Equine Photography Tips
by: Shannon Roepke
Do you ever wonder why some photos are better than others? Is it the camera? Is it their skills and abilities with expensive photo editing software like Adobe Photoshop? Having a pricey camera and knowing Photoshop can be helpful, but the start to a great photo is to by knowing how to take one. These tips are going to be primarily focused on taking great equine photos, but many of these tips can be applied to other areas of your “snap-happy” life.
The term “snapshot” is used for pictures that are quickly taken, in the moment, without planning (note the key words “without planning”). On the other hand, a photo is a captured image that has been planned out or set-up in some way. That does not make snapshots inferior, snapshots capture some or the most special and important moments in life. I prepared these tips so that the next time you pick up your camera, you can decide if you want to take a “snapshot” or a “photo”.
So, without further ado, let’s get started.
Have you ever taken a picture and wondered why your horse came out looking like a cartoon and you get a giant nose, tiny eyes and ears? Perhaps the back end looks strangely larger than the front end? You know he has a big rump, but you don’t remember it being that big! These “effects” are caused by the way cameras and camera lenses work and what you are seeing is a result of what is called focal length (or more commonly called ‘zoom’ – as in zoom in, zoom out).
When you zoom out, your angle gets wider and you can see more of your picture in the cameras view finder. If you look closely, you might notice that things in the picture start to ‘warp’ like the mirror in a funhouse at an amusement park. People and animals lose the proper proportion in this wide angle.
To get the proper proportion for your photo, zoom in a bit. When you zoom in, you might say ‘If I zoom in, I can’t see the whole horse.’ If you can’t see the whole horse, use your fee and back up a bit. Use your camera and zoom to where your subject looks to be in proper proportion and then back up to get the whole horse in your picture. This will ensure your picture portrays an “in proportion” subject, rather than zooming to fit the subject, rather than zooming to fit the subject and capturing something misshapen.
Here are a few examples demonstrating the effects of proportion.
Headshot Example #1:
This is an example of a wide angle. It makes for the cute snapshot in the pasture, but the horse looks a bit 'wonky'. The body parts closer to the camera are bigger than those further from the camera, which is not a true depiction of the real animal.
Headshot Example #2:
This looks better, doesn’t it? Well, Yes and No. This is certainly an improvement over example #1, he looks more correct. If you look close, you will notice something is still a little off. This example shows a photo that is still zoomed 'out' a bit too much for the horse. When you take a photo and the horse still doesn't look just right to you, change your zoom and/or position until he does. You can always take another picture.
Headshot Example #3:
There we go! Now our horse (excuse me, pony) looks just as correct in the picture as he does in the flesh. Go back between these examples now, see if you can really see a difference and decide which one you prefer.
"What if I like that picture of my horse at a wide angle? I think it is cute/funny/shows off his personality."
The great thing about photography rules is that you can break them. What I write and show you are things to help so that when you go out to take a photo of your “star”, you can make conscious decision what kind of photo you want to take. Rather than looking at them later and asking yourself why they came out the way they did, now you can look for the different and decide. Do you like the wide angle look? Go for it and play with it
“Position” is a particularly broad subject that will likely pop up in many of the other areas. When I say position, I am speaking more about you as the photographer rather than your subject, the horse.
The most common position someone with a camera stands in, is standing straight up with the camera with the camera at their face. This isn't wrong, but it can limit your photos. When I am taking photos, I am often in the weirdest and most contorted positions. I get into positions that allow me to get the shots I want. When taking photos, it is a good idea to move around and try different positions. I certainly don't want anyone hurting themselves trying to do something, or getting themselves into a not so safe position somewhere, but when taking photos it is a good idea to move around a little.
Consider height. If you want to take a picture of a pony, who is likely shorter than you, get down to the pony's level. What if your horse is average height? If you can look over, or down on, your subject's back, then your camera is doing the same thing. Your camera will see what you see. If you are doing a conformation shot, under saddle, or action type shot that shows the horse's body, your camera should be level with the horse's barrel. Try it and see if you notice any difference. When taking 'Headshots', you can be up higher since the horse is too. Next time you’re out, move around a bit and see if you can see new things.
