July 29, 2011
One area where nearly every hunter can improve is taking better hunting trophy photos in the field. When the day comes that you finally take down a trophy animal, you will be glad you have quality hunting trophy photos of that memory. Let's face it, having a mount for the wall is great, but your opportunity to share your trophy is limited to the room where it hangs. However, if you have a picture that truly captures the moment, your opportunities to share that memory are limitless. The unfortunate part is many hunters don't understand how to take a great photo that highlights both the size of the animal and the area where it was taken.
Basic Photo Gear
When it comes to taking hunting trophy photos, the most important item is obviously a camera. Most of the digital cameras on the market today take great photos. You also need a few other items, including cleaning wipes, a rag, rubber bands, portable camera stand and camo gloves.
A travel-sized pouch of cleaning wipes is great for cleaning your hands after field dressing and cleaning off your trophy before the photo. Having a photo that is tasteful and clean is important, so removing excess blood is a top priority. Use the wipes to clean off blood on the mouth, nose and body of your animal. After wiping down the face, I normally stuff the wipes down into the throat of the animal to prevent more blood from pouring out. Sometimes you will find the nose also leaks blood, and for this you can again use pieces of the wipes and stuff them deep down the nostrils using a stick.
If blood is excessive, use the rag to remove the bulk of the blood and switch to wipes to finish the job. Once I have the nose and mouth clean and blocked from blood, I will tuck the tongue into the mouth and place a small, thin rubber band around the mouth. This prevents the mouth from hanging open and prevents the tongue from falling out. The smaller the rubber band the better, because you don't want to bring attention to it in your photo.
Having a steady and level camera makes for a great picture, so packing a portable tripod is a must. By using a tripod, you are able to size up the scene and review images without changing the location of the camera. I always insist the person taking my pictures keeps the camera on a stand, because the photos just come out better. There are some really good portable tripods, such as the Gorilla Pod, that have flexible legs that wrap into any position or around objects, such as a tree limb.
The last key item is a pair of camo gloves. Camo gloves help hide your hands while holding the head or horns of your animal. Many times, bright sunlight or flash against your bare hands will cause glare and be a distraction. By wearing gloves, your hands will be much less obvious and people can focus on your trophy.
Finally, you must know how to operate your camera's self-timer. If you hunt alone, this will be your only option for capturing images in the field. Most of my trophy photos are ones I took myself, and to be honest, I am glad I did. Almost all cameras have a 10-second delay, which is enough time to press the button and go behind the animal for the picture. Yes, it does get tiring to press the button on the camera and run to get into position for each photo, but it can be done.
Pick the Scene
Scenery is a very important element in your trophy photos. I can't even count how many photos I have seen of bloody bucks with tongues hanging out while lying in a pickup bed. What a waste! You shot the animal in the wild, so at least take it out of the truck and pose it in something related to the outdoors. Try to select an area that reminds you of where you killed your animal. You want to be able to look at your photo and remember what it was like on that hunt.
Were you in mountainous country, picked corn, fresh green fields or thick timber? Let the photo tell the story. Pick something cool about the area and be creative with something interesting that may have happened. For example, I shot a buck while carrying my decoy across a clover field on the way to my stand. It was an unbelievable hunt and I had to capture the exact moment. I stayed in the clover and I popped my decoy up in the background to add to the moment.
When possible, select a scene on a slight rise in the terrain. This allows you to set your camera level with animal, which can help skyline the antlers above the horizon. This is great for drawing attention to the rack and making it look big. You should also keep an eye on what is directly behind your animal. For example, on the decoy buck photo, I made sure to keep the decoy set off to the side. Sometimes a natural object directly behind you can be very distracting, so pick the scene wisely.
Set the Stage
The next thing you need to know is how to get your animal ready to be the star. In some instances, you may have to take photos right where the animals lays at the time of kill. But other times, you have the option for propping your trophy for photos later on. Whenever possible, I prefer to pose my animal for a perfect photo at sunrise or sunset. If there is no other option, I will take my photos at night, but I'd much rather take a photo when I can capture a nice background.
