View from the Mountain

Say Cheese?

Why I hate smiling for field photos

When I first started hunting way back around 1980 (and was packing the old C110 pop-in film cameras), I always felt awkward smiling with dead stuff. At first, it might have been attributed to being a shy kid in front of the lens. I mean, just try and get a 13-year-old boy to smile at anything…

As I got older and graduated both school and into 35mm, turning that frown upside down didn’t seem to get any easier. In that stage of my life (my twenties), I don’t know if I thought I was just being a Clint Eastwood tough guy, or if I even knew why, but the thought of smiling with dead stuff just didn’t seem to be working for me.

With the digital age, and little more maturity by then, I began to manage an ever-so-slight upturn of the ol’ mustache, but still, it just didn’t seem natural. However, at this point, I was in the hunting industry – as an Editor no less – and it sort of seemed mandatory. Looks that could be characterized as smiles began to sneak into my photos, though I could never profess to have the amazing sparkling white grill as my colleague, Randy Ulmer, whose amazing smile seems as large as his incredible trophies.

Now, as a 41-year-old, I absolutely treasure my field photos, perhaps more than the headgear adorned by the animals in them. However, posing for those photos – to this day – makes me feel as awkward as a teenager posing with a girl for a “first-date” photo being taken by an overzealous mother.

RBH_0324 All joking aside, during a long cold night in a tent a couple months ago I got to thinking about why I was so averse to flashing a big cheesy grin. Was I abnormal? Was I just a big ol’ toughie? Or a jerk?

The more I thought about it, the more I came to a realization. We all react differently to different events, and we don’t all even react the same way each time.

Hunting is pretty darn important to me, and I have a deep respect for the game I pursue. I try to keep from getting “too spiritual and over the top” about it, but hunting is a big part of who I am, and I know I wouldn’t be a hunter by definition without this game to pursue and eventually to kill. But the killing to me has always simply been necessary to complete the process. I get no joy out of the act.

As such, the act of smiling after a kill just doesn’t seem to work well for me. My mind often drifts to everything it took to get to that point –the actions of the immediate days as well as the years of effort – and I think I have conflicting emotions right then that leave me silent. I feel gratitude for the luck; good fortune of my success; some sadness that his life has ended and that the chase is over. It’s equal parts happiness, sadness, relief, and gratefulness.

I see that mature buck or bull as the ultimate friend/foe/adversary/prize, and for whatever reason, I just often feel that smiling isn’t appropriate for me. That’s not in any way to say it’s inappropriate for someone else. Again, we all react differently to different events.

I’ll give you an analogy. When I’m watching football, I’ve always had a lot more respect for the guy who, when he scores the touchdown, immediately turns and hands the ball to the ref rather than the guy who makes a spectacle of himself. I’ve always admired it when they simply act like it’s time to prepare for the next play rather than dancing a jig in front of their opponent.

All this isn’t some motto I dreamed up to live by; it’s just the way I naturally react to the situation. So, when someone says, “Why don’t you smile more in your field photos?”, I guess you’ll know why. I should reiterate that just because this is how I feel doesn’t mean I expect everyone else to feel that way. I’ll also say that I’m perfectly happy to see other people smile, and it doesn’t ever strike me as odd or inappropriate at all.

Now, I’ll say this. There are exceptions to every rule, and I can think of two for me. First, when my children take their first deer, I have a feeling you won’t be able to wipe that smile off my face with 40-grit sandpaper. Second, I’ve hunted my entire life with the hope of taking a truly exceptional mule deer; not just a nice big buck, but something amazing, like a 200-inch typical or a 240-inch monster. If that day ever comes, I may just lose control of my faculties for a moment and bare those pearly whites. Or not; who the heck knows.


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6 thoughts on “View from the Mountain

  1. Thanks for this interesting post. I perfectly understand how you feel because hunting can really cause mixed emotions among people. Well, I hope that soon you will share with us a post showing a huge grin with your 240-inch monster. I’ll definitely look forward to that!

  2. Bruce Cooper

    Awesome stuff, I can relate. Thank you for the good read.

  3. Neal Zeller

    I absolutely feel exactly the same thing. And I also field the same why-no-smile questions. Thanks for a nice clear distillation of my own hazy thought process.

  4. Dave Skinner

    I’m the exact opposite! I can’t wipe the grin off my face for days following a successful hunt. Unfortunately the best composed photo of my 2014 Kentucky buck caught me with a very stern almost angry expression on my face. Many have asked why I wasnt smiling, the fact is I don’t know. I assume I was in deep thought or something. I sure wish I had been smiling more, but that doesnt take away from my exoerience or memories!


    There is a lot of truth for me in this blog. I love the hours in the field or stand, enduring the weather, staying alert and sharp and watching the sunrise. It makes me happy to realize I have outwitted the buck I was chasing even if I let him pass another year. I pray I can pass along a lot of my joy to my grandson. I want him to respect the quarry and be thankful for every animal he takes, even it it’s not a trophy by someone else standard.
    I looked through some of my old photos from the 80’s. I was too tired from the field dressing and long drag in the NW GA mtns to crack a grin!

  6. Karl

    I agree completely Ryan, I also have that weird feeling that it’s almost a private thing between me and the animal and I should not be laughing, hooping and hollering. I get very mixed emotions about killing an animal that has survived lions, bears and winters often living in very harsh environments for years. It’s very complicated and hard to put in words. I think many feel that way but are too embarrassed to talk about it.

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