How to Create Stunning Black and White Fine Art Horse Photography

Many people love images of horses, and how can they not? Horses are graceful, gorgeous creatures that we can approach, and connect with. They can be docile and affectionate, and ten minutes later be ripping around the field like a maniac! No matter how tame & domesticated a horse is, they always retain that little bit of “wild” which is something we are drawn to in my opinion! 

So what sets apart one horse image with another? In art, including photography, images can be clean and simple for identification purposes, this is an Arabian horse… for example. Or the image can be fluid, artsy and creative, often being called “Fine Art”. Today we are going to break down what it means to have a fine art horse image, and we will focus on black & white imagery and how to make gorgeous fine art black & white images of horses!

What makes an image “fine art”?

Starting with what is not a fine art image. Let’s talk about photojournalism. Originally, this kind of photography was more like a pictorial report, capturing a moment or scene without interference. Of course nowadays, there are many photojournalists that create fine art daily and it has become its own genre. But I’m talking about an image of “the car accident”, a photo of two cars with dents and smoke rising from the engine, just like it was. News conveyed in a still photo. Here’s what happened. Here’s how it looked.

Events were first “documented” with photography without any creative thought behind the camera. Times have changed and just as we have super creative photojournalists creating art of tragedy, we have creative event photographers, making wedding photos into art and charging thousands of dollars for this amazing skill!

Photographs can also be used as “ID” like your mugshot on your driver’s license. Or your school photo from 1st-6th grade, nothing creative, just the facts ma’am, this is how you looked back then. This also extends to animals, plants and landscapes that explorers jotted and scribbled in their notebooks. Then photography came along and changed all that. Now we can look up a photo of a flower in a field guide to identify it, ie “photo Id”. All these uses in photography are not fine art. They are just transferring information, here is what an Irish Setter dog looks like etc. Many newer photographers think if they get a photo of an elk, its fine art. They often think if it’s in color, it’s photo ID, but if they change it to black & white, it’s now fine art. That’s just not the case!

So what’s the difference between a photo for Documentation,  and a Fine Art photo?

Gypsy Vanner Portrait, fine art horse photography in color. 

Photography is a documentation tool or device, but it is also an artistic medium. It’s another way one can express their creativity. Just like a painter or sculptor, a photographer can be very creative and their images are not just photo-info, they become art and we generally refer to it as Fine art Photography. When an artist picks up a camera, they are using it as a tool to express their creativity. When  you really know how to use your camera, you can “create in the camera and change the way a scene looks entirely”. You can look at a horse in color, and transform him with light & shadow, creating mood and perhaps some dreamy fantasy image. In this case, the photographer/artist is using the camera to create an artistic statement or creation that barely resembles the reality of the scene.

This can be applied to horses, people, wildlife and landscapes, they can all become artistic expressions of the photographer/artist and the camera is just the tool they used to create with.

Now we can add the computer and software (a dry darkroom!) to be even more creative and there are endless possibilities for imagery created combining both the in camera creation and the image further manipulated in Software such as Photoshop and Lightroom. Get both PS and Lightroom Here, for only $10 per month!

Why b&w?

Can you have a color fine art image of a horse? Of course you can. Changing the image from color to b&w does not make it fine art, as I explained above. But there is something about black & white imagery that lends itself to fine art.

It may be the fact that color is so distracting. When you look at an image, you are wowed by the vibrance of the sunset, you may be captivated by how blue his eyes are or her creamy brown skin. Color can definitely enhance and play a big role in your images. But it can also give a false sense of a good image. A little fun game I had my photography group play was to take a favorite image, and change it into b&w. Now see how you like it. Is it still as good? Did it loose some of it’s impact or did it become a better image? Desaturating is a really good test of what you have in composition and light, the two key components of a photograph. If one of those areas are weak, the whole thing will fall apart when you take out the color.

This Arabian Breed shot didn’t start out as a fine art piece, but lent itself with the silky lighting and interesting tree background. I added some selective blur and an old fashioned sepia finish. 

