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Published February 08, 2011, 10:50 AM

Art of livestock images takes time to develop

MINOT, N.D. — Erika Kenner of Leeds, N.D., has spent the past five years getting into professional livestock photography around the state of North Dakota.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

MINOT, N.D. — Erika Kenner of Leeds, N.D., has spent the past five years getting into professional livestock photography around the state of North Dakota.

Now she’s getting out. Her work at the recent KMOT Ag Expo was the last show on her schedule, and she’s also informed her customers of the decision. She’s been referring some of them to Lynsey Frey of Granville, N.D., who also was at the show.

“I’ll miss the people,” says Kenner, who had gained a reputation as one of the premier photographers in the state. Besides getting to know customers, she also says she enjoyed simply getting to see different operations.

Kenner went to North Dakota State University and majored in animal science and communications, with a minor in ag business. After college, she went to Bozeman, Mont., to work for the American Simmental Association in 2002. She worked in publications and sold advertising for the association’s magazine — “The Register.” In 2006, she left that post to do photography professionally and started working for her father, Roger, on Kenner Simmental Ranch.

While in Montana, she worked with about 20 customers in a year, including the shows and ranches. In 2007, she moved back to Leeds full time.

“I primarily do the marketing for the cattle,” she says.

She also works on the farm and has her own cattle and land.

North Dakota has about 12,000 cattle producers, a fraction of those — maybe more than 500 — are in the purebred business, where photography is in demand.

Among the most common assignments:

n Ranch work: This may involve promotional work for bull sales, for donor cows, or artificial insemination bulls. Many of these photos are used in advertisements or on websites. Besides photographing the animals, an assignment could include scenic photos of the ranch.

n Shows: This involves photographing winners in shows, either for the place-winners.

Most of the professional photographers in the North Dakota region are part-timers, Kenner says. Fall and winter are the busiest times, although there are summer shows. Some full-time photographers are connected to a particular magazine, or publication, and take pictures only for that publication. Sometimes, the photo fees are included in the advertising fee for a company.

Calculating rates

Rates are something of a mystery. Some photographers charge by the hour or a flat fee by the day. Some of the charges include travel time and expenses to and from a destination. (Kenner charges mileage at 5 cents per mile below the “state rate,” an official reimbursement rate for state employees.)

“I don’t know what everybody does,” Kenner says of the charges. “I went with what my predecessor was doing, but in other states, I think they get a lot more. As a fellow cattle rancher, I’ve tried to keep costs down.”

Rates typically don’t include the editing and organizational time, which often is done at home or on a laptop at the show or event.

Kenner says she charges more for higher-value animals, typically because she has take more time.

“Donor cows and bulls take more time because they have to be absolutely perfect,” she says.

Kenner says cattle photography requires a good deal of organization.

Because of a general lack of professional photographers, some cattle ranchers are doing more of it on their own. Many digital cameras can do the job, often backed up by a rudimentary lighting system. She prefers a camera with a 38-300-mm zoom lens. Photos are shot at 300 DPI.

“It’s a talent that takes time to learn; it’s an art,” Kenner says.

There’s the art of handling a camera, but there’s the bigger issue of understanding the cattle themselves.

“You need to know how to accentuate the positives of each animal. Each animal is different,” she says.

An animal with a desirable deep body, for example, may be photographed from an angle that accentuates that.

“I can’t cover up everything, but when you’re taking your own photo, you want to find your best angle. If you have a bull in a sale, there’s probably something about him you want to show off. If you have one that’s really thick in the hindquarter, you take the photo a little more from the back and let the potential buyer see what’s there.”

Foot placement is key. Typically, the hind foot closest to the photographer is moved back to emphasize the reproductive areas, but how far they’re placed can emphasize the straightness of the back or hip structure.

Front feet typically need a bit of separation. The head is up to make the animal look more alert, and the ears are forward.

“People see the importance of the details, but they really don’t see the details,” she says.

Generally, the photographer has to be conscious of colors and contrast. Black animals are shot best on lighter background — fences, or against straw or woodchips — and not with dark green trees. Dark animals are tough to shoot against snow. Black animals are best on brighter days.

More than pushing a button

The job is challenging work, especially in the ranch settings.

“Patience is big,” Kenner says.

Often, a bull must be separated into a pen for a photo.

“You have to remember you’re handling animals that are not used to being alone: cattle, horses, they’re herd animals and don’t want to be by themselves,” Kenner says.

An animal that normally doesn’t have a bad disposition can become nervous and unpredictable.

“There have been many times where you know they don’t want you in there anymore. You have to be careful,” Kenner says. “I would say that everywhere I’ve been, at least one has acted up. It’s nothing against the rancher or the breed. That’s just how it is.”

In today’s era of PhotoShop and other programs used to edit pictures, photographers sometimes are asked to make adjustments that go to the ethics of the craft.

“I will edit out of a piece of straw, something like that, but I will not straighten a topline (the line of the back), or correct something with an animal that shouldn’t be touched,” she says.

On the business side of the issue, different photographers see the ownership of the images differently. Kenner says the cattle customer pays for the image and therefore own them, but she also expects them not to alter her work. Her own work is labeled with her “EK” initials, and she thinks advertising designers understand their responsibilities under copyright laws.

Kenner says she’ll miss the work, but she knew she had to get out of it last year when she did everybody else’s photos and videos before her own.

“My own advertising and promotion got pushed aside for everyone else’s. When your main business suffers for your freelance job, it’s time to make a change.”

Frey a year and a half ago started getting into the business. Her father, Arlen and two of his brothers, Edward and Glenn, are together in the Frey Angus Ranch, about 25 miles east of Minot.

“I started doing our own bull pictures and I had a few people call me,” she says. “It’s not like I’m big into it. I also do weddings, engagements and senior pictures.”

At age 22, Frey graduated from NDSU in animal science and ag economics in May. She intends to go into agricultural lending and stay involved in the ag industry itself. She’s doing photography as of a hobby while she’s looking for a job in the ag industry.

“There’s a lot of opportunity,” she says.

Frey can be contacted for photography work at 701-720-2323.