What Deer See!

April 21, 2009 by  
Filed under Articles

Can I see you? 

 Article By: Todd  A. Black

Photos By: Vince Martinez


I have been asked by clients, friends, and other hunters what I think is the best 

type of camopattern available out there on the market today.  What camo I buy and why. 

Now I will admit that I have my preference for a particular camo patter but in the interest 

in advertising and marketingI’m not going to tell you what it is, those of you that really 

want to know can visit our web page to find out.  I’m not even going to talk about what is 

or isn’t the best camo out there but what I am going to do is talk about ungulates  (deer, 

sheep, elk, moose goat) in general and what and how they see.mdc-velvet1

It’s funny to watch how the camo industry has exploded in the past 20 years. This 

explosion has occurred despite little knowledge and without much consideration of what 

deer, elk, and other game animals actually see.  It used to be that the good ‘ol army camo’

was good enough for everyone and every where. Now we have specialized winter, spring, 

fall, hardwoods, sagebrush, aspen, dark timber, and everything in betweencamo—we 

have gone ‘camo crazy’. I guess we hunters are just suckers for camo, I know I tell my 

wife all the time that it’s my favorite color and like most of you I feel comfortable 

wearing it to church or out in the field. My brothers and I still have a running joke about 

camo and every time we get all decked out we always make the comment that ‘I can’t see 

you’ or we ask ‘can you see me now’?  Really though what it comes down too is how 

well we break up our Homo erectus form not if we look like the closest bush or tree out 

there in the woods.  I wonder if we really think about this or just how good we think we 

look in the mirror, to our hunting buddies, or to those of us that are really lucky to our 

wives. Too understand what it means to break upthe human form, I think we first must 

understand how and what an ungulate sees. 

Cervid eye biology 101 

To understand how and what deer see, I think it is critical that we all have a general 

understanding of what makes up their eyes. Millions of years of evolution has driven and 

selected for the best eye for what a member of the cervid family needs. They need to see 

their world good enough to survive. This means, they need to be able to distinguish and 

see other deer, predators, vegetation, and escape cover. Cervids have what we call

 binocular vision. Their eyes are on the side of their head and can detect movement 

everywhere but directly behind them, unless they turn their head then they can see a 

complete 360 degree circle. 

In members of the cervid family, the retina is located towards the back of the eye and 

consists of two types of receptor cells we now as rods and cones. Rod cells are used to 

see in the dark, the more rods a critter has the better they see at night or in the absence of 

light. Cone cells only function in light and there purpose is to see color vision. 

The rod to cone ratio is what helps us see color and most mammals see after it is dark. 

Members of the Cervid family have a higher concentration of rod cells which allows 

them to see very well even on the blackest nights, consequently, deer have better 

nighttime vision than we do but poorer daytime and color vision. Additionally, deer have 

a pupil that opens much wider than ours allowing them to gather more light in low light 

conditions. Deer also have a reflective layer near the back of the eye called a tapetum 

which causes their eyes to shine at night. The tapetum acts just like mirrors in your 

binoculars and reflects and bounces the light not absorbed back across the cone cells to 

be used again. What this really means is that deer get to use the same light twice where 

we only use it once. Unlike deer and most mammalian species, we and members of the 

avian community have more cones than rods and we see in living color and actually have 

three types of cones in our eyes. One type of cone cell is sensitive to short wavelength 

light and allows us to see blue, the other is receptive to middle wavelength and allows us 

to see green colors and the third type of cell is receptive to long wavelengthsand allows 

us to see red colors. 

A comprehensive study on deer vision was conducted on white-tailed deer at the 

University of Georgia in the early 90’s which finally laid to rest the ‘do deer see color’ 

debate. The results of their study confirmed that deer have two (rather than three as in 

humans) types of cones which would allow them to see two types of color (although not 

all of the shades of that particular color). The cone cells which deer lack is the red cone 

making them unable to see all shades of red (pink, orange, etc.) this doesn’t mean that 

these colors are invisible to deer just that they don’t see this wavelength of color. What 

this really means is that deer are basically red-green color blind like many humans and 

candiscriminate blue from red, but not green from red, or orange from red. 

