The art of equine – how to photograph horses (Part one)

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By Katie Mendl | 20 July 2021 For centuries, horses have been drawn on the walls of caves, hung as paintings and tapestries on the walls of castles and carved into the earth on the side of mountains. They are a symbol of strength and beauty, and have been connected […]

By Katie Mendl | 20 July 2021

For centuries, horses have been drawn on the walls of caves, hung as paintings and tapestries on the walls of castles and carved into the earth on the side of mountains. They are a symbol of strength and beauty, and have been connected to and admired by humans around the world. Here’s how to create your own art when photographing these beautiful animals.

The connection that horses have with one another fascinates me, so a large portion of my work focuses on this. Here, paddock mates are simply comforted in one another’s company. I photographed them from below, looking up towards them, and you can see the light is harsher and there is more shadowing on the horses. Thankfully, the shadowing doesn’t take away from the overall aesthetic of the shot. Canon EOS 5DS R, EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens @ 70mm. 1/1600s @ f6.3, ISO 800.
The connection that horses have with one another fascinates me, so a large portion of my work focuses on this. Here, paddock mates are simply comforted in one another’s company. I photographed them from below, looking up towards them, and you can see the light is harsher and there is more shadowing on the horses. Thankfully, the shadowing doesn’t take away from the overall aesthetic of the shot. Canon EOS 5DS R, EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens @ 70mm. 1/1600s @ f6.3, ISO 800.

1. Safety first, for you and your subject

I know, I know…such a great way to start an article with everyone’s favourite topic, health and safety! In all seriousness though, you need to understand that protecting yourself and the horse needs to be your top priority.

Photographing horses is not just a matter of jumping the paddock fence and pressing the shutter button. As beautiful as they are, horses can be very unpredictable. They have big, slightly stained teeth at the front, and two very hard, round missiles (aka hooves) at the back. Before entering a paddock or barn, make sure you get some experience around horses without a camera in your hand.

Horses have an acute ability to sense emotions, so if you feel afraid, it’s likely the horse will too. Speak to the owners, ask questions about the horse and find out anything you need to know in regards to the nature of their animal, and then simply spend some time with the horse so you feel comfortable in each others company.

I was driving out of a horse stud when I saw this image emerging. The foal was walking towards his mother, Finch Farm Valerie. It was an overcast day, the light diffused by the clouds, so I didn’t need to worry about the directional light. I quickly composed the image in my head, then with my camera, and clicked. It’s an image showing the connection that runs between a mother and child, animal or human. Canon EOS 5DS R, EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens @ 200mm. 1/1000s @ f4, ISO 500.
I was driving out of a horse stud when I saw this image emerging. The foal was walking towards his mother, Finch Farm Valerie. It was an overcast day, the light diffused by the clouds, so I didn’t need to worry about the directional light. I quickly composed the image in my head, then with my camera, and clicked. It’s an image showing the connection that runs between a mother and child, animal or human. Canon EOS 5DS R, EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens @ 200mm. 1/1000s @ f4, ISO 500.

After 15 years of working with horses, I am still very aware of their mood, the proximity of their teeth and legs to my body, and how important is to be safe around a mob or with a stallion. Colts nibble, mares can charge, and foals can deliver an incredibly strong kick – so be careful!

Finally, if you’re photographing horses at a show, anything with a little red ribbon tied on its tail needs a wide berth, and if the little darling then puts its ears back and bares its teeth as you walk past the business end, just forget it. You will most likely never be friends.

2. You’re only as good as your tools

In photography, the most important tool is your knowledge, not your camera. I am predominantly a fine art equine portrait photographer, and over the years I have worked my way up to professional equipment that allows me to create the best possible art I can afford.

But probably like many of you, I started with a dinky little bottom-of-the-range DSLR and a plastic portrait lens. And you know what? I still created magic.

This image was shot using natural light coming in through the stable door. We positioned Charlemagne in the entrance of the stable, using the darkness of the barn as the backdrop. I shot this while standing up, and simply worked with him (and a lot of carrots) to create shapes and poses with him. There is an element of post processing to tidy up the black background, however if you shoot it correctly in camera, editing is minimal. I also added a matt overlay to soften the overall darkness of the image. Canon EOS 5DS R, EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens @ 70mm. 1/500s @ f7.1, ISO 1000.
This image was shot using natural light coming in through the stable door. We positioned Charlemagne in the entrance of the stable, using the darkness of the barn as the backdrop. I shot this while standing up, and simply worked with him (and a lot of carrots) to create shapes and poses with him. There is an element of post processing to tidy up the black background, however if you shoot it correctly in camera, editing is minimal. I also added a matt overlay to soften the overall darkness of the image. Canon EOS 5DS R, EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens @ 70mm. 1/500s @ f7.1, ISO 1000.

Yes, equipment can improve the end result, however if you don’t understand the essential elements of a good photograph, the light, colour, composition, the moment, and the subject, you will struggle to create good photographs. If you are starting out, worry less about what is in your hand, and worry more about learning about the elements that make for a good image.

However, if you’re wondering what I use and recommend, these days I use Canon 5DSR bodies for my portraiture and fine art. The 50 megapixel camera allows me to deliver larger prints for my clients.

My workhorse (pun intended) lens is my Canon 70-200 f/2.8L lens, and it rarely comes off my camera for several reasons. Simply put, the optics of this lens are incredible – it is sharp as a tack, fast, and doesn’t create the perspective distortion that wide angle lenses will.

