Lighting in the Wild

Living at the edge of the woods is like living next to a zoo. We get a nonstop stream of animal visitors, perhaps none more majestic than this eight-point white-tailed deer.

Mature bucks are notoriously very crafty and skittish. That's how you live long enough to be a mature buck. But this guy visits us regularly, and has become a little more acclimated to the sound of my shutter release.

Enough so, that I am starting to plan how I am going to light him …

Animal House

When we moved into our new home two and a half years ago, we had no idea what we were in for in the wildlife department. The second day we were here, Ben was riding his bike on one of the paths in the woods and came face-to-face with a very young fawn. As in, like, five feet away.

It was hard to tell who was more nervous at first. Suffice to say both were happy to see their parents arrive shortly thereafter.

Our last house backed up to a fairly busy road, so at first the new home took a little getting used to at first. There is almost zero traffic on our road, and the quiet at night can be disconcerting. Then the barred owls introduced themselves.

They are very social, hooting all night long and conversing at a range of up to a half mile. Most of the time it is the classic "who cooks for you?" call. But when they get excited it can get crazy loud. The best approximation I can give for the noise is like a chimpanzee going berserk. Try sleeping with that ten feet from your window in the summer.

But that was nothing compared to the twin baby owls that we got to watch this summer. When momma thinks they are ready, she kicks them out of the nest. Shortly thereafter, they become completely codependent, hungry, pissed-off ... and loud. I arrived home this spring from a trip and I swear I thought a car alarm was going off in the woods.

Raaaaaaeeeck, one would call. RAAAAAAAAAAAAAWK!!!!, the other would answer. They always needed to know where the other one was, even if they were only two feet apart.

They would roost next to each other on the trees -- hopping around on the branches in a far-from-graceful manner. But that was nothing compared to seeing them learn how to fly -- and to hunt.

I have never flown a plane before, but I would like to think I could have made better landings than these guys did at first. The kids promptly named them Nosedive and Squawk. It was laugh-out-loud funny to watch.

But the deer are still our favorites. We placed a salt-lick at the edge of the woods (all grazing animals crave salt and minerals). And we have been on the salad bar circuit ever since. There are lots of delicious things we cannot ever hope to grow in our yard as a result, but it is a trade-off we happily make.

I have seen up to ten whitetails in the back yard at one time. If you are very quiet and still, you can even lay in the hammock and have them gather around you -- truly an amazing experience.

More and more, the Big Guy above has been among the visiting deer. He is getting more trusting of us, too. Just a month ago, the photo above is as close as I could get to him with a 200-400. But lately, it is not uncommon to be standing in the back yard and see him just standing there not fifty feet away.

So one day I hope to get a nice, lit photo of him. If for no other reason than I have never seen a lit shot of a trophy buck -- done well -- in the wild.

Fat chance, you might say. But I think I am not far from being able to do it. In fact, I actually think he'll be very easy to light. And those of you who are familiar with Lighting in Layers or the Flash Bus probably already know what I am thinking.

For a key light that will push out into the woods in a 360-degree beam, it is hard to beat a bare-bulb diffused speedlight in a 24" silk lantern. And since I know where the buck will be heading (straight to the salt block) I can probably guess his path. A two-foot glowing sphere, suspended 15 feet up in the trees and in front of him, would look awesome.

The rim light could be another lantern of similar height, behind him. As a bonus, this flash would also light up the background and give a glow to the woods. Maybe a 1/2 CTB on that to cool things down a bit in the background. And back it off a stop, too.

Batteries would be no problem, as my speedlights would go to sleep and conserve the AA's. First manual pop from the attached PocketWizard+ II's would wake them up fine. I'd probably run them at 1/4 power (and 1/8th in back) which would get me a solid f/8 at ISO 400 for the key at that working distance.

As for ambient, a 250th would be fine after the sun sinks behind the hill behind the woods. As for twilight / deep dusk, I could walk down the shutter speed to balance it maybe two stops under. When the ambient goes away, the strobe lighting is something that could work completely on its own. That's why I'd want a 360-degree background / rim light in there.

So it feels like the only remaining hurdles are behavioral, rather than technical -- I do not yet have a sense of his habits enough to know when to expect him.

But hopefully, that will come with a little more time.


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