Part 14 - Getting It Right - 'Dead' Photos Revisited
Let me start by telling you about the ‘three ugly amigos’ in the above image. They are my three nephews (they are all brothers), Chris “Moki” Murphy on the left who took this photograph and his two partners in crime, Matt and Paul. Now these three guys are young, fit, keen, pretty much bullet proof and absolutely love their hunting. Right from when they first showed an interest in hunting they have always displayed a keen respect for our back country and from what I have seen, high morals and ethics for fellas so young. For example, after taking his first chamois a few years ago Matt has now set himself a trophy ‘standard’ in regards to what animals he stalks and consequently kills.
Another ‘feather in their cap’ is a genuine respect and admiration for the game animals they hunt. This is supported by the fact that of all the photographs they have come home with and showed to me, none have had the “cringe factor”. You know, tongue hanging out, blood and gore, awkward and grotesque body placements, limbs cut out by the framing/composition, the whole scene in shadow and so on. As I say, this shows to me that they have high personal benchmarks and place a high value on our wonderful game animals.
Now, should these lads wish to write an article for a magazine and include a few of their photographs, they would have a far better than average chance of that article being accepted by the editor. Conversely, (and no matter how well written the story is) had those same images been ‘cringe factor’ photos the editor would have no hesitation in rejecting the whole article. Pretty disappointing after all the work that goes into writing an article.
The whole theme of this article is probably very déjà-vous-ish for many of you as my third article in the photography series dealt with the very same topic. Greg (the editor) has been very frustrated at the continuing high number of unprintable and just plain messy images being submitted to the magazine so has asked me to revisit the matter in an attempt to increase the quality of photographs being sent in.
This time I’ll deal with just the basics to obtain good, tidy, presentable and printable images. If you’d like to read a bit more on this subject to get some more detailed and technical information please read (or re-read) issue # 27, February/March 2012.
So as to be as direct and to-the-point as possible, I’m going to pretty much just list or bullet point the elements to create a good ‘dead photo’ starting with the most important and going down from there ….
As always, good lighting is essential for a good clear image and this is best utilised by having it coming in from behind the camera onto the subject. Shadows (one of the photographer’s worst enemies) are minimised and with so much more light available very forgiving camera settings are achievable. Overcast days with no sunshine are, surprisingly, better than bright sunlight (even when coming from behind) because shadows are completely eliminated. Be careful with your settings in these conditions as fast shutter speeds will be more difficult to obtain with the reduced light available. Have a look at Moki’s image at the start of the article … overcast day and notice how there are no dark shadows and resulting loss of detail.
Blood and Gore
This particular part of hero shots is the one that gives me the largest ‘shudder of cringe’. Honestly, I think there’s nothing worse in a hunting photo.
Blood is the most obvious one as it stands out so much being bright red. You must make all efforts to remove as much of it as possible from the animal, the ground, surrounding vegetation and even off your hands and clothing. I read an article just a few weeks ago where a guy carries a small towel specifically to wipe off the worst of any blood, gore and mess as well as some wet wipes to clean up the left over residue the towel misses. Sounds like a big softie doesn’t he ??!! Well, I can tell you his ‘dead photos’ are superbly clean and tidy … every one of them.
Another method of minimising bloody messes is to simply disguise or cover up wounds and blood with pieces of vegetation or grass, perhaps lay a rock in front of the offending area or maybe even place the stock of your rifle between the bullet hole and the camera. Tongues should of course be placed back in the mouth. If the jaw keeps wanting to flop open then a small (emphasis on small so as not to be noticeable) rubber band can be placed over the animals nose to prevent this from happening. If blood continues to dribble or drip from the mouth and/or nose, try stuffing a tissue, piece of cloth or even some grass down the throat or nostrils to block the flow.
In saying all that, it is perfectly acceptable for small amounts of blood to be in the shot if it is impossible to remove every last bit, after all, it is hunting.
Composition and Framing
This particular facet of taking dead animal photos is one of the easiest to get right yet the editor tells me that so many of the images he receives are very poor in this area. The usual photographic compositional guidelines apply to hero shots too.
First and most obvious is to make sure the whole animal is in the frame. The shape of an animal’s body fits more naturally into a landscape orientated photograph and this will also ensure more of the animal (and you) fill the whole frame. Position the beast in a natural pose. My preference is tucking the legs underneath its body in a bedded down type position. You also want the animal to be the ‘main attraction’ so sit (don’t stand) behind the animal near the front quarters and hold it’s head up by grasping it around the back of the neck. Another no-no is to sit on the animal. Many consider this disrespectful. Never hold the animal up by the ear and although it’s often tempting and seems easier to grasp the animal by the antlers or horns, don’t ! Apart from looking just plain terrible it will make the trophy look smaller than it actually is.
