Picture Perfect

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Picture Perfect

How to make the most of photographs on your operation. Picture Perfect       |       

by Lilly Platts       

Melissa Grimmel-Schaake photographs cattle and events across the country.   

Good photographs and visuals are a critical part of making sure the work you put into your cattle is reflected when you present them in advertising or online. Social media has encouraged many producers to start taking their own photos to share, and in some cases, a family member or employee even takes photos for catalogs and advertisements. ASA also wants to use our members’ photos whenever possible for covers and advertisements — Simmental cattle are being used across the country, and making sure we represent this variety is important to us.

Melissa Grimmel-Schaake is a photographer from Kansas, who turned her passion for photography and design into a bustling business. Schaake also comes from a Simmental family, and does business with a number of breeders. She shared some of her advice both for hiring professional photographers and taking your own photos.

Why is it important that producers be able to take quality photos of their cattle?

I think this question can go both ways — quality sale/donor/sire photos and quality scenic photos are both extremely important. During sale time, we strive to provide the highest quality, honest photos that serve as the best representation of our cattle. We understand that not everyone is able to visit our ranch and view our cattle in person, so we feel it is crucial to provide the best images possible to get current and potential customers interested in our offering. Cow families are extremely important to us, and we have focused on picturing a lot of our donor cows so producers can see for themselves the foundation of our program.

In addition, we enjoy building our stock photo inventory with scenic photos. Whether these are taken with a DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) camera or our cell phone, these are great to use in marketing and advertising including social media, print ads, and promotional items. These photos are not only nice to use for graphics, but they also show viewers what our cattle look like outside the picture pen — kicked out on grass nursing their calf and being a mama in the Flint Hills. I rarely carry my camera with me while checking cattle and doing chores, so the majority of the scenic photos we post are actually taken on our cell phones! You do not have to be a professional to take these, as a lot of the scenic photos we share are taken by all members of our family!

In your opinion, how important is social media/self-promotion in today’s cattle business? How do photos fit into this?

It amazes me how livestock marketing has changed over the years and will continue to change in years to come. We are seeing less print advertising and more digital advertising, and less text in stories, and more photos and graphics. I think this has a lot to do with how fast-paced our society has become — and if you’ve ever met the Schaakes, we are pretty fast-paced people. A photo can tell a story much faster than reading a couple of paragraphs.

It’s important to be where your clients are and nine times out of 10, your clients are scrolling through a social media platform (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, The Pulse, YouTube) during some point in the day. Having a face on social media is HUGE and the best part about it (which I know my father-in-law, Scott, loves) it’s FREE! You can pay for additional advertising on social media, but it is free to sign up and create a business page. The majority of our marketing at Schaake Farms takes place on social media, but we also reach people through our website, print advertising, email blasts, postcards, show promotion, etc. 

However, the mistake I see a lot of livestock businesses make is only posting on their page around sale time, and not posting again until their next sale. It’s critical to post year-round and to keep your audience engaged as well as gaining new followers, so when sale season does come around, the hard work is done and you have already built that connection with your followers.

Outside of sale season, plan to take photos and post content about what’s going on at the ranch — calving, weaning, halter breaking, preparing for a show, celebrating a birthday, graduation, holiday, plan an apparel giveaway, etc. We have found that sharing the personal, behind-the-scenes, and everyday tasks are what our page followers enjoy seeing. Your audience wants to learn about you! And in the end, this enables you to establish a relationship with them before you meet them face-to-face.

What are the best times of day to take photos?

We aim to start taking our sale cattle photos three hours after sunrise, and end the day three hours before sunset, so their shadows aren’t extremely long. During the summertime, we usually take a break between 11 am - 1 pm as the sun is at the highest point in the sky and casts undesirable shadows on the animal.

For scenic photos, we like taking them right around sunrise or sunset to capture the gorgeous golden light. This is also the time cattle are spread out and grazing, creating a gorgeous view.

How much does “good” lighting affect the final photo?

A great photo includes good lighting, and I will do just about anything for it to be sunny on picture day. When the sunlight directly hits the animal and their shadow is cast directly behind them, it helps capture muscle expression and details on livestock. In the summer months, I try to avoid brutally hot days or when the sun is high in the sky (about 11 am - 1 pm) because the shadows cast off from their top line, making the shadows distracting. Take this break time to let the picture help rest or grab a bite to eat.

Picture day is essentially sale day. Your sale photos are a marketing tool in itself — the way your cattle are presented, and the appearance of your picture pen set-up represents your operation.

What angles should people avoid?

Livestock photography is all about reading livestock and paying attention to detail. Whenever an animal walks into the picture pen, I immediately evaluate its strengths and weaknesses, and how to best position and set them up, all while keeping an eye on the sun’s rotation and adjusting my camera settings throughout the day. It is my goal to shoot at an angle that exemplifies those strengths and makes the animal look their very best. Therefore, you will probably not shoot the same exact angle of every animal throughout the day, or have their feet placed in the same position. If one is a little plainer-fronted, I will take the photo off their hindquarter versus directly centered. If one is a little shallower bodied, I will shoot on top of them versus squatting down low. We work extremely hard in the picture pen and don’t stop until we get the killer, dynamite shot. With this, a good ear getter and good picture pen help are key — is a true team effort to get the perfect shot.

