How to photograph a newborn calf against a white background?


This week I faced a new challenge; photographing a newborn calf. Earlier, I’ve written a blog about shooting really small animals and how I do this, but what happens if an animal is already quite large at birth? So far, the largest animal was the Dutch pied goat and she just barely fitted on my standard table top set-up. That obviously wasn’t the case with the calf, so I had to come up with a new plan.

A close call

Before I started to photograph the goats, a few weeks ago, the largest animal was the Kerry Blue terrier pup, the very first series I did. After that, the biggest problem was shooting really small animals . Of course, I already gave working with big animals some thought, but I’ve never had the opportunity to put my ideas into practice. Working with the goats and the lamb was already a close call, because at the second photo shoot, I’ve noticed that the pied goat was already at the top of my background screen. Luckily, I could easily fix that with a bigger screen, but that was not the right solution for the calf.

What are the main issues?

First, even a newborn calf is already so large and heavy, that it’s almost impossible to put him on a table. That would be dangerous for the animal and everyone involved, because even at this very young age, they have a lot of power and it would be an accident waiting to happen if he would, for example, try to get off the table. Therefore, I had to find a way to take the shots while he was standing on the floor by using a paper backdrop. But I also had some doubts about this; I was worried that the paper would be too slippery and he would knock over the whole set-up including the flashes and my camera. The second issue had to do with minimizing the stress for both mother and calf. For example, goats and sheep have more than one baby at the same time and are not likely to panic if one of them is somewhere else for a brief moment. Usually, cows only have one baby and they don’t like being separated from their calf. So, mum had to be part of the photo shoot as well. Preferably, in a way they could see each other and stand peacefully on and beside the backdrop together.


Kinderboerderij Klaverweide (the local petting zoo) told me what day they were expecting the calf to be born, but he took his time. At some point, I started to wonder if I even would be disappointed if, for some reason, I couldn’t do this series, because I wasn’t completely convinced that I would succeed. Maybe I was too ambitious and I should accept that some animals are not suitable to follow for Development. Then, last Sunday, I received a phone call that the calf was born and I could photograph him. I was well prepared and had a clear plan, but would it work in real life as it was intended?

The photo shoot

I arrived at the petting zoo and at the stable, I started to set-up the studio, under the watchful eye of the pied goats, that were very interested to see all my stuff and what I was doing. That was another factor I had to consider, so I started with some test flashes to see how they would react, but they were not impressed at all and went on with their usual business. When everything was set up, it was time to get the mother and her calf. We worried that the other cow would be upset that her friend was leaving and she couldn’t go with her, but fortunately, Floortje, stepped aside and let mum Geertje and calf Guus leave without any problems. It took them a while before they arrived at the studio set up, because they were both not very keen to hurry up, but once they arrived, it went better than expected. Guus was pretty calm and didn’t try to walk away. The only inconvenience was that he almost immediately started to pee on the backdrop. Fortunately, it’s easy to cut the unclean piece off the paper backdrop, so that was not a big problem. His mum also remained fairly calm. Except when the two pigs that live at the petting zoo came in to take a look at what was going on. Of course, they weren’t allowed to come near her child, so she had to chaise them off. Within a few minutes, I had the shots I needed, so they could return to their paddock.

Better than expected

All in all, the photo shoot went better than expected. The only difficulty was that my 1,35m wide backdrop was already too small and it took some effort to fit the calf on the backdrop completely. Next time I will bring my 2m wide backdrop and that will easily solve the problem. The paper turned out to be fine and the calf had no problems whatsoever standing on it, it stayed in place perfectly and my flashes were strong enough to light such a big animal. It also seemed that Guus was hardly impressed by the whole situation and he cooperated well. This gives me a lot of confidence for the future. I expect a great and interesting series on the growth and development of this little guy, but I can also look at other large animals, like a foal and maybe in the future large zoo animals, like an elephant, zebra of giraffe. Who knows…

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