Horses are one of the most beautiful animals on the planet. They are graceful, powerful, and yet fragile… all at the same time. There are many tips and tricks when it comes to photographing horses. For some breeds you want to accentuate the neck or rump! Others you want to really show off their size or make them look as thin as possible. To get a great and saleable image of a horse often starts with knowing the breed standards. Just like with dogs, horse breeds are bred to to look a certain way. Here are a few tips to get you started on bringing out the horse’s best features.
A Few Breed Examples
Draft Horses are the big boys of the horse world! Draft horses include breeds such as Shires, Clydesdales & Percherons. These horses were bred to to be incredibly strong and pull thousands of pounds of weight. When you are photographing these animals, they should look powerful & large! Show off their thick and muscular neck. Their rump should also look large and robust! The owner or breeder will also want you to show off their thick mane, tail and feathers in their photos. We can add the smaller cart horses derived from the shires; the Gypsy Vanners, Haflingers and Drum horses. They should be photographed in a similar manner- though they are much smaller, they should still look hardy and strong. Quarter Horses are one of the more common breeds and come in many flavors such as bay, chestnut and paint, to name a few. They are bred to run the quarter mile fast and furious. They should also look hearty and healthy, similar to draft horses even though they are not nearly as big.
Going from extremes here we will talk about the Arabian! With these sometimes delicate seeming horses, you do not want them to look heavy. They should look light and thin, showing off their very distinct face, long curved neck and large eyes. Arabians are about as opposite as you can get from the draft horses and are amazing athletes! They practically dance around the arena and are one of my favorite horses to photograph in action! Their owners will be thrilled with images of them prancing and high stepping with attitude!
Warmbloods and Thoroughbreds are tall lanky horses that you don’t want to look too heavy either. Their beautiful lines and strong, fit, muscular frames should be shown off in full length images of the horse standing.
Other specialty breeds you may see a lot in shows are Friesians and Andalusians. The andalusian can be photographed similarly to the Arabian. Capture them light and fit, dance like in their movements, and show off their beautiful face and neck. Friesians are solid black in color which has its own photography challenges, and are also very athletic and beautiful movers. Images captured should definitely show off their gorgeous mane and feathers (long fur around their hooves)! Don’t let the rump look to skinny on either of these two breeds! They should look like well balanced athletes, and be proportionate from head to tail in your images!
Know thy Horse
I guess before we go much further, I would recommend learning a thing or two about horse behavior. Horses are not like dogs, they are prey animals, not fellow predators like our canine friends. They have the fight or flight mentality and you should know if you spook one, you spook them all… kinda like deer. Each horse personality is different and you will learn to read the clear signs the horse will give you, letting you know how he feels about you. His ears will be your first line of communication and it’s pretty easy; down or flat ears, not happy, ears up and attentive, he likes you- “hey mikey”! Pawing the ground with flattened ears, that’s your cue to seriously back off. Horses can bite, kick and stomp. They are a formidable animal though they can appear so docile and sweet.
When approaching a horse, it’s good to go slow, talk softly and make no sudden movements. Think of them as more deer like than dog like. Would you go running up to a deer?
Most domestic horses that have been trained to ride are usually pretty comfortable around people, but not all of them. If you want to try to pet them do it slowly, watch those ears! Most horses like to be pet on their muzzle, their noses are so soft! They also like to be pet on their neck and the side of their face. An open hand slowly brought up to their face usually works best. Give them the chance to back away if they don’t want the contact. With many horses you can win them over with a little patience.
When walking around a horse, stay close! You may want to skirt around them giving them a wide birthe. This can get you kicked with the full extension of their hind leg! Most horses kick when they are frightened and can’t see what’s behind them.
The closer you stay to their body, the less impact a kick can have. A good practice is placing your hand on the horses side and move around the horse with your hand never leaving the horse. This way he knows where you are and is not alarmed when you move behind him.
