Highland Cattle Portraits

July 02, 2018  •  1 Comment

Earlier in the year I was considering which animals I'd like to photograph as part of my On Black / On White projects, and I set myself the challenge of getting some more highland cattle portraits. I've got a few cow photos already, but I find highland cattle very appealing, and I felt I could still get something new from the subject.

Fortunately, a friend and photographer Lawrence Smith found some highland cattle and secured permission from the landowner for the pair of us to enter the field and take some photos. So I gave some consideration to the compositions and photos I'd like to aim for, crossed my fingers for the weather, and made an evening of it. The light on the day wasn't perfect, but we were still able to get some original and creative portraits, including a decent handful of high-key photos for my On White project.


High-Key In The Cow Parsley


We arrived very early, well before the best light of the day; a decision which really paid off. It afforded us plenty of time to get used to the cows, and for them to get used to us. Highland cattle are a relatively placid breed, but they were a little unsure of us at first. It also gave us the opportunity to get used to the geography of the field, how the light was falling, and what features were available to use for our photos. The most obvious natural feature to play with was the aptly-named cow parsley, which the cows enjoyed eating, and which made for interesting photos. Wading through the chest-high cow parsley, I got a few photos in the conventional high-key style.

Highland Cattle in Cow ParsleyHighland Cattle in Cow ParsleyA highland cow, standing in tall cow parsley.
High-key nature photography, Wiltshire, UK.
Highland Cattle in Cow ParsleyHighland Cattle in Cow ParsleyA highland cow, standing in tall cow parsley.
High-key nature photography, Wiltshire, UK.
Highland Cattle in Cow ParsleyHighland Cattle in Cow ParsleyA highland cow, standing in tall cow parsley.
High-key nature photography, Wiltshire, UK.


Wide-Angle Portraits


I love to use wide-angles lenses for portraits when possible. They distort the scene, increasing the prominence of the subject, and 'shrinking' the background. The enormous highland bull below, was nicknamed "The Mammoth" by the farmer, because of his huge, curvy horns. They made him the perfect subject for a wide-angle portrait, which I took later in the day, just as we were getting a little colour in the sky.

Wide-Angle Highland Cattle BullWide-Angle Highland Cattle BullTaken very close, using a wide-angle lens.


The last wide-angle photo I took was right at the end of the day, in the best light of the evening. The herd was moving off into a neighbouring field, and I was able to take this shot by crouching down right beside their path. I'm really pleased with this one, as it tells the story of the herd on the move, led by the large cow at the front, with the super-wide horns.

Until The Cows Come HomeUntil The Cows Come HomeThis was the end of the day, when the cows were moving off to a neighbouring field.
I used a wide-angle lens, to fit the herd in shot, as well as this giant lead cow.


Portaits On White


With the light on the day, I wasn't able to shoot anything for my low-key On Black project. But as a photographer of natural light, it's important to stay flexible, and make the best of what you have. The flat white sky earlier in the afternoon was the perfect backdrop for my high-key On White project, so I took plenty of photos in the high-key style.

This first photo is unusual for me, as I rarely retain the colour in my On-White portraits. I tend to convert them to black and white. But I liked the complimentary orange and green here, so I reduced the saturation a little, and left it with this pastel colour palette, which I think works nicely.

Highland Cattle - PastelHighland Cattle - PastelI desaturated this photo, so create a pastel colour palette.
This is a rare exception to my "On White" project, in that it's not black and white.


Next up, we're going back to the Mammoth, and I risked a trampling for this low-angle portrait. Worth it though. A dull white sky is common in the UK, and it can be the death of a photo, but when you get the right subject and a strong composition, you can make it work.

Highland Cattle Bull - Best Foot ForwardHighland Cattle Bull - Best Foot ForwardCaptured low to the ground, with a wide-angle lens. Presented in high-key portrait style, for impact and graphic effect.
Fine art nature photography, Wiltshire, UK.


The last two are the ones I like the most, and they've both made it into my On White gallery, available in fine art print.

The first is a simple portrait of the Mammoth himself, centered, on-white...

Highland Cattle Bull - On WhiteHighland Cattle Bull - On WhiteThis bull had the most incredible set of horns. The farmer referred to him as "The Mammoth".
I used another high-key exposure again here, making the most of the sun and the bright sky.
High-key nature photography, Wiltshire, UK.


The last photo is again, the large cow with the wide horns. I found that the horns were actually so wide that if I composed wide enough to fit them in fully, they were quite small in the frame. So I tried the classic half-on / half-off composition, and I think it worked a treat. There was enough light around to over-expose the background, whilst still retaining detail in the shadows of the subject.

Half a Highland CattleHalf a Highland CattleThis highland cattle cow was a joy to work with. I don't think I've ever seen such wide horns, and they're a very photogenic element.
I chose a classic half-on composition here, to make the most of that horn as a feature.
High-key nature photography, Wiltshire, UK.


Overall, I'm very happy with the photos I got from this day. I got a nice range of photos, including a good set of high quality portraits on white. If only all shoots could be this productive!

I certainly don't think I'm finished with highland cattle as a subject though. There are always more angles, and more characters to capture. But I'm also on the lookout for something new, to expand the species I photograph.

As ever, if you like these photos do me a favour and give them a 'like' or a share, or whatever the kids are doing these days. Feedback and comments are always appreciated too; Putting photos out there can feel pretty one-sided at times, so it's always great to hear which photos connect with people and why.



Post by George Wheelhouse, 2018.



lance saunders(non-registered)
George hello,
I am a big fan of your work, finding it very inspiring and so evocative. Thank you for posting how to accomplish better results in low key and high key. It is very generous of you as I have been experimenting within this area as it really appeals to me and it has been most helpful.
However I just really wanted to post a comment on your recent work with the Highland cows, they are absolutely stunning. The incredibly soft ethereal quality of them is so beautiful . They are images I have looked at again and again and each time they make me smile. They are all amazing but really love the soft desaturated ones. I am not sure now that you have taken them anyone can capture them any better. I would love to see them blown up huge in a gallery or high end steakhouse somewhere. :-]
It would make for another great post to talk about your post processing in how you have achieved this really lovely look.
That's it i wanted to tell you how much i admired them.
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