With binoculars plastered to my face, I counted over 100 mule deer from the seat of my Land Cruiser. This is a huge population of deer that eke out a living between the cottonwood lined Gallatin River and the bench that rises up to the west. Whether it’s because much of the land in between in happens to be Ted Turner’s ranch and the deer receive little to no hunting pressure here, or the food and habitat really is THAT good, I don’t know. Honestly, its probably a combination of both. But the fact remains, with a hundred plus deer all doing their thing in freshly fallen snow, this was bound to be a good morning.
November is the peak of the deer rut. Which deer? Any deer here in the US. From whitetails to mule deer, the second week of November is the peak of the action. And this isn’t just in Montana. This holds true from Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains, to the snow covered dirt road that I was now competing with the deer for first tracks.
I was able to identify 12 buck. None of them had a lot of size to them, at least not compared to some of the monster muleys I have seen elsewhere. But beggars can’t be choosers and this was a whopping 2 minute drive from my house – and in the snow.
The deer here are quite habituated to vehicles, but as I would quickly learn – not so much to pedestrians carrying a big lens and tripod. So this meant that all of my photography would primarily take place from the seat of my vehicle today. This of course is not that bad of thing given that it was 20 degrees out and dumping heavy wet snow still. What was a problem with this is that it meant I had to write off about half the deer. One side of the road dropped down to a field. The other side rose up to a steep hillside with junipers scattered about. If I’m confined to my vehicle, this means that I would be shooting down at many of the deer and this is just not acceptable. I want to be, at a minimum, eye level – and the lower the better.
Luckily, an old barbed wire fence stood about 20 feet up on the hillside. The addition of this one very simple element offered the situation a world of options. And given the ease at which deer bound over such fences, I knew that it would just be a matter of time before I spotted an opportunity like this.
By the time I pulled back up to my house, I had watched and photographed several nice looking bucks leap over the barbed wire fence. However, it was here, in this one particular section, where all of the compositional elements came together. This little section had a lot of character with its drooping wire and leaning wooden posts. Add to this the diagonal lines that the fence creates through the composition and I had myself something worth noting.
It’s the little details like this fence that have the potential to make or break your photograph. Had a juniper been in the scene, the composition would not have been as strong. Had there been two posts here instead of three, the visual flow would have been changed. Had the fence have rolled off out of the frame differently, I may have simply thrown this image away. The devil is in all the little tiny details.
In landscape photography, you often times have a considerable amount of time to work out your compositions – especially if you are scouting for a sunrise or sunset. With wildlife photography you typically have but seconds to get it all figured out before everything changes. With this scenario I had to identify a buck, albeit a small one, that was working his way to the fence. Then I had maybe 5 seconds to get into position and compose this fence across my viewfinder – all the while hoping the deer doesn’t turn around or decide to walk down the road first.
It is for this reason that we have to constantly work to train our eyes to pick out and see pleasing compositions and patterns in the landscape. Because when opportunity knocks, sometimes you have but just a blink of the eye to make everything come together and all of the details must be ordered and in place before the action happens.