If by chance a horse is too friendly or too up in your grille, you can raise your arms and make a shhhing sound, getting him to back off. It’s really best to not be in a corral or barn stall alone with a horse you don’t know until you get comfortable and get some experience being around horses.
They are wonderful amazing animals and can be ever so kind and sweet. But a horse that has been mistreated (and there are many) can be leary of people, even if he is out of that bad situation. Take the owners lead and ask questions, it’s always good to know as much info as possible to have a successful photo-shoot. To really look like a pro, learn some horse terminology and more about specific breeds.
Ready to SHOOT!
For the purpose of this article, I am assuming you are already a photographer and know the basics on light, exposure and composition. If you are a beginner wanting to learn more, you can download my ebook “How to Take Awesome Pictures with Your DSLR Camera”, here on Amazon! LINK is here:How to Take Awesome Pictures with your DSLR, Ebook
The first rule of thumb in photographing a horse or any subject really, is to find where the sun is. For a nice full length image of the horse, It’s always best to start with positioning the sun behind you. This will keep the light falling on the side of the horse facing the camera. Don’t face the horse into the sun as he will squint just like us. You want the light to bounce of him showing his shiny coat and most often you will want the mane side facing the camera, though for some breeds you will want both sides, showing off the neck.
I like kneeling on one knee shooting slightly up for the full length image of the horse. I can often use his body to block something unwanted in the background. I can also show his size and I have less distortion problems with those long legs if I am shooting from slightly below.
In all horse photography for breed standards, the ears of the horse MUST BE UP! No matter how gorgeous your image, the stunning light, the amazing sunset as your background…if the ears are not up, you will not please the owner, breeder or horse aficionado! There are many tricks to getting those ears attentive. Making a kissing or clicking sound with your mouth is the easiest and many equines will respond to this and allow you to get your shots. If a horse is nervous or agitated, he will not have his ears up. Try to relax the horse by speaking softly to him. Have the owner or handler soothe him. Sometimes introducing strange objects to him will put him at ease. We often let the horse sniff our camera, reflector etc. Sometimes that’s all it takes. Some horses just naturally have their ears less upright. If a horse is upset or angry it will flatten its ears and unless you are photographing the rut in a wild horse herd, this will ruin your chances of a sale or just showing off your equine photography skills. Flattened ears are no good in equine photography (with just a few exceptions as mentioned)! Other methods of getting those ears up are a squeaky toy, jingle bells or when all else fails, a plastic grocery bag tied to a stick and waved around. This will get even the most stubborn horses ears up!
It Takes Two
You may think, how am i supposed to wave a bag on a stick and get my angle just right and shoot all at the same time? A good assistant is a must for equine photography. My husband and I are a team and trade off, one of us doing the shooting, the other the assisting. That means shaking the bells or bag, holding a reflector (more on that later) and general help wrangling and positioning the horse. It really is a two person job especially when you are trying to get a breed standard image. If you are just doing horse candids or action, you can shoot solo. More on that down a few paragraphs. Often the horse owner or trainer is more than happy to be the photography assistant, and they know all about getting the ears up and the horse in just the right position. In fact we learned many of our techniques from horse trainers and breeders. Knowing what your buyer wants and what is important to them is half the battle!
So it’s not so sunny and you are working with a gorgeous Fresian horse (all black) with a darker green tree’d background. How are you going to get that horse to stand out and shine? In our equine portrait bag is the all important reflector set. I have three, warm and semi bright, cool silver and ultra bright and then soft and white. I also carry a power speedlight (flash) that I can use in the event that I have no assistant or extra person to help me. This way I can add a little fill flash and bring out the black horse from the dark green background. You will need to test a little. With using your flash to “fill” or enhance, you will still need to shoot at almost full power as you will be a good distance from the horse if using a portrait lens (100mm or more). You can bring out the shine on the dark horses coat with the speedlight, even on an overcast day. The flash is a good back up but I much prefer the reflector if at all possible. It gives such a nice natural boost of light and brings the dark horse right out of the background. It also gives his coat such a beautiful shine!
