Natural Art: The Photography of Brad Hill

Knock it off Mom - I'm a Big Deer Now!

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In the Field

Knock it off Mom - I'm a Big Deer Now! Findlay Creek, BC, Canada. December 29, 2022.

One of the obvious appeals to wildlife photographers of using a "big" super-telephoto lens in the 600mm to 800mm focal range is how they allow you to capture intimate photos of your wild subjects while still staying at a respectful and appropriate distance from them. This image is a prime example of that - in this image a maturing fawn is on the left and is being "kissed" by its mother. I know the mother well - she was born very close to our cabin and grew up around us. In the immediate vicinity of our cabin she is exceptionally relaxed with us, though if we run into her more than about 200 meters from the cabin she's as "wild" and nervous as any White-tailed Deer. On the other hand, her fawn (who is about 6-7 months old in this shot and is watching me like a hawk) has never relaxed with us...she simply doesn't tolerate our presence at all. So capturing a tender moment like this where mom is licking/nibbling her fawn just below her eye absolutely requires a long telephoto lens.

While it's tempting to think that when photographing wildlife it's a "the more focal length the better" situation, the reality is that with focal length you can easily end up in situations where you have too much of a good thing! As Nikon's new Z 800mm f6.3S has proven, you can now get into the very long focal lengths without the lens being too big or too heavy to easily use in the field.

But, without trying to rain on the parade too much, there are other negative consequences - or drawbacks - associated with using long focal lengths to shoot wildlife. One thing that has always limited my own use of really long lenses is the lack of control one has over their depth of field (or DoF). Simply put, lenses of 600mm or longer have very shallow DoF's when shooting at moderate distances to your subject, even if you stop them down. This can help at times - who doesn't like the buttery soft backgrounds that a 600mm f4 or 800mm f5.6 or f6.3 can produce? But, it can make it very tricky to shoot wildlife portraits with the big lenses (if you're not very careful in the part of the face you focus on - or you forget to stop down a LONG ways - you can end up with some parts of the head or face in-focus and other parts out-of-focus in a very non-pleasing way).

And, the shallow DoF of the 600mm+ lenses can make working with multiple subjects a huge challenge, especially if the success of a particular shot depends on having all your subjects in focus. I was aware of that problem/challenge when I shot this image. Given the shot's intimacy I knew I needed the faces of both mom and fawn in sharp focus for it to work. So I stopped down as much as I felt I could while still keeping the background soft. And, probably more importantly, I had to wait until the faces of both mom and fawn were on (or very close to) the same focal plane, which isn't always the easiest thing to judge when the subjects are a decent distance away. Even so, portions of mom's head, notably her left ear and the region between ear and eye, are a bit soft. Personally I don't think that hurts the image too much...but in a perfect world I'd prefer these regions to be sharper (you may have to check out the 4800 pixel version of the image linked to see what I mean).

These comments about a lack of DoF control with very long focal length lenses will come as no surprise to those who have frequently shot these big lenses. But if someone is considering buying a lens of 600mm or 800mm focal length and they are used to shooting lenses of 300mm or less...well...let's just say it may take you some time to get used to the big glass! Consider this my obligatory "let the buyer beware" statement. ;-)

With what I primarily shoot (which shows a bias towards larger mammals) I prefer a slightly shorter focal length for most of my work. The almost ideal lens for me is the Z 400mm f2.8S, which gives me great quality images at 400mm and at 560mmm (when its internal TC is engaged). Compared to a 600mm or 800m lens the Z 400mm f2.8S gives me a noticeably better degree of control of my DoF while still allowing me to nicely isolate my subject from the background.

So - you might reasonably ask - if I'm so fond of the Z 400mm f2.8S why did I purchase a Z 800mm f6.3S? While I acknowledge that its relatively small size and and light weight played a role, if I am being perfectly honest it was largely owing to the price of the Z 800mm. While still not cheap, the Z 800mm is not far off a third of the price of the F-mount Nikkor 800mm f5.6E. And I never considered buying a 800mm f5.6E even for a second - for how much I would use it I just couldn't justify the 5-figure cost. But, there are enough times when I am shooting wildlife that I COULD use a little more focal length than my Z 400mm f2.8S - and I don't always have the time to add a 2x TC to it. So when the Z 800mm came out at its relatively low price (and after I tested it to confirm it performed the way I hoped) I felt it made sense for me to add it to my wildlife kit. And at least so far I think I made the right decision!

Here's a larger version (4800 pixel) of this intimate mother-fawn interaction:

Knock it off Mom - I'm a Big Deer Now! Download 4800 pixel image (JPEG: 5.3 MB)


1. These images - in all resolutions - are protected by copyright. I'm fine with personal uses of them (including use as desktop backgrounds or screensavers on your own computer), but unauthorized commercial use of the image is prohibited by law. Thanks in advance for respecting my copyright!

2. Like all photographs on this website, these images were captured following the strict ethical guidelines described in The Wildlife FIRST! Principles of Photographer Conduct. I encourage all wildlife photographers to always put the welfare of their subjects above the value of their photographs.

Behind the Camera

Knock it off Mom - I'm a Big Deer Now! Findlay Creek, BC, Canada. December 29, 2022.

Lossless compressed RAW (NEF) format; ISO 560.

Nikon Z 9 paired with Z Nikkor 600mm f4S @ 600mm. Hand-held. VR on in Sport mode. 3D-tracking AF area mode with subject detection on (in Animal mode).

1/1000s @ f8; -1.0 stop compensation from matrix-metered exposure setting.

At the Computer

Knock it off Mom - I'm a Big Deer Now! Findlay Creek, BC, Canada. December 29, 2022.

RAW Conversion to 16-bit TIFF file (and JPEG files for web use), including all global and selective adjustments, using Phase One's Capture One Pro 23. Global adjustments made to this image were limited to a single tweak to contrast using the levels tool. Selective local adjustments performed using Capture One Pro's layers and masking tools. In this case selective adjustments were made on 4 separate layers and most were under the general umbrella of "exposure balancing", with one or more selective tweaks to brightness (mid-tone exposure), blacks, clarity (mid-tone contrast), highlights, and the whites.

Photoshop modifications were limited to the insertion of the watermark and/or text.


Knock it off Mom - I'm a Big Deer Now! Findlay Creek, BC, Canada. December 29, 2022.

Species Status in Canada*: This species is not designated as at risk.

White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) are one of the most widely distributed mammals in North America - they can be found in virtually all of southern Canada and in most of the American states. While whitetails are common now, in the late 1800's they were in serious risk of extinction - their populations had been reduced from about 40 million (across North America) to under 500,000. The conservation effort to return whitetails to numbers sufficient for long-term survival was massive and included strict harvest regulations, intense management, reintroductions, and habitat protection. Today, most populations in the United States do not represent original stock and the distinction of most historical subspecies is uncertain.

Whitetails resemble Mule Deer quite closely, and the two species overlap in distribution in western North America. The two species tend to prefer different habitats, with whitetails occupying more heavily forested land and along river valley bottoms, while muleys tend to prefer uplands and montane areas. On rare occasions, the two species will interbreed. Occasionally the offspring are fertile, but in most cases they are sterile.

*as determined by COSEWIC: The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada