Photography 101

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We’ve all heard the phrase “A picture is worth a thousand words.”
The fact of the matter is a picture is worth thousands of words. A bad picture is worth twice that.

“My mistakes included standing up and not getting low, having other cows in the picture, cubing the cows while photographing them and getting photos with their mouths open. Other mistakes were having the sun behind the cow and not me. I’d try to photograph them midday.”

Dale Smith
Lago Haven Ranch, Allen, TX

“I have been thinking about an answer to this question. My situation is purely my own of being so far away from any other breeder that I might buy a cow from that I have to use
the picture to make a decision on buying. It has to give me some security and confidence in the animal. I hate photos that are from the front only and that do not allow me to see the top line and body of the animal. I will buy a cow off of one photo if it tells me everything I need to know. The classic side shot with the head facing me directly at the camera can show you enough about the balance and quality of the animal. If you are lucky you will also see the udder well. I can overlook a busy background if the cow is shown well.”

Alexandra Dees
CR Longhorns, Harper, OR

So why is taking a good photo so important?

It’s just a photo, go out and snap one, you see the cow has horn, you see the cow has color, what else do you need? Simple. What do you look at when you go see a cow in person? You want to see how the cow stands, you want to see the horn shape and set, you want to see if there’s anything wrong with her confirmation, how clean the neck or naval is, and how the udder or testicle development is coming along. If you take a good photo your chances of getting a phone call from an interested party are much higher than a photo that didn’t make an impression. Here are some techniques that we focus on to benefit our program. These are some of the easiest ways to make yours photos better.


This is the single most important part of a good picture. The photographer should be perpendicular to the cow. A cow needs to be standing with their front legs square, their head up looking towards the photographer, their inside back leg needs to be back and their outside back leg forward. This pose will show off the cow’s top line, naval, udder/testicles, hip, shoulder, and how clean their frame is along with their horn growth. Many times you can find me in a pasture whistling, throwing my hat in the air, or jumping up and down to try to get a cow’s attention who’s standing correctly as is.


You don’t want to take away from the size and development of an animal. You want your photo level to be level with the animal. Taking a photo from above the animal will make the animal seem smaller than it really is especially if the photographer is a taller person. On the flip side if you take a picture from level lower than should be you’ll take away the proper light and also taking away the opportunity to see the proper top line of the animal. You want to be perfectly level with the cow itself.


Lighting is so key to a good photo. You don’t want to take a picture with the sun behind the cow because that’ll change the color of the cow itself. Make sure your shadow isn’t growing across the cow either. Setting up with your back to the sun will make for a really wonderful picture that shows off the best in your cow’s color. Midday is typically a hard time to get a great photo as the overhead sun creates shadows on the sides of the cow.


Having a cluttered background will take the focus away from your cow. A balanced picture without other cows, equipment, ATVs, etc will really make your photos stand out. There’s no secret other than doing all you can to keep the background from being cluttered.


Feeding your cows in hopes you’ll get a good photo is like thinking you can get your kids to cooperate by taking them to the amusement park. What you’ll get mostly is cows with their mouths open, other cows in the background, pictures of cows being hooked and pushed around. They are more concerned about eating rather than standing correct.


Finding the right time of day will help you with finding the right light and getting cattle that aren’t all cluttered together. For instance, trying to take a midday photo shoot in the summer when the cattle are in the timber or ponds to avoid the heat is a waste of time. For us in the east with our humid summers the mornings and evening are simply the best time when the cattle are out standing about before it gets too hot. If you watch your cows enough you know that when they’re in the mode to graze you’re not going to get their attention. So when they’re in that mode don’t go out to try and take photos. You’ll get frustrated and they’ll be walking around with their heads down. In the fall and spring when the nights are cooler and they cows are waiting for the morning sun to warm them up they’re usually standing perfect calm cool and collective. Knowing the movements of your herd at the time of year will increase your ability to get a good photo and save you a bunch of time.


Smart phones make great tools when you’re out and about in a pasture, to post to social media “look at this sweet heifer” but to make a really marketable photo for your site or advertisement nothing beats a good quality camera with a good lens. It’s a great investment that’ll serve you well.


In Virginia our best time of year to take photos is October and November. The grass is still green, the cattle are in great body condition, the sun light is usually warm, and the bugs aren’t around bugging the cows. The time of year really comes into play for those consigning cattle to spring sales especially to those who face cold winters. Taking a photo in February for a consignment deadline due with muddy pastures of fuzzy cattle who have been supplemented all winter does not make for the best photo. Planning for your sale cattle photos in the late fall, early winter are much better than late winter.

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