“Agriculture Photography covers a variety of subjects,” says Vicky O’Connor, an agricultural photographer based in Waione, New Zealand. “To me, it’s the land and all the things that we grow and produce from it; animals and their by-products, such as wool from sheep and milk from dairy cows, crops, horticulture, as well as a lot of the other things Mother Nature provides.”
Vicky has been taking photos for 20+ years and has worked in the agriculture industry in several capacities for most of her life. But it wasn’t until 2016, when she and her partner moved from the South Island to the North Island of New Zealand and purchased a farm, that she began taking photos professionally. “It was a huge change for me; I left behind all of my family and friends, and also my job,” she recalls. “Living fairly isolated, I had to come up with a plan of how to fill my day when I wasn’t required to help on the farm. So I started on the journey of building a website and advertising myself for work as a professional photographer.”
“My camera is as much a part of me as life on the land has been for all of my life.”
Vicky’s agriculture photography covers everything from farm animals to farm buildings and teams, as well as farm wear; every shoot is extremely different. Besides doing commercial work for agriculture companies, Vicky also likes to photograph her and her friends’ farms, thus boosting her portfolio.
When it comes to commissions, although each photographic project has its own blueprint, there are a set of practices Vicky tries to follow in order to reach a result both herself and the client are happy with. The company usually reaches out via email with the location and the brief, then Vicky gives them a quote based on her hourly rate for on-location photography, her hourly rate for travel time, as well as editing and administration time. Once the company gives the green light, they start working together on the plan of action for the day.
“Often the people from the company have a particular image or scene in mind, but this may not be practical from a farming or photography perspective. This is where my experience comes in handy. If the images are going to be widely used for advertising and wide commercial use, it is important that all involved are presented well. The stock also plays a major role. It is important they are in good condition and are in good surroundings.”
Besides the usual gear check-up, Vicky prints off the travel details, map, and brief before leaving home. As she explains, “this is because often while working in remote rural areas you will have no cell phone coverage or connections.” Given that agriculture photography involves long days without many breaks, Vicky makes sure to bring water and snacks along, as well as warm clothing and wet weather gear. And she emphasises: “Good, strong footwear is essential!”
Out in the field, Vicky asks the farmers to carry on as they normally would. This is important because, when working with stock, the farmers must concentrate on the animals and on the task at hand; it is up to the photographer to know what to look for, as well as what not to take photos of. She also says that farmers, particularly the older ones, tend to be humble and don't usually want to be in the limelight, so it is up to her to make sure they are comfortable enough to be photographed. “I always make sure I ask questions about the farm. This puts the farmermore at ease when he realises I know what I’m doing.”
Indeed, this is where her years of experience working in agriculture come in handy; where the skills and instincts she has acquired set her work apart. “My greatest strength is that I have been working within the agriculture industry in many various ways for all my life. I know exactly where to stand and where not to stand. If I need to set up a particular shot, I talk to the farmer before he gets going; he then knows what is happening if I want to stop the flow of sheep or cattle, for instance.”
On the technical side, Vicky always works in RAW format and Manual mode to maintain as much control in such a fast-changing environment. The main things she keeps an eye out for are the way the stock is standing and moving; whether the way she is standing or moving is potentially dangerous or can put others at risk; whether the way the clouds are moving or standing will allow her to get the absolute essential shots before moving on to the “nice-to-haves.” Ah, and of course, the time! “Farmers often have busy lives and a lot to get through, so it’s important to get in and get the job done in the best possible time frame,” she says. “When you have got ‘the shot’, move on. But make sure you have what you need before you do move on.”
Vicky tries to get it right as best she can in the moment, so as to keep the post-production work to a minimum, therefore saving her time and the client money. “In the brief, I will have spoken to the graphics team. I will know what shots need to be wide or cropped and what the emotion of the moment must be,” she explains. “Shooting a stop down and in RAW format is usually what I do, this allows some play for them at their end.”
For Vicky, the most challenging parts of agriculture photography are, ironically, related to things beyond her control: the aforementioned issue of placement and potentially putting others at risk, managing how the graphic designers use the images, the weather and the toll it takes on the gear, and how physically demanding the job can be. The rewards, on the other hand, are reinvigorating. It comes down to the bonds she establishes – both with the farming families she gets to meet and work with, the animals she observes and portrays, and the stunning New Zealand countryside that she calls her office.
“In agriculture photography, you need to follow the seasons of what is happening in the agriculture sector. If you try to be one step ahead, then it is convenient for the companies you work with. I usually see something and think, ‘Oh, I know who might want to use that,’ and then add it to my portfolio.”
When asked about the Do’s & Don’ts of Agriculture Photography, Vicky emphasises that a lot of it revolves around good manners and common sense. “Be polite and respectful, say your Pleaseand Thank you’s. Follow up on what you said you were going to do and always follow through. It is about the client – not you. If you need to stop halfway through a shoot, then that’s what you do. If the person is uncomfortable with what you have captured for any reason, you don’t use it! With animals, none of this matters as they usually don’t give a toss about what they look like. That’s why I like it so much!”