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'The Gear for Deer'
An introduction to big game photography

By Rob L. Suisted

(Originally published in New Zealand Outdoor magazine)

I often wonder about the hunting game......I wonder what it is that pulls deerstalkers and hunters to it? How can it be that we willingly continue to put ourselves into harsh country and trying conditions in the search of big game?

The civilised non-hunter might have it as a guess that we do it just for the kill, and I can't begrudge that guess, as wrong as it is. I often wondered myself, how important the kill was to my motivation? The motivation to spend two long weeks stuck under canvas in wettest Fiordland, or the motivation to perch in a tent high in the snowbound Southern Alps. Is it all just for a chance to put a distant hole in an animal, and see it drop? I know it's definitely not that and proof has come in several ways. The most certain of which is from my photography of the same animals that I hunt.

For me the motivation comes clearly from the patient stalk needed to outwit a wild animal in it's own environment, a wild animal with well developed senses.


To successfully stalk close enough for a good photo is an incredibly satisfying challenge and I urge you to try it. I'm writing this column with that in mind. Secondly, if you're a keen hunter and amateur philosopher and often ponder questions about our sport I also urge you to read Aldo Leopold's (that famous American hunter and 'father' of the modern conservation ethic!) book 'A Sand County Almanac'. Right, I'll leave the heavy stuff to him and get on with it!

When I was too young to get my firearms licence but old enough to be keen to get into the scrub, I recall that I regularly thumbed through old copies of NZDA's magazine 'Wildlife'. It was the magnificent photos by guys like Gordon Roberts and Lance Barnard that really stand out now.



Sambar Hind in Flax, Manawatu. 300mm lens f5.6 @ 1/250th sec, Kodachrome 200. Suisted.



I guess they're both probably equally to blame for the redirection of a promising young New Zealand fast bowler into the Tararuas with rifle every summer (and rest of the year as required) as soon as the local Arms Officer completed the paper work? In the following years I wondered with awe how they managed to do what they did - I was having trouble getting within .270 range. It goes without saying that the fact that so few people have managed to achieve the same results that these guys have is testament to their skills? My initial attempts at photographing game animals came about on the odd weekends were I had shot one animal and had realised that more venison was not a viable option in the pack space department. The first results were of course rather miserable - they had more blur than the famous 'Freaney Moa' photo and deer were harder to spot than the ball competitions!




I'm glad to say this has finally changed somewhat, and I'm very happy to report that it is due mainly to the lack of knowledge in the photography section rather than the odds of actually meeting the odd deer close up. I now know that good wild animal photos are achievable, but they take a good deal of dedication and learning - fortunately though we all seem to possess a good deal of keen. Here's the low down on what I've learnt about the basic requirements, especially equipment-wise, in the years since (there are of course still many cock ups that contribute regularly to the odd lack of quality results, but I'll leave those till near the end to hold your attention). There isn't room to go into intricate details on stalking techniques in this issue suffice to say though that they are not much different from the ones you already employ with a rifle.

Chamois lightening the load for the get away - I put this one in for interest. I'm not sure if it's pissing itself from laughter with me crawling down a snow fed river using the water movement to disguise my approach in the open, or whether it's just nervous? Kaikoura mountains. 400mm lens f5.6 @ 1/500th sec, Kodachrome 200.



THE ENVIRONMENT. Think for a moment about the typical areas you hunt deer in, and the typical times of day you're most likely to spot them. You'll soon conjure up a picture that is either very hostile to the expensive piece of electronic camera gear you're lugging about, or the light levels are very poor, or both - either way things are rather trying, but they're not hopeless. It just means that we have to think a bit about optimising our gear and approach to handle these conditions. To start with, lets consider some of the crucial requirements.

FILM. Because our quarry is normally encountered in the bush, or active in the open only in the morning or evening, we therefore typically contend with low light levels so film choice is crucial - we must use film with as much sensitivity as possible, the faster the better. Forget the concern that a faster film produces more grain and is therefore less desirable. We're talking here about the difference of actually getting a photo or not; if it still concerns you once you have success then you can work on points for style, but the quality of the faster films today is remarkable, especially if you stick with colour negative (print) film. There is one film that stands out clearly as an option that you should consider. I recommend Fujicolor Super G 800 as a starter. This film has been raved about since it's introduction several years ago and is the film of choice for a large number of professional sports photographers coping with big lenses and often poor lighting. Being a print film is a bonus as any minor exposure mistakes or variations are easily corrected in developing. If the 800 ASA rating is a bit confusing then understand that it only takes half the amount of light than 400 ASA film to make an image. 400 ASA takes half what 200 ASA requires, and 200 ASA half what 100 ASA needs. Hence, 800 ASA is capable of taking the same image as 100 ASA but with a 1/8th of the available light! You will be likely to find this film only in camera shops but it is relatively easy to get your mitts on. The cost will be a few dollars more because it's not as common (and probably the extra silver required in the film), but offset this against the cost of the ammunition you'll eventually save (well that's the theory, ain't it?).

