Photographing Longhorns for Fun and Profit

by: Darol Dickinson - 6-15-21

You will never see over 90 percent of the outstanding cows and bulls of the breed in person, but the chances are good you'll see photos of many. The way these photos make you feel about their subjects can make or break a breeder's promotional program. A high-quality, flattering photo will help you sell cattle, semen or whatever you may be marketing. A poor-quality, unflattering photo will probably make sure you don't do much business at all. You're better off letting people imagine what your cattle look like than if you use poor photos and give people the impression that your cattle are sub-par.

With this serious responsibility invested in photos, we as breeders need to take a serious look at our ability to portray our cattle at their absolute best. The following are a few fundamental aspects of Longhorn photography that, if followed, should help your best cattle look like the champions you've told everyone they are.

Shoot'em At The Right Time

The proper time to photograph cattle is when they look their absolute best. Plan on a year-round basis to photograph your cattle when they look healthy and fat. Don't wait until a month before the ad when cows are long-haired or in poor winter condition. The serious marketer will try to keep a file of good photos of each of his cattle. If you need a photo for an advertisement some cold February day, you can turn to your file and pull out a photo taken last summer, with both your animal and ranch in prime condition. No animal should be pictured looking less than its best, and no cow looks her best at the worst time of year.

Good photo of a dark bull.

This shot shows a clear outline of a dark bull. The light is perfect, the background non-distracting and the camera is also at the proper level. True cattle people like photos without photo shop fake backgrounds. The natural unmolested background is more trusted. When fake backgrounds are added it often cuts in and changes the anatomy. Work on clean backgrounds and forget the photo shop.


Selection of a background can be very important. A bad background can conceal or hide the subject and totally lose the silhouette. For instance, don't photograph a black bull in a coal bin at midnight or a white cow in a snow storm. While it's important to have good color contrast between your subject and its surroundings, a background of green pasture and blue sky is a safe bet for almost all subjects. A clear sky won't compete for the viewer's attention, and presents a dramatic view of your animal's silhouette without clutter.

If your area is blessed with local scenery like palm trees, mountains, lakes, pretty white fences, moss-draped trees, etc., you can add a touch of class to your photos by using such scenery as a backdrop for your photo session. It's always far more impressive to see a photo-enhancing background than to see cattle wallowing in the back corral in six inches of mud. Make sure that any unattractive of distracting objects (machinery, trash, buckets, etc.) are kept out of your camera's field of vision. It's important to take a good look at "the big picture" when photographing your cattle, and attention to the background of your photos is a key part.


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 the picture you have in mind. This is a matter of time and patience. If you do want to achieve the very best photo possible and can afford to take a little extra time, never photograph cattle with their front feet downhill from their back feet. When the front feet are positioned lower than the hind feet, several bad things happen to the animal's anatomical appearance. Your subject will tend to appear low-backed and high-tailed, the loin muscle disappears and the shoulders sit unnaturally high as more weight is supported by the front quarters. Thus, your animal's outstanding conformation and natural posture remains the Texas Longhorn business' best-kept secret. Any photos seen by your fellow breeders should enhance the reputation of your cattle and your ranch, not harm it.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Proper positioning of the photographer in relation to the sun and the subject.

Leg position can have a lot to do with the overall look of cattle. You want your subject to stand straight and square. Anatomy is best 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 provides a good look at the animal's structure and also shows the viewer that all four legs are sound and free from blemishes or deformities of any kind.

The ideal Texas Longhorn pose (two of the photos included with this piece are close to ideal) is a straight side-view with the head turned and facing directly into the camera. This angle displays body length, muscle, body color, top-line, underline, correctness of legs and feet, general type, ear and horn shape, testicle development for bulls and udder development for cows.

If the animal doesn't look directly at you, there's no way to see horn shape and size. A side-view of a bull's head lets you look right into the tip of his horn. Similarly, you can't judge the length of a gun barrel by looking down the sights—a side-view is necessary for an accurate evaluation.

Animation always makes a good photo even better. A grazing cow, or an animal with its ears back or looking half-asleep won't make a good impression in an ad. You should know your cattle well enough to figure some way to get them to look up and be alert for a photo. A gentle cow will probably look up at a feed bucket. A wild one may look (or glare, grimace or sneer) at you if you just walk near her. Others may require you to throw a hat or a handful of grass in the air, or make noises like a dog or a bawling bull. (By the time you've taken several exposures you may have to invent a new gimmick or two in order to get your subjects to look at you.) Just keep on working on new ideas until something works.

You need to take the time necessary to get your animal to strike an attractive pose. It may take some hard work, but a photo of a cow with her head in a feed bucket or walking away from the photographer is certain to be unimpressive. If you put some effort into it, the chances of getting a photo you're proud of are greatly increased. This may require moving around—even running!—to position yourself to catch that ideal pose, but since you're already out there making the effort, you might as well get the photo you want. As I get older the running, crawling, and jumping reduces. I take most photos from my Can-Am. I can drive around to the correct angle when there is a hazy light and quickly locate the right angle.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Correct and incorrect vertical positioning of the camera in relation to the body of the subject.

Camera Position

Camera height has a considerable effect on the appearance of the size of your subject matter. If you stand straight up and shoot with your camera held at 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 from which to photograph a cow is as close to the center of her body as possible. This would be two or three feet for the average cow. Photographs taken from this height present a true perspective and allow proper evaluation of an individual.


Poor lighting and poor stance are probably the most common problems with livestock photography. The weather, time of day and setting all help to determine whether you wind up with a photo in which your animal is well presented.

Bright sunlight is needed to bring out the nice highlights and good muscle definition you'll see in the truly memorable photos. Photos taken in heavy overcast or inclement weather are usually soft, but make a poor animal look smooth. A good rule for correct light is to always photograph cattle with the sun at your back. In this position your shadow on the ground should point directly toward the subject. 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 overemphasized by dark shadows. Not good.

The prettiest, shiniest, smoothest-looking photos of cattle owe a great deal to proper lighting. Early morning or late afternoon sunlight provides a good look at your subject matter.

There's no excuse for shadows obscuring people's view of the cattle in your photos. Make your cattle get out from under the tree and into the sunlight. (Sure it's hot, but who's working for whom?) Even on a bright, sunny day shadows will obscure visual detail and make your subject matter hard to see.

Don't Be A Card-Miser

I often hear the complaint, "I used a whole card and didn't get one good photo." Don't be surprised with such disappointing initial results... take abundant photos and make sure you get the one you want. Don't just shoot up the card for the sake of hearing clicks, hoping the law of averages will somehow get you that perfect photo. Make every shot count. Take every picture as if it were the last one on the card. Take enough so you will have a dozen or so to pick from, to get the one you need. You can always expect to have a certain percentage of eyes closed, feet moving, ears moving back and tails switching.

Good shot of an alert cow.

Another good shot with excellent contrast along with a good stance and alert head pose. It is fun to have a dark background on a light colored critter.

Don't Be Bashful

Get close to your cattle. Don't shoot at them from so far away that you need a magnifying glass to identify the subject. Get close enough that the animal just about fills up your camera's entire field of vision whether normal optics or telephoto. You will have consistently better results with an average telephoto (zoom) lens. This will allow you to stand 20-60 feet away and still get a full-frame shot.

Lastly, always carry a ready camera at all times and you will be prepared for capturing something really good. I use a Canon EOS 90D with a EFS 18-135 zoom. It's not high priced, but great sharpness. Now it is just a matter of time.