Taking good hunting photos is important for two main reasons. The first is that, after the meat has been eaten or the trophy head is gathering cobwebs on the wall, photographs of the day you took that big stag or monster boar will be your best way of remembering the hunt. Memories fade rapidly, but good photographs can help them come flooding back even decades later. Hunting can be a time consuming and expensive recreation so when you finally taste sweet success you owe it to yourself to make sure you record the event as accurately and as fully as possible.
The second reason is that your photographs will be your main way of sharing your hunting experiences. Whether that means simply showing your happy snaps to your mates, posting them on social media sites, or even getting them published in a magazine like this one, your photos are a window to the outside world that shows what hunting is like. It‚Äôs important we make a good impression. The future of hunting depends largely on public opinion, because it is public opinion that influences Government policy. Showing the world that hunting is a healthy, respectful, challenging outdoor pursuit undertaken by normal, self-reliant people makes a lot more sense for the longevity of our sport than depicting hunters as blood-thirsty, red neck bogans. This is especially so in these days of on-line social media, where an ill-conceived photo can quickly spread far and wide and damage the reputation of hunting.
I‚Äôm not an expert photographer by any stretch, but having edited and written for hunting magazines for nearly two decades, I know what I like to see when I‚Äôm flicking through my favourite titles. Hopefully the following tips and advice will provide some inspiration for other hunters to take a little more care with their photos. Most of what follows is related to concentrating on what you‚Äôre pointing the camera at, rather than anything technical about photography.
The most important thing you can do to take better hunting photos is to carry your camera with you into the field. It‚Äôs inconvenient at times, but trophy photos of freshly killed game in its natural habitat are so much more appealing than pics of long-dead, stiff and unnatural looking animals back at camp, especially if you‚Äôve had to dismember them to get them there. The fact is that if you don‚Äôt bother carrying your camera with you, you won‚Äôt get decent photos.
I carry at least one digital SLR camera with me on every hunting trip because I enjoy the creative flexibility that SLRs provide. They squeeze into my day pack and really aren‚Äôt that heavy. There are, of course, many other smaller, lighter and more affordable cameras on the market that stow much more easily in your kit. Many of these point-and-shoot models take perfectly good photos of publishable quality. It‚Äôs worth noting that as much as the photographic capacity of iPhones and smartphones has increased in recent years, they still haven‚Äôt evolved to a point where they can consistently take publishable photos. If you‚Äôre a budding hunting writer you‚Äôre going to have to invest in a proper camera of some description.
Make the effort
If you‚Äôve ever hunted with a guide in Africa you‚Äôll have witnessed first-hand how seriously they take the process of capturing good hunting photos. Good guides are fully aware that clients are paying top money for what might be a once in a lifetime trip, so they go to extraordinary lengths to capture professional photos. Once the animal hits the deck, a team of trackers converge to prepare both the animal and the site in order to present the trophy in the best possible light. The PH is invariably well versed in the technical aspects of photography, too, and is not usually in a hurry to move on before the client is 100% satisfied with the photos.
That‚Äôs the way it should be with hunting photography in Australia too, without the team of trackers of course! Once the hunt has concluded, why spoil the photos by rushing them, or because you couldn‚Äôt be bothered?
If possible, drag the animal into the open, away from the main pool of blood and out from shadows or vegetation that might obscure the shot. Then position the animal as respectfully as possible, with the worst bullet damage facing away from the camera. With bigger game, try rolling them on to their stomachs and curling their legs up underneath them. With smaller game, try making the focus of the photo just one or two animals or birds, rather than a big pile. You‚Äôll need to take note of the position of the sun, too, but we‚Äôll deal with that later.
Next, clear the site. Squat down where you will shoot from and look for any grass or brush that obstructs the field of view, and remove it. The professional hunters I‚Äôve hunted with in Africa keep machetes and grass cutters in their trucks for exactly that purpose, but a shovel or even a hunting knife will do. Make sure you have a good look; there‚Äôs nothing more aggravating than even a single blade of stray grass poking up in the wrong place.
