We see them everywhere we go.  On a peg board at the gas station or a friend’s refrigerator.  We see them stuck in truck visors and across facebook avatars.  We see these pictures everywhere because in some special way we can be reminded of the adventure that goes with the picture.  We feel strong emotions when we see these.  We can almost feel the temperature and smell the grass that the pictures were taken in.  When a moment as special as the ones in the pictures happens in our lives, it burns the memory into us and can never be replaced.

Harvest photos are the key to unlocking these emotions years down the road, when life has gotten in the way and we need reminding of the truly good things in life.  For this reason, taking good harvest photos to me is a way of making my experiences in bowhunting immortal, not only to me but to my children and their children.

Hunters are placed in a unique situation when the oppurtunity for harvest photos arrises.  One second you are a good friend helping a buddy track his dream buck and the next you’re handed a camera and expected to take photos of the buck that your buddy has been chasing for three years.  You know he wants to live in this moment forever and your pictures are going to allow him to do that.  No pressure huh?   But with a few simple considerations your pictures can live up to expectations and you will have played one of the most important roles in your buddy’s best day of the year.

Most likely at this point you were just handed a point and shoot digital camera to take these pictures.  If you were handed a DSLR and you don’t know anything about it, turn the dial to auto and commence shooting.  Almost all digital cameras will auto focus when you depress the shutter button halfway.  You will probably hear a beep and see some sort of green lines on the LCD.  But DSLR cameras in the right hands will take your harvest photos to a whole new level, enabling the photographer to set his own aperture, shutter speed, and white balance.  Most hunters don’t own these cameras or have buddies that do and that’s okay.  Many modern point and shoot digitals take great pictures and setting up the scene will be more important than the equipment shooting it.

Before our pictures can be taken there is a little work to be done.  First, the animal needs to be prepped for the photo.  Cleaning up the animal will not only make for a better photo but it will give the animal the respect it deserves for giving it’s life.  With a properly shot big game animal there is frequently blood in the mouth and it is sometimes difficult to clean up.  Wiping the blood away with a rag is rarely enough to remove the blood from the hair and will leave the white hair around a deer’s mouth stained red.  To combat this we frequently take in a jug of water, it usually takes at least a gallon to restore the bright white of a deer’s chin.  Windex will also act as an even better solvent and will remove the blood with less water being used.  The tongue is the next thing and must be removed because no matter how many times you put it back in the mouth, it will come back out.

After cleaning up the animal, positioning it and yourself for the photo is an important thing to consider.  We find we like to roll the buck up onto it’s legs, which gives a more natural look to the photo.  We call this the bedded buck pose.  In addition to looking more natural it will make it easier to hold the head erect.  It’s also no secret anymore that if you can get yourself as far behind the rack as possible it will add the illusion of a bigger deer.  I call this the “Get this thing away from me pose”.   It is obvious in pictures and we aren’t fooling anyone with this anymore.  It is also important for the photographer to be on the same level as the hunter/animal.  If you are standing above the hunter/animal, everything in the picture will appear smaller.  A good goal is to have the deer’s head and the hunter’s head at the same height, along with the photographer being on the same level.

Now that we have prepped our buck for the pictures let’s look at what else will be in the frame.  Backgrounds can tell as much of the tale as the hunter and deer.  When taking our photos, we try to capture whatever it is about the area that makes it special.  Here in our area that is a lot of geographic diversity.  We hunt areas where there aren’t even trees big enough to hunt out of, all the way to big wooded bottoms.  We want our harvest photos to showcase the area that our deer called home. The picture at the beginning of this post is a perfect example of highlighting the terrain the buck was harvested in.

This picture would have greatly benefited from using glass eyes to remove the flash glow. Compliments Danny Williams.

With many of our harvests happening towards late evening we are faced with another challenge.  When taking harvest photos at night it is particularly challenging to incorporate the background, so other things become even more important.  When everything in the distant background is dark the hunter/animal pair will be highlighted.  This is where animal prep and hunter placement is very important.  We also will want whatever weapon we used for the harvest to be shown in the picture.  A hunter can get creative with this aspect.  Unique setups can be created by possibly hanging your bow behind you on a tree.  Take some artistic liscense and make your pictures unique.  The reflection a flash causes off of a deer’s eyes will also cause problems.  If you don’t want your buck’s eyes looking like flashlights, glass taxidermy eyes can be purchased off ebay and will correct this problem.  They easily slide over the real eyes and will bring a more lifelike look to the animal.

Sometimes waiting for the right light is worth it. Compliments Nick White

Sometimes we are lucky enough to have our harvest in the morning and we get to take daylight pictures.  This is where natural lighting can make or break a picture.  Where we want to take our pictures is going to decide the quality.  Not always will where the animal expired be the best place for a picture to be taken.  Being in the timber on a sunny day will make it very difficult because of hard shadows.  A flash can be utilized in these cases to cancel the shadows on the hunter, but it will not look as natural as moving to a better location.  Sometimes we have waited hours for the proper lighting just to get the quality of photo that we are looking for.  The proper location and waiting for the warm natural lighting of an evening is half the battle.

When shadows are long, sometimes a reflector will cancel shadows and remove contrast from the hunter’s face and buck’s antlers.

Now that we have moved our buck to the perfect location that will showcase the animal and his home, lets tackle the light.  I’m pretty sure the sun won’t move for us so we have to move ourselves accordingly.  Try and put the sun not directly in the hunter’s face but slightly offset.  Shadows will stay fairly short and the hunter will not have to squint in the pictures.  Other simple devices can be used to cancel shadows without the use of a flash.  Reflector discs can be used to reflect sun back to the shadow side of the hunter.  In our experience these pictures are very unique and stand apart from the rest.  These discs are inexpensive and are collapsible to a third of their size.  Awesome shilloute pictures can also be taken by simply flipping sides and putting the sun behind the hunter.  Remember to shut your flash off if the camera is on auto and decides that it needs to be on.

Utilize your background to help set up the scene.  This old barn post provided a perfect spot for the hunter’s bow.

By taking the time to prep the animal and set up the shot we have seen remarkable improvements in our harvest photos.  We spend hundreds of hours every year chasing our goals and when we finally achieve success these pictures can trap all the emotions of a season. Every trailcam checked, stand hung, frozen finger, and arrow fired in training can be seen inside these pictures.  I hope that someday long after I’m gone my grandchildren will find a dust covered picture of me with a deer and they can look into the picture and feel what their Grandpa did so many years ago.

– Matt White, avid bowhunter and member of Heartland Bowhunter