I walk , I look, I see, I stop, I photograph Leon Levinstein 1955
Lowie and I checked ourselves out of our homely guest house in Mount Sorrel, Leicestershire at 5.50 a.m., having eaten a very welcome Danish pastry, kindly provided by our hosts. It was dark and we were worried about finding the right entrance to Bradgate Park. We had got lost in the forestry section the day before, after realising that we were at the wrong entrance. We had found our way out only because we had met a dog walker when we parked the car and we stalked his high vis jacket once we realised it was getting dark and we hadn’t a clue where we were. It is always a little nerve racking knowing you are going to spend a whole day and have breakfast with complete strangers and we were even more wary than usual after our experience the day before with a jobs worth manager at an open farm. He thought we hadn’t paid and then asked us if we could speak and then if we could speak English. He thought we were ignoring him when the truth was, we hadn’t even realised he was speaking to us. Lowie and I had met Danny Green, a pro wildlife photographer, at a well known camera shop in Norfolk. I had been so impressed with his photographs and our admiration grew even further when he told us he didn’t process the images accepted by National Geographic. The pictures were stunning and, I thought, uniquely creative in the way they had been taken. He had offered some tips quite freely and so I was really looking forward to a day of wildlife photography and learning as much as I could. We set the sat. nav., having read the itinerary properly this time, and on arrival at the deer sanctuary end of the park, we were relieved to see Danny and two other photographers assembling their kits.
It was clear from the start that Lowie and I had the smallest and cheapest cameras and lenses and I did wonder how close we were going to get and whether my trusty Canon 300 prime would do the job! As we set off through the gate to the public area of the park, Lowie dragged her wheelie bag with her tripod slung over her shoulder and I tried to copy the men, who somehow managed to wedge their tripod, with camera attached, over their shoulders. I couldn’t get the technique so managed as best I could. My jacket felt heavy with spare batteries and an extender as well as several plastic bags and cards. Suddenly there was a huge roar and Lowie looked terrified. “What was that?” There was a rush to allay her fears as we all tried to explain it was the sound made by rutting deer. As we walked along the public path Danny spotted a fallow deer caught in the pink and orange light of the sunrise. Deep in bracken, it turned its head to look at us and there was a race to get our lenses in a position to get a picture. Danny’s catch phrase of the day was “By the time you have seen it, it’s too late to get the shot!” This proved to be so right throughout the day, but I did start to anticipate and that helped eventually. I did manage to get a photograph even though the fallow deer had moved further away, but as the light was so wonderfully pink it didn’t matter. We walked further into the park and there before us were two deer rutting. We were quite close and this time I took more care with the composition. Danny explained that it had been a strange year as the weather had been so mild, the deer seemed confused about when to begin the rut and although he had taken photographers out every day during October, they hadn’t seen much action. He had finally decided to seek permission to enter the deer sanctuary where the general public are not allowed. He had been granted permission and during the last week they had seen more, but they had only managed to catch the red deer rutting once. I wasn’t too hopeful as we trudged up the hill. It was dangerous underfoot as the bracken seemed determined to grab my ankles and the mud seemed to enjoy the possibility that it may induce me to slide onto my bottom sending my gear in the air! The colours were totally stunning. The light hit the foliage and bounced pink, red, gold and orange into the air. Everything was wet and glistening and the sky was a beautiful pale pink, not a good omen for the day’s weather though!
