Tutorial. HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH WILD REINDEER
The decision is made, you are going to make an adventurous photography tour in the real wilderness of Norway. Forests as far as the eye can see, endless river networks and harsh mountain areas can make this a real challenge. The wildlife is not easy to find and is generally very shy. Especially wild reindeer pose a large challenge. In this article I reveal my secrets, how I successfully manage to photograph these very shy but stunning animals.
A herd of wild reindeer crossing a river. Not noticing that I laid hidden behind a rock photographing them. The backlight emphasis the water being splashed up by the animals.
High in the Norwegian mountains wild reindeer still roam. The populations are separated by human infrastructure, which obstructs migration between the different populations. Nevertheless, Norway counts twenty-three stable wild populations. Their diet consists out of lichen, dry grass and woody shoots of manly birch and willow species. The males (stags) can reach a weight up to 270 kg. The females (cows) are a lot smaller, with max. 110 kg. Both the stags as the cows wear antlers, but for different reasons. He for fighting during the rut and she to be able to compete for the patches with the best food resources during winter. It is important that the adult females can outcompete the other animals, since they are carrying the unborn new generation of the population. The animals are perfectly adapted to their habitat, which changes into a large freezer during winter. With 700 hairs per square centimetre, the reindeer has the best isolation of all mammals.
Wild reindeer are extremely shy animals with incredible large home ranges. This makes searching for and photographing them extremely difficult. As soon as an human has been noticed, the animals will quickly move away, covering several miles in just a matter of a few minutes. In order to succeed in photographing this species, a good and early planning or the use of a guide is essential. (Find more information about guided tours here.)
As well the females (left) as the males (right) have antlers.
Where to start?
In Scandinavia, Norway is the last country in which wild reindeer roam. In total there are about 25,000 wild animals left. On www.villrein.no you can find in which areas they occur. The most popular areas are Hardangervidda, Rondane, Dovrefjell, Forollhogna, Jotunheimen and Svalbard. Hardangervidda holds the largest population of wild reindeer, ranging between six- and seven-thousand animals. The areas they live in are immensely large, which makes it hard to pick a place to start the search.
Sometimes the reindeer can be spotted over long distances.
It is all about the wind.
Wind plays the major role when photographing wild reindeer. By early prior the start of the tour keeping track of the wind direction, you will be able to pick a starting point. The herds are continuously on the move, always with the nose against the wind. If there has been a long period with northern wind for example, the animals can be expected to be found in the northern part of their home range.
A photographer normally keeps a close eye on the light direction. You try to approach the subject in a way that the light falls in a favourable angle. However, when photographing wild reindeer, the wind direction is far more important. The light direction often has to be taken for granted. When approaching the animals, the wind should preferably blow straight in your face. The stronger the wind the better. Next to blowing away your human smell, it covers to some extent the sounds you make. Without strong wind, I don’t try to approach the animals closer than 100 meter. One small misstep and the animals are gone.
With strong winds it is possible to get close to the animals without being noticed. This picture was taken from the ground, the vegetation on the foreground creates a nice bokeh.
Do not hurry.
Reindeer can be spotted over long distances. Finally finding the animals can be a very exciting moment. But it is very important that you take everything easy from there on. Check the wind direction and study the landscape. How can you get within photographing range without getting noticed? This question you will ask yourself several times. There is only one good answer, “Do not hurry!”. Don’t take any unnecessary risks, you don’t want to disturb the animals.
Search for large elements in the landscape which can provide cover when approaching the animals. Often this means that you have to make a detour, sometimes up to several kilometre, before getting into position to photograph. While moving from one to the other point, always check if the reindeer have not moved and can’t see you.
When approaching a larger herd (100 animals or more), make sure you sneak completely quiet from approximately 500 meter from the herd. Often smaller groups of reindeer can be found in the surroundings of these larger herds. It might happen that these animals are hidden in the hilly landscape. I have found myself suddenly at only ten meter from a group of thirty animals, which were laying behind a large rock 200 meter from the main herd. Because I started early with sneaking, I managed to get this close without disturbing the animals.
It rarely happens that you will find yourself too close to wild reindeer. This is the group of reindeer where I suddenly found myself on ten meter distance from. I patiently waited for the animals to move on, when suddenly two stags started a fight. The animals were distracted, which gave me the opportunity to quickly take some shots of the fight.
Do not pass over the tops.
As you probably understand by now, it is essential to move through the landscape without being seen. An important rule is to never walk over the tops of the mountains. The reindeer will spot you from miles away. The same applies for when you get in position to photograph. Never lay on top of a rock or hill, but always on the side.
While searching for the reindeer I suddenly found a small herd right behind a hill. Because I didn't cross the hill straight over the top, but on the side, my presence went unnoticed.
It can happen that the landscape does not provide any cover. In this situation you just have to sit tight and wait for the animals to move. However, crossing small open areas, without being noticed, is not completely impossible. Good camouflage is essential for this. I use a fine netting which has a camouflage print on it. The colours should match the mountain vegetation. I wrap my entire body in this netting and crawl inch by inch flat over the ground. After each meter, I stop, lay still for thirty seconds or so and check if the animals have noticed my movement. If so, stay still until they continue with their normal behaviour. If you are well camouflaged, they won’t be able to make out what they just saw move. Only cross small open areas and just on long distances from the animals. Do not try to cross any open areas within 100 meter from the animals. The chance you will disturb them is too big then!
