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Horse Sense: 12 Tricks for Better Equine Photography

By Ann S. Gordon, CPP

All images ©Gordon Photography

When I was 8 years old, I was photographing horses with my Brownie Flash Six-20. The camera had two settings: 5 to 10 feet and “Beyond 10 feet,” which I probably didn’t use reliably. The horses in those images had bulbous noses, large heads, and very long back legs.

Today, more than 50 years later and having photographed hundreds of equines in my animal portraiture business, I know how to make the animals look their best and reflect the breed or equestrian sport their owners enjoy.

Even if you don't specialize in animal photography, you may be asked by clients to include a horse in a portrait, as was a friend of mine recently. If so, you’ll find the following tips helpful in capturing wonderful images of the large, easily distorted, incredibly beautiful animal that is the horse.

1. Use a long lens. Try a 200mm or 300mm lens, and stand back as far as 1 foot per millimeter. In other words, when using a 200mm lens, shoot from 150 to 200 feet. This helps minimize the distortion that can happen when photographing such a large animal.

2. Use a fast shutter speed. A minimum of 1/250 to 1/500 second is best. You can use shutter priority to make sure things don’t blur if you’re working in an arena where the light is constantly changing, but I like to use my manual setting for most things. Even with a standing horse, those ears move, as does the tail.

3. Have an assistant. You’ll need one to make noises, move horse feet, rattle buckets, and hold onto a fractious horse so the owner can look relaxed. In order to keep the animal calm, the assistant needs to be very comfortable with horses.

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An assistant who is very comfortable with horses helps keep the
horse and owner calm and looking their best.

4. Get down. Your lens should be at the mid-shoulder of the horse. Any higher than that, and the animal’s legs will look short. If you’re too low, the legs will appear long—really long. I wear gel kneepads so I can move quickly without hurting myself.

5. Start with a groomed horse. Make sure the owner understands the horse has to be clean, clipped, brushed, braided (if appropriate), feet painted, and ready to go when you show up. Use Show Sheen and lots of it, except where the saddle or person will sit—you don't want anyone slipping and sliding.

6. Get the ears up. Lazy ears or ears back in irritation will kill the image for the owner. One ear back can show engagement with the owner, but it needs to be the ear next to the person who's in the frame.

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Make sure the ears are up and forward. Lazy ears (right) can ruin the image for the client.

7. Say no to nylon halters. Yes, they may be in the barn colors, but the attention is supposed to be on the horse and owner, not on a brightly colored halter. If the owner doesn't have a leather halter and lead on hand, put a clean bridle on the horse: It shows more of the face anyway.

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Nylon halters in bright colors detract from your subject. A clean
leather halter with the horse's name will add meaning to the image.

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8. Watch the lead or reins. Don't let the owner wad them up. Keep the hands relaxed. Have the owner drop the lead or reins straight down or make one simple loop. If the horse is fussy, have your assistant attach a lunge line or driving rein to help hold the animal. You can take it out later, but you can't change the expression on an anxious owner's face.

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Traditional poses with everyone looking at the camera can get
monotonous. Use your imagination and capture the relationship
between your subjects.

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9. Use your imagination. Don't just stand the owner near the head of the horse and have everyone look at the camera. It's especially boring with multiple horses and people. Try shooting from the side and having the person curl the horse's head and neck around. Place a soft hand on the side of the horse's cheek. Have the person face the horse and capture the interaction.

10. Stay off the ground. In general, it's not wise to have a person sitting on the ground next to the horse unless it's a very mellow horse or a very nimble person. There's too great of a risk of someone getting hurt. Try stacking hay bales for the person to sit on. Use a low wall or fence, the tailgate of a pickup, or have the person lean or sit on an interesting tree trunk or low branch and interact with the horse.

11. Don't create a two- or three-legged horse. Lining up one leg behind another creates unflattering optical illusions. And don't allow the horse to become hip-shot, resting one back leg. This is a sign of boredom.

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Hidden legs create unflattering optical illusions.

12. Ask the owner. Find out what the owner likes most about the horse and make sure you understand what he means. Someone may say, for example, "I love my horse's head and neck--the whole neck all the way down to his shoulder." Because the horse is such a large subject, there are infinite little details you can capture to touch your client's heart. You'll sell one or two wall portraits, but those details can also sell a book or collection.

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Find out what your client loves about the horse and capture those
details. This image captured during a break in the session really
shows the relationship.

Ann S. Gordon of Gordon Photography specializes in animal portraiture. Her work can be found online at gordonpetphotography.com.