbon but for that we’d have to go back down ‘that damned hill’ and then re-climb the thing and neither “The Grand Old Duke of York” “Kate Bush” or “Peter Gabriel” were going to convince us that it was a good idea. So, what can you do? Firstly, panic thee not, there is nothing you can do except wait for an opportunity (although you could possibly swear underneath your breath, won’t help but it’s fun). Whilst you are there, capture some record shots so you have a few images in the bank which can help allay the ‘fear of missing out’ syndrome, relax and enjoy your time. Now’s a good moment to recce the location, take stock of the possibilities, look at the backgrounds, work out the sun’s trajectory and plan on its most profitable use if things go to plan (or even if they don’t).
After a few attempts at various compositions with the deer against said green, green grass of home (no, even Tom didn’t turn up), unless there was a sudden intervention from a background transplant surgeon (and I don’t mean Dr Photoshop) or a sun whisperer, there was nothing that could be done and we admitted defeat, for now. So, we left ‘deer central’ and made our way over to the outlying stags. As is often the case, the ‘contenders’ were on the periphery (not wanting to get too close to tough guy Stan but still needing to feel like they were in with a chance) and their background was far more interesting. At this time of day light can be a bit bland and it’s often worth looking for the quirky or characterful image to make up for it. Try picking out individuals or small groups by using the sharp end of the telephoto to scan and pick out compositions that may not be obvious, you may also be surprised how close the full extension of a zoom will get you, especially on something like the 100-400mm F5-6.3 that I was using. The stags were congregating and because of the nature of rutting season, a little on edge, making their framing a bit tricky but the odd moment popped up. This doe being from a different and smaller harem was quite nervous but the tried and trusted method of laying on the ground and moving forward in a slug like way, never fails with curious creatures and she got a little closer and higher each time she inched forward, just enough for me to use a single focus point on the head (have a look at the image of Geraint with a friendly young stag). Laying on the ground also has the benefit of rendering the grass fluffy (technical term) allowing the doe to pop out of the foreground. Ideally the background wouldn’t have been so brown but beggars can’t be choosers and she is where she is. If possible, it’s preferable to have catch lights in the eye and also eye contact, which creates a connection and by waiting for her to turn slightly to her right, luckily, we captured both.
One thing to be weary of – beware the man-made object. I know we aren’t stalking deer in the Highlands of Scotland but an image without is always more appealing so try to check around your EVF frame for signs, oh and while you are at it, you may as well look for fences, telegraph poles, cafes and here, we even have steel works to contend with. It’s not always easy when you are at the behest of an animal but all you can do is be prepared and shoot when the situation presents itself.
It was around this point that Grr attempted a ‘roly poly’ to get closer to a lone fallow deer and the outcome, besides the deer promptly scarpering when he saw a 6’ roll of carpet coming towards him was the realisation that there was a broken zip on his coat pocket and the mobile that resided there, wasn’t anymore. After a fruitless amount of time we decided to regroup, code for having a cuppa, an assortment of biscuits and it’s not really for me to question but Grrr had mince pies in October??!! As he was beautifully attired in a Jurassic Park jumper and he didn’t want the occasion to go unmarked, he thought it best to answer your questions then and there before the action started once more.
Amazingly after methodically (aimless) wandering around several fields we found the mobile, nothing short of a miracle and I think Grrr is still in St David’s Cathedral, ready to be ordained as a monk. By the way, my app tells me we walked 6.1 miles up hill and dale, all for you! Goodness we are kind.
Back To It
The light was just starting to drop and warming up a tadge and the deer looked to have moved into a hopefully more productive position. Grr went off to film some more slow-mo (which I think is about training snails to cut grass) and I looked to see if we could find some of those antlered cads.
This old boy may well have been ‘the daddy’ before Grrr and I started visiting back in 2014. We have unfairly christened him ‘Cowardly Custard’ as he tends to stay out of the way but I’m sure he has had a hard life and deserves to retire and wear the furry ankle hoof slippers. The new boys in town are now the new men in town and the hierarchy may change considerably in 2022. Cowardly though, is still a great subject and has a rather good-looking rack. He’s much more chilled, allowing us to creep a little closer on times, in fact, in the past he has fallen asleep in our company (although I’ve done the same listening to Geraint’s witterings about bugs). Isolating him against the dark forest has allowed the background to turn black simply by exposing Cowardly properly. Single focus on the eye and shooting wide open has rendered the foreground and background diffuse (or fluffy!) and the sidelight has lit up Cowardly’s right side nicely, creating an interesting portrait.