Framing the shot tightly ensures the animal is the main point of interest in the shot. That is not to say that the background shouldn’t be given some thought. Attempt to contrast the background with the animal and especially so with the antlers or horns if it is a good trophy.
Ask the person taking the photograph to kneel or squat down to the eye level of you and the animal. A standing shot will create all sorts of awkward angles and tend to shrink the trophy while kneeling will do justice to the size of the animal and make it easier to ‘skyline’ the antlers.
Matt Murphy with his first 10 inch chamois. (Photo courtesy Matt Murphy) This image illustrates how well the landscape orientation works for hero shots. Composition is also good in that the animal is the main subject filling the frame well with no other major distractions. Matt is sitting behind the front quarters, holding the head up nicely displaying the horns effectively, animal is in a very nice bedded down position and the shot has been taken from their level or slightly below. And finally, the overcast day has meant there are no harsh, distracting shadows.
Above is a portrait orientated shot of the same scene. Notice how Matt and the chamois are now taking up less of the frame leaving a huge chunk of dead and empty space above Matt’s head. A portion of the buck’s body has also been ‘chopped off’ on the right side because of the attempt to ‘squeeze’ the subjects into this vertical framing. (Photo courtesy Matt Murphy)
A further thing you should be thinking about when taking dead photos is who is likely to view the images. There is a good chance that one or many non-hunting people may look at your pics. We do not want to turn these non-hunters into anti-hunters so do consider where you place your rifle should you decide to have it in the shot. ALWAYS ensure the weapon is pointing in a safe direction and preferably with the bolt in the full open position. Failing to do this, together with bloody, messy scenes will very quickly ‘turn off’ non-hunters with the potential to turn them into anti-hunters.
Have another look at the first three images in this article. You’ll notice that the boys have included nothing but the trophy and the hunter/s. Makes for a very nice, tidy photograph doesn’t it ?? Now, what that also does is guarantee no distractions for the viewer - the trophy and hunter are the sole focus of the shot.
So, once you have the animal set up in a satisfactory manner, have a wider look around for unwanted objects which serve no real purpose in the scene and which may detract from what you’re trying to achieve. Grasses, vegetation or rocks obstructing the camera’s line of sight should be removed, packs, camera pouches, knives and so on don’t need to be in the frame either.
Eyes and Face
If you have read some of my previous photography articles I’m sure you will remember me (much more than once) talking about the eyes of a subject. Here, once again, the eyes of the hunter (and to a lesser extent, the dead animal) must be seen and preferably not in shade. Hats and sunglasses must be removed to reveal the eyes to the viewer. Remember, without eyes you have no life.
For a variety of reasons sometimes shadows on faces are unavoidable. Careful and subtle use of the camera’s flash is great for evening out these dark areas which in turn will bring out more detail. When I say ‘subtle’ I’m talking about just enough of a burst to fill in the shadows yet not over power the image with blown out highlights (white areas).
Tripod and Self Timer
The editor has also mentioned that far too many of the pics sent in are out of focus. Apart from good exposure settings there are two things that will help in this area immensely. First is the use of a tripod or at the very least some sort of solid base to place the camera on. Second is the self timer feature on the camera and the knowledge of how to use it properly. Using these two elements individually and more so together will have huge impacts on the quality and clarity (sharpness) of your photographs. Be familiar with them both and use them !!
‘Moki’ with a lovely stag in the Marlborough high country. (Photo courtesy Moki Murphy)
Here is another really good example of how a hero shot should look …
- tidy and clean (no blood and mess) - nice positioning of the stag
- frame filling but just enough of the background to give an idea of the terrain
- antlers contrasting with the background
- no shadows (overcast)
- landscape orientation
- Moki sitting behind not over powering the trophy
- face and eyes clear
- camera at eye level
- no clutter
Just a couple of nit picks with it …
- lower legs amputated by the bottom of the frame
- holding the head up by the back of the neck would have been preferable.
Contrastingly, here is a real shocker - how NOT to take a ‘hero shot’. Terrible, huh ? Yet apparently these types of photographs are turning up on the editor’s desk or computer too regularly.
The way I see it, many of the animals and trophies we take have had truck loads of work, effort, expense, sweat and tears put into them. In many cases, people may have waited half a lifetime to secure the trophy of their dreams. What’s another half an hour or an hour on top of that to just take your time and give all the hard work justice (let alone giving the animal itself some due respect) by taking a nice clean and high quality photograph. It also gives you a really good memento of the occasion that you can look back on years down the track.