Photographing Trophies and Dead Animals

Aaron's Stag

  My guess is that the two most popular subjects photographed by Kiwi hunters are ‘the kill’ and ‘scenery’. As such, I think they deserve a dedicated article each so this issue we’ll talk about capturing images of our hunting successes. ie, our ‘kills’ whether they be a trophy of a lifetime or simply a yearling deer for the freezer.

  I’ve always referred to these types of images as “dead photos”. A rather non-PC description perhaps but at the end of the day that’s exactly what they are – photographs of dead animals. In the last two issues I’ve made reference to my four albums of photographic prints from earlier years as they make good examples of points I’m trying to make. In “The Whole Journey” (second article) I said that by far the majority of shots in those pages are dead photos or scenery. Looking at the dead photos in more detail I find some pretty unsightly images as a whole but more noticeably some quite ghastly subjects within those images - those of a successful hunter standing over his downed quarry, holding the animal by the ear, huge bloody and gory hole on the near side of the animal, large pool of blood on the ground, tongue hanging out, rifle (with bolt down) pointed at the camera etc. Makes me cringe every time !!

  Back in those early times when I was young and keen (and certainly more trigger happy I think) it was generally all about the hunting. (Now days of course it’s most definitely more about ‘the whole journey’ with less emphasis on the kill). As a result virtually no thought went into those photos other than to just record yet another animal on the ground or perhaps to have proof of the pudding when having a wee brag in front of my mates or anyone that was even slightly interested for that matter.

  But, it’s the other, perhaps non-hunting people that view these images that should really be of concern. This is when these dead photos are actually very important. We as hunters must portray our chosen recreational activity in the best possible light (pun intended) as there are many out there that will grab any ammunition (second intended pun) they can to discredit our sport. The above description of my earlier images (and no doubt thousands of other photographs taken by probably thousands of other hunters) only serve to ‘brand’ us as kind of ferocious, bloodthirsty, disrespectful and heartless people. I think nothing is further from the truth. The majority of Kiwi hunters are basically very ethical, not out there to ‘murder’ every living creature they come across and are very respectful of the animals they hunt. Let’s portray that in our images !!!


The boys got this photo of Sam's first chamois pretty much right


Here’s another version of that pic of Sam’s chamois. No fill in flash leaves the subject and the foreground too dark and the background over exposed. The horns also are lost against Sam’s camo clothing



The following is a kind of checklist to consider next time you’re ‘shooting’ your successful hunt. Whether it be a huge trophy bull tahr taken on an epic West Coast trip or merely a couple rabbits taken one evening down the road from home.

  1. Lighting

  Although the size of the animal and the nature of the terrain may dictate otherwise, try and move the animal to a position where the light (sun) is striking the near/camera side of the beast. That is, have the sun behind the camera operator. This will minimise harsh shadows cast onto the animal and hunter resulting in far more detailed and pleasing images. One problem that does arise here is that the hunter will most probably will be ‘squinting’ into the sun. However tempting, don’t put sunglasses on to prevent the squinting. An image where the viewer cannot see the subject’s eyes is an image with no ‘life’ in that subject.

  2. Backgrounds

  When moving the animal (as above) attempt to take advantage of the natural beauty of the surrounding landscape and background as well. A prominent small high point, rock or knoll will aid in getting the animal at a higher level away from the immediate surrounding area and background which removes unwanted and distracting clutter (such as grasses, branches, rocks etc) from the frame.


This photo although framed nicely has a pretty bland background. Behind the photographer is a stunning backdrop that could have been incorporated just by talking the pic in the opposite direction. The light is also a little side on


  Bush situations will of course negate most of the above unless you happen to have a window out into the valley. However all is not lost. If the animal has piled up in a dirty, tight, scrubby gully or simply in very thick bush and scrub then again try to move it, this time into a relatively open area. The backgrounds here will be limited but at least consider the colour of the background. A red deer against a brown coloured background will be lost in the image as will a black pig against dark bush full of shadows – and there are always lots of those under the canopy. The usual inherent problem with taking photos in the bush is bad lighting so remember to make use of fill flash if shutter speeds get so low as to cause hand shake blur.

  3. Clean up

  Once you’ve moved the animal to a site/location you’re happy with, the next step is a bit of clean up. Bullets can cause considerable meat and tissue damage, create gaping holes in the animal (especially exit holes) and not unusually, quite a lot of blood. All these things need to be tidied up as much as possible to ensure a nice tidy and clean animal is presented for the camera. Remember that non-hunters (a few of which may well be very critical of our sport) might be viewing your images at some stage. A well-presented dead animal in a photograph will avoid many unwanted negative comments and provide no ‘ammunition’ for discrediting the sport we love.

  So, first job is to decide which side of the beast is the best looking. What I mean here is the side that has the least damage, blood, missing hair, dirt etc. This will be the side you photograph. Wipe all the blood and dirt from this side as soon as you can before it all dries and becomes difficult to remove. Pay special attention to the mouth, lips and face remembering to poke the tongue back into the mouth cavity. Use grass, ground moss, leaves and branches, large stones or even one of your shirts – anything to get a clean hide. A bonus of doing this is that the hair, fur or feathers will be brushed causing it to lie naturally. Although it’s down to personal preference, attempt to place the legs in a tidy manner. I think the best method is to tuck them under the animal as though it is bedded down which gives the animal a much more natural look – as natural as a dead animal can be I guess. If necessary, also prop the back side of it up with large rocks so the camera is seeing the side or flank of the animal rather than the under belly.

