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The Trophy Photo

The Trophy Photo

Take extra time to preserve the memories of your next buck.

By P.J. Reilly

The time between the instant you spot a buck until you squeeze the trigger is often just a few seconds. The impact of that blip in time is everlasting.

You relive it over and over in your thoughts and when spinning yarns to your buddies and family. While you remember the hunt forever, the details tend to fade over time.

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A good photo of a trophy buck will remind you exactly how it looked when you walked up on it, of what the weather was like that day, of what you were wearing and what firearm or bow you carried.

Times have certainly changed in photography. Printed photos fade just like your memories, but with today’s digital cameras, you can keep printing new ones for decades to come.

It breaks my heart when I see a bad photo of a hunter with a big buck. Maybe the photographer is too far away or at a poor angle. Maybe the background is so busy you can’t get a good look at the buck’s antlers. Or maybe there’s so much blood your attention is diverted from the animal’s majesty.

If you take a little time and put some thought into the setting, you can take photos as good as those you see in the pages of Buckmasters.


You can take a quality photo with any camera, be it a disposable film camera or a top end digital. A good photo is about composition, not the camera.

That said, with many film processing centers closing as that technology dies, it’s a good idea to get a digital camera.

Things to consider when buying a digital camera are features such as a built-in flash, zoom capability and a timer function so you can take photos of yourself.

Also look at the megapixel count. This allows you to gauge the resolution a camera is capable of achieving. The higher the megapixel count, the greater the resolution of the photos.

Most digital cameras today have at least 10 megapixel resolution. That’s more than enough to produce sharp 8x10 prints. You can get a high-resolution digital camera for under $100.

Why would you want more resolution? Well, if you’re planning to print poster-sized photos, then you’ll want higher resolution. For normal photo viewing on computers and prints for photo albums, 10 megapixels is plenty.

The Trophy PhotoMore expensive cameras typically are going to offer higher resolution and more features.

Digital cameras fall into two general categories: point-and-shoot or single-lens reflex. Single-lens reflex cameras allow you to change lenses and shoot video as well as expensive video cameras. The drawback is you really have to know what you’re doing to get the most from an SLR. For most hunters, a decent point-and-shoot digital will more than do the job.

Consider your needs, your budget and your abilities, and choose accordingly.

Pick Your Spot

A quality photo begins with a good background. The back of a pickup truck or a dirty garage are not places to take photos of a whitetail. These magnificent, wild creatures deserve better.

I prefer fields for deer photos. Even your backyard is a better setting than a concrete slab or a tailgate.

Avoid busy backgrounds that tend to obscure a deer’s antlers. If you put a deer in front of a bush with lots of light-colored, vertical branches, for example, the antlers will blend in with those branches.

Try to find a background that provides good contrast. It’s hard to beat the sky as a backdrop for a whitetail buck. If you can’t get an angle that incorporates the sky, choose a solid, dark background like the boughs of an evergreen.

Perhaps the most natural setting for a deer photo is the woods where it was taken. The background is certain to be busy, but you can soften the effects by putting some distance between the deer and the trees and brush behind it. Find an open area and pose the hunter and deer at the front end of that opening. If trees and other vegetation are far enough behind the subject, the antlers still stand out.

The Trophy PhotoGet Low

Look at any good magazine images of hunters posing with dead deer and you’ll notice you’re looking straight into the deer’s eyes or even slightly up. That tells you the photographer was at the deer’s eye level or below. To do that, he or she had to be sitting or lying on the ground.

Magazine cover shots don’t look down at a hunter and deer, yet that is how most people take deer pictures. The hunter hands his buddy his camera and says, “Here, take my picture.” Then the hunter sits on the ground behind his deer, while his buddy stands in front, looking down through the camera lens.

The antlers look smaller from that perspective, guaranteed.

Get down on the ground and look through the lens. Whatever you see will appear in the photograph. If you see trash or a vehicle parked off to the side, they’ll be in the picture. Make sure your setup is clear of anything you don’t want in the picture.


Once you have your perspective and background set, you have to arrange the hunter and the deer.

When possible, photograph a deer before it’s been field-dressed. The bodies look fuller, and there’s usually less blood.

Fold the front and rear legs in their natural positions so the deer looks like it’s bedded.

If the deer already has been dressed, fold the front legs under the body in the bedded position, but pull the rear legs straight back and splay them apart. The rear legs will hold the carcass upright while hiding the open body cavity.

Dressed or whole, it helps to set up the deer and let it sit for about 45 minutes to stiffen up a bit. This will make it easier for the hunter to keep the head upright.

Clean up any blood you see through the viewfinder. Again, it’s about treating the animal with respect. You want people to admire the deer and the smiling hunter, and nothing distracts from that more than blood and gaping wounds.

Water will remove blood from deer hair if that’s all you have, but glass cleaner and paper towels do an amazing job.

A dangling, bloody tongue is another distraction. Cut the tongue off, or stuff it back in the mouth.

Bullet wounds can be difficult to hide, but a gun or bow placed strategically will do the job.

Have the hunter wear the clothes he or she was wearing when the deer was shot, and check to see that all zippers are zipped and buttons buttoned, so the hunter looks presentable. Fix anything that looks out of sorts.

The Trophy PhotoPosition the hunter on the ground behind the deer. Kneeling is okay, but sitting is better. Never allow a hunter to sit on the deer.

Make sure the hunter is not behind the antlers. That’s the equivalent of a busy background. Have the hunter slide to one side of the rack or the other.

When you shoot, zoom in so the hunter and deer fill the frame. I seen too many photos where the hunter and deer are tiny objects in the center of wasted space.

While you can crop out extra background later, the more you have to enlarge a picture, the more resolution you lose. It’s best to start with as large an image as possible.

As you take photos, have the hunter turn the rack so you get different angles. Tines often line up with one another and disappear in a photo, and sometimes different angles show off a rack better.

If you’re using a digital camera, look at the photos to see how you’re doing. That’s the beauty of digital photography. If you see something that doesn’t look right, fix it and shoot again.

If you’re by yourself, which happens to me all the time, carry a small tripod so you can take photos using the camera’s time-delay feature.

Set up the shot just as you would for taking pictures of someone else. Then hit the timer and jump behind the deer.

Look at the photo and make any necessary adjustments to the setup and try again.

You’ll probably have to take many photos to get the perfect shot.


Wherever you shoot, keep the sun at the photographer’s back. Early morning and late afternoon sunlight is best. It will hit the subjects at a lower angle, eliminating many shadow problems.

When shadows are an issue, use a flash to lighten dark areas. If you can, keep the deer around until morning or afternoon so you can shoot your photos in prime light. If you have access to a walk-in cooler, place the deer in the cooler in a bedded position and prop up the head with something like a cooler until it’s time to take more photos.

I’m not a huge fan of nighttime pictures since they don’t provide a sense of location, but when that’s your only option, get the deer in an open area so the background is totally black. The hunter and deer will really pop in the right setting.

Some cameras have trouble focusing in the dark, so it might be necessary to point a flashlight at the subject so the camera can auto-focus.


It takes some extra effort to get good photos of your deer, but it’s well worth it.

Once you’ve done it a few times, setting up a good photo becomes second nature.

Memories tend to fade over time, but nothing helps bring back the details like a good photo.

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