Manual focus or Auto focus cameras? Scope sight or open sights, you know the type of argument.......I can see distinct advantages with both systems. For example, the older manual focus lenses have advantages, as they tend to be built like proverbial outhouses and stand up to the outdoors a heck of a lot better that a lot of the new plastic constructed auto focus equipment. Auto focus can have good advantages with speed and accuracy of focus especially in open country, but the down side can be the pits when your camera decides to focus up on the single blade to grass that cunningly conceals your presence from the monster stag about to do a runner before your eyes.



My advice is not to worry too much and simply get practised with what you have - big game photos haven't remarkably improved because cameras can focus for us.

LENS SELECTION. As a rough guideline I would consider that the following lens focal lengths are best. In the bush a 200mm, or at the most a 300mm lens is optimal. Out on the tussock tops a 400mm lens would become the desired minimum To give you an idea of focal length compared to magnification, a 50mm lens is the rough equivalent to the normal eyesight perspective. So, a 200mm lens is roughly four power magnification and a 400mm lens is about eight power. You might wonder why the highest magnification is not favorable in all situations? Surely the bigger the animal looks in a photo the better? There is a compounding problem that we face here. As a lens increases in power it generally transmits less light (unless you've got big bucks to fork out on one of the monster top of the line models that weigh too much to be of use anyway) and we need all the light we can get to the film while photographing in low light e.g. in the bush. Secondly, and very importantly, is that as the lens magnification increases you need faster shutter speeds to stop your camera wobble from blurring the image. So a more powerful lens not only lets less light through (and gives you a slower achievable shutter speed as a result), but it also requires a faster shutter speed to operate with good results - spot the problems? Fortunately, we can generally use a smaller telephoto lens in the bush because the likelihood of approaching close to animals is higher, and this helps to diminish the above problems. Also, out in the open tops, or in clearings, we have a heck of a lot more light available to us to easily use a longer lens at the much higher shutter speed required e.g. a sunny day might easily have 5 stops more available light (that's 32 times) than the same day in the bush! A relatively new development that I am currently using is the newly developed 'Image Stabiliser' lens from Canon. It's a 75-300mm f5.6 zoom lens that contains technology developed for camcorders. It uses a computer that actively moves a lens to counteract any minor camera shake you produce. The manual suggests that you can use the 300mm lens handheld down to around 1/30th sec, rather than the recommended 1/500th sec and I'm very impressed with the results, it's especially handy in the bush. Considering the harsh, wet, conditions we generally encounter I'm still being rather cautious with it. As interest in develops I think we'll start seeing many more lenses with this option, and at relatively good prices too. Stay tuned.

TELECONVERTERS. Most of us have probably heard about teleconverters. They're a small gadget that we can put between our lens and the camera to double its magnification - excellent...who needs to get close? Hang on a minute, the potential benefits of this are great, BUT, and it's a big 'but', there are serious limitations that you must understand before you rush off and splurge out on one of these gizmos. How do they work?


Wild red deer hind and fawn (Cervus elaphus), Tararua Forest park
Canon EOS, 400mm lens f5.6 @ 1/500th sec, Kodachrome 64.

Essentially they enlarge the image that comes through your lens and onto the film in your camera. A 2x teleconverter will enlarge the image to four times the area of normal (like moving a projector back further from the wall) so that your film is only seeing, and capturing, the centre quarter which equates to a 2 times increase in final picture size. Unfortunately the down sides are that the camera is now only capturing a quarter of what is entering your lens onto the film, and that means only a quarter of the light, i.e. a 2 stop reduction in light! Add this also to the need to double the shutter speed if you want to stop image blur from the increased power of the lens and you'll see that teleconverters become downright useless if we're in the bush, or low light! Do you follow? Another problem is that we are only using the centre quarter only of your lens and then putting it through a set of lenses in the teleconverter and hey presto you've got the possibility of significant deterioration of image quality unless you're willing to fork out mega bucks on a top level converter and matching brand lens to suit. Don't be put off though! I regularly use them and they are beneficial if used within their limitations. My main use is on sunny days on the tops where there is heaps of light about and animals can be harder to approach closely.


