Unlike other pet photography, horses require a different approach when photographed. Here are our ten tips for horse photography!
Horses are known as some of the most beautiful animals in the world. From their majestic movements to graceful presence, horses have been seen through the entirety of human history as revered animals. As such, these magnificent beasts make very lovely subjects for photographers (and the equestrians hiring the photographers!).
1. Be Comfortable With Horses
As much as this should be a self-explanatory tip, you’d be surprised at how many step into the world of equine photography while fearful of them.
Animals pick up on your emotions, especially intuitive creatures as horses. Your response to them will directly affect their response to you.
You have to remember that horses are prey animals. If you are acting uncomfortable, fearful, or otherwise anxious around a horse, the horse will become nervous as well.
This is a biological response based upon their natural makeup, as herding animals rely on one another’s emotions to be notified if there is a predator around.
Likewise, if you act very threatening to a horse, they will become spooked. On the flip-side, if the horse picks up that you are unsure of what you are doing and are not in control, the horse may misbehave or take advantage.
It is a great idea to spend significant time with horses before attempting to photograph them. Talk to equine experts and equestrians, and learn as much as you can about this beautiful species!
2. Safety First
Going hand-in-hand with being comfortable around these majestic beasts, safety is of the utmost importance. Safety goes both ways. You have to ensure that you are protected and that the horse is as well.
Make sure you listen to the equine’s handler, they will know their horse the best. Follow their directions, respect their limitations, and don’t cross the boundary. When spooked, upset, or frustrated, horses can bite, kick, trample, and otherwise leave you crippled.
Alongside paying heed to their handler, always be attentive to the horse’s reaction to your behaviour. No photograph is worth upset. As animal photographers, our priority should be the welfare and well-being of our subjects.
A good suggestion that I utilize for my own work is arriving to a photo shoot early and allowing the horse to get to know you a bit better, as well as your gear. At the discretion of the horse’s owner, give the animal some treats, a happy rub, and let them check out your camera!
Make a couple of shutter noises to gauge the reaction. If the horse is feeling anxious over the clicking, it may be worth switching to a telephoto lens and photographing from far away.
3. Choose Equipment to Compliment Proportions
Speaking of lenses, with animals as large as horses, you have to choose gear that compliments their proportions. The world of equestrians focuses heavily on the proper positioning and complimentary aesthetic of the horse.
As such, you generally want to steer clear of any form of distortion lens. That means no wide angles or artistic lenses.
You’ll likely find yourself using standard lenses. Also known as normal lenses, standard lenses are ones which produce an image that roughly matches what the human eye sees. The image looks natural to the viewer.
Standard lenses have an angle of view of around 50 to 55 degrees diagonally.
They also tend to have wide open apertures, making them great for low light and shallow depth of field. An awesome standard focal length is the 50mm.
Telephoto lenses are another must have for your horse photography kit. You can sit far back and not disturb the horse while taking pictures. Telephoto lenses are also extremely useful for action photography.
They produce a natural perspective free from the distortion caused by using a wide angle lens. A popular telephoto lens is the 70-200mm.
Of course, this tip is just a guideline. I, myself, have taken some excellent wide angle and fish-eye distorted photographs of horses! But the majority of this was not client work.
Bonus advice: Don’t forget the put a filter on your lens! Stables tend to be quite dusty. Always have a lens cloth on you as well.
4. Use Burst Mode and Continuous Focus
As much as the gear matters, how you use it matters more! Much like photographing any animal, there are certain settings that I’ve found work great.
Switching the camera to burst mode and continuous focus works best for photographing horses. The burst setting is a must when animals get excited and start running or playing. Or when a pet unexpectedly does something picture-worthy.
Continuous focus has different names depending on the camera brand (AI Servo for Canon users or AF-C for Nikon users). It allows your camera to follow your subject around as it moves.
Animals blink, turn their heads, and move around at the most inopportune moment. You can ensure you get the right shot by setting your camera to burst mode. This allows you to take multiple photographs in a row while pressing down on the shutter.
Once you get the settings locked in, technique comes into play. Keeping in mind that the goal is to keep the horse in proper aesthetic perspective, try photographing from the equine’s eye-level as much as possible. This aids in keeping the body looking proportionate.
On an equal note, viewers are more empathetic and attracted to images from the same perspective as the subject’s.
