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How to photograph stag deer (cervus elaphus) safely SCROll down for more information

Stag at first light near the pond at Bushy Park
Stag at first light

Well, there is NO absolutely safe way to take photographs of stags during the rutting season safely. Deer are wild animals and as such totally unpredictable so if you want to be totally safe, don't go anywhere near them. But I know that some people (myself included) love to photograph these wonderful animals and want to minimise the risk of getting hurt or even killed.

I am a semi professional photographer.

I sell photos, undertake commissions and teach photography and post processing.

Photos that I have taken of stags have usually been taken in Royal Parks and I do not have permission to sell them (The Crown owns the Royal Parks). So, most of the photographs that I have taken of stag deer have not been taken with a view to selling them.

Stag in pursuit of another stag

There are lots of places to photograph stags during the rutting season. Good places are Richmond Park in Richmond and Bushy Park near Hampton Court. Both of these are in London and are particularly good for red deer. A good place for Fallow Deer is Knole Park at Sevenoaks in Kent. My personal favourite is Bushy Park (and all of the photos shown were taken on Saturday 6th October 2018 and Monday 8th October 2018. The main reason why I prefer Bushy Park is that it is a small park and relatively easy to locate deer. Many of the deer congregate near the main car park by the pond so there is no need to travel long distances. You can even see deer on the roads near the car park.

Stag crossing the main road Chestnut Avenue at Bushy Park

I take photographs of most things that move, and most things that don't move. I draw the line at boudoir and nude photography though. Each to their own. My passion is wildlife photography and I have taken photos of wildlife all over the world.

A stag deer bellows near the main Chestnut Avenue road at Bushy Park
A stag crosses the water at Bushy Park to pursue another stag for a rut.

This is not a definitive guide to how to take photographs of stag deer but is my personal view of how to take pleasing images of stag deer during the rutting season and minimise the risk of danger.

Minimising the risk of danger to you personally when taking the photograph and possibly minimising the risk of danger to the deer.

Sadly, if deer DO attack people then they tend to be shot. In this guide I will look at some of the reasons why deer might attack people.

As with any guide, much of it will be of no use to many people, but if any of it has been of any use to any one and has helped prevent injury, then producing the guide will have been worthwhile.

One stag more interested in a rut than another

All wild animals at any time of year are unpredictable. They are likely to attack humans if they feel threatened or provoked or unsafe. If they are the type of animal that eats meat then they are also likely to attack if they are hungry. That is not the case with deer. They eat vegetation and not people. So we count out the reason for attacking people as hunger.

Stag crossing water at Bushy Park

In October and November in the Northern Hemisphere the testosterone levels of male deer (stags for red deer) increase. It is the mating season and the deer go through a ritual known as rutting when stags fight each other for mating rights. The stags bellow and the strength of the bellow and the tone is a sign to other deer of the likely physical size of the deer. Deer of a similar size and strength tend to fight each other. Others walk away.

Stag walking along the banks of the pond at Bushy Park

Some of the battles between stags (known as ruts) are very aggressive. Only last Sunday (8th October 2018) two large stags fought a very aggressive battle with injuries so severe to one of the stags that it had to be humanely killed. The antlers are very sharp and can cause serious damage. The stags are also very powerful and can run very fast over short distances and uneven terrain. They can run through water.

This stag may only be able to see with one eye but he knows what and who is in the vicinity

The good news for photographers is that the stags are not focused on attacking photographers, cyclists, walkers, runners, or anyone else in the parks. That is NOT their main focus. The stags are focused on fighting off other stags and mating with female deer (hinds). BUT, and this is a big BUT, if they feel threatened for whatever reason, they can and do attack people. You have been warned.

Stag about to move at Bushy Park

The Royal Parks display notices all over the parks warning people of the danger of approaching deer and usually recommend that people stay at least 50 metres away from deer. That is sometimes easier said than done, and deer can and do appear from nowhere out of the vegetation and inadvertently a person can find themself closer than 50 metres to a deer. Personally, I prefer to be more than 50 metres from a deer and when I find myself too close, I move away.

Another photographer gets a close up photograph of a wild stag in Bushy Park
A photographer approaches a stag in Bushy Park to get a close up photograph
Woman takes a photo with a mobile phone or tablet in Bushy Park of a stag which had stopped by a tree to clean its antlers

So, how do you take photographs of stags safely? Well, the first rule when taking photographs of wildlife of any type is to make sure that you do not make them uncomfortable. All wildlife has a circle of fear. Enter that circle of fear and the wildlife will usually move away. Certain wildlife (and this is definitely the case with stags), if they feel threatened they will not move away but will attack. You have been warned. Get too close to a stag deer and make the deer feel threatened, and you risk being attacked. Deer are bigger, heavier and faster than you, and have weapons in the form of antlers that can cause serious damage. This damage, without wishing to sound overdramatic, can be life threatening. Deer also have little problem running over uneven ground, and through bracken and water. In short, if a deer decides to attack you, the odds are very much in favour of the deer.