What are some good go-to angles for taking photos of individual animals in the field?

I can be pretty old-fashioned and like to focus on capturing uniform profile shots, but don’t be afraid to take a flattering three-quarter angle shot if the lighting is right and the animal is stout and heavy-muscled.


What apps are user-friendly and quality for quickly editing photos to be put on Facebook, Instagram, etc.?

To quickly edit photos, I like using Adobe Lightroom. Instagram has also really improved their filters and editing software, enabling me to use a photo that I edited on that platform to post on our other social media pages. Other popular apps are VSCO and Snapseed. There are many options available on the iPhone App Store and I suggest trying them all out to see which you like best.

If you had some “top tips” for amateur photographers, what would they be? Practice, practice, and practice some more.

The more photos you take, the more you learn and the better photographer you become. When I first started, I taught myself how to shoot in manual mode right off the bat. Learning how to properly adjust your f-stop (aperture), ISO (the camera’s ability to capture light), and shutter speed enables you to have complete control over your images. Don’t be afraid to research, ask others, or attend workshops for help to be the best that you can be! I’ve been taking photos for more than seven years and am still learning new ways to improve all the time. Now, I have trained the Schaake men to capture scenic photos on the ranch and they do a phenomenal job!

A photo can tell a story much faster than reading a couple of paragraphs.

If someone wanted to invest in an affordable, easy-to-use camera for daily use, what would you suggest?

There is a lot of equipment available for photographers including brands, camera bodies, and lenses. If you’re wanting to get started, I suggest first establishing what you’re wanting to spend. Then, talk with other photographers and get their opinion, as well as visit B&H Photo’s website (www.bhphotovideo.com). You can search for equipment based on your budget, the brand, reviews, ratings, etc. to find what best fits your needs. Although both are important, I believe that your lens and having that high-quality glass is more important than your camera body. As for livestock photos, I love my 70-200 mm zoom lens, as it allows me to back off the cattle and give them some room while shooting.

Livestock photography is all about reading livestock and paying attention to detail.

Why is it important that producers use professional photographers for sales catalogs, ads, etc.? What extra value does this extra quality and professionalism bring to the table?

Picture day is essentially sale day. Your sale photos are a marketing tool in itself — the way your cattle are presented, and the appearance of your picture pen set-up represents your operation. When I look at sale photos, it’s not appealing when the cattle aren’t washed or clipped, they’re pictured on a dirt lot and they have vehicles and eyesores in the background. I enjoy looking at clear, high-resolution photos where the animal is clipped to perfection, standing firmly on green grass, they’re attentive with their head cocked off and ears forward. When looking at photos like this, it tells me that the particular operation takes pride in their cattle and their place, and they work hard. As a buyer, I want to spend my money with an elite operation that encompasses those characteristics. 

A professional photographer has the equipment and experience to guide you in that direction. As I previously mentioned, picture day is sale day, and the overall goal is to capture the best images and videos of your livestock possible. A professional has enough experience to effectively communicate with the picture pen help what exactly needs to happen with the animal when it walks through the gate and into the pen.

Unfortunately, you won’t always get the shot you want right off the bat. Sometimes you will, and other times it can take up to 30 minutes. When working with clients, I take a laid back and relaxed approach and focus on taking control of the overall morale and mood of the picture pen. On an already stressful day, I’m patient with the crew and livestock, and work together as a team until I get the shot I’m happy with and that the client will be happy with. I think it’s important to be upbeat and compliment the crew when they do a good job because that extra boost of confidence is sometimes just what they need to keep going — especially on a 100-degree day. When the crew is relaxed, I’ve learned they are way more easygoing with the livestock, which in turn, makes the livestock relax and respond better.

During sale time, we strive to provide the highest quality, honest photos that serve as the best representation of our cattle. We understand that not everyone is able to visit our ranch and view our cattle in person, so we feel it is crucial to provide the best images possible to get current and potential customers interested in our offering. 



Cate Doubet is a photographer working throughout Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado.  

Doubet started in livestock photography, which she still does today, and is also a wedding and lifestyle photographer. She grew up on seedstock operation and offers some quick tips for making the most of picture day.

■ Take a deep breath. Picture day is stressful! Do everything you can to make the day easier on you and the livestock. Plan ahead, stay calm, and be patient.

■ If picturing cattle lose, make sure to give them plenty of room. It is hard to expect an animal to walk into the perfect pose when they don’t have enough room.

■ Try to stay eye-level with the animal’s spine. Shooting from too low or too high can greatly distort the animal.

■ Picture pen buddy — if available use another heifer/steer to keep the calf company and help move them across the pen.

■ Attention/ear getter — Anything that will get their attention without scaring them or firing them up is perfect. Pom poms, flag, squeaky toys, etc. Chances are if your methods aren’t working you need to take several steps back and try something else.



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