Black and white tends to remove time and reality since we see everything in color. Taking out the color immediately changes the mood and lends itself to looking more closely at the details of the image.

Traditional film vs Digital

Back in film days, I shot a lot of b&w film! There were so many different kinds to choose from. For instance fine grained, high contrast and they even had a film that shot sepia colored images- it was actually processed in color chemistry. Then there was the different paper choices that would play into the outcome of your b&w images as well. Cool tones, warm tones and even blue tones (selenium). The beautiful thing about digital, is you can now shoot in color, desaturate in the post process and then choose EVERYTHING. Do you want a warm b&w image, a cool toned contrasty stark image, a warm sepia, a mix? It’s all there and though you most likely will shoot in color,  you can be planning your image creation in b&w and how you will finish it out as you are shooting!

How to shoot a black & white horse image?

So focusing more on horses here, what makes a good scene for b&w?

Beyond great light & composition, there are a few basics that work best, but rules are meant to be broken in photography! Here are a few suggestions to start with.

Horse color will play a role here, and we will start with the obvious. In color photography, you can put a dark horse, say a friesian, which can be the darkest brown to the blackest black. You can put that friesian against a dark brown barn background and get away with it, as long as you had some nice lighting on the horse. That same image will not translate well to b&w. Why? There won’t be enough contrast between the black horse and the dark brown barn to make an image with impact. It will most likely be muddy and confusing.

Original image, dark horse, medium light background, planned for a black & white image.

You are better to put that black horse against a light or medium background. Add some rim lighting or a natural reflection to give him more detail. Now you have some impact when you change that color image to b&w.

The same is true, just flipped for a light colored horse, he will need a dark to medium background to “Pop” in a de-saturated or monochromatic image. A lot here is just common sense when you think it through. But if you are just randomly shooting, getting lost in the beauty and seduction of your horse subject, you may not think of these things till later when you can’t change your background (well you can always do it in PS, but who wants to spend all that time?) It’s always best to create it in the camera, enhance it in the post!

Finished in Creamy Sepia (my own recipe), added blur on edges, already soft background with in camera settings rendering a shallow depth of field.

Camera adjustments for different colored horses

We first need to choose the best background for b&w images. So now you have a nice lighter colored background for your dark horse portrait. How should you expose this? It can be tricky because if there is a fair amount of light on your dark horse (good for details in his fur etc) and a light colored background, your camera meter may be completely thrown! I would ignore the background, take a light reading on the dark horse. Wait, don’t shoot yet! We take the light reading, then lets add some exposure compensation because your meter will try to make that dark horse a medium gray horse. Remember, our camera meter averages out the light (not as bad as it used to, but still needs to be considered in exposure). So take your reading, and underexpose a stop or two. Otherwise you will overexpose your black/dark horse! Give a little less exposure and don’t worry about the light background, it will fall off a little and that’s ok. Your emphasis is the horse!

Now we must flip this whole scene for your white, Palomino or dapple gray horses. Dark background, take your light reading on just the horse, and set your exposure compensation a stop or so over, say + .07-1.3. Now you will have a white horse or a nice meaty gray horse file to get lots of details out of, the background can fall off a bit, rendering a little darker in your final output, giving your images lots of pizazz and impact!

Adding drama with Light & Shadow

Careful placement of highlights on your horse can add drama and impact to your black & white image. Rim lighting, side lighting and soft filtered light coming through trees are great natural tools to your b&w photography.

Harsh light can make dark dramatic shadows that can be used creatively in your horse imagery. Maybe your horse is set mostly in shadow but a small bit of filtered light is hitting just his eye, drawing your viewers in.

You can look for Rim lighting to make some beautiful fine art images. Say you have a horse portrait setup in a barn and light is coming in hot from a window. You have your horse mostly in shade but just his mane is hit by the harsh light. By exposing for that light and letting the rest of the horse details go a bit darker, you will create an image with a lot of mood and impact. Add a little selective  blur in the post process, and wow… now you have got something! I must repeat myself when I say that the possibilities are ENDLESS!!!!

