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Photographing Longhorns for Fun and Profit
By Darol Dickinson

You will never see over 90 percent of the outstanding cows and bulls of the breed, but the chances are good you see photos of many of them.

With this serious responsibility invested in photos, perhaps we should all take a dead-serious look at our ability to portray cattle at their best, via the camera. Hopefully, the followoing points of information will help the photos of your herd sire look like the champion you have told folks he is.

The proper time to photograph cattle is when they look their absolute best. Plan on a year ‘round basis to photograph you cattle when they look healthy and fat. Don’t wait until a month or so before a sale when the cows are long haired or in rough winter condition. It’s too late then. Keep a file on hand of good photos of all your cattle. When you need a photo for cataloging or advertising some cold February day, pull one out of the file that was taken last summer. No animal should be pictured looking any way but its best and no cow can look her best at the worst time of the year.

Selection of a background can be very important. A bad background can conceal or hid the subject and totally lose the silhouette. For instance—don’t photograph a black bull in a coal bin at midnight or a white steer in a show storm. It’s important to show the total outline if your photo is going to tell the story you want it to tell.

An ideal background is a big clean piece of nothing. A smooth prairie is ideal so that no objectionable unrelated items appear in the background. A white cow looks attractive in front of a forest or dark green trees or a red one would look dramatic silhouetted by the skyline.

If your area is blessed with local scenery like palm trees, mountains, lakes, pretty white fences, or moss-draped trees, perhaps it would add a touch of class to combine this background in your cattle photos. It would be far more impressive than taking pictures in the back corral with six inches of mud.

Proper feet elevation can totally change a cow’s looks. It’s not always possible to move cattle and pose them loose in a pasture exactly like you’d wish. This is a matter of time and patience. If you do want to achieve they very best job and want to take a little extra time, never photograph cattle with their front feet downhill from their back feet. When the front feet are positioned, say four inches lower than the hind ones, several bad things happen to their anatomy. First they start looking low-backed, their tail gets high, the loin muscle disappears and the shoulders protrude higher as more weight is held by the front quarters. These things can destroy the good conformation on any animal as photography is concerned.

The best way to photograph any animal is to stand them on a slight incline uphill. The front feet standing one or two inches higher than the back ones is ideal. The whole body silhouette balances out better this way.

Good bright sunlight is the only way to get the nice highlights and good muscle definition required for the best photos.

A good rule for correct light is—always photograph cattle with the sun at your back. This makes your shadow on the ground point toward the cattle. If the sun shines from left to right, it will leave large dark shadows between the ribs, and below the hip bones. Every crease or wrinkle will be over emphasized by the dark shadows. Therefore, the prettiest, smoothest looking photos of cattle have proper light straight on from the angle from which you are taking the picture.

Take plenty of shots if you want one good one. Always expect to have a certain percentage of eyes closed, feet moving, ears not forward and tails switched.

People sometimes say, “I took a whole roll and didn’t get one good one.” Don’t be surprised with such disappointing results. Take three rolls and make sure. Don’t just shoot up the film because I said so, hoping the law of averages will get by you. Make every shot count. Take every picture as if it were the last one on the roll and take enough so you will have a dozen or so to pick from to get the good one you must have.

Leg positions can have a lot to do with the total look of cattle. Each animal should stand straight and square. The most anatomy is revealed from a side view with the legs placed in such a way that a clear silhouette of each leg is visible from the ground up to the knee or hock. This shows what the structure is and also shows the viewer that al four legs are sounds and free from blemishes or deformations of any kind.

The ideal Longhorn pose is a straight side view with the head turned facing directly into the camera. This angle shows the body length, muscle, body color, tom line, underline, correctness of legs and feet, general type, ears and horn shape. That’s about the story.

If the animal doesn’t look directly at you, there’s no way to tell the horn shape. A side view of a bulls head lets you look right into the tip of his horn. You can’t judge the length of a gun barrel by looking down the sights—you need to see the side view.

Camera height has lots of effect on the appearance of size of cattle. If you stand straight up and shoot with you camera held five feet in the air at a cow which stands 52” tall, you are looking down on her. This will tend to make her look shorter legged or smaller than she really is. The proper camera height to photograph a cow is as close to the center of her body as possible. This would be about two to three feet on the average cow. This presents a true perspective and allows proper evaluation of an individual.

Animation always makes a good photo even better. The animals that has the head down grazing, or the ears back and appears about half asleep just won’t catch your eye in a sale catalog or ad. Everyone knows their cattle well enough to figure some way to get them to look up and be alert for a photo. A real gentle cow will look at a feed bucket. A wild one will look at you if you just walk near her. Others may require throwing a gnat in the air or making noises like a dog or bawling bull. (By the time you’ve taken several exposures you’ll sometimes have to invent a new gimmick or tow in order to get an animal to look at you.)

Get close to your cattle. Don’t shoot at them from so far away that they only make a small spot in the middle of the photo. Get close enough that the animal fills up the whole picture. If your camera has a Polaroid-type lens you may have to get as close as ten feet to fill the photo with cow. You will have better results with an average telephoto lens. It will allow you to stand 30-40 feet away and still get a full frame shot.

Everyone knows it’s much easier to take average photos. It doesn’t take nearly as much time or film as the real good ones. But, who wants to be average?

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