Improve Your Horse Photography

A professional horse show photographer shows you how to improve your equine photography.
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A professional horse show photographer shows you how to improve your equine photography.
Susan Sexton |

Susan Sexton |

Equipment Tips

  • A point-and-shoot camera (which has a wide-angle lens) will distort your horse's proportions: The farther away he is, the smaller he'll get, proportionally. In a three-quarter conformation photo, his head will be huge, and his body will become ridiculously small. To avoid this effect when using a wide-angle lens, shoot your horse only from the side, perpendicular to his barrel.
  • Better to replace your point-and-shoot with a 200-millemeter lens or higher. The longer your lens, the closer things will look, because the lens compacts space. This lens type will help capture your horse's correct proportions.
  • To increase lens length, you may be able to add a 1.4 extender, depending on your lens type. This, in effect, will turn a 70- to 200-millimeter zoom lens to a 100- to 300-millimeter zoom lens. However, this also will cost you a full stop in the aperture, allowing you less latitude in low light. (For how the aperture functions with light level, see "General Shooting Tips," below.)
  • A tripod or monopod will limit your mobility when shooting a moving horse. But if you'll be standing in one place (e.g., at a horse show or when doing a portrait shot), you can use either a tripod or monopod to keep your camera still--and leave you unencumbered with your camera's weight.

General Shooting Tips

  • Best times of day to shoot are early morning and late afternoon. Midday sun will cast unflattering shadows on your horse. (For instance, his ear will cast a long shadow over his eye.)
  • If you must shoot at midday, use a flash to get rid of shadows. (Using a flash for this purpose, rather than for low-light conditions, is called using a "fill flash.")
  • A reflector/scrim (also called a "bounce") will light up only a small area. Better to choose the right time of day, as described above.
  • The smaller the aperture, the greater the depth of field (that is, the more you'll get in focus, from foreground to background).
  • When the background is off in the distance, aperture settings of 2.8, 4.0, and 5.6 will soften (blur) it, making your horse "pop out" of the photo.
  • A horse with a white saddle pad can throw off a camera's built-in light-meter readings--especially if he has a dark haircoat. To adjust for this, walk up to him until his coat completely fills the frame, then note the aperture reading. Use this setting for your shot.

Action Shots

  • Make your shutter speed work for you. Generally, 1/1000 and 1/500 shutter speeds will stop the action and keep your horse's legs sharp. At 1/250, you'll get a little blur in his legs, which can be a nice effect. At 1/125 and less, pan the camera to follow your horse's motion, or you'll get a blurry mess.
  • Decide ahead of time which point in your horse's gait you want to capture. (Note: In the trot, two legs pushing off solidly is a good look. In the lope, one hind leg touching down looks good. At the gallop, one front leg reaching forward shows strength and speed.) Then anticipate his movement, so you press the shutter an instant before it happens. To become adept at this, get into the rhythm of your horse's gait--and practice, practice, practice.

Conformation Shots

  • Find a handler who knows how to set up your horse so he's balanced (that is, your horse's weight is over each leg equally). Keep in mind that your horse naturally stands leaning forward slightly. You can equalize his weight by pushing on his chest, or by asking him to back up a step or two.
  • Or, back your horse a few more steps to get more weight over his hindquarters than his forequarters (known as "a light forehand"). This is a flattering look for your equine subject.
  • Prior to the shoot, gradually accustom your horse to standing still for 30 seconds at a stretch.
  • Stand opposite your horse's barrel (rather than his shoulder). Then have your handler turn your horse's head toward you a little bit. This will emphasize your horse's hindquarters for a more flattering look.
  • To find the best angle, try several. Move around from side to side in small steps. By experimenting, you'll learn which angles work best for your horse (and horses in general).
  • One way to get some horses' ears up is to use a 16-by-20-inch mirror. For best results, ask your helper to hold the mirror in the direction you want your horse to look.
  • To capture your horse's personality, focus on his head and neck. Try to catch the light in his eye to show liveliness.

For tips on photographing scenery and wildlife while trail riding, see "Horseman's Handbook," Horse & Rider, October 2000.