Stay safe and wow your clients with horse photography skills.
Few animals capture the hearts and imagination of the public like the horse. And it’s no wonder. They are big, magnificent beasts full of character, grace and love. Whether you want to offer high-end portraits or action shots, understanding the unique needs and characteristics of horse photography is crucial for breaking into the market.
What is horse photography?
Horse photography is a very broad term describing any photography involving horses. It can include but is not limited to specialties like:
- Portraits of human clients with their horses when the human/horse bond is part of the story. This could include family photos, senior photos or personal branding photos.
- Equine portraits where the horse itself is the subject. Clients might want portraits of their horses for sentimental reasons or because horses are part of their business.
- Volume portraits featuring horseback riding groups such as a rodeo team, show team or drill team.
- Event photography of horse-based events. This includes fairs, festivals, shows, rodeos, and horse racing.
- Product photography featuring horse-related products.
- Equine portraits of domestic or wild horses to sell as prints.
As you can tell, there are a lot of different opportunities for you to combine photography skills with a love of horses.
Staying safe shooting horse photography
Horses are big, powerful animals. They can hurt you if they become scared or act out. It is critical for your safety and that of your clients to understand and follow a few basic safety rules when working around horses.
- Horses are prey animals. Their survival in the wild depended on their instinct to flee or fight. Horses retain those wild instincts from their ancestors. When a horse feels threatened, its first reaction is generally flight. It will try to get away from the threat, sometimes by running, backing up, or even bucking. ALWAYS give a horse a safe escape route. Don’t stand or pose directly in front of or behind a horse. Don’t work in tight quarters where you or the client stand in the “exit aisle.”
- If a horse can’t flee, he may fight. Behaviors like biting, kicking and striking often occur in situations where a horse feels threatened but cannot escape. Watch for signs that the horse is uncomfortable, such as laying back the ears, curling an upper lip, showing lots of white in the eyes, snorting and head tossing. These are usually warning signs the horse isn’t happy.
- Horses see differently than people, dogs, cats, etc. They have both monocular and binocular vision. A horse can see about 195 degrees horizontally with a single eye, but also has three blind spots. These blind spots are directly in front of it, directly below its nose and directly behind it the width of the head. Don’t stand or position clients or props in these areas. If you have to work in these areas, keep your hand on the horse and talk to her as you move around. Your tactile and verbal cues will let the horse know where you are so she doesn’t startle or strike.
- Work calmly and slowly. Horses feed off the energy of the humans around them. Loud noises and sudden movements can startle a horse or make them tense and edgy. Stay calm, work methodically and be patient and relaxed.
- Flash can be used safely around horses, but you need to allow extra time to acclimate them to both the gear and the emitted light itself. A horse will often spook at your light stands and modifiers but not pay much attention to the emitted light, and vice-versa. Give the horse time and space to adjust to the flash before introducing a client or other props into the scene. Flash at horse events is generally highly regulated, so be sure to ask permission before using flash at these events.
How much do horse photographers make?
Like any genre of photography, your income in horse photography will depend on your skill, demand, and economics of your market and the difficulty of the shoot. You may only be able to charge the same as a family photography session in some markets. In others, high-end equine sessions bring in several thousand dollars. Know your costs of doing business and research your market to determine how much you could potentially charge for horse photography.
Some horse photographers don’t take on clients in a traditional sense. Instead, they are staff photographers for different businesses and organizations. Horse-themed magazines, trade organizations, race tracks or breed associations might keep a photographer on staff. Staff photographers make around $35,000-$65,000 a year, but the pay varies by organization. These positions are also highly competitive and may require extensive travel.
How do you take good pictures of a horse?
Star by clarifying the expectations of your client. A senior photo session with a girl and her horse will have different goals than if you are shooting horses for sale or are shooting action photos.
Focus on the bond between the client and the horse. They should be connected in some way in your images. Just like we try to connect families in a session, create opportunities for the horse and clients to connect. A hand on the neck, withers or cheek can evoke tenderness or teamwork. Grooming is another great time to establish a connection. If the client is riding the horse, look for the moments the client and horse are working together as partners. The horse will be relaxed, with his ears and eyes pointing forward.
Don’t be afraid to use different environments. Shoot in an open field or arena or use barn doors for some beautiful framing. Keep the horse and client at the edge of the door where the barn or stable meets the outside.
Is the horse itself the star of the show? Like a human client, you’ll need to learn about posing. Clarify with the client how the image will be used. Are they going to be family heirlooms displayed on a wall or used to advertise the horse for sale? Keep the horse’s eye as the focal point and in focus. Try shooting from at or below eye level from in front of the horse. Get the horse to extend and bend her neck slightly and point her ears forward. Try different angles and positioning the horses in different ways. For great examples of horse portraits, visit LynneRoseEquinePhotography.com.
In addition to the classic headshots, try getting the horse moving. Horses have long limbs that create beautiful lines when they are in motion. Ask your client to work the horse in a round-pen or on a longe line. Capture the horse in motion at a trot or lope (canter for you English riding folks!) At a trot, try to capture the moment where the horse’s leg’s furthermost away from you are almost touching underneath his belly, while the legs closest to you are fully extended forward and backward. When a horse is cantering or galloping, my favorite shots are when three of his legs are on the ground and the leg closest to the camera is fully extended. This creates beautiful lines and accentuates the horse’s natural beauty. Another favorite shot is when the horse’s legs are all off the ground tucked up underneath him as if he’s flying.