I talked about kneeling and shooting slightly upwards on the horse. I use an old 85mm or my 70-200mm for my horse portraits. There is no distortion and the horses usually look robust in size and they fill out the frame. If you are shooting at too much of an angle, you can make a horse look too thin in the rump area, or make their neck or face look too skinny. For nice full length portraits, I like to be at a horizontal plane from the horse then have them turn their head slightly towards me. The horse will look proportioned and the eye contact will finish it off nicely. It is also a very flattering portrait if the horse is turned a a ¾ angle to you and then turns around at your clicking sound or squeaky. With tame broke horses, it’s interesting if you position them at a certain angle and then go slightly behind them and click, or squeak, they will usually turn just their head around to see what it is rather than turning their whole body! This makes for a lovely angle for portraits (you are standing and not kneeling for portraits), keeping the neck nice and full in the frame and not making the naturally narrow face look too thin. Remember like film, digital files are one dimensional. You must use angles and your lens focal length to create dimension!
By shooting down on a horse from atop another horse or from a grandstand or the like, you will make the horse look distorted, especially if you are using a wide angle lens. His legs will appear short and body too large. The best angle from which to photograph the horse is definitely from the ground, better yet, kneeling, shooting slightly up.
The eyes have it.
Getting the horse to look at you with it’s large and sometimes blue eyes can make a big difference in your portrait or full length image. Any portrait where your subject is staring right back at you will have impact. Those same ears up tricks can help get a horse’s attention and allow you to nail that image where you are looking right into his soul! Or so it can seem.
Using shallow depth of field can add mood and a dreamy feel to your equine imagery! You can set your aperture (aperture priority) at 5.6 and let much of your image fall off into a soft blur. You can certainly go wider or even wide open at 2.0, but be careful if you are using a portrait lens as most of your image will be soft with just your focus point sharp. When zooming in on just the horses beautiful eye, don’t forget your rule of thirds- place the eye slightly off center and place the eye so it’s looking out at you, not backward and unnaturally away from you. Make sure you have a fast enough shutter speed to hand hold a 70-200mm or longer to get those sharp details in the eyes or face letting the rest of the image soften. You will really need to brace your camera and hold your breath if it helps you keep that camera still. The less depth of field, the more chance for camera shake if your shutter speed isn’t fast enough. I would keep my ISO at the sweet spot of 320 if you have enough light to do so. The higher that ISO, the more chance of grain and digital noise.
Besides closeups of the horses eye, other horse detail images can be very fun and creative. Try doing closeups of just the mane or hooves. Details of different parts of the horse are really fun and can make for some great creative shots. I wouldn’t recommend trying to sell them at a horse show, but many people just love the beauty of horses and are much more open to non standard artful images.
Planning the shoot, taking control, light, grooming & treats
Weather you are working with a client who has hired you to get portraits or action shots of her horse, or you have been hired by a ranch to do some horse images for their website or promotion, you will need to set up the shoot. You will need to go out and scout the location where your shoot will be. Sometimes people don’t see everything and you may need to ask for things like garbage cans or an old trailer to be moved out of the background of your proposed photoshoot. You must not be shy and take control of the session. You pick the time with the best light and be firm. If they want the best images possible, tell them- we need to start at this time etc. In the end, if the images aren’t up to snuff, you the photographer are at fault. You must plan it out for the best outcome.
Though most horse owners will arrange grooming without you asking, it’s good to mention it, letting them know you know what you are doing. Ask about approved treats you may bring or they may want to supply those. Ask them about their horse/horses, are they friendly, shy, cheeky, spooky, outgoing or recluse. Know the challenges you may face and make sure you have all the tools and equipment that can help you get the best images possible of their horses.
Horses in action
There is nothing quite like a herd of horses thundering towards you, dirt flying, nostrils flared! You can feel the sound of their hooves in your heart. It’s quite a rush! Capturing that action takes practice, and a little bit of pre planning, nerves of steal ,especially if they are running right toward you. You may be so lucky as to get these images in the wild, but most of the horses running images you see are done on ranch property with domestic horses.
