I wasn't on a horse while shooting, but I would have loved to be. It made more sense for me to be on foot so I could run around everyone and get my shots from all angles. We were up at the crack of dawn for this herd and worked until the light went down. The whole time, I was looking for interesting body language. Cowboys on the open prairie in this beautiful landscape -- it was visual poetry. I wanted my photographs to reflect this moody, sultry ideal that we have about the great American west, the silent cowboy, the fertile land. I tried to expose this shot with that mood in my mind. Penny De Los Santos

As soon as the assignment came in to shoot this story, I knew it was going to be beautiful. The location of the ranch, at that time of year, with such perfect weather—any part of California is gorgeous, but the Central Valley in summertime is exquisite. And the subject is a photographer’s dream: any time I get the chance to photograph a ranch or a working farm, or anything that harkens back to the land, to people who live close to the root, it’s going to be visually powerful. It always is.

Georgia Freedman, the author of the story, and I went out to the ranch and stayed together the whole time—her writing and me shooting the story at the same time. I try to get into the daily lives of my subjects, to be with them whatever they’re doing, and Georgia’s the same way, so we just let the family do their jobs on the ranch, and I shadowed Elizabeth Poett and her husband Austin as much as they’d let me.

A lot of times while on assignment, a photographer will have a great idea well ahead of time about what the strong photographs from their shoot will be. And more often than not, that great idea isn’t so great in reality: the images can be stagnant, stereotypical, or static, or they happen organically but it’s the worst time of day for shooting—high noon, for example. So I always try to fit in flexibility on my shoots, to allow for times when I don’t have any preconceived ideas of what I’ll be photographing at all. I’m just with my subjects as they live their life, two steps in front of them or beside them, watching, listening, pulling details. If Elizabeth’s husband said in passing, “I’ve got to get up at 5 a.m. tomorrow to brand some cows,” I’d latch onto that and make sure I was there with him. I try to let people live their lives, and I make sure I’m there to capture it. That’s the way I work.

See Penny’s photographs and read her descriptions of how they were captured in the gallery »