If you run into a wet patch of vegetation, while crawling, but it has not rained? Crawl around it! You don’t want to take the chance to smell like a female which is ready to be mated.
Light, exposure and panning.
When photographing above the tree line, clouds are essential. As soon as the sun breaks through, the air starts to vibrate from heatwaves. This makes it hard for the camera to find focus and to take sharp pictures. Only during the first and last hours of daylight it is possible to photograph without any cloud cover.
When exposing the pictures, the white hair on the neck and behind of the reindeer has to be taken into account. These areas overexpose very easy. By activating the overexposure warning function on your camera display, you can easily control for this.
When the reindeer are standing on top of a hill or mountain, preferably with clouds on the background, under-expose the picture in order to emphasis the silhouette of the animals.
Because the wind direction and possibility for cover determines from which position you can photograph, the background will not always be as you wish. You can end up with a messy background, which takes the attention away from the subject. In this case I try to take panning images. A shutter speed between 1/6s and 1/20s works perfect for me. In order to get the right exposure, the ISO has to be reduced and the aperture can be narrowed. Take some test photos to check if the exposure is correct. I use only one autofocus point. This gives a clear point of reference, so it is easier to move exactly at the same speed as the animal. The advantage of panning when the background is messy, is that the background changes into an almost painted, much calmer surface. In this way the attention is drawn back to the animal.
It is easier to take panning shots of single animals. Try to keep the focus point on the same spot on the animal by matching the speed and the direction the animal is running in.
During the rutting season it is relatively the easiest to photograph wild reindeer. The stags are running over with hormones and only have got eye for the females. The rut begins in the start of October and lasts about three weeks. In some southern populations the rut can start a few weeks earlier. On the top of the rut, the stags might not even care that you are there. I have had stags suddenly appearing where I was hiding and just continue rutting. If a female notices you and she is not sure if you pose a threat, do not move and wait. During the rut it doesn’t take long before a stag will distract her. Give it some time and she will have forgotten about you. This does not count for the rest of the year.
Despite my camouflage this female had noticed my movement. She didn’t quite know what to make of me and tried to catch my scent. Luckily I had approached the animals against the wind, so they could not smell me. Shortly after this moment, the stag on the right distracted her and she quickly had forgotten all about me.
During the summer it is very difficult to find and photograph the reindeer. The females should be left alone, since they will have their new born calves to look after. The stags are separated from the females and can be found in small groups. Often they seek patches of snow in order to cool down. They are extremely aware of the surroundings, which makes it very difficult to photograph them.
Due to the reflection of the sunlight from the snow during winter, the reindeer have rather poor eyesight in this season. This makes it easier to approach the animals without disturbing them. If you are able to use cross country skies, February and March are two attractive months to photograph wild reindeer.
In the winter the eyesight of the reindeer is rather poor. This makes it a bit easier to approach the animals without disturbing them. Do not try this in your bright red sports jacket, but make sure that you are properly camouflaged.
Often long distances have to be made, so try to travel as light as possible. Since you always have to photograph from behind cover, you will photograph laying down. So no tripod is needed. This already safes several kilograms. The equipment I take with me consists out of: 1 camera body, 500mm f4, 100-400mm and 17-40mm (for landscapes) lenses, rain-cover, extra battery and extra memory cards.
How do I plan my tours?
At least two weeks prior a tour, I start to keep track of the wind direction. This gives me an idea in which area I will be able to find the reindeer. Because the animals are not often in the most outer edges of the mountains, I stay several days in the mountains. In this way I don’t have to walk in and out the terrain every day. This reduces the walking and searching time per day. I either stay in cabins or in a tent, depending on where I think the reindeer can be found. Online you can find and book cabins on ut.no, dnt.no and inutur.no. Personally I prefer to stay in a tent, because it gives a lot of freedom. But this adds a lot of additional weight to the backpack.
After three days of walking through the mountains, I managed to photograph a herd of wild reindeer crossing a river. This was the last animal to cross the river. An experience I will never forget!
Is photographing wild reindeer not for you, but you still would like to photograph reindeer? Then Sweden offers some good possibilities. There are no wild reindeer to be found, only domesticated animals which are owned by the Sami. The animals roam freely and are easy to photograph from the car. The Sami mark their reindeer to be able to separate between owner. In some areas only the dominant animals, which lead the herds, are marked with a GPS collar. This is the case in the surroundings of Svenstavik (Jämtland). West from Svenstavik, there is a large road network going through endless forests with large boggy areas. This is an ideal area to find and photograph domesticated reindeer.
Domesticated reindeer on the road in the surrounding of Svenstavik (Sweden). When photographing from the car, you don’t need to take the wind direction into account, which makes it a lot easier. Just the setting is not that nice!
Domesticated reindeer in Svenstavik area. Not all domesticated reindeer are tame. Despite the long distance, this female quickly disappeared after I stopped the car.
If you are interested in photographing wild reindeer together with me, take a look on the Your Norwegian Nature homepage for more information.