You will need to set up your DSLR for this shot. First off, your focus settings may be different than your everyday settings. You may want to choose wrap or 52 point focus settings to grab all the action in the center of your image. You will definitely want to go shutter priority or manual mode with a really fast shutter speed like 1/2500 of a sec if you want every speck of dirt caught in mid air. I would start with taking a light reading and seeing if you could shoot at 1/2500 of a sec or higher! Choose your ISO depending on your lighting conditions- bright light, use the standard medium 320 ISO, a darker overcast day you may want to go to ISO 800 and if it’s blindingly bright, like on snow or white sand during the mid day, you will want to go with 100 ISO. Usually those ISO’s will put your aperture high enough, say over f10 so you will have plenty of depth of field. But take your light reading and make sure. Adjust your ISO higher or lower to suit your available light.
Next you will want to have a safe place to shoot from. You need to first know the route of the horses, where are they coming from, is someone driving them from behind? Working with a horse farm, dude ranch or breeding facility, the horses will be on a regular schedule. Horses are creatures of habit and will usually run or turn the same way if they are in regular routine.
Once you know the route the horses will be running, now you can find a safe place to shoot the action from. Most tame horses will not run over you, however, accidents do happen. I wouldn’t recommend just kneeling in the path of a herd of running horses, tame or not!!!
It’s best to find a tree to stand next to that you can sort of crouch behind once they are upon you. If you can sit on a fence or a piece of farm equipment that they are used to seeing, they will run right at you and then break away around you. We have used our QUAD to do many such shots and sitting on the quad the horses will run towards you and then just go around you and are not spooked or surprised by your being there. It’s still a bit unnerving to see all those horses running at you, especially through the long lens of your camera- YIKES! But also, so exciting!
Working with Horses in the Arena or Corral.
When working with horses in an arena, the action shots can be more dangerous. There is nothing for you to sit on or hide behind, you have to just trust that the horse will not intentionally run into you. Being at a low angle as the horses rip around you at close range offers the ability to get amazing action shots. But you must know the horse you are dealing with and they must be broke. With stallions, tame or wild, they can be a bit crazy and unpredictable. I wouldn’t kneel down and shoot inside the arena with a riderless stallion. There are also just some horses that have not been trained or broke, or trained horses that just really get rambunctious when you turn them out- so don’t do it! Be smart about when you choose to put yourself in a situation where you could be trampled. It’s not worth it. You can always shoot from outside the arena or corral and get your images from behind a fence. Below is some motion shots and in the caption we tell you if we were inside the arena or not. We have great results in both situations, you can too!
The Elegant Horse
It’s funny to me how we portray horses in our images. They are often these pristinely groomed, shining elegant animals. In shows their mane is often braided into the most delicate twirls. Ribbons are often added and intertwined. Or the mane is brushed free of tangles and glistens in the sun as the horse prances around for us all to admire.
Yet that same horse once the show is over, is going to go straight to the mud and roll in it. That same horse will have a tussle with another mare she doesn’t like and get her flowing locks all matted and tangled. Horses in the wild look nothing like their groomed and kept cousins, often sporting dreadlocks instead of braids.
Yet, the lankey graceful horse pulls off this look of elegance and seems to know it as he praces around the arena, enjoying the oooooohs and gasps from the onlookers, or so it seems!
It’s fun to get the horses in their show “outfits”, close ups of their braids and brushed out tails. Ribbons and bows, koffed and shined. Hooves polished and painted. You can tell some of these noble steeds really enjoy the hours of papering they get before a show! WHo wouldn’t?
The riders are also equally handsome in their show duds, especially the english riders with their tall black boots, and tan riding pants, finished off with a little jacket. It’ really is quite a site to see and photograph.