  The main aim of all this ‘clean up’ is to avoid the many ‘cringe factors’ I mentioned at the beginning of this article which all detract from the photograph and the animal not to mention being just plain distasteful. It’s all about having a bit of respect for the animal you’ve just killed as well as how we want our sport portrayed to other people.


Harsh light is always difficult to deal with. Although pleased with the first deer with Kenton’s new rifle, his brother Rowdy could have managed a smile! Fill in flash would also have allowed you to see his eyes. The hind should have been propped up naturally with less belly visible instead of Kenton holding the ear, and the dog is also too prominent in this photo



4. Clutter

  Now that you’ve cleaned the animal itself, start thinking about the immediate surrounding area. Remove any branches, twigs and grass that might be obscuring the animal from the camera’s field of view. Look even wider now to ensure no packs, knives, jackets and the like are in the frame. The main subjects we’re attempting to capture here are the hunter and his hard won animal so as such, we want the main focus to be on them. Any other clutter in an image will draw the viewer’s eye away from those two subjects.

  5. Weapon placement

  I think most of us prefer to have our trusty old ‘gat’ (or ‘stick and string’) with us in these photographs. A bit of thought to this will also turn out an improved image. First and foremost is thought to safety. OPEN THE BOLT ON THE RIFLE ! By doing this there leaves no doubt (in your own mind as well as the minds of others viewing your image) as to the safe condition of the weapon. PLACE THE RIFLE SO THE BARRELL IS POINTING IN A SAFE DIRECTION ! (Not at the camera, for example). Even though the bolt is open displaying a safe rifle, by also positioning it safely, you’re also showing that YOU are safety minded.

  Taking into account what was mentioned regarding the two main subjects in these ‘dead photos’, the rifle or bow is best placed beside or behind you and the animal. This way they don’t become one of the main ingredients of the image. Instead they should be something the eye wanders to after first focusing on those two main subjects.


Tom’s buck is pretty well framed here, and he’s kept his rifle secondary to the main subject as it should be. If only he’d sat lower and slightly left himself with his behind on the ground, he wouldn’t have over powered the buck and its horns quite so much - even though they’re against a reasonably contrasting background


  6. Trophies

  Every now and then some of us are lucky enough to secure a trophy animal. More often than not this will involve a larger than normal set of antlers or horns which I think deserve to be highlighted or accentuated when photographing them.

  ‘Contrast’ in photography is one of the best tools to take advantage of when you’re wanting part of an image to stand out or ‘pop’. In these trophy situations attempt to utilise the background by setting the animal’s head (antlers/horns) against a plain but contrasting background. For example, a large snow field on the opposite side of the gully, clear blue sky or the white of complete cloud cover, or a featureless tussock face. If these distant backgrounds are just not available then immediate backdrops can work also – a clean mono-coloured rock, a large and broad tree trunk or perhaps a dense even coloured wall of scrub or grass. At a pinch (and depending on the size of the horns or antlers), even the front of your upper body will suffice. You’ll be able to create more and better options to employ these backgrounds by experimenting with camera angles and positions. A small and simple change in the camera position by just a few inches (up, down or laterally, for example) will often be enough to put the background at just the right spot behind the trophy.

  The whole idea here is not to allow the antlers or horns to be ‘lost’ in a multi-coloured, uneven or busy, confusing background. Remember, this is a trophy of a lifetime and accordingly it deserves to be attractively and well recorded emphasising that which makes it a trophy.


Silly faces and thumbs ups always detract from a photo, even though Willie’s excuse for looking a little crazy is the editor’s New Zealand record Sika with a bow! The antlers are reasonably contrasted despite the somewhat multi coloured background


  7. Aperture and DOF

  As we talked about in the first article, aperture has a direct effect on the depth of focus (DOF). Small aperture number gives a large DOF/large aperture number will yield a narrow DOF.

  A really beautiful, scenic backdrop behind your animal is much improved if in focus a large DOF (aperture of f/11 - 32) is what is needed in this situation. Conversely, if you’d like the hunter and animal to truly ‘pop’ out at the viewer then focusing on the hunter/animal using a narrow DOF (aperture open wider to f/2.8 – 7.1) will achieve this by making the background out of focus.

  And here are a couple of other (technical) aspects to consider. The camera to subject distance also has an effect on the DOF – the closer the camera is to the subject the narrow that DOF will be. Conversely so when the distance is greater. Varying lens sizes also produce varying DOF in an image. A large telephoto lens (say 300mm) has a narrower DOF than a 50mm lens at the same given focusing distance.

  8. Take your time

  Finally, don’t rush these photographic opportunities. Take all the necessary time and thought required to produce a clean, tidy, natural looking animal that is presented with respect and which portrays our pastime in the best possible light to other people viewing our images.


How not to take a dead animal/trophy photograph

4 - 8577 (Final)

  1. Clutter – unwanted day pack in the frame

  2. Leg position – no thought to placement of legs to make the animal look neat and tidy

  3. Unsafe placement of rifle – bolt is closed and rifle is pointing at the camera

  4. Bloody mess – No attempt to clean up blood and bullet holes

  5. Foreground obstructions – way too many foreground obstructions in the form of branches and grasses

  6. Tongue – bloody and messy tongue hanging out of the mouth

  7. Head/antlers – head (and consequently antlers) are not straight and level

  8. Background – not an ideal background to contrast the antlers against. They get a bit ‘lost’ in the pine branches

  9. Background – Terrible background …. absolutely no scenic value

  10. Bad composition – Animal’s limbs and tips of antlers have been ‘cut off’ with the edge of the frame. And worst of all … the hunter has been truncated at the waist let alone being able to see his face and eyes]