Cutline: A young cowboy named Cooper Jenkins, of Big Sandy, Montana, ropes cattle inside the corral on Birdtail Ranch near Lloyd, Montana.
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM
Rural Blaine County, Montana at Birdtail Ranch.
Late April and May is a busy time of year on the ranches in northern Montana. It is the time of year when cowboys round up the cattle and brand the calves with the mark of the ranch. Required by law to protect one’s cattle from getting stolen or lost within other herds, branding can be hard work. Still, anyone with real Montana blood coursing through their veins will tell you they look forward to branding season every year.
I stumbled onto the world of branding by accident several years ago when a convoy of pick-up trucks and horse trailers snaked their way down the gravel roads near Cleveland, Montana early on a spring Sunday morning. I expected to be all alone out taking photographs on the eastern side of the Bear Paw Mountains, but this was an unusual amount of traffic for this place and time. So I followed the vehicles to a ranch where cowboys were fitting horses with saddles and preparing to round up cattle. I asked the owner of the ranch if I could photograph there that day luckily he said “yes” because I have been bitten by the branding bug ever since.
Prior to that experience I honestly thought branding was something cowboys only did in the movies. Coming from a dairy farm in Wisconsin I seriously thought ranchers just used ear tags like we did on our farm. But no, branding is very much a part of ranching life even today. However, methods have changed and times are changing. Many ranches across the country have begun motorcycles and ATVs instead of horses to round up cattle and chutes and branding tables instead of roping. While those newer methods are probably more efficient, it is a lot less romantic. What’s more, the camaraderie and symbol of neighbors helping neighbors is lost with the new fangled methods. Thankfully many of the ranchers in northern Montana still do things the old fashioned way. And trust me when I say this; it is quite a spectacle to behold.
Behind the Scenes —
After the cattle are rounded up they are driven into a makeshift corral temporarily set up on the open plains. Cowboys then separate the mother cows from their calves. A branding “pot” is then set-up in the middle of the corral, or sometimes just outside the gate of the corral. It is a steel contraption connected to propane fuel and it is used to heat up the branding irons. In the old days cowboys made a fire. Once the branding irons are hot and everyone’s chores have been assigned one-by-one calves are roped by cowboys riding horseback and then dragged to young men and women who wrestle them to the ground. They are then quickly branded and, when done, removed from the corral. This is when I’m busy moving from one side of the corral to the other trying to find excellent opportunities to make Montana cowboy photographs.
Making the Shot —
I was inside the corral with calves and horses all around me. I like to get super close to the action, which I’m sure can be a nuisance to the cowboys. And when you’re that close a wide angle lens comes in handy. I also wanted to use a wide angle lens so I could include the iconic Birdtail Butte in the photograph.
I also used a camera-mounted flash. Cowboy hats shadow the a cowboy’s eyes from view, which doesn’t often help craft a great shot. So I was using a flash to help open up the shadows under the brim of the hat. Unfortunately, when my flash went off in this shot I scared the horse terribly. As much as I tried, that horse did not want to get close to me the rest of the day. And because that might pose a danger to the young lad riding the horse I made sure I kept my distance. Lucky for me I still got the shot.
Like most of my shots, I shot this one as a RAW. I then quickly edited using Adobe Camera Raw and performed some levels adjustments in Adobe Photoshop CC. I also tweaked the colors to my satisfaction. When I tweak the colors I often use a Selective Color and Color Balance layer to fine-tune the colors to my liking. In this photograph, for example, I like to make the grass appear greener than it really is. As such I used a Selective Color layer, used the drop down box to select Yellows, and added more cyan until the grass was slightly more green. I also selected the sky in this photograph and increased the blacks in the cyans and used a layer adjustment to fine-tune the exposure of the sky, which was slightly over exposed. Lastly I “sanitized” the image a bit for public consumption and for non-rural folk. In other words, I removed some of the fresh cow and horse patties (i.e. manure) in the foreground. Doing so won’t win me any World Press Photo awards, but that’s not why I make photos.
This has been one of my more popular cowboy photographs. It has been published in a two-page spread in Western Horseman magazine and published in a couple of calendars. I’m personally very satisfied with this photo. And think it portrays the life of Montana’s cowboys well.
Looking Back —
What I like most about this photograph is that how the elements in the background contribute to the photograph. I like the calf to the right of the cowboy looking at the horse. I like the cowboy in the background cocking his arm getting ready to toss his rope. I like Birdtail Butte rising over the cowboy’s left shoulder. And I like the friends and neighbors on the left side waiting for another calf to be roped so they can brand it. Every element worked.
My only regret? I wish I had not scared this horse so I could have photographed this young cowboy more often that beautiful spring day.