  For instance, if I use a 400mm f 5.6 lens and chuck a 2x teleconverter on I get a whopping 800mm (16 power) lens, but it's minimum aperture is f11. To hand hold the lens I will require at least 1/1000th sec. shutter speed. To get this on the brightest of days, with an f11 aperture, I will need to use at least 400 ASA film. You can see the problems if it clouded over! As you'll see, this is where a good tripod becomes essential. I recommend that if you are keen to buy a teleconverter that you make sure it is a seven element (lens) model, not an El cheapo 3, 4 or 5 lens type - it should say it on the side. It is reasonably easy to find these second hand for under a hundred bucks e.g. Tamron (just check that there's no fungal growth on the lens surfaces and you can't spot any scratches etc.). I suspect that this is often due to the owners disappointments in performance. Disappointments that are probably more as a result of expecting miracles than the optical quality? Also note that auto focus generally doesn't work with converters. Techniques for steady photos. A rule of thumb is that we shouldn't hand hold a lens at a shutter speed that is slower than the reciprocal of it's focal length (e.g. a 500mm lens needs at least 1/500th sec). By now it's clear that we are highly likely to have to run off photos at shutter speeds a lot slower than are recommended to stop image blur. If we employ a few techniques, or tools, to aid us, it can often be no problem.

Wild Chamois in fresh winter snow (Rupicapra rupicapra), Lewis Pass, Southern Alps.
Canon EOS, 400mm lens f5.6 @ 1/500th sec.



TRIPODS. The most obvious is a good tripod. Note that there is a big difference between a tripod and a good tripod, and unfortunately it is also relative to weight which doesn't help us too much, e.g. the heavier it is the less it will move, or wobble. Even on a tripod a big lens can suffer from 'mirror shake' by the action of the camera mirror bouncing up when a photo is taken, so if your camera has the ability to lock the mirror up it would be good to utilise it whenever possible when using long focal length lenses. Monopods are another tool that you'll see regularly used by sports photographers with their big lenses. Next, as hunters we can all think of a few tricks to help us steady a rifle. The obvious ones are firmly holding the camera on top of our day bag, or resting against a tree etc., or in the very least tucking our elbows into our hips or onto our knees. I have learnt many useful body posture and breathing techniques from target shooting that I use regularly when using big lenses. Try approaching a target shooter at your local branch for advice. All these methods will help get a sharper image but there is nothing that can really make up for a fast shutter speed. Therefore I strongly recommend that if you've got the chance you should run off as many photos as possible as one surprisingly good photo always seems to pop out of a hopeless situation.

GEAR PROTECTION & CARRIAGE. I always carry a camera with me when hunting. I've made up a special chest harness that supports my camera in a similar way to wearing a day bag on your front. The idea is that it takes the weight off my neck, protects the camera, and importantly provides very quick access, via a quick release clip, when needed. I've also taped up all my cameras with black insulation tape because they certainly get their fair share of knocks and scratches. You can readily remove any sticky marks left behind with alcohol - we're not talking topshelf here. Pay attention to dust (especially sand!) as it readily gets into camera and lens mechanisms and is hard to clean out and can be highly abrasive. It is good to wrap gear in plastic while in the bottom of day bags and packs. Moisture and humidity are silent enemies.



Directly they can affect the electrics in cameras, but humidity is the key cause of fungal growth in your expensive lenses. The fungi get into your lenses by minute air borne spores and they grow on the inside lens surfaces by eating the special multicoatings that are put on to control light reflections! You can spot infected lenses by carefully holding them up to the light and looking for very fine cobweb like growth. So be sure to let your valuable lenses dry out well (say in the hot water cupboard) when you get back from a trip into our humid forests etc. I keep all my lenses in a big plastic container at home with a big jar of reusable silica gel (moisture absorbing) crystals that you can buy from the chemist.

Practice, communication, and a bit of good luck. As with anything, practice helps things go smoothly when the heat is on. Familiarity with gear is the key. A good mate, a Mainlander of Dutch lineage, recently took some great photos of a couple of chamois perched high up in the Kaikouras. His mate was over the moon, the animals were 40-50 metres away with a great backdrop. The photographer didn't seem to be so excited, arguing that they weren't really that close, only to find that he had forgotten to zoom his lens from 70mm out to the 300mm he could have been using! Try chasing feral goats with the camera they can be good practise. Returning from a weekend trip into the Rimutakas I eagerly rewound the film in my camera after taking some good photos of a hind on a slip only to find I'd never put any into the camera! This summer, while on a trip to Westland we traveled up and over a high saddle to catch a lone chamois feeding contentedly just 20 metres below us on the other side. All the time in the world was available as the wind was strong, constant and favourable. Pointing out the animal to my mate who carried the rifle, I carefully crawled over with the camera. Focusing on a great shot I waited for the feeding animal to turn side on for the first photo. Bang, it fell over! 'Gosh' I said, 'That was the whole point of the trip for me, was there any rush?' Well, good luck if you're keen to have a crack at this difficult pastime. Initial successes might be slow coming but you can be sure that it will be every bit as satisfying as the time you finally tipped over your first deer. And you can be certain that they do get easier. Anyway, the natural progression is that you'll be taking images that are keenly sought after to illustrate magazines like this. Where would they be without your efforts?

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This article and images are copyright to Rob L. Suisted - Nature's Pic Images.  All rights reserved.