How to shoot carcasses

By Wayne van Zwoll

Woe to those for whom the measure of a hunt can be taken with a tape. What’s dead may represent the end of the chase, but it is hardly the essence.
That said, photographing the essence can be difficult. How to frame camaraderie? What F-stop the moment of truth? Can any shutter speed catch a skipped heartbeat?
elk-1077We make do with the results: a carcass. Or, in the case of a fish, a creature we hold unto the verge of suffocation or until the lens gets its fill, whichever comes first.
Death itself is by most standards ugly. But the animal you shoot can remain beautiful in death for awhile. And the photos you shoot can preserve, in part, the climactic moment. They may not return the lead to your legs or the fire to your lungs, the trip-hammer beat of your heart or the cotton in your mouth. But if you mind what you’re doing, a photo can pull you back to another place, another time.
Sadly, many photos of dead game are artless and crude, and offensive to people who don’t hunt. They’re often shot in haste. Depending on conditions and your photo skills (or your partner’s), you’ll do well to allow an hour for photos. No meat spoils in an hour. It’s little time indeed in which to record the results of an expedition months in the planning.
I recall an elk-hunting client handing me a disposable camera. “I think there are a couple of frames left,” he said. Then he sat on the elk that had just cost him $10,000 and grinned. I humored him with two worthless shots, returned the camera and told him politely that as a responsible guide I couldn’t let anyone leave such a fine animal without photos of my own. They consumed 40 minutes. Months later, he conceded that the images delivered to his computer had been worth the trouble.
Good photographs impress not only your colleagues, but people who may not have killed game and can’t understand why anyone else would want to.
The first thing to do before you dig out the camera is make sure the animal is dead. OK, laugh. A goodly number of hunters have been embarrassed, even bloodied, because they assumed fallen animals never rise. Next, give the carcass a photogenic pose. Big bears and moose, buffalo and eland are hard to move; an elephant might as well be rooted. But with a little planning you should be able to position most game in a manner that shows you a lot of the animal, emphasizes the antlers, horns or other important physical elements, delivers mood and a sense of place and makes the best use of available light.
Clean the animal of dirt and blood. A thin red thread about the lips can be hard to eliminate from lung-shot game. Live with it. But blood on the hide or in the nose is neither necessary nor acceptable. Keep exit wounds hidden from the camera. Cover entrance wounds with leaves or a limb or snow, or position the animal to hide them. I carry paper towels for clean-up; pre-moistened towelettes are better.
A partner is a huge help in getting a photo record. If you are by yourself, without a tripod, you may have to settle for images of the rifle leaning against a shoulder. If alone but able to get help soon, leave the animal intact. Once you gut big game, you limit yourself to front-end shots only. With a photographer – or when photographing for someone else – you have many, many more options.
I typically take two series of photos: one with the animal resting as if it had just fallen, hunter on the approach, and the other “set up,” nose on the ground, hunter kneeling behind. For the first series, a rock or a branch under an antler will keep it from sinking into sand, snow or litter and out of sight. To set up the animal, roll it on its knees and prop the head with a stick behind the ear. Take advantage of natural assists. A dusting of snow not only hides blood but contributes to mood. Fluffing hair adds color and size. Bending a limb can deliver light to antlers otherwise in shadow. If by waiting a few minutes you will get better light, plan for the shot, set it up and wait. When conditions are right, shoot fast.
Try to get the glint in the animal’s eye before it glazes. You will have half an hour or so, depending on conditions. I’ve carried glass eyes used by taxidermists. They extend camera time, restoring a fresh-kill look if there’s a delay in reaching the game. Of course, you’ll bracket for exposure, vary composition and, with a zoom lens, add and subtract background. Experiment with perspectives. Shoot with a low camera to put antlers cleanly against the sky, and from a high angle to exaggerate them against the torso. Remember that wide-angle lenses (zoom settings under 55) boost center images and diminish those at field edges.
When composing, lead the viewer’s eye through the frame. Place the animal or its most important part off-center. Mentally divide the frame into thirds, horizontally and vertically. The trophy (antlers, horns, a bear’s head) should appear at one of the four intersections of those imaginary lines, the hunter at another, diagonally across from the trophy. I photograph an approaching hunter from well behind the animal (and out of focus) in stages to just behind. Typically, he is looking top left to bottom right or top right to bottom left. The mass of the animal most commonly puts it in the bottom third of the frame.
Vertical and horizontal lines are less interesting than diagonals and tend to divide the photo. Never place a strong vertical or horizontal image (tree, horizon) in the frame’s center. Hunters should be moving or looking into the frame, with the main part of the field in front of them.
I like to frame trophy images with natural objects: trees, rocks, vegetation, deadfalls. Sometimes I shoot from behind a screen of brush, keeping it in soft focus while composing to show the salient features of the animal in sharp focus.
Insist on a clean background for antlers. Mottled backgrounds hide them. Avoid taking photos of antlers and horns against camo clothing or a matrix of trees and shrubs. Shafts of light illuminating a trophy in front of shade can mitigate the camouflaging effect of background. You can also pop the animal from its surroundings by opening the lens aperture, reducing depth of field. Take care; antler tines and especially the eye must be tack-sharp. Before you press the shutter, check for branches sprouting from the hunter’s ear or adding points to antlers.
When posing the hunter for a “trophy shot,” keep him behind the animal, hands barely visible as they support the head. You want the trophy to be the center of attention. A hand on the animal’s ribs is OK; sitting on or putting a foot on the carcass is blatantly disrespectful. I like to photograph the hunter looking at the animal, besides getting traditional at-the-lens grins. Fill flash softens hat shadows.
Pay attention to foreground. After a few dozen photos, ground gets trampled, vegetation torn, snow muddied. You want the place to look fresh.
Experiment with light. Light from the back or side can outline antlers or a bear’s coat and make the image more appealing than the traditional front-lit shot. Keep the camera lens shaded! And remember that often a vertical image works much better than the traditional horizontal. Mind the horizon, especially on slopes, which can skew your notion of what’s level. Tilted horizons ruin photos!
Sometimes weather or fading light will prevent you from getting the shots you want. Last fall, I killed a mule deer buck at dusk. To get photos, we transported the deer back to camp, where I cleaned it and posed it, propping it as rigor mortis set in. The night was very cold, so I did not gut the animal, instead perforating the rumen with my knife to release gas. Before dawn my partner and I hauled the deer to an east-facing hill. Presently a red sun shot through a slit in a dense gray cloud-bank, illuminating the buck. I shot furiously for perhaps 15 minutes, until the sun vanished for the day. The result was worth the fuss. And yes, the venison was fine. ◊
Photo credit Wayne van Zwoll.

Wayne van Zwoll is a book author, magazine writer and photographer specializing in hunting, conservation, rifles, cartridges, optics and shooting gear. Contact him at

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