Photography has become a huge part of the hunting world. For many of us, our everyday lives have been influenced by social media, and we naturally want to share photos of the amazing adventures we get to experience. As hunters, we have the privilege of seeing natural sights that would leave more than a few jaws on the floor. And then there are those special times when an animal is on the ground. Capturing quality photos is a great way to not only share your success, but also preserve the memory. The cool thing is that, unlike years ago, you don't need a high-dollar camera to get great photos. Our cell phones are more than capable of doing the job. With that being said, there are some basic photography tips that I'd like to share to help you along the way.
Capture the Whole Hunt
Before we discuss "how" to take better photos, I want to touch on "what" is captured in photos on a hunt. Contrary to popular belief, the good old grip and grin shot is far from everything. There is so much more that happens on a hunt before an animal's life is taken. Things like epic sunsets, crazy weather, your buddy falling in a creek, etc.
Photos tell a story, so I say photograph the whole adventure. This is a great way to be able to look back on past hunts and share them with your loved ones. When an animal is down, there are so many other things that a person can take photos of rather than just the classic grip and grin. The tiny stubs on antlers are unique and eye-catching. An animal's hooves or paws are also interesting to observe. All and all, this is a beautiful creature, not just an award.
The Right Light
Lighting is huge and can make or break a photo. No, I'm not saying that anyone needs to bring a professional lighting system with them in the field. That big light up in the sky called the sun works just fine; not to mention, it's free! The hard part about natural light is that you can't control where it shines. This can make getting a quality photo tricky.
Notice the harsh shadows and uneven lighting in the photo above. The deer is very dark while the face is way too bright and almost blown out.
While sunny days are all fine and dandy, these are going to pose the most challenge with getting quality photos. This challenge comes when the sun is high in the sky, which it is for the majority of the day. In those mid-day hours, the sun is notorious for producing what we call "harsh shadows." This will put random light and dark areas all over your subject (what you're taking the photo of), rather than the smooth lighting we all prefer to look at. To get that smoother look, taking photos during the first hour and last hour of the day is what you should strive for.
For the photo above, we eliminated the harsh shadows by moving into the shade and putting the sun behind us.
However, adventure waits for no sun and sometimes we just gotta get those shots during the middle of the day. In these cases, shade is going to be your friend. If you can move your subject, whether that is a person or an animal, into full shade, this is what you want. By doing so, you're going to eliminate those harsh shadows we talked about, which will produce a nice even lighting. Another thing to keep in mind, whether you're in the shade or not, is trying to put the sun behind your subject. This will also help to eliminate those nasty shadows.
Cloud days are the best days for taking photos. The clouds create a nice even lighting all day long. Something to keep in mind, though, is to try and avoid being directly in the shade. The clouds are already producing that nice lighting we want and adding additional shade can make the photo look too dark.
Animal Placement and Prep
Should you be so fortunate to get an animal on the ground, there are a few things to keep in mind for a good photo with the animal. The first thing you want to do is prepare the animal. This involves washing off any blood and making sure anything else that should be inside the animal is not exposed. Take the time to stick that tongue back in the mouth, or even cut it off. An animal sitting there with its tongue hanging out is not a great sight for your photos.
From there, I like to try and make the animal look like it's naturally bedded down. For a deer, tuck the front legs under the brisket and try to tuck in the back legs as well. This isn't always easy, but do your best. Another thing to keep in mind here is location. Some of the best shots that I see are when a deer is posed with the antlers skylined and an epic backdrop showcasing the country they called home. If it is possible to move the animal for that type of background, you won't regret the work for the result.
Once the animal is posed, it's time for you to pose. Don't sit on top of the animal or ride them for a photo. You just took an animal's life. Let's try to honor that life for what it was and what it will provide you. Also try to avoid setting your bow rifle or bow between the antlers, like it's a gun rack or something. The photo will look far better if the rifle is laying in front of the animal, say with the bipod legs extended, or with the bow/rifle laying up against the animal's body. Holding the weapon is obviously another option. And don't be "too cool" and forget to smile either. You just accomplished something you worked for. Enjoy it.
Get the Right Angle
Perspective is something that sets quality photos apart from the rest. Say you find a bear track. Instead of just standing there and taking the photo as you see it, try getting down low with the track and maybe show the path he was walking. Taking the time to change the perspective of the photo will give it that much more life. The possibilities are endless here, so go crazy with your creativity.
Another thing to note is the effect that different angles can have on a photo. For instance, if the person taking the photo is standing and shooting down at the subject, it makes the subject look rather small and vulnerable. To contrast that, shooting up makes the subject look bigger and in your face. A person can use these to their advantage from a creative standpoint, as photography is no doubt an art.
What if You're Solo?
If you've ever tried to take photos of yourself, by yourself, I'm sure you're chuckling at what a feat that can be. Yes, it is hard. But it is totally doable and doesn't have to end with those standard, arm-stretched selfies we have all seen too many times. A good solo photo just takes a tad bit more time and planning. A tripod will make your life much easier should you be alone. If you already have a tripod for your hunting glass, do yourself a favor and get an attachment that you'll need to either attach your phone or camera to the same tripod. Our phones and cameras have a timer function on them that can usually be set to either 2 seconds, 5 seconds, or 10 seconds. I'd suggest using the 10-second option, giving you ample time to hit the shutter button and run over to pose for the shot. It can feel quite funny doing this alone and I get a kick out of thinking about someone watching from afar, but it's necessary to get those photos!
In a world where most of our population is much more familiar with buildings rather than mountains, it's a pretty special thing to be a hunter. We're exposed to a whole different world that receives far fewer eyes than that of the city. Whether it's a stunning view of vast wilderness or the bull elk you've finally punched that tag on, capturing these moments is special. Taking photos in the field extends the life of the hunt and helps preserve the adventure past that of what is memory. The thing is, we only get so many shots at this — pun intended. It should be in our best interest to make the most out of these times when they present themselves. Don't just do it for the gram. Do it for you.
Josh Kirchner is the author of the book, Becoming a Backpack Hunter, as well as the voice behind Dialed in Hunter, a blog that not only documents his own journey, but provides gear reviews, tips/tactics for western hunting, and encourages other hunters to chase and achieve their goals. Josh is a passionate bowhunter that has been hunting with his family since he was a small boy. When he is not chasing elk, deer, bear, and javelina through the diverse Arizona terrain, he is spending time with his wife, daughter, and two herding dogs.