When it's picture day on your farm, there's a lot at stake. No matter the species, or the size of your operation, you count on having a good sale to make sure your operation can continue, and good pictures make for good sales.
In all my travels, and in every picture pen I ever worked, there was one thing that consistently showed up to stand in the way of having a great picture day, and that one thing is stress; stress on the animals, stress on the help, and stressful relationships between the people working to make picture day happen.
Because of the pressure to get the work done, to do a good job, to see a year's worth of work come to fruition in the frame of a photograph, people are the number one cause of stress on picture day. Sure, not all animals are blessed with a good demeanor, but neither are all people. It's best to stay away from both if you can, but if you can't, at least keep the impatient people out of the picture pen.
If I could have it my way, I'd use two rules when it comes to who I'd let work the picture pen. First, you can't work the pen if you own the livestock, and second, you can't work the pen if you're related, by blood or marriage, but especially by marriage, to anyone else working the pen.
For owners, our expectations are on the line on picture day, and we can cave to the pressure, fail to trust, fail to give each other enough credit, and we lose our patience when things don't go as planned. If there's one thing I know, it's that things in the picture pen never go as planned.
For family, well, if you're reading this, you've probably worked livestock with your family at one point or another, and that's about all that needs said about that. Except to say this; show your family more love and more patience in all things. They deserve it for putting up with you.
I consider great cattle photography to be more about cattle handling than any other single thing. I feel my proficiency in understanding when, where, and why a cow is going to move, coupled with my laid-back demeanor, has more to do with the quality of my work than my skills with a camera.
Here are a few tips to make picture day less stressful.
1. Have enough help. Nothing compounds stress like being short-handed. Decide how many people you need for your setup, and there are a lot of variables, but for a typical day of cow photography, I like to have at least two people at the chute cleaning up cattle, two people in the picture pen, and one person floating to make sure everything is moving fluidly. That's five, plus me, to get started.
2. Handle with care. I have had the good fortune of working with a lot of great cattlemen/women who understand the importance of patient and quiet animal handling. Nothing will ruin photo day as quickly as working up the animals, and this becomes even more crucial when the animals aren't used to being handled in close quarters. Calm, quiet, handling throughout the sale preparation process, and especially on picture day is critical. If you're running cattle through a chute system to prepare them for photos and they're used to being rushed through and banged around every time they go to the chute, you can expect a really long day and aggravating day when picture time comes.
3. Minimize environmental impact. Animals in a new environment are never as comfortable as animals in their normal environment. Anything you can do to minimize stress and familiarize the animals with the process can help. For example, if you feed your cattle with a tractor, start spending time walking through them on foot each day for a few weeks prior to sale prep, right up through picture day. If you're picturing baby pigs, spend some time in the barn each day playing with those pigs and getting them used to looking for a whip or a pipe or something to chew on to gain their interest.
Leave your comments and questions below, or head over to our social channels to continue the conversation. Learn Livestock Photography courses launch February 2020, including Take Command of the Picture Pen - a course designed to help you handle and pose livestock to make sure you get the best shot possible!
B.J. Eick is the Founder of Learn Livestock, the Founder and C.E.O. of Herdmark Media, Inc., a writer, photographer, and filmmaker with a passion for animal agriculture. You can contact B.J. directly here.
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