Anyone can pick up a camera, but it takes a real artist to show us things in a still image that we could never have seen ourselves. Winnemucca-based photographer Nicole Poyo is making a name for herself for her work in equestrian and western lifestyle photography. Nicole’s images of cowboys on the range, ropers in mid-throw, and rodeo riders in the air capture both the grittiness and the beauty of western tradition.
Nicole has photographed all across the West at remote ranches and major rodeo events. The 32-year-old has racked up a huge following on Instagram and her work has been featured in America’s Horse, Western Horseman, Eclectic Horsemen, and several other big publications. This year she will be a speaker at the Shooting the West, a premier photography gathering that takes place annually in Nevada.
Nicole has a natural eye for western scenes but her story begins back east. She grew up on her family’s horse farm in North Carolina riding hunter-jumpers and went to a small college in southwest Virginia to study photography. It was there that she honed her skills and discovered her passion for Western riding and the Western lifestyle. Today Nevada is her basecamp and she travels the West with her camera. We caught up with Nicole to learn more about her journey.
You grew up riding English. How did you transition to Western riding?
“A friend of mine sent me to a clinic with Buck Brannaman when I was probably 15 years old. About 10 years later I was actually able to ride with him for the first time, but that sort of opened my eyes to doing things differently from that hunter-jumper mentality. In college, I rode cutting horses. It was so much fun. I just dove into that world trying to learn as much as I could.
How did you get into photography?
“My mom had always had a camera. I’d always been around it and I tried to learn what I could. Then in high school, I took the generic high school photography class where you get to mess around in a dark room. Those first experiences in a dark room, they’re always magical. I took a camera whenever I went places and all my friends were like, ‘You’re really good at this. You should do this.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, whatever.’ And I just kept blowing it off. I think there is – I don’t know what you want to call it – divine calling? I knew I had this gift and I kept being drawn back to it despite initially resisting it.”
Ultimately you decided to go for it. What was it like studying photography in college?
“When I found the program I was like Okay if I’m going to learn how to do this, I want to do it well. The first two years it was very traditional. We were only allowed to shoot film for the first two years, black and white for the first year. And it taught me a lot of important basics and gave me a respect for some of the great photographers that have come before me. We had weekly critiques where you had to show your work and it was very rare that you were praised.
The town I was in had a huge NASCAR race track so I actually shot quite a bit of motorsports. That was so important, looking back now, to what I’m shooting. There’d be a small group of us, but we’d have easily 30,000 images that we would have to go through. Now fast forward to being asked to shoot big roping events like the Pro-Am. In four days I easily shoot 11,000 photos! So having that experience with motorsports… Not only capturing action shots, but it taught me so much on my post-processing afterward. I think that was a hugely valuable piece of experience.”
When did you decide to head west?
“I signed up for a Colt Starting with Buck Brannaman and Joe Wolter and was trying to immerse myself in learning horsemanship as best I could. Whenever I’d go to clinics I would have my own camera with me and when I wasn’t in class I would take photos just for myself. Occasionally I would post them online and I was starting to get really good feedback. And then one summer, Buck’s daughter, Reata, had a colt starting in Sheridan, Wyoming and I thought it was a great excuse for a road trip.
So I drove out and what was supposed to be just a long weekend turned into three or four weeks of me just driving to different places where I kept meeting people. They would say ‘Hey come out and photograph at this ranch,’ or ‘You’re welcome to take a stop by here.’ And for about three summers I did that – three months on the road all summer. I would drive from Virginia to Wyoming and I would go through Montana, Idaho, Oregon, California, Nevada, back up to Wyoming. I would just make this huge circle. People were like, ‘I can’t believe you’re driving this much!’ But I loved every minute of it and met so many fantastic people. They’re wonderful people in the ranching community.”
How did you end up in Nevada?
“It was very organic, word of mouth type of work. Finally, Reata actually said ‘Why don’t you just move?’ So I did. I knew I was never going to get the same opportunities on the East Coast to photograph this Western lifestyle and photograph at some of these beautiful ranches so I moved. I packed as much as would fit in my car and my dog. I moved to Montana first.
What led me to Nevada was that the Brannamons asked me to photograph the Pro-Am Roping in California. Capriola’s [of Elko] has a booth there every year and I met John [the owner]. When I drove through Nevada on my way back the year after and stopped at Capriola’s, John recognized me. I was supposed to photograph at a big ranch nearby the following day and I was looking for a place to stay in Elko. John said ‘Why don’t you just come home with us?’ He introduced me to his wife, Susan, and we were instant friends! Ever since then they’ve been saying, ‘You need to move here.’ All the places I kept traveling to, Nevada was central. I do love this state. I have felt a pull towards it for a long time.”
What does it mean to you to be invited to these ranches and events?
“I’ve been fortunate to have met so many wonderful people here that have allowed me to bring my camera along. There’s an element of trust there. All of these people, the common theme is that they want their horses and cattle to be healthy and to do well. That’s at the core of all of it or they wouldn’t be doing it. So keeping those values in mind as I’m photographing and being able to present that. I try and capture some of that passion that they have for what they do. I take it very seriously because you never know if opportunities like that will come your way again. So I try and give it as much respect as I can and do my best.”
What has the response been to your work?
“I think some of the highest compliments that I can receive are when some of these equestrians come up to me and they say, ‘You really made me and my horse look good.’ That just makes me so incredibly happy because I try so hard to achieve that. And I don’t think you can do that unless you yourself are studying the subject matter. I’m constantly trying to become a better rider. I have so much respect for what it is that I’m shooting and know how much work they’ve put into it that. I really try and study what it is that they’re doing. That way I can know where to be before it happens and capture those moments better and better.”
Your photos really do make people look good!
“That’s something that I always am very conscious of when I am editing my images. Everyone has moments where they don’t look flattering when they’re riding their horse. Whether it’s photographing at ranches or competitions, ropings or headings, or any type of riding, I really try and present the relationship between horse and rider in the best way possible. Ultimately, I think that’s at the core of everything that I shoot – that moment that we all strive for when we’re riding, when the horse is in balance, that the horse and rider are a team and not at odds with each other. That’s what I’m hunting and when I capture images, it’s there. You just have to keep your eyes open and be ready for it.”
Do you have any tips for aspiring photographers?
“Firstly understanding your subject and knowing what exactly you are photographing. Having an understanding of your subjects is crucial. Someone once told me, ‘You may be at an event that has 20 other professional photographers, but you have the opportunity to present your point of view to somebody. How can you share a unique point of view that other people are not able to see?’ And that’s something that is always in the back of my mind, whether I’m at a big event that does have other people with cameras or I’m at a ranch that I got invited to go to. What is
You have achieved a lot already. What is your next goal?
“Before I moved westward, a big goal of mine was a cover on something. And then the year I moved, I got ten covers! I still want a Western Horseman just because it’s such an iconic magazine. It’s something that I had grown up looking at for so long, that it would really be cool to achieve that one day. I don’t really have a
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