Action horse photography
If you are shooting action shots for a horse event, you’ll need to understand a little about the event itself. You would shoot a western pleasure class very differently than a dressage competition or a barrel race. Do some research on your event and ask your client what kind of images they want. Cater your shooting position, angle and timing to the discipline. Read the above tips on the right moments to capture when the horse is in motion. For example, I like to shoot a barrel race at the point where the horse comes around one of the first two barrels and on the run back toward the finish line. For a trail class, though, I’d set up to the side and slightly in front of an obstacle like a bridge or pole set.
Don’t forget to leave some space for the horse to move into in your frame. And don’t get so close that you cut off tails or hooves (this is one of my worst habits!).
The best horse photographers understand the event itself and the critical moments of the competition. Ask lots of questions and research the competition online before you begin shooting!
Horses for sale (Shooting for confirmation)
Photographing horses for sale is a little different still. Your shots can include class portraits and action shots, but must also include “conformation shots.” Conformation affects performance, so buyers want to see how the horse is built. A few tips on shooting conformation shots
- Always shoot confirmation shots before action shots. The horse will be cleaner and look better.
- Find a flat spot and an uncluttered background. The footing should be even and clean.
- Like any portrait, look for soft even lighting across the entire horse.
- Don’t use anything shorter than a 50mm lens to avoid distorting the horse’s proportions. I like to shoot with my 70-200 mm f/2.8 lens zoomed in.
- Start with a profile shot. Position the horse to show all four legs. For stock horses, position the front legs under the horse slightly apart, and the back legs in a natural position slightly apart. Hunters are often photographed with their front legs even and their back legs slightly apart. This is called an open stance. Ask your client what the correct conformation stance is for the breed or use.
- Shoot at about belly level. Turn the nose slightly toward the camera and fill the frame. Make sure you get all the horse in the frame for profile and front and rear shots.
- After side profile shots, take some shots of the horse from the front and behind. Ask the client what other angles they might require.
- For action shots, see the ideas above!
Camera settings for horse photography
Horses are big critters that can move fast. You’ll get the best results in manual mode. I like to shoot at f/4 to f/6./3 to give me a depth of field large enough to get most of the horse in the frame in focus while still rendering the background slightly blurry. I keep my shutter at 1/250 of a second for portraits but bump that up considerably for action shots. Most of my rodeo shots are at shot at 1/800 at a minimum, faster if the light allows it. I shoot on continuous focus and shoot 3 or 4 frames at a time.
One fun technique in horse photography is panning to convey motion. Instead of stopping the action with a fast shutter, panning involves slowing your shutter to build motion trails. Set your shutter at 1/50 of a second to begin with. Track a horse as it is moving across your frame. Follow the horse with your body and the camera and fire the shutter. The idea is to get part of the subject in focus (like the eyes) but the legs and tail will be blurry, conveying motion. The technique takes practice but can produce some stunning images!
I always use spot metering. If I’m shooting equine portraits, I will use a gray card to meter and white balance. If I’m shooting action shots at say a rodeo or fair, I want to keep my lighting consistent between contestants. Very dark horses or very light horses can skew your on-camera light meter. I will instead meter off something in the environment. A bright, blue sky is the same tone as a neutral gray, as is most grass. These reference points are great to meter off unless you are working in backlighting.
Wild horse photography
Across the world, there exist a few pockets of wild horses. Places in the western U.S., like my home state of Wyoming, as well as Nevada, Colorado and Arizona have wild, free-roaming horses. You can also find small herds on the Outer Banks of North Carolina and Assateague Island off Virginia and Maryland. These areas present wonderful opportunities for photographing wild horses.
Once you’ve found a location with public access, look for a watering hole. Some of these tracts of land are quite vast, and if you can find water, you’re much more likely to find the horses. Use a telephoto lens to keep you and the horses safe. Follow the settings above for aperture and shutter speed. Look for pockets of horses that have some separation between them so one horse doesn’t blend into another. And look for herd interaction. Mares and foals or two stallions fighting make compelling images.
If you’re shooting in the western U.S., be sure to take lots of water and sunscreen and tell someone where you are going and when you will return. The roads aren’t always well marked, cars overheat or get stuck in mud created by sudden rain showers. Plan ahead so you don’t have to spend a few nights in the desert alone.
The best horse photographers in the world are usually horse people first, photographers second. It’s a genre of photography that is unlike most others. But even if you aren’t a horsewoman or horseman yourself, you can become a great at horse photography. Learn to understand horses: their temperament, conformation, lines, and movement. Learn the rules of the competitions you are photographing. The more you know about these beautiful animals and their accomplishments, the better you can bring it to life through your lens. And don’t worry if you fall in love with these big, gorgeous beasts. It happens to the best of us. As I always say, I wasn’t born in a barn, but I got there as fast as I could.