Soft morning light, sepia toned and a white vignette for an added dreamy feel makes this a nice fine art horse image.

Creating b&w in the post process

So how to change your gorgeous horse images from color to b&w or sepia? This starts with your editing program and I can tell you the most popular programs that we use are the most popular for a reason they are fantastic!

If you are a serious photographer today, you must have a photo-editing program and incorporate it into your image creation.  Are you really just going to leave it to your camera to decide color info output for your images? No! Your camera is the creation tool, not the creator, that is you! So get Photoshop pluss Lightroom Get Photoshop & Lightroom Here!, Google’s NIKs software or ACDSee Pro Get ACDSee Pro here! or Apple’s Aperture. Those are the best four out there and all have programs now to help you afford the luxury of these expensive and expansive tools!

In Lightroom, I have a variety of preset images choices that come with the program. That’s’ great to start, but I have mixed my own b&w’s, sepias and cream tones. I can have my own look to my b&w’s adding more to what makes my images unique and my own. It’s not hard to do. Once you find a recipe you like, save it and now that particular look is unique to your work and vision. It’s all part of what makes a fine art image, all the creation and thought that  goes into it.

Some Ideas for creating the dreamy effect

Something that has been popular forever in horse imagery is the dreamy effect. I guess it’s because of all the myth and fantasy stories that are attached to horses throughout history. The unicorn is one that lends itself to dreamy, selectively blurry images, and many people favor white or light colored horses shown in this fashion. There are many ways to create dreamy effect in software, but first we will talk about how simple it is to do it in the camera!

The first thing is to choose the right image. If it’s just an ID image of a horse, shot in the midday sun, standing there with a parking lot background and a bright pink colored lead rope, well, this my friends is not a fine art image and you can’t make it into one just by adding some selective blur!!!

Creating in the camera

Just understanding the basics of depth of field, we can do lots of cool blur effects by selective focus, and shallow depth of field. Take our horse portrait, a nice close up of head and neck. Choose the most shallow depth of field for your subject area, I would say for head & neck F-4.5-5.6. Combine this aperture setting with a portrait lens like an 85-200mm and wallah! You have a slightly blurry to very blurry background (depending on lens focal length and how close objects were in the scene. Now to be even more creative, just focus on the eye of the horse shooting through the barn doors or trees and create that bokeh effect by using other objects! All done in the camera with no special filters or tools.  Now, we don’t always plan everything out and sometimes we take an image that just lends itself to fine art and do some dreamy effects in the post process.

Creating in Software

Choose an image you created that naturally has some mood. An nice portrait of a horse with no tack, mane blowing in the wind can be lovely with a little blur added around the edges.

A white horse prancing in a field of green can be stunning with a white vignette around the edges, bringing your eye right into the horse! These dreamy blurry effects can become like leading lines, drawing the viewer into the horse image may be going right to his large captivating eyes.

You can completely blur out the entire background, just leaving the horse in focus, or creating a layered image in PS, you can add different layers of blurr leading up to the horse, adding dimension to the overall scene.

If you are not familiar with the tools needed to create these effects, or you don’t have any software yet except for what was free on your computer, make a change! Invest in your fine art horse photography and then invest the time and energy it takes to learn these invaluable skills in the post processing aspect to your photography. It’s not a choice anymore, it’s a MUST to compete in today’s ultra creative equine photography world of fine art.


Cheers and all the Best!





  1. I realloy like your blog.. very nice colors & theme.
    Did you design this website yourself or did you hire someone to do it for you?
    Plz reply as I’m looking to design my own blog and would like to find out
    where u got this from. appreciate it

    1. Author

      Howdy! Sorry for the very late response, I forget to check this section of our website. Yes, we designed ourself but have done many many websites. I like wordpress and we used the very flexible “Pinboard” theme. You can get tutorials and build your own or go with the very popular “Shopify” for a more drag and drop site with many things already done for you! Best of luck for now!!! Cheers!

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