By Alex Comstock
From the time I started deer hunting, I have become more and more fascinated with photography every year, and I always am trying to improve my ability to take high quality photos. I don’t think I’m alone here, as photography has grown in popularity among hunters. Not only are we collectively trying to take better harvest photos with our animals, but there is a focus now on capturing the hunt through the lens, regardless if you kill anything. Having this is mind, I wanted to talk to someone who understands the intricacies of photography to help people better recognize how to improve their hunting photography game. With that being said, I reached out to Craig Francis who is an experienced photographer to get his take on a few things. Craig was very insightful on all things to do with photography, and there is a plethora of information to be learned from him.
Q: I think more and more people are getting into photography, and wanting at the least, good photos with their harvested deer. What would be your best few tips to capturing a decent kill photo?
Craig: As with any photograph, there needs to be a degree of self-assessment and forethought about what you want the image to convey before you press the shutter button. “Kill photos” are something I do not take lightly. I personally believe it is my duty as a photographer to respect that animal and the life it lived in the manner and methods in which I take harvest photos. I know this answer is wandering into ethics and away from the “how-to” nature of the question, but I believe that those ethics should dictate the direction of the photograph. Certainly everyone can come to their own conclusions, however for me, the “how” is really predicated by the “why.”
My main tip would be to have the scene be as you found it. I prefer a natural presentation of the animal. Overly posed and manipulated harvest photos have never been my favorite; I have been the hunter in those photos before and it just didn’t sit well with me. I like to focus on what makes that animal unique. If the buck has an odd kicker or scars across his face from a life well lived, I’ll look to highlight that in the photograph. I shot a deer last year that had a worm hole in his left main beam, it was a very unique characteristic that was specific to that deer, so we made sure to capture him from angles at which that feature was noticeable.
More than anything, I would say, just take a minute to consider what you’ve done. Photographing harvest photos with an attitude of respect, in my opinion, is the best frame of mind from which you can create meaningful images.
Q: If you or someone you are photographing harvests a deer in the evening, do you tend to wait until the morning to take photos, or if you take night pictures is there a way to do it effectively?
Craig: I will typically work to make the photos happen at night; if a deer was taken in the evening, that is the real story. I place a high value on the authenticity of my images. To me, if a deer is recovered in the dark, he should be photographed in the dark. All that is needed to make that happen is a few headlamps. A couple guys standing there with lights will create more than enough light for modern cameras. A tripod will help in case you need to draw out your shutter speed, but is not a necessity in my mind.
To me, no photograph is worth spoiled meat. I live and hunt in the south, if a deer is taken in the early season, it is paramount to take steps to protect that harvest from the heat. If that is the case, we’ll get the innards out and ice into the body before we photograph. This is not my preference since that is always noticeable in the photos, but the meat is what is most important. Now, if it is cold out and the meat will be fine, there is no issue with waiting until morning if you want or need daylight images. But again, to me, that is altering the story and I try my best to never alter the story.
Q: What kind of equipment does a person need if they are just looking for quality harvest pictures? Do you need a quality camera, or can you still get good pictures with something else? Does that change if somebody wants to take other pictures such as action shots or something similar?
Craig: I’m constantly amazed at the ever-increasing quality of images that can be taken on a cell phone. If you know a few things about how to compose a photo and use available light, an iPhone 7 can take a great image. Phones don’t handle backlit scenes or shoot in the dark very well, but if the light is good, all you need is a phone.
I’m always trying to impress on people that the magic doesn’t come from the camera, it comes from the operator. Developing a few basic photography skills will dramatically increase the quality of your photographs no matter what camera you have in hand. The quality of the camera gear someone uses should only increase (generally speaking) as their capacity to use it also increases. Talent and skill are the real variables, not the camera. That being said, if a desire to grow that talent beyond the capabilities of a simple platform like a phone is developed, then it is time to move forward with the gear conversation.
Q: For the guy/gal that wants to take their photography game to a more advanced level, how would you recommend someone going about learning to do that? Are there any resources out there for people, or is just getting out there and practicing the best way to learn?
Craig: YouTube. I’m tempted to just leave it at that! I would surmise it to say that I have learned more about life and work on YouTube in the last five years than I learned in all of my formal education combined. I watch a YouTube tutorial on some aspect of photography nearly every day. I learned how to use all the Adobe editing programs by watching YouTube. I learned how to meter light on YouTube. I research gear, locations, study content development/delivery strategy, etc. all on YouTube.
Now, there is no substitute for getting out there and doing it. Time behind the lens is critical. You can watch tutorials all day long, but the creative process will always involve the doing. Take what you learn on YouTube and apply it in the field.
Q: When somebody wants to start taking quality scenery pictures while out in the field such as sunsets/sunrises, creative shots, or something along those lines, is there anything in particular people can look for to get better pictures?
Craig: Good light cannot be beaten. Good light is THE variable that can take a good photo to a great photo and a great photo to a “WOW” photo. The old photographer’s mantra “get up early, stay out late” is just true. Sunrise and sunset and the light that surrounds those times of day is the element that should be central in your photography.
Q: There are so many options out there when it comes to cameras, what would you recommend to someone on what to look for when they are purchasing their first camera?
Craig: All gear purchases should be reverse engineered.
“What do you want to do with a camera – what kind of photos do you want to take?”
“What kind of camera will do that best?”
“What is my budget?”
These are just a few of the questions that someone should answer for themselves as they begin the gear buying process. However, when it comes to getting a first camera, I believe that simple is better. The barrier to learning the functions of the camera should be low. Learning photography can be a very exciting thing, I think a camera choice should be made that will not hinder that learning process. Overly complicated and complex cameras are not a good choice for a first camera. I would also contend that buying a new camera is not necessary. There are plenty of reputable used camera dealers from which you can buy a great second hand camera with tons of life still in it for a fraction of the cost of a new camera.
Q: If you only had one tip for somebody who aspires to be a good photographer, what would that be?
Craig: Be patient.
There are no shortcuts to being good at anything; if you want to be great, that is even more true. It takes a tremendous amount of time and effort to be good at something. There is a large piece of photography that I believe is an innate talent, “having the eye” as you may have heard. Other than that, it is time behind the lens. It is miles driven, flights taken, sweat equity earned and energy expended. There is nothing else but to do the work. Patience is the entire game.
-Alex Comstock, WhitetailDNA