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  • Writer's pictureKevin Vandivier

How to Capture the Essence of the West in a Photograph

There is nothing quite like the American West.

Its rough-and-tumble landscapes, hard-working cowboys, and iconic animals like the horse and the bison tell quite a tale of the American spirit.

One of the difficulties of creating photo stories about the American West is doing so in a way that honors the events of the past without turning modern-day residents of the West into an antiquated visage of their ancestors.

In other words, modern photos of Western themes should reflect the unique personalities and experiences of the subjects, not cast them into a role of days gone by.

One way to avoid type-casting subjects in Western-themed photos is to focus the storytelling on that particular individual rather than that individual’s heritage or occupation or where they live.

A wonderful example of this technique is shown above.

This image by Kevin Vandivier, entitled First Lite, has all the makings of a classic western image - a cowboy on his horse, heading out at first light to tend to the days chores.

But notice how this portrait doesn’t put the cowboy in a particular place or time. For example, he’s not posed in front of a ghost town’s main street to try to replicate an image from the 1880s.

Instead, Kevin - mounted on a horse of his own - simply captured this moment as it happened. There was no direction, no telling the cowboy what to do or how to look. The result is an authentic photograph of a modern cowboy.

This image is successful for a variety of reasons. First, having the cowboy silhouetted helps prevent the image from becoming just another western portrait. With all but a small portion of his face in shadow, we’re left to make assumptions of our own about who he is.

Second, timing was everything with this shot. Often, waiting for just the right moment to press the shutter button is what makes the difference between a successful and an unsuccessful photograph. When seeking to capture images that explore the essence of the surroundings, patience is everything.

Lastly, photographing an authentic moment - a real cowboy heading out on his real job - makes this image that much more valuable from a storytelling standpoint. This image is all about this man, his horse, his first cigarette of the day, and how his unique experiences begin to unfold under the watchful eye of the gorgeous God rays in the sky above.

Authenticity is what it’s all about when photographing the West. Strive for genuineness in your images, and you’ll find greater success.

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