Farm Friday: Capturing the Personalities of Cows

Cows all lined up

For anyone that has ever had a pet animal, whether it be a cat, dog, snake, goat or otherwise knows that each one has its own unique personality. The same is true for barn animals- they are curious of strangers and mostly friendly.*

Farm animals and livestock are such an integral part to the farm life. It’s just as important, and fun, to document them as it is to photograph rural landscapes- although you do need a completely different set of skills to do so.

 *Note: All of the cattle photographed here have been raised on small, subsistence farms where there is a lot more human to animal interaction. I do not have experience with a larger model and therefore cannot speak to how their cows act.Picking Noses cow

6 Tips for Photographing Cow Personalities

1. Permission.

Never, ever, enter a barnyard or farm with animals without talking with the owners. Farm animals are part of a business, a business with strict protocols about safety, sanitation and disease control. They need to make sure that you are in compliance before you can be given permission to enter. Don’t be surprised if you don’t get permission the first time you ask- try asking to schedule something out into the future.

Blushing Coquettish Highland Cattle

2. Move Gently. Have Patience.

If you alarm them, they won’t get near. If you can sit patiently and wait for the cows to get curious then you will have it made. The closer they get, the more detail you will be able to capture. The highland calf above walked right up to me after a while of sitting, curious about my camera, I think.

3. Be Quiet.

No loud noises that could startle them- especially if you are out in a pasture. You don’t want them to run away from you, and you definitely don’t want them to run at you!

4. Make Eye Contact.

Here's Looking at you, Cow

Like with humans, eyes are the “windows into the soul”. If you can capture the cow while it’s looking straight at you and the camera then you will instantly get a sense of their personality.

5. Plan for anything.

Screaming Cow

Know what you’re going to shoot and bring the equipment that is appropriate for the shoot. You may want some a longer zoom lens to try and get ‘up close’ to the animals without having to actually get too  close. Wear appropriate clothing. You will be on a farm- it’s messy. Wear jeans and mud boots. Expect to get dirty.

The cow stare-down

6. Photographer and Animal Safety.

Keep safety in mind 100% of the time. Safety for you and for the animals. Know what your escape route is, if you’re inside the fences and follow the farm’s safety procedures exactly. Do not try and touch the animals or get too close unless the owners have given you prior approval.

Extra Note: If you don’t have access to farm animals, try going to a petting zoo or the animal barns at a state or county fair. You will need to still be incredibly respectful of the animal and it’s owner, but they are more accessible in these locations. Just expect that you’ll probably pick up a lot of ‘background’.

Minnesota State Fair Cows