If you are in a situation where you can pose your trophy for a few hours or even overnight, it will stiffen in a fixed position, which makes for perfect photo opportunities. If you choose to pose your animal overnight, it's important that you respect your game meat and only delay photos if it doesn't risk spoilage. Remove the internal organs using as small a cut as possible, because a huge gash doesn't look nice. Next, I prop the animal in a bedded position by utilizing nearby objects to help hold the position.
Convenient prop objects include rocks, wood, buckets or any solid object available. The main thing is to tuck the legs nicely under the animal in a bedded position and make sure the animal is upright and not on its side. Then prop objects behind the animal to keep it that position. Also be sure to prop the head in an upright position, because this helps keep the antlers high above you when you take the photos. You may find the need to use a bungee cord or rope to keep everything in place. Try to keep the animal's head pointed in the direction of the camera. If I am leaving the animal overnight, the final thing I do is fix the eyes into the open position. I simply use some small sticks that I break off to the correct length. All this may seem very time consuming, but it really isn't and the outcome is more than worth it.
Take the Photos
Before taking photos, get yourself and the camera into correct position. The position and/or height of the camera in relation to you and the animal is so important. If the camera is too high, it will make the antlers look small. Make sure the camera is level or slightly under the face of the trophy. This is what makes a tripod so convenient, since most people don't like to lay on the ground for someone else's photo! By using a tripod, you can set your scene and decide for yourself if you like how everything looks. If you have a buddy helping, have him sit behind your trophy and hold the antlers while you get your camera exactly where you want it.
After the camera position is set, get yourself where you want to be. A very safe place is sitting directly behind the animal but off to the side of the antlers. There are lots of different angles to choose from, and sometimes something different makes for an interesting photo. Likewise, be sure to position your bow or other gear so that you can see it without covering up too much of your animal. Remember this, most people like to look at a photo and see the trophy, the hunter, the scenery and equipment; usually in that order!
Always use the flash for several of your photos. The flash will fill in dark areas, eliminating shadows and giving the photo better color quality. I know the best photos I ever took all used a flash. Lighting is rarely perfect, and unless it is blisteringly bright, the flash brings everything together. Get in the habit of taking photos with and without flash and you will definitely be happy with one or the other.
One of the biggest advantages of digital cameras is the ability to instantly review your images for free. Sometimes a camera may focus differently or select a different exposure from one picture to the next. If you are using a tripod, you can easily take a photo, then slightly move the animal's head and take another. Do this several times and one of them will stand out as the best.
Also, as a rule of thumb, photos taken on cloudy days, during sunrise or toward sunset make the best pictures. During these times, you don't have to contend with overhead sun and the shadows it causes. A bright, sunny day makes it hard to get great photos when in the timber or wearing a hat. If I harvest an animal in the morning on a blue, sunny day, I will pose the animal, keep it cool and wait for an evening photo when I can capture a reddish purple sunset.
In the event you do have sun and must take photos right away, make sure the sun is always behind the camera. Take advantage of large clouds that pass or get your animal behind a hill where everything is shaded. Look again at the photo of me with the decoy buck. I had to take the photo immediately after the kill. So, the best I could do is get to a large shadow. The photo turned out great because of that.
If you are wearing a hat, you will have a large shadow hiding your face if it's sunny. Consider wearing a beanie instead of a ball cap so you won't have to worry about the shadow on your face. I always keep my Under Armour beanie in my camera field pack.
If you work on taking better photos, you will be so happy with the response you get from friends that you will start challenging yourself to create even better ones next time. There is only so much room in my home for taxidermy, but photos hardly take up any space, are cheap and are the best way to capture memories. I hope you take notes on all the things I mentioned in this article, create a checklist and put it in your camera pack. If you do, when you take that buck of a lifetime, you will be ready to create a photo that truly is worth 1,000 words!