Winter is near. For many, it’s time to dress in matching sweaters and pose for annual family holiday photos. For some animal lovers, ’tis also the season to feature their own furry, four-legged friends in photos or to look for festive cards and calendars that mix holiday and animal themes. Yet it’s not as easy for those of use whose cherished animal companions have neither for legs nor fur. Rather than hoping Kris Kringle will pose with your favorite rooster, you can follow these steps to taking fabulous photos of your chickens—for the holidays or any day.
1. Select a Willing Model
Before you set your heart on having an 8-by-10 glossy of a specific chicken on your mantel, consider its temperament. Feisty, adventuresome birds make poor models, while docile, social ones make good photograph subjects.
Ginger Bean, for example, is a gorgeous Blue Cuckoo Orpington cockerel. The way his silvery blue color runs into his feather pattern is truly stunning. You probably won’t ever see this, however, because he is a most uncooperative model. I took some photos of this beautiful boy as a chick, but all others I’ve had to snap on the sly. As much as I’d love to plunk a little Santa cap over his comb, I know not to even try. Butters Orpington, on the other hand (shown below), just stands there patiently while I take seemingly endless photos of her.
2. Focus on Individuals, Not Groups
You know that headache you get from herding people in your group to look at the camera and smile, all at the same time? Compound that by 1,000 and you’ll understand why attempting to photograph more than one bird at a time leads to major migraines. This is especially true of chicks, whose curiosity about everything around them makes it extremely difficult to get an entire clutch of babies to look at the lens simultaneously. Your best bet is to photograph one bird at a time, unless the chickens in question are good friends, or you’re shooting a rooster with his favorite hen.
3. Have Your Models Look Their Best
The proofs for my son Nicholas’ senior portrait recently arrived, and my husband, Jae, and I viewed them with dismay. Nicholas had dressed well and was smiling, but he had about three days’ stubble on his cheeks and chin. “Always look your best,” I told him. “Remember whom the photos are for.”
The same holds true for your poultry models. Use your hands to smooth away any loose feathers from backs and wings. Make sure no surprises are hanging onto the fluff around the vent. If your birds are feather legged, check for broken shafts and dirt. Silkies in particular (like the one shown below) should be gently groomed with a baby brush to loosen dirt and otherwise detangle and tidy their distinct feathering.
4. Prep Your Chickens With Food
Regardless of how docile and affectionate your chosen chicken might be, if he or she is hungry or thirsty, your chance of getting decent photographs diminishes greatly. Wait at least an hour or two after your bird has dined before attempting to take pictures. Your hen will be much more accommodating if she isn’t focused on the empty room in her belly.
5. Select an Appropriate Setting
Factors other than your chicken optimize a photo session. Where you take your shots plays a crucial part in your photographic success. If you want a rustic feel to your photos, consider stacking hay bales for a backdrop. (Chickens are short, so your stack can be two bales high.) A weathered wood fence also makes an ideal backdrop. Add some pastoral props such as pumpkins, corn stalks or even a tin watering can, but nothing too distracting (or nothing at all) if it draws your bird’s attention away from you.
Do you plan to take shots at a local park or other outdoor setting? Make sure no strangers or other animals are around that might frighten or stress your bird. Children playing or someone walking a dog might seem innocuous to us but could appear threatening to your chicken. Avoid using an urban or suburban setting if this type of environment is new to your bird.
6. Properly Pose Your Bird
Before placing your chicken in your chosen setting, decide what kind of shot you want to take. Do you want a profile, a closeup, or a full-body portrait? Consider what your bird’s best feature is and what kind of photo would showcase this. A Serama’s prominent chest practically begs for a profile, while the tufts of an Araucana or the muff and beard of an Ameraucana (like the one below) might be best highlighted in a full-face shot. A head-and-shoulders shot misses out on a Cochin’s fluffy feet and bun, while a profile would not catch the details in a La Fleche’s comb.
Whichever type of pose you choose, make sure your bird has a solid, non-slippery surface on which to stand. A wire floor or an objects with slats that have gaps between them, such as in a wooden pallet, offers poor footing for your feathered model, and he or she is more likely to continually shift, seeking a better balanced position. (I didn’t follow my own advice in some of these photos but they turned out OK.)
7. Use Attention Getters
Always remember: These are birds. While we might find ourselves talking to them as we fill their feeders and fonts and clean out their coops, they really don’t understand a word we say. We might speak in upbeat, friendly tones to them as we pose them, but a sunbeam, a slight breeze or noise from a passing car will distract them from our camera. To keep your chicken’s focus on you long enough to snap a shot, use attention getters such as squeaky toys, a rattle, a crumpled piece of cellophane, even little kissy noises you produce. Choose something that won’t startle your bird and ruin your photo session. Smacking a pot with a ladle, for instance, might be a bad idea.
8. Have a Backup Plan—or 3
The best-laid plans usually end up discarded when it comes to animal photography. It might be overcast or raining. Your cockerel might refuse to come out of his coop. Your hay-bale stack or pumpkin might have gotten moused overnight. Your hen might decide that now is the time to go into a hard molt. Should any—or all—of these happen, don’t despair. Have a backup plan. If Henrietta refuses to let you pick her up, opt for Hennifer instead (especially if Hennifer is equally or more friendly). If you’ve lost your scenery props, opt for an open field, a pretty shrub, a pile of leaves, even a wooden deck or brick walkway. You might be out of luck regarding the rain, though.
9. Bribery Works
You’ve got the perfect backdrop, colorful props, sensational lighting, clear skies and a beautiful bird. What could possibly go wrong? If you just smirked and nodded knowingly, you’re definitely a chicken owner. Roosters and hens are unpredictable and, even if they happily submit to hugs and cuddles, today might be the day they decide to be uncooperative. Should bird behavior threaten to ruin your photo plans, remember that the way to a hen’s heart is through her stomach. Offer bits of bread, some dried mealworms or some sunflower kernels. Bribery works wonders on birds, and that brief moment when they’ve just swallowed a tasty tidbit might be all the time you need to quickly click the photographs you want.
10. Set a Deadline
There’s only so long that an animal will tolerate staying still. Remember that you are photographing your chicken out of affection, to share images of your beloved bird with your friends and family. If you find yourself growing frustrated and impatient with your feathered model—or you find that your model has had enough of you—it’s time to quit for the day. With my birds, I’ve found that the calmest of them will last about five minutes. That might not seem like much time at all, given all the preparation and planning, but it only takes a couple of seconds to snap the ideal shot.