How to photograph farms, ranches and rural places :: Digital Photo Secrets

How to photograph farms, ranches and rural places

by David Peterson 0 comments

Even if you live in the city, a visit to a rural place can be cathartic. Rural places are quiet, homey, and down-to-earth. And they have a beauty that is somewhere between the rough beauty of an urban area and the perfect beauty of nature.

The process of photographing a rural setting requires careful attention to detail, because you want to capture a real sense of place as well as a visual interpretation of the place you're visiting. So it helps to really think about what your goals are and to have them well-mapped out before you embark on your photo shoot. Keep reading for more.

Remember that a rural place is not just about the scenery of the countryside, it's also about the people and animals that live in those places. It's harder to go unnoticed in a rural place than it is in a city, so it's a good idea to have a plan in mind before you even embark on your photo shoot. Know in advance where you are going and make sure you inform the people in that area of your intentions. It helps if the place you're visiting is open to the public—u-pick apple orchards, working ranches, and organic farms with educational programs are great examples of places where you can schedule a photo shoot without having to show up unannounced.

If you don't plan to include any humans in your photos, you can also simply drive down a public road and shoot some photos of rural landscapes or livestock. Just be very aware of places that you are allowed to be versus places you aren't allowed to be. Take note of “No Trespassing” signs—you don't want to end up in the sights of someone's rifle because you were careless about where you chose to go. Rural people tend to take trespassing seriously, so don't give them a reason to be upset with you.

Barns and outbuildings

A fixture of any good rural landscape, of course, is a barn. The cool thing about barns is that they make great photographic subjects no matter what state they’re in. A brand-new, cherry-red barn looks beautiful against a field full of corn or beans, while an old, falling-down the barn looks equally interesting and charming. Again, be aware of where you are allowed to go—chances are that falling-down barn is on private property and the owner has a vested interest in making sure you stay away (he doesn't want you to get hurt and he certainly doesn’t want to end up paying your medical bills). So if you're going to shoot that falling-down barn, make sure that you either get his permission in advance, or bring a zoom lens and shoot from afar, outside of the perimeter fence for that piece of property. Remember that a falling-down barn can look just as cool as a part of the landscape as it can from up close.

Shooting barns as elements in landscapes should be approached much like shooting any landscape—use a narrow aperture, which may mean mounting your camera on a tripod. Narrow apertures tend to also mean slower shutter speeds, so it's possible that you will not be able to hand-hold your camera for those landscape photos, especially if you shoot them in the early or late hours of the day when the light is low (which really, is what you ought to be doing). That golden hour light is really going to make those fields full of crops look beautiful, and the light will also be soft and diffused so there will be no shadows or bright highlights in your photo.

For the detail shots, bring along a macro lens or use the macro mode on your point-and-shoot camera. Remember that with macro photos, especially objects you might be shooting at an angle, you're going to want to use a narrow aperture. Again, this more than likely means mounting your camera on a tripod, which you will probably want to do anyway since at macro ranges camera shake is magnified right along with the object you’re shooting. And just like with that landscape photo, you're going to want soft light—if it's the middle of the day, you may want to use a reflector to bounce light back into some of those darker shadows.

Livestock and other animals

The first thing you need to remember about horses and large animals like cows is that they may not always be as kindly as they first appear. A horse is a half-ton animal, and just because most of the horses you may have met in the past were gentle doesn't mean that the one you decide to photograph will be. Whatever you do, do not let yourself in into a pasture without permission, because you could get injured. That horse’s owner does not want to be held liable for injuries you sustained while you were on his property without permission, any more than that falling-down barn’s owner does. The same is true for cows—I know they look gentle but they are huge animals and they have the potential to be aggressive, so make sure that you get permission, and if you're going to go out into a rancher’s field make sure the rancher is with you.

Having said all that, animal photography is much like human photography—you're going to want to use a middle-range aperture such as f/5.6, that way you can get some blur on the background and some separation between your subject and whatever happens to be behind him. Head shots are going to give you the most background blur, while if you zoom out you're going to get more clarity in the background, so pay attention to what is behind your subject as well as your subject itself. Try to angle out distractions such as random junk, other animals, or anything that might distract your viewer from your primary subject.

Remember that cows and horses have character, so stick around a little bit and see if you can capture some of it—horses (like all other animals) like to play so if the farmer is there see if you can get him to encourage the horse to run. If you're going to capture moving animals remember that you need a fast shutter speed to freeze the action—start with 1/500 and keep checking your screen to see what the images look like. Slow-moving animals can be shot with slower shutter speeds, but generally anything that runs is going to need that fast shutter speed of 1/500 or above.

Farms and crops

Of course a big part of the rural landscape are the farms and ranches that sustain them. If you have permission from the farmer, consider shooting some of those long rows of corn, or zooming in on the details. Try to capture the texture and color of the crops, and think about complementary colors, too. For example, if you're shooting a field of sunflowers, consider framing them against the blue sky. Yellow and blue are complementary colors, so a blue background can really make the flowers stand out.

When shooting crops, try to exclude distractions or anything that takes away from the mood of the image. For example, you're going to want to angle out cars or anything that has an impact on the mood of the photo. Try to aim for creating a photograph that's timeless, one in which the era cannot be identified by the things that are in the background.

Rural people

Not everyone who lives in a rural place is a rancher or a farmer, but they all love the outdoors and country living. If you're in an unfamiliar area and you spot someone who looks like a good photographic subject, consider approaching that person asking permission to photograph her. This can be scary the first couple times you do it but I think you'll find that most people are flattered by the request and you'll get very few who will flat-out tell you “no.” Try to capture environmental-style photographs of your human subjects—a person who lives in the country is going to look like just any other person, for the most part, if you're excluding context. So if she is someone who likes to garden, zoom out a little bit and capture her with those tomatoes or flowers. If she's a person whose hobby is working with horses or dogs, capture a photo of her working with her animals or even posing with one of them. If she’s just a person who lives in the rural area because she loves it, you can zoom out a little bit and capture her with some of the landscape behind her. In other words, make sure that your photos are not just about the person, but about the place as well.

As with those animal portraits, you will want to use a largish aperture, but the difference is that you may want to bring some of the background into focus for those environmental portrait style images. Check your screen to see what the backgrounds look like, and if it’s so blurry that you can't tell what is behind the person, consider using a narrower aperture.


I think after spending a day in that rural environment, photographing the landscape, the people and the animals, you'll start to really understand why people choose to live in the country. And I hope you'll find that your subjects are friendly and happy to be photographed, too. I would expect this experience to not only be a learning experience, but a day of relaxation as well.


  1. Barns and outbuildings
    • Use a narrow aperture
    • Shoot during the golden hour
    • Get permission and proceed with caution
  2. Livestock and other animals
    • Get permission and proceed with caution
    • Use a wider aperture to blur the background
    • Use a fast shutter speed for fast-moving animals
  3. Farms and crops
    • Exclude distractions
  4. Rural people
    • Use a wider aperture
    • Include some context

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.