Since deer don’t see like we do they likely don’t see much detail especially from a 

distance (distances over 30 yards) and during day light hours.  By detail I mean they 

don’t see fine minuscule patters that you see in many camo patters. They don’t see the 

vanes on the leaves at 30 yards, they don’t see individual blades of grass at 30 yards and 

they certainly don’t see individual needles on a pine tree at distances greater then 30 

yards either. As a comparison, next time you are out see if you can spot an individual 

leave on an oak tree/bush at 50 yards without your binoculars. 

mdc-droper1camouflage 101 

Now that we have a basic understanding on how and

what deer see we need to draw some conclusions on

what this means for us as hunters and our selection of

camoObviously we are up against animals that have

evolved their natural senses to the extreme. It would 

almost make one ask if we need camo at all. It’s

important to keep the findings of this study in

perspective, just because deer can see some color

doesn’t mean we can’t disappear in the woods.

There is no question that scent and movement are far more important than the color

of our camo. So the real question is how can we best break up our human form? I will

start with an example. A few years ago, I was sitting on a hillside with a hunter,  We were

hunting deer and elk on an early season hunt in Utah. We were watching a herd of elk

vacate a draw and head over a small knoll out of our hunting area. I happened to glass

 with my binoculars further down the draw. I saw a hunter sitting on the hill side in the

 shade of a juniper tree. He was in full camo from head to toe and had a heavy beard, yet 

he stuck out like a sore thumb from a distance of 500 yards (give or take).  However, 

even though the binoculars, it looked like he was wearing a light green/grey shirt and 

pant suit. I mentioned to my hunter that there was another hunter on the other side of the 

draw. He said where? I pointed in the general direction and without binoculars he said, 

“oh I see him right there, I wonder why he isn’t wearing camo”? I told him that he was

 but that it wasn’t a very good camo patter. I looked at him again and was shocked to see 

that there were two other hunters to the side of him. One was in the shade and the other 

was sitting behind a small bush. I hadn’t noticed either of them on the first look, so what 

was the difference? The biggest difference that I could see was the camo patter they were 

wearing. It was a less detailed more contrasting camo patter. The bush was a small bush 

and really only covered the hunter from the waist down. I later talked with the hunters so 

I knew what type of camo they were wearing. The first hunter that I could see was 

wearing a fairly new camo patter. It looked cool up close it was so detailed you could see 

the individual leaves and bushes thecamo company was trying to patter. I have to admit I 

have this very camo as well, and it is cool. However, it isn’t a camo patter I wear while 

hunting, but remember camo is my favorite color. 

Think about it, test it, take your camo out at 30 yards put it on a bush or tree blur your 

eyes a bit and look at it—what do you see?  Do you see a single color—remember deer 

don’t really see color.  Does it look like a regular t-shirt and Levis out there or does it 

blend in with the bush or tree it’s on?  I’ve done it with many camo patters—what I see 

with the detailed camo patters out there is just a regular pair of pants and a shirt.  The key 

to a good camo pattern (in my opinion) is to have some type of pattern that has good 

contrast between light and dark colors one that lacks the fine detail(sorry guys) that we 

seen in many of today’s camo patters. I think a patter that has 3-4 colors is plenty good 

and again contrast meaning black or darker colors against lighter colors is the key. These 

types of patters seem to blend in better in any type of woods or at least the woods I hunt 

and by blending in they help break up our human form and the deer are unable to detect 

movement as easy as compared with fine detailed camo where the detail is simply lost at 

distances over 30 yards. Remember scent and movement are the deers biggest assets keep 

the wind in your face and move stealthy through the woods with your ‘contrasty’ camo. 



2 Responses to “What Deer See!”
  1. Laura H says:

    I think what your article is saying, much to the dismay of my hunter boyfriend, is that if we are in the woods, I can wear hot pink as opposed to hunter orange, and still have the same effect to the deer and safety to me? Not that hunting needs to be fashion, but I still enjoy wearing pink more than orange.

  2. admin says:

    Pinks a great color! Go ahead a make a fashion statement. There is nothing wrong with a little fashion in the hunting world. Yes, it is better then orange but, still not as good as earthtone collors.


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