All He Surveys
As I was trying to isolate the deer, I noticed the sun sneakily shuffling itself around. This opened up the possibility of showing the stags in their environment, adding a lovely sense of space to the image. I tried several variations (I’ve included a few here) by moving around, looking for different compositions and using different focal lengths, before settling on the biggest vista as my favourite. With the stag low down and smallest in the frame, it really gives a sense of Welsh/Scottish grandeur, the stag standing proud, with autumnal colours, heather and pine in the distance and a sense of place. I also like the layer cake effect of the different vegetation and light patterns.
The Young Pretenders
Once the shadows cast their tentacle like darkness onto the background it was time to look to isolate more deer that were still on the ridge but by this time the background had become even darker than with the ‘Cowardly’ image. These two beautiful young stags were on the edge of the ridge and once again by laying on the floor and inching forwards, they are curious enough to gaze in my direction allowing for that connection with the bonus of catch lights in the eyes. A single focus point was aimed at the left eye of the right stag and even though both were relatively parallel I decided to up the aperture to give myself a little safety, hopefully rendering both sharp. The further from parallel each one is, the more you would need to close down your aperture (higher numbers) to widen the depth of field so that both would be in focus. Be mindful though, when close to a subject, sometimes this just isn’t possible and you have to make an artistic judgement on what will be sharp.
In Golden Pastures
Light, light, light, light, light. I’m going to say it again, light! Shooting from a low perspective, sympathetic background, composition, possibly sharpness (depending on the image) are all elements that can help elevate your wildlife image however in my mind, very rarely will they be as good as they can be if the light is poor, it can even elevate an ordinary image into a good one. We knew, as I mentioned earlier, the last hour or so was going to be ‘the time’ if ye olde wildelifey Gods smiled down on us and thankfully, we weren’t let down. A lovely warm golden light descended but light’s no good on its own, oh no, so off we trotted to find something to use it with. We returned to the outlying deer to see how things were looking and found them, awkwardly positioned but beautifully lit against a now well darkened background. I think images 2, 4 and 5 are great examples of what a small difference in time can make to an image. The ‘Cowardly’ image although interesting in its own right hasn’t yet got the warmth as it was taken around an hour before ‘the Young Pretenders’. These little guys have the warmth of the dropping sun onto them but not the real glow that you can get in the last half hour, as in the ‘In Golden Pastures’ image. You can see how the lovely golden glow on the grass and the warm light on the young stag brings an artistic quality to the image and yet they are practically standing in the same place. Same goes for the doe, very similar position but that warm light always adds that certain something. You can also see the importance of background, with little to compete with the deer, they pop out of the frame and draw you in.
The deer hierarchy has remained fairly steady for the past few years but this handsome chap we think may be about to put the cat amongst the pigeons and King Stan may have to brush up on his ‘hoofsticuffs’ over the winter. This young pretender looks like he was at a standstill but he was actually walking with a typical pronounced lilting gait, across the ridge line as you can see in the wide vista image and his next move was unfortunately down the slope. There was a brief moment to capture him with the background in full shadow and light just glancing his left side – something I’ve often used on many creatures before – it’s always striking and strangely enough not that hard to do. It’s the combination of patience, position, understanding light and framing that has to come together for this to work and not particularly technique or the ‘best’ equipment. If you lock a single focus point on the eye/head, judge your exposure of the lightest part of the subject correctly using the EVF and fire away, the background will expose to black (or close to it). There were quite a few shots where the stag’s antlers didn’t fit in the frame and the composition and light only worked twice. Once the stag had moved a little further and altered direction, that was it, the opportunity had come and gone.
For a wildlife shot to work the subject needs to be in the right place, in the right light, at the right time, against the right background, using the right kit, in the right way, that’s an awful lot of rights to get right and yet somehow, sometimes, all the rights line up, it never fails to amaze me. You can however see why it often doesn’t.
Right, I’m Off
I’m going to leave you with this last image, which is from a few years back and we were hoping to recreate something similar but the deer didn’t play ball or any other type of game (as Geraint remarked, they have hoofs, what did we expect, if they did they’d burst it!) and just shows the importance of being in the right place at the right time.
Hope to see you soon, be safe and be kind.