The Wild Horse
In the US alone, we have approximately 33,000 wild horses. They are in almost every state in the west and are fairly accessible via BLM roads. You can get more info on where to find and photograph these horses here: LINK> If you have the opportunity, you can get some amazing shots of these charismatic herds. They are territorial and you can get images of them battling for rights to mares and land. This is when it’s totally acceptable to have flattened ears, tousled manes and muddy bodies!
Much controversy surrounds these animals as they roam BLM land and compete with local wildlife for food. You may see horses that look too thin and undernourished. If you go to photograph these amazingly hearty souls, be prepared to see some behaviors you wouldn’t expect! Horses can be incredibly mean to one another. You may see injured horses from a battle over territory or mares, or worse, horses that are not getting enough to eat. Do your research on the particular herd you are interested in photographing and be prepared.
Creative horse photography
This would be my favorite subject to talk about in horse photography. I don’t know why, but a horse lends itself to creativity more than most animal subjects. Perhaps it’s that even though domesticated, they still retain that wild feel, the way they move, the sounds they make. And if you have ever sat on a quad or stood behind a tree as a herd runs at you, the word tame does not apply and they become as wild as the elk and bison in Yellowstone!
There is also a lot of mythology that involves horses. How can we forget that the fabled unicorn is a horse! Horses really do lend themselves to being in soft & dreamy images. So that being said, here are a few ideas to try, and help you create some unique horse images for yourself or perhaps to sell at an art show or gallery!
One of the most popular ways to show and accentuate a horse in motion is to add a creative blur. You can do this in the camera or in the post process. In the camera, If we are photographing a running horse or a herd of running horses, we can choose a slower shutter speed and “Pan” with the image. Basically you are dragging the shutter and moving the camera along with the action causing a blur effect in the background yet your subject remains mostly sharp, depending on the aperture settings you chose and how well you braced and steadied the camera during the Pan. This effect works best for running horses that are on the horizontal plane of your camera position. So think of a T, you are at the bottom of the T and the horses are running across the top of the T. Now you move your body at the waist, camera firmly braced against your face, arms tucked in. I hold my breath as I pan for extra stability. Your effect will depend on how much you dragged the shutter, and of course your depth of field settings. A good place to start is at about a 20th to a 60th of a second for a little motion blur in the legs. *Keep in mind, this will not work well for a subject coming straight at you. Your focus should be on the large bodies of the horses, your camera should be able to grab those on the move. As you get better with panning, you could potentially go with a longer shutter speed or you can do it on a tripod as long as the ground the horses are running across is fairly level. I trick I have used is to set up on my tripod but have all the hold points loose. So I am basically holding my camera on the tripod, if I let go, my camera would fall forwards or back. By keeping all the hold points loose, I can pan along with the freedom to pan up or down slightly as well. This gives my a steadier pan that I could do holding the camera, especially if I am using a long lens. I have used this technique when photographing other subjects including people dancing in a dimly lit wedding.
Another way to do this is in the post process. In Photoshop you can add to the panning blur you did in the camera or completely create blur that wasn’t already there. Now of course we are not trying to fool anyone here, adding or creating blur in the camera or in the post process is a creative endeavor and nobody looking at the image should say…hey, that’s fake! Of course it is, it’s a creative enhancement you dope! Well, they are definitely not your buyer!. Don’t worry , most people won’t give you that reaction, I promise!
Softening the image
Soft dreamy images of horses are favorites of many horse lovers! To get these affects you can again create in the camera or in the post process. One really easy way is to shoot wide open with a portrait lens. You will have shallow depth of field and your focal point will be sharp. As mentioned above, this is fun to do with the horses eye or mane.
Another way to create a dreamy shot is with an old school camera filter. The softar was one of the best softening tools ever made and it was designed specifically for the Hasselblad camera. IF you can get your hands on one of these filters with a step up ring that fits your dslr lens, GRAB IT!
I currently have a softX that works wonderfully on my 85mm 1.4 film lens. Lots of sunlight will exaggerate the effects of these over the lens filters and you can create lots of fun dreamy images of horses and it works great for horse/rider combos too!