Stag in the early morning mist at Bushy Park

So, keep your distance. Do not alarm the deer by making quick moves. Always make sure that you know what and where your escape route is in the event of an attack. And make sure that you look behind you constantly when there is a deer in front of you. You absolutely do NOT want to find yourself between two stags that are about to have a rut. I have seen so many photographers totally engrossed in taking a photograph that they forget that there may be a stag behind them and are unaware just how dangerous that situation is.

Stag looking for a mate at Bushy Park
Stag bellowing at Bushy Park

Make sure that you have a tree nearby to protect you. Or that you have a river between you and the stag. Deers can swim and walk across water quickly so be careful. A tree (or better still one of those trees with wood around them to stop deer and other animals eating the tree bark) can offer protection but when there are two stags in the vicinity, a tree may not offer enough protection and it may be appropriate to move away from the area. Remember your safety and the welfare of the deer are far more important than any photograph.

Stag in the early morning sunlight at Bushy Park

If you find yourself in the vicinity of more than two deer (last week I found myself near four very aggressive stags) a tree is almost certainly not enough, you need to withdraw from the area. A lot of this is common sense but I know that with certain photographers, it is the least common of all the senses. Ideally you should not weighed down with lots of equipment and tripods. Keep the amount of equipment that you have with you to an absolute minimum and make sure that if you have to move quickly you are not overburdened. If you do have a backpack with you, be prepared to leave it behind to collect it later. Ideally, you will have it insured if the worst happens and the deer damages it.

Stag bellowing for a mate

Ideally you should wear dark clothing that blends into the environment. Greens and browns are ideal. Bright colours - particularly red are NOT a good idea. You should be trying to avoid the attention of the deer. On that note, do not wear strong smelling colognes and perfumes. Deer are most active early in the morning and in the evening. Consider arriving to photograph deer without washing. They have a great sense of smell and will be able to smell your soap and cosmetics.

Stag bellowing at Bushy Park

To enable you to photograph deer from a distance you want to be using a long lens. I use a 100-400 mm lens. I have used a 70-200 mm lens but I think ideally you need a focal length of 300-400 mm. I do have an extender (1.4) but I do not use it as I think that 400 mm is a big enough lens and I do not want to have the disadvantage of a stop less of light using the extender.

Stag bellowing at Bushy Park

As with all wildlife photography the ISO to use is the lowest that gives you the depth of field and shutter speed that you want. When using the 100-400 mm lens that I use, the widest aperture available is f/5.6. My lens has image stabilisation but I still want a minimum shutter speed of 1/400 second. So, the ISO tends to be whatever will give me a shutter speed of at least 1/400 second using a f/5.6 aperture. Better a high ISO and noisy photograph than a blurred photograph. F/5.6 is an ideal aperture as it allows for the eyes, nose and ears to be in focus with the background out of focus. I use a full frame camera but a 1.6 crop factor (the case for most cameras used by enthusiasts), is probably better. It means that a 300 mm lens on a full frame camera is the equivalent of a 480 mm lens on a 1.6 crop sensor camera. That effectively means that you can take a photograph of a deer and be further away.

One of the bigger stags at Bushy Park

The better the camera probably the higher the ISO that you can use without noise. But remember you can always convert the image to black and white and more noise might even improve the image. Image stabilisation in theory enables you to take photos at slower shutter speeds but it does not help when the deer is moving fast, and does not always avoid camera shake. To be on the safe side use a shutter speed which is the same or faster as a fraction of a second as the focal length of a lens. So, with a 400 mm lens this means that the shutter speed needs to be at least 1/400 second. With a crop sensor camera the shutter speed needs to be the equivalent of the revised focal length. So, a 400 mm lens on a 1.6 crop sensor camera will be the equivalent of 640 mm and the shutter speed will need to be at least 1/800 second.

Most of the deer at Bushy Park are red deer. These are fallow bucks rutting.

Ideally you want the photograph to look as natural as possible. if you can photograph without cars (especially headlamps and brake lights when the light is low) and bicycles in the background so much the better. Avoid people if you can. Sometimes it is not easy. I have included people in some of the images just to show how close people get to the animals. Not something I would recommend at all. It is very dangerous! Try to avoid including the wooden protection around some of the trees. The more natural the surroundings the better.

Stag protecting two female hind deer

Light is the key to all photography and the better the light, the better that your photos will be. Try to avoid the harsh midday sun as this will create harsh shadows. Deer tend to stay in woodland area in the shade which provides for better quality photographs although sometimes this will mean that you need to use a higher ISO. Early morning light just after the sun has risen is probably the best light. With luck you will get mist and it will still be cold enough for the breath of the deer to be visible. Cloudy weather also lends itself to good photographs offering diffuse high quality light. The subdued autumnal tones of the bracken and leaves on the trees compliment perfectly the colour and hues of the stags making for very pleasant photographs.

Stag bellowing next to female hind deer
Stag Bellowing
Stag on the run
Two young stags rutting

Philip Pound LRPS

Email philippound@yahoo.co.uk

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