I also want to mention, position can be closely linked with proportion. If you start getting into extreme angles in your position, you may notice they look out of proportion even when you know you zoomed correctly. If you want the look, then great don’t change. If you didn't, you may try adjusting your position and double checking you were at the correct focal length (zoom).
Position Height Example #1:
This picture shows what is captured when the photographer is above the level of the subject. I was not standing at full height in this shot, but I was also not on the subject’s level. I am giving a definite feel of looking downward onto my subject. It isn't very attractive and if you notice, she is starting to look a bit funky in her proportion (do her legs look short to you?) even though my focal length is correct.
Position Height Example #2:
My position is now more level with my subject. This pony is no bigger than the last, but he appears larger and more correct in his build. Just by getting on the same level I have greatly improved my photo. I am now looking over at my subject rather than down at him.
How about left and right? This may sound simple, but not many people think about it. Do you always take a picture of your pretty horses head from the side, straight on? Try a slight angle. Haven't tried the side? Go for it. Get out of the comfort zone and again, move around.
Light is one of my favorite subjects and one of the trickiest to master. Light is your best friend and your enemy. You probably already know this, whether you recognize it or not, but light is why you get bright pictures, dark pictures, blurry pictures, sharp pictures, or any pictures at all.
There are several rules of light and you can break them if you wish, but there is one it is best not to break. When photographing in daylight (Outside, unless you have your horses in your house, lucky you.), it is best to shoot in morning hours or evening hours. This is based on light position and also light intensity. The sun's position at midday hours is straight up (above you). Mid-day sun casts very harsh, and often very unattractive, shadows. Mid-day sun also tends to be more intense, unlike morning and evening sun which is softer and appears more filtered. If you get to choose the time of day to take your pictures, this is a good rule that can serve you well.
Harsh Noon Light Example:
This picture was taken at around noon. It is not a horrible picture, but because of the sun's position there is a very high contrast of light and sharp shadows. The shadows do not accentuate the proper areas and we lose much detail because of the light's position. A major negative to me personally is that there is always a long shadow around the eye which really detracts from it.
Evening Light Example:
This photo was taken in an early evening light. The first example of noon light probably did not look so bad until you see this example. Subtle differences in light can make astonishing differences in photos! The sun is now creating almost a blanket of light across the side of the horse, rather than over the top. The harsh confusing shadows are gone and beautiful details have appeared. The evening light is not as intense and what shadows do appear, are much softer.
Morning Light Example:
Morning light is quite similar, just the opposite side. The only difference is morning light is a little more 'clear'. Evening light will give off a warmer cast (red/yellow/orange), while morning light does not usually have much of a color cast. This does not make one better than the other as they each can yield beautiful results.
Another good 'rule' of light, is to keep the sun at your back. With most photos you want to keep the sun in this position. It is going to give you the easiest and simplest lighting. If the sun is at your back you know you are getting a fully lit subject and no excessive shadows. This is certainly a necessity for conformation shots and advertising photos. No one wants to play, 'What's that Shadow?' If you look at the previous examples, the 'Evening Light' is a good example of light perfectly at the back. The 'Morning Light' example you can see part of the horse cast in shadow. In the morning light example, I did not the sun at my back exactly, but at a slight angle. Does that mean the 'Morning Light' example is lit wrong? No.
Light does not always have to stay behind you. Changing your position, your subject, and where the light is can start getting into some artistic and fun aspects of making a photo. Just be careful that when you play with being artistic you don't point direct toward the sun. This will cause a 'sun flare' in your picture. The sun flare will wash out your photo making it look bland and flares are not possible to remove from your photo afterwards. If you like the look of the flare, take a nice picture then add one using a photo editor. Then are many programs that will add them at the click of a button.