The post process is another easy and fun way to soften your horse images. The plus here is you have more creative control of exactly where the image will be blurry and what will be sharp. My favorite softener is the Gaussian blur in Photoshop, but I also use the clarity tool in lightroom to just take the edge off the focus. If you are just learning photoshop or lightroom, there are many amazing tutorials located in your cloud subscription, along with many youtube gurus to learn from. For the purposes of this article, I’m assuming you have some basic camera and post process skills. Perhaps someday we will do an in depth photoshop & Lightroom demo for equine photography!
Another couple of ideas are creating silhouettes, putting the sun behind the horse and underexposing by a few stops and wallah! You have a beautiful silhouette! Reflections of horses can make for some gorgeous images, and if you can find a situation where horses are near water or running through it, well…endless possibilities abound! Skilled manipulations in the post process are yet another way to create unique and interesting horse images! I could go on and on!!!
Horse photography gear bag
We use backpack style camera bags, easier to walk across horse fields sling over your back as you hop on a horse or four wheeler, golf cart or mountain bike.
In the bag we carry the following. Camera bodies- I’m in love with my D750 that I purchased over a year ago. I used to buy the pro dslrs until they became astronomical in price, and full of features I just don’t need. I am more of a traditional photographer, opting first to use my knowledge of f stops shutter speeds to create with, using the light meter combined with my understanding of light. I opted for the D750 instead of the pricy over the top D5. That’s just me. You can use whatever works for you! My favorite lenses are of course the 70-200mm VR or canon equivalent. I carry a medium wide zoom – 24-120 and since my camera is FX, my goal is always to use every pixel possible! I have an old 85mm 1.4 that rocks for portraits, though you need to add some saturation in the post process due to the multi coating not being as good as todays lenses (I’m not 100% traditional!). I also have an old 55mm macro lens, another from the film era that comes in handy now and again for extreme close ups.
I use the fastest write speed memory cards so shooting in RAW is a go (except for horse shows!). As mentioned above, i have a set of three reflectors, pink, white and silver that are invaluable for making your horses really pop! I also have a powerful little speedlight for those situations when you can’t use a reflector (really windy days or days with no assistant!). In a separate small bag, I have a little “horse ears” kit that consists of some Dollar store & petsmart squeaky toys, streamers and a telescoping collapsible stick that my husband made for the grocery bag to attach to for the most stubborn flattened horse ears! We also carry a few horse grooming brushes, a few rags for wiping horses noses (if needed) and some tail & mane spray for a little shine. Lastly a nice black lead rope is always in our bag. Even though most horse people will be ultra meticulous about how their horse is groomed before the photoshoot, and they will be wearing the prettiest tack and look spectacular, then the owner snaps on a chartreuse colored lead rope or worse, a grey tattered a frayed rope! What??? Well, they can’t think of everything! I will add some delicious horse treats to that bag, don’t go cheap here, many owners will be very picky about what goes in their horses mouth! Carrots from the store are always popular and won’t break the bank. For links and where to buy the gear for your horse photography bag, go to our resource page:LINK
Putting it all together
So to close for now here are a few reminders for photographing the horse.
Learn a little horse etique so you can be comfortable approaching and working with them. A little horse terminology goes a long way with the equine owners, trainers and ranchers you might also end up working with arranging your horse photo shoots. (LINK to pdf quick start horses coming soon).
In your gearbag, beyond cameras, lenses and reflectors, you should have treats, a lead rope and some horse ear raisers!
Know what breed attributes are important to the owners of each breeds, especially if you are doing show photography!
Watch your angels, don’t make the horse look distorted too fat or too skinny with a bad camera angle. Shoot from the ground and slightly up for the best full length images!
Make sure you have the right tools to get great results! Check out our resource pages here for a list of camera equipment, software, hardware etc: http://www.betterhorsephotography.com/resource-page-2/
Have fun and be creative! Weather you like to create in the camera, in the post process or both, horses are a fantastic subject!
That wraps it up for now!