Autumnal Wildlife Opportunities

Autumn is the time of year I think the countryside gets interesting, writes Andrew James. There’s nothing wrong with summer of course – it’s great for all sorts of photography but sometimes the overload of green is just a bit too much. When it comes to landscape and general nature photography, I like the period of time, running from the point the trees start to colour up and on into winter when the storms have stripped most of the trees bare.

It does mean wearing a few more layers, waterproofs and boots but there are some added bonuses too. As soon as the clocks go back, sunrise and sunset times are at a more ‘reasonable hour’! This year the clocks change on October 25th as it’s always the last Sunday in October.

So what sort of subjects can we attack over the coming months? Right now, in the damp weather there is lots of fungi activity and we might do something on that in coming weeks, as well as landscapes. For the wildlife lovers we have the deer rut of course that will be gathering in strength as the testosterone levels peak in the stags, as well as the grey seal breeding season and I know that some of you will be heading out to shoot these seasonal activities.

Shooting the deer rut
I’ve already seen a fair number of you already out in your local parks and moorland getting a few early shots. Consistency pays off with this so for those of you lucky to be retired try to get a long a few times and hopefully activity and interesting weather will collide! Even park deer can be tricky to photograph so keep your kit minimal as staying mobile can be key. Typically a long lens in the 400 to 600mm will prove best but don’t ignore the medium telephotos such as the 70-200mm in the parks. If you want a bit of extra support for the long lens, then use a monopod. Fiddling about with a tripod is often more hindrance than a help when shooting deer.

Now and throughout October is usually the prime period for the rut and peak rut activity tends to be early morning. Although certainly not exclusively so. However, since the best light will be early too it pays to head out bright and early and be in position as the world wakes up. If we get some good weather, by which I means a fall in temperature so there is some mist and then sunshine – spectacular pictures await. I recall a number of Foto-Buzzers gathering on a day like this at Richmond Park and getting some amazing shots. That said, even on damp and miserable days it’s still possible to get some great shots. I was nearly drowned on a deer trip once by the non-stop rain but I was still more than happy with the results.

Keep shutter speeds as high as possible to make sure that any action that occurs is captured as sharp as it can be. I managed to get this shot of two youngsters ‘play’ sparring  at Bradgate Park in Leicestershire and had a shutter speed of 1/500sec set but even this speed was almost not fast enough as the next frame in the sequence is slightly blurred because the deer on the right shook its head. I’d advise 1/1000sec as minimum for action and you may need to push ISO right up on cloudy days to achieve this! Those of you who have watched this type of behaviour at close quarters will know that it can be quite a scary experience and you do need to be aware at all times and stay well clear of the deer. This was shot on a 300mm from the safety of a small bush!

I kept low and at a safe distance while these two young bucks battled it out.

If you’re not experienced and even if you are – the obligatory but still important safety message is coming up. Sexual excited large male mammals battling for the affections of the ladies deserve respect. Don’t get to close and wherever possible have some kind of cover you can use if one does take exception to your presence and yes this DOES happen. It’s happened to me on several occasions over the years.

Foto-Buzzer shot – Basil Warren
I wanted to include Basil’s 2020 shot because this is a tough shot to get in the wilds of Exmoor. But with persistence and good fieldcraft he’s managed to get himself within range of the male red deer stag and the hind giving him the cold shoulder. Great shot Basil!

Foto-Buzzer shot - Basil Warren I wanted to include Basil's 2020 shot because this is a tough shot to get in the wilds of Exmoor. But with persistence and good fieldcraft he's managed to get himself within range of the male red deer stag and the hind giving him the cold shoulder. Great shot Basil!

Grey Seals
There are a number of good locations for shooting grey seals around the UK – including the popular Donna Nook in Lincolnshire and Horsey Gap in Norfolk. Breeding times can vary from late September right through to late November so right now there will be activity at the various coastal locations.

In terms of kit, it’s the usual long lens and doesn’t differ from how you might approach the deer photography, except that I wouldn’t bother with monopod as you want to be on your belly for most of the time so a large beanbag, just a scrunched up old jacket or even your camera bag is a much better support. If you have a tripod where the legs will splay right out this can be useful but again, if you want to be mobile and on your toes, a tripod can slow you down.

It goes without saying that you need great care and sensitivity when photographing seals – especially the pups – and it frustrates me when I see bad behaviour from photographers. Keep well back, use the longest lens you have, and don’t just go walking upright among the seals. Also never get between a seal and its pup or a seal and its exit to the sea! I’ve seen people do it.

My advice is to pick an area with activity, get down on your belly as early as possible and crawl into a suitable position commando-style! When you want to leave, crawl backwards until you are a safe distance away and then slowly stand up and walk back away from the colony. I realise this isn’t easy – trust me it’s getting harder for me too at 55 – but it’s the best way to do it without disturbance.

After a very short time seals will behave very naturally if you keep low, so you may get rewarded with some interesting interaction between adults or between adults and pups.

It is essential to keep as low as possible when shooting so you are at the eye level of your subject.

When shooting seals, be patient. Don’t fire off a thousand images of a snoozing seal – wait until the light gets interesting or they are active. Pups can be pretty curious and they’ll give you those big black eyes – as dark as a coal shed! Focus on the eyes and if you have open sea or beach behind then use f/5.8 or f/8 to get enough sharpness in the head. Remember, seals have quite a long snout so if they’re looking directly at you then you might need that extra depth-of-field.

This image was taken at f/5.6 on a 400mm lens and look how much the snout is out of focus. It would have been better at f/8 or even f/11.

Grey seal pups have very light coloured fur as you can see above and in sunny conditions this can be a bit of an issue and you need to be really careful with exposure or you’ll overexpose and lose detail. Add water to this scenario and it gets even tricker. My advice is to use a polariser in these circumstances. This will help enormously by dampening down glare but you still need to watch those exposure by checking the Histogram regularly. Depending on the long lens you have you may need a Drop-in polariser – otherwise it’s a screw-in type for the front element. A bright, sunrise was coming over the horizon in the shot below but the drop-in polariser on my 300mm lens came to rescue because there were some very bright hotspots on the pup in the water.

Interaction between mother and pup is always good to get but in water and low sun, bright hotspots on the pup's fur can be an issue.

Of course we always wish for good light so we can can get shots that warm and interesting and that’s understandable. However, that doesn’t always happen and it’s quite possible you could end up with an overcast day with not much in the sky and an even light on the seals. In this situation – don’t forget the High-Key style of exposure and processing I described in the article Shooting & Processing High-Key style wildlife. Seals on the beach are perfect for this, as you can see below.

Rather than worrying about the flat lighting conditions I've lightened the background further to make the seal stand out more in this High Key-style photograph.

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