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Let's Shoot Straight - Cattle Photography
Longhorn Trails Aug 1995
By Jim Curry

One thing I have noticed about Texas Longhorn breeders Is that many carry a photo album. When they pull it out, you think “oh no, not kids and grandkids.” Wrong! It’s always their Longhorns. Some of these albums are truly like looking at boring grandkid pictures, but others are a real pleasure. What’s the difference? The photos!

Not everyone can visit your ranch to view your cattle, but when they see your cattle in your photo album, a sale catalog, or an advertisement, you are making that proverbial first impression, so you want it to be a good one.

Lets examine what often makes the difference between a good and bad livestock picture. I do not claim to be a professional livestock photographer, but I do know what generally works for me. Taking photographs of your Texas Longhorns is not difficult; it requires patience and following a few simple rules of thumb (and twenty-five rolls of film). Not really, but do always take more photos that you think you need. It is not uncommon for me to take multiple shots of an animal that I think is in the perfect position. Most, if not all, of the photos will have some flaw.

The camera is important. You do not need an expensive camera, but I feel you do need one with a zoom lens, which allows you to “zoom in” on the animal. I use a medium-price-range, 35 mm Minolta SLR with automatic focus. I prefer the automatic focus, because the camera will focus much faster than the human eye. (At least an aged human eye like mine). You also don’t have to worry about F-stops, lighting, etc. Some cameras are equipped with a time and date feature, which you may or may not want to use. In an ad, it detracts from the animal. However, for your photo album, the time-date feature enables you to document the rate of gain or horn growth at different ages of the animal.

Your selection of film is important. I prefer to use 400 ASA film at all times. It serves as a good all-around film for our purposes at the Trails. I will normally carry some 200 ASA film for use on cloudy days, as I seem to get sharper, clearer color with 200 ASA under overcast conditions. Most importantly, always use name brand, in-date film. I believe there is a difference. Use a reputable processor; discount places are usually “okay.” They are inexpensive, and comparable in cost and quality to “mail away” processors.

The weather is always tricky. Unless it is overcast, never try to take photos in the middle of the day. Trust me, it does not usually work (remember the 200 ASA film). Try to take your photos in the morning, late afternoon, or early evening. Pay attention to the location of the sun. Shoot with the sun at your back. Otherwse, you might accidentally get an artsy shot, but most likely you will simply get a badly lit photo. Try to stand far enough back that your shadow does not fall into your picture, while remembering to fill the frame as much as possible.

Some do’s and don’ts that I feel are helpful fall under only one category: VERY IMPORTANT!

Do not feed your cattle! The worst thing you can do is carry a sack of cubes, or a couple of bales of hay down to the cows to take your pictures. What you’ll get for the next hour is cattle with their heads down, butting and fighting to eat. What then happens is you either waste time or film until the feeding frenzy is over. Instead, ease down into the pasture, and let the cows come to you. Texas Longhorns are naturally curious. They will come to you—let them. Take a lawn chair down to the pasture; sit on the bed of the pickup. If you wait they will come.

Plan ahead. Are the flies bad? You might want to spray your cattle for flies a few days before you plan to photograph them. If you are consigning cows to a sale in August, take your pictures in April or May, well before the deadline for the sale catalog and fly season. You do not want a photo of a cow with her tail switched up over her back or kicking at flies with her hind leg.

How about taking that picture of your bull? Your herd sure is 50% of your program, and the last thing you want is a poor picture of him. Don’t turn him in with a new set of cows right before you want to shoot photographs. Try not to change his pasture at all if possible. If you do, give him a couple of days to settle down prior to your photo session. Pay close attention to his attitude—there are days it does not pay to waster your valuable tie attempting to get “that” photo. Try the next day –this applies to females also.

I find calves the most difficult to photograph. Like children they are awkward, obnoxious and have the attention span of a gnat. Don’t expect much or be discouraged with your calf pictures. Be patient! If you discover a secret for calf photos, call me.

Position. (Yours and the animal’s). Study the position of your subject’s legs. A good photograph of a Texas Longhorn cow will clearly display her udder, and a good photograph of a Texas Longhorn will clearly display why he is your herd sire. You should refer to the Trails or other respected cattle publications to get an idea of how your Texas Longhorn should be posed. You should try duplicating photos that appeal to you, or pique your interest.

I prefer what I call a “bull’s eye” shot for most cattle photographs. What I mean by that is position yourself so that you are shooting directly into the center of the animal’s ribs as if a target was placed halfway down the length of the animal. Position yourself at a right angle to the animal (or perhaps slightly toward the head) and fire away. Some people will recommend being on a level with the animal. That works fine, but I have gotten my best shots at a lower level, or even lying on my stomach shooting up at the animal. I believe it not only makes them appear more imposing, but it makes them curious. They seem to think “hey, what is this clown doing?” You usually get a more alert animal, but don’t be surprised if you get a spooked cow disappearing into the woods.

Speaking of alert—try to bring along some help. It is very important to keep those ears forward, and many times it requires a second person to accomplish that. If you are alone, I have found it helpful to pitch a tuft of grass, a rock, or even a dried “cowpie” up in front of the anima. Whistle at the animal, wave your arms; do something to get their attention. An animal with their head down is always, always unattractive.

Remember these are Texas Longhorns. Unlike other breeds, we do want to display horn length. It is vital to have the animal more or less facing the camera. An animal facing directly forward distorts horn length in a negative fashion. A cow with her head turned too far toward the camera will give the appearance of a short neck.

Attempt to have your subject “running” uphill; in other words, in not on level ground, the animal’s front legs should be on the higher ground. Your animal will always be unappealing if its front legs are in a hole. It is not imperative, but try to have the animal’s front higher that the back. Some folks actually will build a mound on which to pose their haltered animals. Again, study photographs that catch your eye.

4. Backgrounds are extremely important. Pen shots hardly ever work. Do not have hay racks, your pick-up, other cows, junk piles, etc., in your photo. Make sure there are no telephone poles, grain bins, etc in your background. Anything other than your subject detracts from the objective, which is to draw attention to the animal. Have room to back up; you want the entire cow your picture. Do not cut off any horns or fee. Watch out for that sprig of grass or hay hanging out of the animal’s mouth. I don’t consider it a big deal, but it does detract from the image you are trying to capture. Often, people have a separate place to take photos, and this is to your advantage.

Green grass is good! You should utilize winter pasture, an irrigated field, I once was run off a golf course for taking cow pictures on a tee box. We did appreciate the fifteen minutes we got, but I don’t recommend pushing your luck.

Another important consideration for backgrounds is the color of your subject. With light colored cattle, you will want a tree line or deep blue sky. Dark cattle usually require a clear background; experiment and find what works for you.

Always carry your camera with you, but don’t leave it or your film in extreme temperatures. Expect to shoot several rolls of film to get two or three acceptable photos.

Remember, a picture is worth a thousand words; but a bad picture is just a bad picture, so shoot straight!

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