About 2 weeks ago I forced myself to out of bed after about 3.5 hours of sleep to try and drive to Richmond Park in time for morning sunlight – various reasons meant that getting there for sunrise was a) physically out of the question and b) the lack of sunrise itself made it all the less worrying. As a wildlife enthusiast in the UK, you will not be able to get away from shots of deer rutting come October. And the vast majority of these will have been taken in Richmond Park, which is why I decided to have a look for myself what all the fuss was about. I braced it despite the predicted overcast skies as this would prove to be my only chance to go this rutting season, and to do something right at sunrise you need to know exactly where you’re going (i.e. it requires a recce).
Richmond park is, well, a park. A large, public park. Easy to access by car, especially when coming from the west, the gates open around 7, which gives you just enough time to get into location throughout most of October. There’s a parking lot close to the main pond, and once you leave your car it’s all about either following the other people with cameras, or following your ears. Once you find a horny lot, the area they rut in is fairly small, so it’s worth resting your lens on a tripod as you won’t be moving around a lot. A quick tip – before you decide to go, make sure there’s no events going on in the park. I happened to go when there was a women’s 10K on, meaning some of the parking lots were closed. Depending on how much gear you want to cart around with you and how far you need to go, you might not want to give up that nearest car park.
All logistics aside, it is a great place to see the largest wild mammal the UK has to offer, behaving the same way it would out on the hills of the Scottish highlands. But I guess what bothered me the most was that, although you might keep a safe distance that is fair for your neighbouring photographer the pedestrians who walk through the park don’t. And you might struggle to find a good angle that doesn’t have another photographer who is opposite you in the background. And even then you’ll still take a photo that the 20 others around you will have as well.
How is this different from a zoo, or a safari park? They’re wild animals in a ‘natural habitat’ (not really but for arguments sake lets roll with it). Essentially it’s not, other than that you might have to work a lit bit harder than just going to a set enclosure. So expand this way of thinking and the question then becomes, how is it different from going on safari? Essentially it’s not, other than that your animals don’t have thousands of metres to hide (decreasing as I type), on safari you’d still be surrounded by 20 other people with lenses just as big as yours but you’ll be less mobile to try out different angles.
Am I negatively critiquing safaris? No. Am I criticising Richmond Park? No. I think creating a unique image under those circumstances is a massive challenge and I have a huge amount of respect for those that succeed. I don’t think an image deserves merit purely because it was a challenge to find the animal, but equally I don’t think an image of a gull should deserve less merit because they are one of the easiest animals to find. Style, approach, technique all play a part in creating an image that is special in its own right, regardless of its subject. I’m just trying to put it into perspective and figure out why it bothered me when I went there.
I think what it came down to was more on a more personal than artistic level – to me photography is a way of escaping, zoning out, getting away from people, even if I’m with another person. The journey, whether taking a boat to Skomer, or a plane to Africa, is just as much part of the adventure as it is when you actually encounter your target. And the amount of satisfaction I personally get from an image I’ve taken, depends on that journey or that escape. Driving into the busiest city in the UK and sitting in a park, surrounded by 20 other photographers, half of which have more expensive equipment than me and are not so secretly proud of it, just doesn’t make me feel as relaxed as I otherwise would be. And it’s probably why I’m still struggling with wildlife photography in the UK.
If you’re not as fussy as me, Richmond park is a spectacular place to visit – lots of flat land so you can easily catch that great morning light, deer are just so cool with their amazing antlers and their eerie rutting calls, and it’s easy access. I would highly recommend it to anyone who is starting out, looking for some extra practice, or has some free time on their hands in October time. It’ll tick your urban wildlife box as well as your great nature events box so why not give it a go next year?