Sun Flare Example:
Here is a basic example of a sun flare.
Sun flare can look just like the ones in the example or even a bit different. It is all based on the glass in your camera. No matter the result though, they are all just as unattractive. I am sure I don't need to point out the giant sun ball. I did put some arrows to point out the flares. The large off color circles in the picture. You might also notice that besides the flares, the photo is also a little dull, washed out looking. This is also the problem with point the camera a little too much towards the sun. There are some photos that look very artistic when used right, but generally a bit difficult to artistically use, so always watch for the sun flares.
Nontraditional Light Examples
Here are a couple of photos showing how light can be used rather than just directly behind the photographer.
The light at side, creating a natural 'split' with half the subject in light and half in shadow.
Side Light #2:
In this the light is at the side, but with an angle closer towards the camera. This is where you risk a sun flare if you don't watch carefully, but it can work nicely when done right.
Background and Surroundings
Something that many people don't consider when taking photos is the background. The backgrounds in your photo can have a significant impact on your photos. If there is clutter in the background, it is going to take attention away from your subject. Instead of looking at the subject, the viewer is going to start checking out what might be in the background. When a lot of us take a picture, we are often thinking so much about our subjects that we forget something exists behind them... but our camera doesn't.
"I don't have a pretty background, so how am I supposed to get a beautiful photo?"
Let me clarify. A clean and uncluttered background does not mean you have to live in the most gorgeous setting. If you look into your camera to take a picture and notice a bucket and a rope sitting around behind your horse, move them. If you horse if standing partially in front of the barn, partially in front of open area pasture, move him, your position, or both until your get a more subtle background. Power pole right behind him? Move; certainly don't want him growing a power plant out of his body. I am sure you get the idea, if something looks messy, clean it up, if there are bad or distracting objects in the background move your position or the move your subject.
"What about action? How am I supposed to pay attention to background when my subject is moving (especially when I am worried about light too!)?"
Don't get overloaded on me now. I promise there is a simple solution. Before you start taking pictures, take some time and scope out the area for the best photogenic spots. Most of us have been to our barn enough to know which way the light goes at what time. If not, you will when you're scoping out the area you want to take pictures in. Just look for the areas that have the best light and the best background combined. When you start to take pictures you can remember where those spots are, and you really want to be prepared. If you want to get something in the not so great areas, go for it, but at least you know where your scene is best for a great photo, and stay prepared for the good areas.
Background Example #1:
What a cute foal with his mom. Oh! What is that? Looks like a feeder? I wonder if they keep them in there usually, of maybe some others. It looks like there is a barn or maybe a shed back there. I think I see another horse back there, or is that a donkey. I can't really tell. What was this picture of again?
Background Example #2:
What a lovely picture of a lovely horse in a field.
Up and Down (keeping level)
I thought about doing a composition section, but decided against it. Composition is extremely subjective and would take more time to explain than I have explaining skill. There is one part that is good to know, so I did want to include that.
Our world is round, but generally when we view it; it is quite a level area. Sometimes we focus so much on our subject, angles and everything else, we tend to contort a bit too much and perhaps forget the ground is level (I have certainly been guilty of this). Living in a flat area, it is quite a wonder to see a horse trotting 'down a hill' that I know never existed.
Keeping your photos level is just something to keep in mind when take pictures; make sure you're not trying to tip everyone over. If you do happen to have hills and cannot use ground to gauge, use trees. Trees are usually the best to begin with, majority (majority, not all, believe me I have seen the wonky ones too) like to grow straight up. If you don't have trees, try a fence even for a general idea.
Who doesn't like a picture of their daughter and her pony, a friend with their horse, some strange guy with bad teeth posing with your horse? You don’t seem so interested in the last one, but how about the others? Now we get to apply all those things we just learned and apply them to a specified area.
