The perfect shot

Back roads, bit of hard work for great wildlife winter photography

This late-fall mule deer buck, photographed near the Book Cliffs in eastern Utah, shows the full neck, well-polished antlers and healthy coat that contribute to great wildlife photography.

The website of DIY Photography shows how to use a piece of foam insulation or bean bag to stabilize your camera when photographing from inside a vehicle.


Some photo tips for winter wildlife

Carry a couple of lenses with you, or a quality zoom lens, to give you different aspects and close-ups.

Tripods are nice if you are out walking, but a short piece of foam pipe insulation will fit across the top of the truck window, giving you the stability needed for low-light conditions.

Wear camouflage, because you never know when you might want to get out of the vehicle.

Even rutting deer will indicated when you’re getting too close. The farther, the better, which is why camera catalogs offer such a wide range of telephoto lenses.

As you watch for deer be alert to other opportunities. Coyotes, foxes, eagles and other predators and scavengers also are trying hard to make it though the cold months and may be closer than you think, particularly if feeding on roadkill.

Be prepared for fast-changing weather and driving conditions. There still are places without cell phone service.

Some friends were looking through a collection of mule-deer photos from Collbran outdoor photographer Colby Olford and noticed an interesting trend — Most of the photos were taken in the winter.

Olford has a knack for finding and photographing big bucks on their winter range, a talent he developed while pursuing deer in a more serious vein and while armed with something more lethal than a motor-drive SLR.

Late-fall is considered the best time to capture images of big bucks, thanks to the fall rut bringing deer out of hiding and reducing their focus from everything that moves down to one thing — reproduction.

Some of the biggest bucks of the year suddenly come out of seemingly nowhere, appearing in fields and pastures where a week earlier you couldn’t find a track.

Savvy photographers who prefer shooting wild deer in their habitat take advantage of a deer’s seasonal loss of caution to capture some of the best images of the year.

Several photographers I’ve spoken to say each fall they make it a habit to drive back roads — Mesa to Collbran, State Bridge to Granby, Bayfield to Ignacio to Chimney Rock, Gunnison to Lake City — knowing those deer-rich areas will reveal rut-focused bucks paying little heed to a quiet photographer in a stopped vehicle.

Don Zippert of Grand Junction, whose photographs of elk, grizzlies and other wildlife often grace these pages, said he’s always wary of photographing big bull elk during the rut.

“I’ve had them jump straight up from 100 yards away and come tearing straight at me,” said the veteran photographer, who prefers the opportunities found in Yellowstone and Grand Tetons national parks. “I really like photographing big bulls but you have to remember they are a totally different animal during the rut. You never know what they are going to do.”

The authors of the website list several reasons why fall deer and elk photos are so striking.

“As they gear up for the rut, males haven’t yet been run down, their antlers aren’t broken, and the extra testosterone coursing through their bodies has thickened their necks impressively,” says the photo guide. “Females also look their best, as their young have been reared and they are beginning their estrus cycles.”

This added bulk, plus the still-fresh coats and the well-polished antlers, make this a prime time to head out with your camera.

Best of all, fall and early winter deer often can be photographed from the comfort of your vehicle, if you have the right equipment, and some of the better shots I’ve seen were taken by photographers driving snowy back roads in areas they knew held wintering deer.

Olford, like most talented photographers, keeps his favorite locations secret, partly to reduce the pressure on deer while they are busy surviving the winter and partly because he makes his living taking great photos.

Most of the time the issue of disturbance isn’t a problem if photographers remember to keep their distance and stay in the vehicle when possible.

The big disturbances come later in the winter, after the antlers have fallen and shed hunters start harassing winter-stressed deer.


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