But importantly, the longer focal length allows you to capture different types of scenes. You can zoom in for sports images, or stand a distance away from the horse for a portrait that provides a more attractive angle and perspective.

Finally for black background work where I am shooting equine portraits, I will occasionally pull out my Sigma Art 85mm lens. It’s beautiful, but heavy, due to the amount of quality glass in the lens, so I will usually use a monopod with this lens.

My recommendation then for equine photography is a longer lens if you can – anything above 85mm should do the trick.

This is an image of my neighbours horse who often waits along the fence line for a treat. I tend to visit her later in the afternoon when the light is softer and the sun is almost down, and quite often zoom in on her features because she such a beautiful horse. Remember to make that eye sharp on your subject. It’s where our own eye will naturally connect with in any image, so you want it clear and powerful. Canon EOS 5DS R, EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens @ 185mm. 1/500s @ f7.1, ISO 1000.
This is an image of my neighbours horse who often waits along the fence line for a treat. I tend to visit her later in the afternoon when the light is softer and the sun is almost down, and quite often zoom in on her features because she such a beautiful horse. Remember to make that eye sharp on your subject. It’s where our own eye will naturally connect with in any image, so you want it clear and powerful. Canon EOS 5DS R, EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens @ 185mm. 1/500s @ f7.1, ISO 1000.

3. Let there be light

Like with all photography, the golden hour is a great time to shoot. But it’s an especially good time to photograph horses as the older animals tend to relax at this time of the day, which makes for beautiful calm imagery. At the same time, foals will use the cooler hours to play and there are so many opportunities to capture their vitality in beautiful light.

The warmer light presents a softness in the image with no harsh highlights, and the colours are saturated and rich, right from the grass to their sleek coats.

My advice at this time of day, is to just try enjoy the quiet time in the presence of the horse. Quite often, I will just sit for an hour and observe the horses, and photograph them as they interact with one another. These types of images are my favourite – showing the horses just being horses, and capturing their connection with one another.

There is something incredibly beautiful about a horses mane. Zoom in on the finer details of your subject. Canon 5DSR, 70-200mm lens @ 125mm. 1/320s @ f4.5, ISO 1250.
There is something incredibly beautiful about a horses mane. Zoom in on the finer details of your subject. Canon 5DSR, 70-200mm lens @ 125mm. 1/320s @ f4.5, ISO 1250.

Take this time to experiment too. A great technique is to underexpose your image and capture highlights in the mane and tail, or position yourself so the horse is backlit, with the horse in silhouette.

As a rule, you should shoot with the light behind you, illuminating your subject and providing an even light on the horse. But rules are also meant to be broken, and backlit images can be incredibly beautiful.

For black and white portraits I tend to shoot a little before the golden hour, as I want more contrast in my black and white tones. This is especially important in landscape scenes and environmental portraits, as for these I like to try and capture a range of shadow and highlight information.

In black and white photography I always try and position myself or the horse in a way where the light hits the horse directly, to try and avoid dark shadows. Other times, I will use that shadowing to create a light and dark effect on the subject, which can look spectacular once converted into black and white.

Honestly, art is all about experimentation, so shoot and upload, and give yourself time to capture the scene in different ways to see what styles you like.

4. Movement and angles

With equine photography, there are two main types of photography you should try to focus on. For sports images, you need to capture the horse at the correct moment in its movement sequence so it presents the horse in an attractive manner.

Owners are typically looking for images that represent the horses athleticism, scope and peak appearance. As an equine photographer, it is your responsibly to learn these poses, and then capture them in movement.

For showjumping, riders usually like an image where the horse is almost at the highest point of the fence, when the knees are tucked right up under the horses body, and the hind legs are extended as they are leaving the ground. For a large, wider jump, it is excellent when you can capture the horse mid air, sailing over the jump with all fours tucked right up under the body.

Sam Overton jumping a clear round at the Gatton World Cup. Canon 5DSR, 70-200mm lens @ 85mm. 1/2000s @ f5, ISO 640.
Sam Overton jumping a clear round at the Gatton World Cup. Canon 5DSR, 70-200mm lens @ 85mm. 1/2000s @ f5, ISO 640.

When it comes to dressage, polo, camp drafting and others, they are a whole other kettle of fish, and if you are truly keen to enter the world of equine sports photography, it’s up to you to get to work studying other photographers images to learn the best moments to shoot, or ask to do work experience with a sports photography business that can show you the ropes.

With portraiture, you often haver a little more creative freedom. If shooting out in a paddock, I will usually work my way around the horse to get the best angle for the horse and light. This really comes with practice, but there’s a few things you can look for. You want to see the horses long strong neck, and the side profile works well also.

Try to aim for a quarter turn to the head if you can as rarely does a front on shot of a horse do it justice. In an image, you want to see all the curves of the animal, not just two fluffy little ears, bug eyes and the flat side of its face!

Finally, I recommend you avoid using continuous shooting. Practice until you can shoot the horse at exactly the correct moment in its movement. From experience, it can be distracting and frustrating to work with another photographer that just ‘sprays and prays’ on continuous mode, and taking the time to learn the technique is a much better option.

Watch out for part two next week. 

About the author: Katie Mendl is an Australian based equine photographer, living on a property outside of Cambooya, Qld. She has been a professional photographer for 10 years, dabbling in family portraiture, editorial, fashion and wedding photography, before eventually finding her way back to her first love, horses. She now specialises in Fine Art photography, commercial, event and product work solely in the field of Equestrian. See more of her work at calicopony.bigcartel.com.

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