The best time to take a picture of a person and a horse is an overcast day. This is purely for a person’s skin tone. No matter how light or dark a person’s skin is, our skin doesn't 'shine' like a horse’s coat. It shine's like a reflective surface and camera's don't like that, when not properly lit. When it is overcast the light is more neutral, and so is skin meaning you are likely to get a much softer skin in the photos. Many horses look quite lovely in overcast light too, so don't worry about missing that 'glossy' coat look.
Angles and position can apply when taking portraits too. Because there is a person involved, we don't want to get too low (Too low and you're looking up someone's nose... hello up there?). It is perfectly fine to be up a little higher when photographing people. A straight shot of the horse and person staring straight at the camera can serve its purpose, but getting some interaction with the camera (position and angles) may get you something you're looking for. Try turning the person’s body, or changing the horse’s position to see what works best.
Pay attention to those control devices - halter or bridle, whatever is on the horse. Take a couple seconds to tidy it up. Make sure buckles are buckled and tabs are in their keepers. Halter or bridle messed up on one side? There is no shame in moving things around so you are photographing the pretty side. Just because you lead from one side doesn't mean you can't photograph the other (this is only if you are sure both horse and person are comfortable with this). How is your subject holding the lead or reins? If it isn't in the picture it may not be a problem (Unless they are holding it wrong and you are correcting them, but that isn't related to photography), if it is, take a second or two to make sure they get it neat and tidy.
This is a more in the 'saddle' portrait, but no matter if the person is on the horse, or by the horse, things don't change much. Reins are tidy (no tension on the bit, make for a tense looking picture), everyone is clean and happy, 'ears up'. Also notice this is taken vertical, also called portrait style. This is the most common and preferred way to take portraits. When taken horizontally, you will often end up with a lot more empty and wasted space. There are certainly times to use a horizontal portrait, but it is best to think and be prepared vertically when you think portrait.
Need good pictures for the sale ad, or is that friend bugging you for riding pictures? So, you know about position (discussed earlier). You can stand straight up if you wish, but I still personally prefer being barrel level. You know lighting (also discussed earlier) - behind your back for ads or overcast. Other than ads, if you want to be artistic with light, go for it. (You may want to warn your friend, if that is your victim... I mean subject...).
The main things we are going to talk about are stride timing and horse and rider angle/positioning.
At the Walk
Yes, there is good stride timing for a walk, or rather, more attractive and less attractive timing in a walk.
Walk Example #1:
This shows a ‘good’ (green check-mark) and ‘bad’ (red X) example of walk timing. They look quite similar, but the slight difference does create a different overall look. Some might say the 'bad' timing is partially due to a bad moment. While this does happen, (I am sure we've all been there!) this particular moment focuses on the horse about to move to a foreleg, which gives a feeling of forehand, whether the horse is on the forehand or not. Even for a horse in the absolute best of moments, this is not the most attractive gait timing. The good timing gives a sense of movement and flow.
Walk Example #2:
Here is another 'good vs. bad' walk. The bad walk is usually the one that is typically most unattractive. It really has a heavy feel, makes things feel like they are stopping rather than moving forward. The good example shows that step-off or forward movement without such a heavy feel.
At the Trot
I have several trot examples, good and bad timing.
Trot Example #1:
This is the first set. The first shot I like to call 'landing'. There are not many good uses for this particular timing, but it does happen. The problem is it shows a heavy almost downward motion. Perhaps you have a good use for this, but so far the only time I have found this timing useful is for the purposes of this article. The second one is the 'moment of suspension' or 'full extension' (some horses don't have much suspension, so both work). This is generally the nicest moment for most horses, or the moment just before (in the next set). It shows a better flow and obviously the moment of suspension gives a sense of lightness.
Trot Example #2:
The example on the left I always seem to think of a 'pogo stick'. The horse also looks like he is going up and down and going nowhere, no matter how forward the horse may be or how much impulsion he has. This moment tends to be confused with the one on its right. In-between these two moments can be quite confusing. It has to be thought of as just right before the horse lifts off the hind hoof, not before and not after. Capture it too early and it will start to look like our pogo stick again. It can certainly be a bit before the moment displayed, just play a bit and see what works and what doesn’t.
