It’s long been said “a picture’s worth a thousand words,” but it’s a cliché for good reason. When it comes to marketing your livestock, having high-quality photos can make or break a potential sale. Pictures are the center of attention in everything from sale catalogs to advertisements and often serve as the first impression potential customers get of your operation.
As we discussed in Why Sale Catalogs Work, producers are bombarded with endless numbers of ads and sale catalogs in their pursuit of finding the perfect bull or females, which is why you need something that catches their eye. While part of that eye appeal comes from great design, design can only get you so far with mediocre photos. The quality of your photos helps convey the quality of your genetics and your operation. In fact, with so many sales taking place online, the photos in your catalog may be the only way a potential buyer is seeing an animal before it goes through the ring on sale day. You want to do everything you can to make your animals, and operation, stand out and look their best. A few simple steps can help you take your photography game to the next level and achieve that true “money shot.”
As with most things in life, preparation is key to ensuring success. The first step is determining a good location. You want to keep the background as consistent and non-distracting as possible between all the animals you picture. It helps to build a “picture pen,” such as with portable panels in an open pasture or similar area, ensuring the background isn’t cluttered with buildings, equipment or other animals. If your cattle are used to electric fencing, stringing a single strand of hot wire around the area is an even better, less distracting alternative to panels.
When choosing a location for the setup, you’ll want to take lighting into consideration as well. You want to shoot with the sunlight at your back to best illuminate the animal and their features. Be sure your setup allows you to position yourself appropriately, depending on if you plan to shoot early in the morning, later in the afternoon or both. Just remember, it’s best to avoid the harsh midday light. A slightly cloudy day is sometimes more ideal than a bright clear one as it allows you more time to shoot.
With the proper setup in place, you’ll want to set a date for pictures. Take a look at the weather forecast to make sure it’s not going to be raining or overly cloudy. While it’s not always feasible to have perfectly groomed animals for picture day, you want to do your best to ensure they don’t have that dirty, straight-out-of-the-pasture look. A quick rinse and curry comb can work wonders, and topping off with a polishing spray such as Show Sheen, can quickly take your animals to the next level, highlighting their best features. If your setup allows, clipping animals’ heads and underlines (especially bulls) can further enhance their clean, polished look. If it’s fly season, try to spray cattle a couple days in advance to avoid any fly-covered photos. The work tends to add up quickly, so recruit extra help if possible for grooming the animals and moving them around the pen. That way you can focus on snapping the perfect shot.
In the Picture Pen
The cattle are clean and ready for their closeup, so how do you get them in place? Like any time you’re working with animals, maintaining a calm environment is the key to getting them to cooperate. It’s a lot easier to catch the perfect setup as they calmly walk back and forth across the pen as opposed to bolting from end to end. Having someone on foot or horseback trailing the animal to keep them on the move sets you up for success in your pursuit to get them properly set up.
As a general livestock photography tip, don’t carry a sack of feed with you; utilizing feed will simply result in animals with their heads down for the next 30 minutes.
In a perfect world, the animal will be standing squarely with front feet in line and the back foot closest to the camera slightly offset to the back while their head is looking straight forward or turned at a 45-degree angle toward the camera, ears forward and alert. This is the most flattering posture and allows the viewer to see the majority of the animal, including the udder/testicles. This is not easily achieved on your own, so you’ll want a helper to stand in front of the animal to catch the animal’s attention and stop him at the right moment. There are many ways to get the animal’s attention; a few examples include utilizing a noise maker, popping an umbrella, or simply whistling and waiving your arms.
When everything finally comes together perfectly, you want to make sure you’re able to properly frame the shot! Fill as much of the frame with the animal as you can, making sure you don’t cut off any parts of the head, body or feet. When deciding where to stand in the pen, ensuring you have plenty of room to back up is invaluable when the animal doesn’t stop exactly where you hoped. Last, you’ll want to be level with the centerline of the animal. Don’t point your lens at a downward angle as it will make the animal appear smaller and possibly distorted.
Post-processing and Equipment Tips
Post-processing should be fairly simple if you prepared the animals and picture pen accordingly and shot in decent light. Simple photo editing software will allow you to crop, adjust brightness and increase contrast as needed to further enhance the photo. Try to keep your edits minimal in order to be as consistent as possible between photos and, of course, you should never modify the structure of an animal.
As for equipment, investing in a mid-range digital camera and a quality lens can make all the difference. When selecting a lens, a portrait lens will likely give you the best results; however, you’ll have to be prepared to move yourself around as needed to better frame the shot as opposed to a zoom lens. Regardless of the lens you choose, be careful not to select a wide-angle lens as it can easily distort the subject. A 50mm portrait lens is a great, versatile place to start.
Practice makes perfect, so take some time getting used to your new equipment and try out different shooting locations/backgrounds. While it may seem laborious and daunting now, it will make all the difference in the way your animals are portrayed to potential buyers. There’s a reason it’s called a money shot.
Emily grew up in rural Connecticut with a passion for agriculture. She attended Texas A&M University where she earned a bachelor’s degree in animal science and a master’s degree in ruminant nutrition. Emily has joined the BluePrint team as a designer and feature writer after previously working in feed sales and as the marketing manager for a large ranching operation in central Texas. Emily and her husband look forward to raising their family in the agricultural community they both love.