If you are photographing horses in action, panning will be your best friend. Panning is moving your camera horizontally with the subject’s movement. You synchronise your camera movement with that of the subject moving parallel to you. Make sure your shutter speed is above 1/2000 to freeze that flowing mane!
As for the compositional aspect of technique, horses always showcase an immense amount of movement to them. Although a photograph is frozen, the viewer can still imagine the next subject’s next step.
Leaving enough negative space in the direction you expect your subject to continue moving in, will make it seem like it’s bouncing off of the photograph. If the photograph is cropped in such a way that there is little negative space, the image will feel claustrophobic and caged.
5. Don’t Forget Detail Shots
As much as full body or portrait photographs are wonderful, don’t overlook the details. The awesome thing about photography is its ability to bring light to something that goes otherwise unnoticed.
An image of a horse’s eye, bridle detail, or ear can be just as unique and interesting. This allows the viewer to see life from an otherwise ignored perspective.
6. Choose Backgrounds Wisely
A fundamental tip for any type of photography, be mindful of your background. If your background is too similar in colour to your subject, you’ll find that the image will appear flat and generally uninteresting. It is the contrast between foreground, subject, and background that creates interest.
It is understandable that as photographers, we are often victims to circumstance and cannot always control locations. Especially in horse photography, in which it is a common occurrence to be photographing within a barn, a paddock, or a small pasture.
Not all horses are comfortable in new environments, not all owners have trailers, and not everyone lives on a large nature property. This is where your adaptability and creativity comes into play.
Find new and unique ways to work with the parameters that have been set for you. Try a wide open aperture to blur the background! Use post processing techniques to separate the subject from the rest of the elements in the image.
A good example would be photographing a dark brown horse within its shadowed stall. I would suggest overexposing by a stop or two, and then adjusting the richness of the colours in post processing to separate the subject from the location.
7. What Type of Horse Are You Photographing?
Different horse breeds have different specifications in how they look, pose, are angled, and groomed. This is particularly important if you want to step into the world of horse shows (a rather profitable endeavour for horse photographers).
Ask your client what breed of horse you will be photographing, and begin a Google search on that breed. This will give you better insight on producing flattering images that complement the horse.
8. Ears Up
Ears up, up, up! This is true for many types of animal photography, from dogs to rats. Ears up make the pet look alert, happy, and engaged. For horses, many horse owners will not utilize images with their horse’s ears down if you are going for a posed shot rather than a candid one.
Ears forward on a horse compliment the composition of their heads, show the horse being confident, and make the image feel comfortable. You can use rustling bags, food, clicks, or sounds from your smartphone to get the attention of a horse and raise those ears. It’s really that simple!
9. Tension Poses Look the Best
Horses are known for their elongated necks and muscular physique. Tension is the key for good portrait shots of horses.
Try to make the horse bend its neck a little bit so that the animal looks more agile and elegant. Using a treat, you can have the horse handler entice the horse to bend its neck forward a wee bit.
When posing a full body, having the horse bend or strain slightly will bring those muscles to the forefront. This may take a bit of finagling, but the end result is well worth it.
10. Learn to Direct Horses
Likely the make-or-break part of your photo shoot. Due to their massive size and location limitations, it may be a rather complex shooting situations.
Being able to communicate with the horse’s handler and having some direction tips up your sleeve will work wonders.
If taking posed shots, be very clear on where you need the horse to stand or look. Pay close attention to lighting and compositional elements. It is a good idea to have an assistant distract the horse into looking in the proper direction.
For action imagery, if the horse is meant to gallop without their handler, take advantage of the horse’s natural affinity for being a herd animal. They horse will probably try to get back to its herd.
If there are horses on the other side of the fence, you can use this as an arrival point and position yourself accordingly.
This is a fairly easy set up for the owner as well, simply bring the horse to the best starting position from where it has some space to run towards the arrival point.
For action images on lead, position the horse at such a point that the height of its action will cross a background that is most flattering.
Bonus: Show the Horse’s Personality
At the end of the day, the photographs that speak volumes are those that capture the soul of your subject. This means not being afraid of candid and personality shots!
Don’t put your camera down immediately after taking a majestic shot, keep it up if the horse engages with you or their owner in a cute or silly way.
With these tips in your pocket, go out there and take some beautiful horse photography. You will improve your craft in no time!