You‚Äôll need to pay some attention to the animal, too. Most importantly, ensure there‚Äôs not too much blood. Hunting obviously involves some horrific wounds and lots of blood, but there‚Äôs no need to show that in your photos. Wash off excess blood with water from your drink bottle, or throw some dirt on it so it doesn‚Äôt look so obvious. Hide bullet wounds with a rifle butt or back pack. It‚Äôs amazing what you can get away with using a little forethought. Using careful angles and the creative placement of a tree trunk I once photographed a fully gutted sambar deer with only one leg still attached – and you wouldn‚Äôt have known it hadn‚Äôt just hit the deck. Make sure, too, that the animal‚Äôs tongue isn‚Äôt hanging out ‚Äì that‚Äôs a quick way to ruin an otherwise perfect photo.
Compose the shot
Once you‚Äôve done your best to prepare the site and the animal, it‚Äôs time to compose the shot before pushing the shutter button. The most important advice I can give you here is to get closer. No, closer! No, really close! How many pics do you see where the hunter and his trophy are tiny specks in the distance surrounded by acres of dead space? Unless you‚Äôre specifically interested in recording the background, it‚Äôs much better to fill the frame with the subject.
Speaking of the background, take the time to check it for items that could detract from the photo. Beer cans are a classic. I can‚Äôt imagine for a second why anyone would think it‚Äôs a good idea to have a beer or rum can in a hunting photo. Similarly, avoid other kinds of rubbish and clutter, including vehicles and fence lines. Look, too, for trees that might appear to be growing out of the hunter‚Äôs head. It‚Äôs often a good idea to get down low ‚Äì lie down if you have to ‚Äì to get a better angle. This technique allows you to silhouette the animals horns or antlers, which makes them much more of a feature than if they blend with the surrounding vegetation.
Next, there is the lighting to consider. I can‚Äôt think of a single situation where a photo of a hunter and his or her quarry wouldn‚Äôt be improved by the use of fill flash, no matter the level of natural light. Fill flash helps eliminates shadows on the hunter‚Äôs face caused by caps and hats, and when used properly it also highlights the animal and makes it ‚Äòpop‚Äô out of what might otherwise be a dull scene. That‚Äôs not to say you shouldn‚Äôt also use natural light to your best advantage. It‚Äôs usually best to have the sun behind the photographer so that it illuminate the hunter and quarry. One exception to this rule is at dawn and dusk, when positioning the rising or setting sun behind the hunter can impart a¬†terrific mood to the photograph.
Finally, take a moment to think about whether there is any way of making the scene more interesting. Get a dog in the photo, that always helps. Or a kid. Or some relevant pieces of equipment such as your firearm, binos, backpack or shooting sticks. And crack a joke at the opportune time so that your hunter cracks a smile ‚Äì hunting is fun, so let‚Äôs show it!
One of the things I drum into my kids when we‚Äôre hunting is that they should show respect to their quarry both before and after they‚Äôve taken its life. Just because an animal is dead, even the most destructive feral pest, doesn‚Äôt make it OK to turn it into a plaything. The same applies to photos. Nothing makes me wilder than seeing photos of dead game animals with hats on their heads, sunglasses on their faces, or cigarettes in their mouth. It‚Äôs just plain puerile and such photos will never find their way into a magazine such as this. Photos of hunters sitting or standing on their fallen quarry shows a similar lack of respect. Those sort of photos getting into the public arena can only have a negative effect on the image of hunters.¬†
Along similar lines, you should also show respect for firearm safety. I know everyone has their own safety standards and methods, but it is off-putting in the extreme to see trophy photos in which the bolt is closed and, worse, the rifle is pointing in an unsafe direction.
Capturing great hunting photos is to a large extent a numbers game: the more photos you take the greater the chance you‚Äôll get some of publishable quality. Make sure you take lots!¬†
I recently read an article in Australian Photography about the bloke who took the famous photo of the tied cricket test between Australia and the West Indies in 1965. Back then the photographer had an allowance of 24 photos for the entire day‚Äôs play! Thankfully the modern photographer isn‚Äôt subjected to any such limitations. With the advent of digital cameras, photography is pretty much free once you‚Äôve made your initial camera purchase – so that there‚Äôs no excuse for not taking hundreds of them. Digital cameras also allow you to check that you‚Äôve got some good photos before heading for home.
Finally, although this article has focused largely on getting the trophy shot right, if you‚Äôre keen to get your hunting stories published in a magazine like this one you‚Äôll also need plenty of supporting photos. You should always be on the lookout for opportunities to get photos of your mates in action, scenic shots and photos of your camp and equipment. Wildlife shots are also a great addition to any hunting article, especially if you can put the rifle down long enough to get some live photos of the game you seek.‚ÄÇ