How to Find Great Photographic Subjects – A Case Study on Farms


Photographers are always looking for new subjects to photograph. We typically think of vacations, special events in our cities, national parks, zoos, or a trip to the sea shore when we want to go out photographing. But did you know that practically all of us have a wealth of subject matter almost right outside our door? Have you ever considered photographing farms and the life in and around it? No matter where you live in the world, you can always find agricultural farms to photograph – even in the desert!
The Draa Valley from Agdz, Morocco by, on Flickr

When you are photographing at farms, you are provided with a multitude of subject matter: animals, flowers, insects, people, landscapes, activities, color, lack of color, events, and much more. Agricultural activity also offers photographic opportunity no matter what time of the year it is: planting in the spring, the birthing of baby livestock, the growing season, the harvest time- and even when the growing season is over- the solitude of an agricultural landscape can be breathtaking in the winter. Every moment in the agricultural cycle offers diverse opportunities.
Wasp release by CIAT International Center for Tropical Agriculture, on Flickr

In the photograph above, agricultural professionals and the media gather to witness the release of a parasitic wasp that will hopefully help with Thailand's cassava mealybug infestation. When you're traveling around the world, investigate what agricultural opportunities might be present.

How to Get Started

Before jumping in your car and driving off to the nearest farm or vineyard, it helps to do a bit of online research. A family-run farm will always be easier to access than a corporate farm. Agricultural families are proud people, and they are steeped in their way of life and traditions. Most of them will give you a carte blanche to the farm if you do one thing- ask for permission. Absolutely no farmer will appreciate you traipsing through his corn field unannounced. The beautiful thing about asking for permission is that the farmer and his family can guide you to places and events on the farm that you can't find on your own!

Farm_baby_cow001 small by Kent DuFault, on Flickr

When you visit farms to take photographs, carry a little photo album of images you've created in the past; this is a simple example of, “what you're up to”, and is often the only “key” you will need to open up a big, hearty welcome to the family farm. Once you've got the go ahead, they will often go way out of their way to help you out! You should generally offer to give them a few prints, or send them jpegs via email. Corporate farms are often more difficult to access (although not impossible), due to their hierarchy and insurance issues.

Dairy_Farm_small by Kent DuFault, on Flickr

What kind of Subject Matter to Look For?

1. Photograph Wildlife Around The Farm

Agricultural operations are the beginning of the food chain. Pollination draws insects, insects attract frogs, frogs attract lizards, both of which attract snakes, and all the aforementioned attracts birds of prey and small mammals. The list goes on.
Who are YOU? by Ian Sane, on Flickr
Fox by pontman, on Flickr

Wild animals and birds that live near a farm will often have an established ritual: an owl will sit on a particular fence-post at a particular time of day, a fox will follow the same path every day when he hunts. Your rapport with the farm family will often provide you the opportunity to photograph these exclusive images. A farm family is always familiar with everything that goes on around their land.

2. Photograph Domesticated Animals in The Farm

If you like to photograph animals, but aren't particularly interested in putting in the time and energy it takes to seek out wildlife, there's still plenty of opportunity on the farm. You will find numerous species to photograph. Even a crop farm will usually have some horses, cows, pigs, chickens, roosters, sheep, cats, and dogs. Your farmer friend can tell you where to find them and how best to approach them.
pride by Mustafa Khayat, on Flickr
DGJ_5814 – Farm Cat by archer10 (Dennis), on Flickr
sheep in wales (1 of 3) {explored} by PhotKing ♛, on Flickr
grateful by woodleywonderworks, on Flickr

3. Crops Are a Great Subject Too!

Crops, no matter if they are grains, fruit, nuts, vegetables, trees, etc. offer interesting photographs at any time in the growing cycle. Planting, and harvesting, presents interesting machinery and plenty of activity. The growing season presents plants in various stages of maturity including budding, flowering, and full growth. Harvest is a particularly interesting time of the year to photograph- both because of the beauty of the plants- as well as the flurry of activity. Farms will often harvest even at night. If you've witnessed the almond harvest in California, where mechanized vehicles grab the trees and shake them vigorously causing the  almonds to break loose and drop into a hopper, you will feel it looks like something out of a science fiction movie. Standing in the middle of vast wheat fields, watching them sway with the breeze as the sun sets, offers unbelievable beauty to be photographed.
Wheat harvest by USFWS Headquarters, on Flickr
Smile by seyed mostafa zamani, on Flickr
Under A Blood Red Sky by Ian Sane, on Flickr

4. Photograph Farm Buildings & The Adjoining Landscape

Farm buildings are often colorful, built in unique shapes, and nestled in valleys, or between forested areas. Farmers also tend to be a nostalgic group: saving everything that has ever passed through their hands. Since family farms are often passed from generation to generation, a farm can be a gold mine for antiquities. The farm itself has often been carefully planned in how it lays on the land. This can lead to dramatic landscape photographs with winding roads, rolling hills, gurgling streams, patches of varying color in the land, and other dramatic landscape changes that can occur within a very short amount of travel time!
Striations by Nicholas_T, on Flickr
Farm_Winter001 small by Kent DuFault, on Flickr
A Perfect Day by aussiegall, on Flickr

5. Never Forget to Photograph The Wonderful Farmers And Their Families

Farmers and their families are some of the most interesting people you can meet. They may not be able to tell you what the latest rage in reality television is, but most agricultural folks that you will meet will have an amazing understanding of the world we live in. Agriculture is the ground level of everything that supports the human race on earth. That's a big job. And people in the agricultural business take it seriously. Farmer folk are fascinating subjects for your photography, especially if you take the time to truly become involved with them.
Untitled by josef.stuefer, on Flickr
let us now praise famous farm women by Eddy Pula, on Flickr
Farmer_Portrait_small by Kent DuFault, on Flickr

6. Photograph Special Events at The Farm

Agricultural areas tend to be community oriented, and each family is proud of their heritage and what they  have produced in that year. Because of this, there are many special events throughout the year, and each event presents unique opportunities for your photography. Some examples of these types of special gatherings are county fairs, corn feeds, tractor pulls, rodeos, and hunting parties.
tractor pull 02 – Arnegard ND – 2013-07-04 by Tim Evanson, on Flickr
Duck Hunting by USFWS Headquarters, on Flickr

A Side Benefit in The Form of Stock Photography Images

If you've ever thought about trying to make a little extra cash in the area of stock photography; agricultural images are often in demand. Here's an important tip on how to turn those images into a valuable commodity. Get releases from your farmer friends: both personal, and property. Also, identify the species of the plant or animal, as specifically as possible, and indicate the exact location. Your farmer friends should be able to help you with this. This way instead of just saying a horse in the corral, you can identify it as a palomino, 16 hand, halter type, quarter-horse.

A Couple of Final Tips to Remember

When tackling agricultural photography don't forget the following:

  • Boots – wear anything else and it's likely to get ruined
  • Gloves
  • Hat
  • Sunscreen
  • Bug spray – make sure it works for flies
  • Plastic bags – keep your equipment in it while you're not using it. It will prevent it from picking up odors.
  • Be prepared for a lot of fun

About Author

Kent is an occasional writer at our place, and also handles the weekly “Picture of the Week” contest. He has been involved with photography since 1974 and you can get to know him better here.

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