Deer are without doubt one of the finest of our wildlife animals to photograph and few photographers don't have at least some photographs of them. You can photograph them all through the year, and in just about every part of the UK.
In Britain, running wild, we have 6 types of deer, with very many more types in collections and wildlife parks. The exact number no one really knows, but Scotland alone is said to have over 300,000 Red deer, and England between 500,000 and a million Roe deer, although perhaps we see more Red and Fallow. Few areas of the UK don't have regular sightings, with the exception possibly of some parts of central Wales. Being largely nocturnal and not about while we are, most people don't notice their proximity just about everywhere, including the edges of towns and cities. There are still many deer parks.
The New Forest, Forest of Dean and Exmoor were Royal forests where ancient kings hunted. Today they all have deer, plus most of the Royal parks around London. Places with the name chase were also deer catching areas. Beaters frightened the animals out and down a funnel where people with swords and axes slaughtered them, this was for food not fun. In some areas a similar approach with dogs driving towards waiting archers was used.
In the wild they quite sensibly avoid people, and both historically and now they are hunted, shot or culled at a fairly heavy rate each year, but they breed well and numbers are maintained in most area. In addition some are killed on the roads and in some areas, if the winter is hard, not all may survive.
The RAC Foundation, in a report back in 2004, estimated that ten motorists and passengers were killed each year and more than 250 injured through cars colliding with Deer, while some other publications say up to 20 are killed and over 400 injured a year. Both estimated that between 30,000 and 50,000 deer are killed or wounded on the roads each year, and RAC say this caused around £11 million of damage to vehicles. Accidents are most numerous between October and December. Many additional accidents are caused by motorists swerving to avoid collisions. The report also contains a map showing density of collisions by area, which is a combination of people and deer populations.
There are a variety of shooting and hunting sites and organisations and over 10,000 people in the UK have undertaken voluntary Deer Stalking Certificate (Level One). This covers theoretical knowledge of deer, the law, rifle ballistics and safety. There are further practical sessions on rifle shooting, safety in the field and meat hygiene. Deer shooting (stalking) is now a major industry.
This is also the reason why so many wildlife photographers and other naturalists keep the majority of the sites where they see deer to themselves, and why when you arrive in a country area and start asking where you might find deer, you may not feel they are telling you all they know. Today shooting is partly done by some of the farming community, but the largest growth over many years is amongst the new rich, city people, who have moved on from their playstations, and amongst some its a fashionable day out. Hunting or stalking deer has no history in England, and has developed since the mid 1960's, and more rapidly in recent years, having developed from the 19th century in Scotland. If you are clearly carrying a camera and asking about a variety of wildlife and other photographic opportunities the local people are usually a mine of information, and very friendly.
In much of the countryside, particularly areas with woodland, there is a deer presence, but often the deer will move around within an area occupying a number of woods, so predicting where they will be at a set time can be difficult.
Woburn is the most exceptional place both for numbers of animals and variety of types but also the size and condition of individual animals. They have a 3000 acre deer park which contains 10 different species roaming freely. These are Axis or Chital, Barasingha or Swamp Deer (large bat shaped ears), Chinese Water Deer, Muntjac, Manchurian Sika, The Rusa (inquisitive), Pere David (now 360 of them), Fallow, and Red. Some of their Red deer stags having 40 points, and being at least twice the size of the largest Scottish Red deer, which rarely reach 16 points. This is points on their antlers. Some Scottish Red deer have interbred with other species, while particularly at Woburn they have been breeding up for many years to get the finest specimens.
Deer are also fenced and farmed in England and Scotland since the 1970's for venison. Venison is highly prized in many countries but never caught on in Britain, it is very low in fat, it is also rich in fatty acids that combat heart disease.
Venison could be available cheaply here, and is a natural resource that has been largely overlooked.
Within the two counties I know best Wiltshire and Gloucestershire, there are a large number in the wild, and I often do see them, however except for a few places in each county, it has rarely been in the same place as before. People who live in country areas with a lot of deer may get them in their gardens or see them regularly for a time, then have a gap, then see them again.
The males, females and off spring are known by different names for each type, and they have different closed seasons when they cannot be hunted without a licence.
Deer have at least as good eyesight and hearing as we do, but a greater sense of smell, they also have a greater ability to stay alert than we do. If they suspect something is abnormal they will stare at it for minutes even when they can't see anything, before continuing to graze, and a few minutes later with their head up at speed to check the location out again, often catching out people who then think its safe to move.
Before we can photograph them we need to be able to find and see them. In deer parks this is not difficult, you know they are within a restricted area and in many cases they are more used to and less scared of people. Entry to many of the deer parks is free. In some places you can walk quite close to them and in a few places people hand feed them so you can get close enough to even touch them. You will find in some deer parks there are large herds, and you can get quite close, however if you get too close the whole herd will quickly move to another part of the park.
In the wild, every individual animal and bird is different, one may be tamer, another gone at the first possibility of people being around. However deer are more likely to leave than stay around as soon as they see you. The times when you are most likely to see them in fields near to woodland is early morning (dawn) and late evening (dusk). As there are few people around early in the morning, an early summer morning gives the best opportunities. The exception to this is in the rutting season, this is the autumn for the largest of the deer, the Red Deer. At this time of year the stag, male deer, has chosen a patch to protect and herded a collection of hind/doe into it while they come into season. He will fight all challengers, for the right to have this patch and the hind/doe, there is also a lot of noise as he proclaims his mastery of the area, so he may be more easily found even in woodland areas at this time.
Camouflage and hides
Camouflage with wildlife can cause them to think you are a hunter if they see you, and cause alarm calls from birds and some other animals, giving away your location. Dark clothing and not standing so your body shape shows may be a better idea in many cases. Game birds like partridges and pheasants, that had become used to me photographing them would come very near while I was photographing them, but one day I had a camouflage suit on and it was entirely different, they all took flight.
In concept a hide is a good idea, I have one that is a decent size, and also has scent control units, the problem comes that you need to be able to predict where the deer are going to come and be prepared to wait, and wait, and wait, and try again another day. I also have a camouflage leaf material bag, that I can wear and see through, allowing me some movement and I prefer this. The best location is stood next to a hedge or tree so you merge in. Standing up you get a better view and more chance to spot if any deer are approaching or near before you move.
I don't have, but have read about High seats, about 10 feet to the base of the seat, they allow people to hide in or near trees with good visibility, although made for those involved in shooting deer, it would be useful for photographers as well. Other versions are 4 metres high and have seats large enough for two. I would like to try one of these at some time. Although it would be like a hide, in that you could not move, the visibility would be better.
Red Deer at Studley Royal Park Gordon Hatton
There are no specific photographic challenges unique to deer photography, it's very similar to many other areas of wildlife photography. Where they are in woodland I prefer to switch to spot metering, but that is the only major change I make from other wildlife. We have quite a few articles on different areas of wildlife photography, and articles on using longer lenses that allow you to photograph them from further away.
Some other articles you may find relevant are:-