Climb up on some hill at sunrise. Everybody needs perspective once in a while, and you’ll find it there. Robb Sagendorph
We walked up hill for what seemed ages, I was glad my lens was small but even so, it seemed to get heavier as we walked. Eventually there before us, was a herd of deer. They were spread out under trees and in foliage as well as out in the open. They seemed wary of us but not frightened. Only used to seeing rangers who feed them, I suspect they initially thought we had some goodies. We set up close to two huge trees and Danny spent time helping us to get our settings right. I was advised to put my extender on and raise the ISO to 3200. Having been told endlessly to keep the ISO down as much as possible I felt a bit uncomfortable. He explained that it is better to get the shot and in the light available it was the best setting especially as a reasonably fast shutter speed was necessary. We added .2 exposure compensation and he suggested we alter the white balance from auto. I had taken this advice when I met him before and had got better results with my macro work. Finally my camera was all set and ready to go. I balanced precariously on my little stool in mud and the remains of conkers. I struggled a bit with my geared tripod head. Danny and the other two photographers both had gimbal heads and I could see why. I soon became totally absorbed in watching the deer, forgetting completely I was in a group. There were photographs to be had all around us and it was difficult to work out where to point the lens. It was also hard to manage the length of the lens and the extender as I had forgotten my tripod collar. There’s always something! As the deer relaxed in our presence I moved a bit closer to them under a huge chestnut tree. It was well timed as the first of several huge downpours caught us by surprise. I rushed to secure my cheap old plastic rain cover over my camera alongside plastic bags and elastic bands, helped by Danny. Note to self: buy a decent rain cover! Hearing the rustle of bags, one of the bigger red stags seemed very interested in what I was doing and began to walk towards me. I started to feel a little uncomfortable. Lowie asked what she should do if they came towards her and Danny explained there was no point running! She said she was glad she had decided not to wear a particular perfume as she was sure it would have attracted them. I was relieved too as she was standing not far from me, although I couldn’t help wondering what sort of perfume attracted deer. Meanwhile the stag stopped about 2o yards away from me and just stood still and stared. I was nervous and was glad I hadn’t turned off my lens stabilisation! Eventually he wandered off. After a couple of hours the rangers arrived and fed the deer from trucks. We watched and took shots of them guzzling the acorns provided. After the eating spectacle Danny suggested we walk further into the sanctuary and much higher up. We walked quietly in the drizzle, as the deer in the higher area were much more nervous and we certainly didn’t want to irritate the stags. As we approached them, bedraggled and muddy, they watched us nervously and one or two moved back. We stopped and waited for them to settle and then moved on, taking a very wide circuitous route. Eventually we moved into a good position to watch and shoot. Almost immediately, way down the hill, two huge red stags began to rut and several other deer rushed in towards them. We were quite a way off and I knew the 300 with extender would struggle a bit at this point but nevertheless, I felt very privileged to be able to photograph red stags rutting. The fighting was ferocious and lasted for several minutes until one broke away and tried to outrun the other. Unfortunately my shots of this piece of action are blurred as I didn’t have time to increase the shutter speed. Note to self: set up TV in readiness in the future and then I just have to turn the dial!
Finally, as the best light had deserted us, we made our way back to the car park and the cafe where we enjoyed a full English and copious amounts of coffee and tea. It was pouring down and we were glad to get inside. It was clear the rain had set in for the day but undeterred we set off once again. This time Danny got the short straw and carried Lowie’s roller bag as her shoulder couldn’t cope any more. In the car park we were joined by Danny’s friends, two Norwegian pro wildlife photographers. Their lenses were immense with an even bigger price tag! Lowie and I looked at our gear covered in bin liners and plastic bags and then at theirs with pro camouflaged rain covers and wished!
We spent the rest of the day walking up and down hills trying to get shots. The last hill we climbed, with the aim of grabbing shots of deer on the top ridge, was steep and my heart was pumping like mad but I felt unconcerned as I knew the surgeon with us was trained in resuscitation! For a few seconds, high up on the ridge, the sky was a luscious pale pink before the light faded completely
It was an amazing day, not just because we enjoyed taking the photographs but because for me, it is always a wondrous experience to watch animals in a natural habitat. I will always remember the richness of Autumn colours, staring eyes and the small fallow deer who seemed to pop up in the most fairytale like places. It’s also very good to know I can still walk eight miles, mostly in the rain, carrying heavy gear and that I am still inspired enough to do it all over again next year. Thanks Danny for a fabulous day!