I did want to point out I used a different horse in the last shot for a reason. The horse used previous has a wonderful moment of suspension, but not as dramatic in this 'push-off' stage as this other horse. Just as this horse does not have the moment of suspension as our first horse. It is good to notice these things about your subject and don't get frustrated because you can't get the timing. It may not be the timing. Since every horse's gait is different, you have to know what you're photographing.
Extra note: If someone is posting, try to catch them in the 'sit' part of the post rather than the 'up'. I am sure if you have seen these pictures you know how goofy this looks.
At the Canter
This is probably getting quite repetitive, so let's move it!
Canter Example #1:
The bad example shows the canter on its last beat, which shows the weight toward the forehand of the horse. Just like previously, not the most attractive timing for everyone. The good example on the right is not my absolute favorite, but is pleasant, and shows forward momentum. For some horses this is actually a better moment than my favorite.
Canter Example #2:
The bad example is like the opposite of our last good example. Instead of the front hoof up, the hind hoof is up. That nice upward forward feel just turned into a choking downward feel. There is a moment just before this, which is pure the second beat. (Right before the second front hoof hits down) This moment is also decent. The good example as I said previously is my favorite. It gives the best sense of lift.
Canter Example #3:
Last one. This moment is alone before it depends on the person. I am not a huge fan of this moment for a canter. A moment of suspension in the canter looks kind of goofy to me. However, many people like this moment, if you like this moment go for it. Be aware though that some horses do not have much of this moment in their canter.
If you ride in a specific discipline you likely know more of what you are going for. Keep that in mind with these tips. Many gaited breeds want to see more of the up moment in their trot. Start looking for what you need to look for though and practice on getting that.
Quick, get the camera, the horses are running! Too late they stopped. The one day they do continue to run, you want to know how to capture it the best you can. There is nothing I need to add for this section, as most has been said in the ‘under saddle’ section (discussed above) about gaits.
One thing I did want to mention though is; if you are going to take pictures in the same enclosure with loose animals, stay alert and pay attention. It can be easy to get lost in one thing and not notice the large animal charging too close. Even more simply, moving around and not watching your feet could cause a face full of dirt, a twisted ankle, or worse.
Some photo that show the horse running away from you are really lovely and very well done. Many times though, it gets depressing to see your horse either going away or at an angle away from the camera. It is awesome to see your horse doing something other than grazing, but I am sure you want to see your horse has a head too. "He doesn't do anything though!" Try to get a friend to help you, as a good bargaining tool say you will get pictures of their horse too or help them with their horse. It is also much safer to do this with more eyes than someone running around with a camera chasing a loose horse.
Coming or going? Occasionally that going away picture might be wonderful, but I might forget what the pony looked like if I didn't have the one on the right (but then again I am quite forgetful).
Now that we have taken our photos, let's make sure they have “the look” we want. I promised some serious technical stuff and I will keep it. Cropping (cutting) your photos can have an impact on visual interpretation. A so-so picture can become something to take a second glance at just by changing the composition with a crop. Cropping is also helpful if you don't like the composition you got when you originally took the picture.
Cropping does not take any fancy software; everyone's computer should have something that could do it without much of a hassle. I know newer Windows systems have their viewer. When you open a picture in the viewer, in the top row there is a button called 'Fix' and that will give you a menu that allow you to crop your picture.
Once someone learns to start, cropping madness tends to ensue. Things get cropped way off to the side. It is good to not center, but we also don't want too much wasted and negative space. Sometime things get cropped really tight. That negative space is gone, but our subject is probably getting a little claustrophobic. There really is no way to give a whole bunch of rules on cropping (as it is a form of composition). While there are many ways to crop, it is very subjective and a personal choice. The best thing to do is ask yourself questions when you crop your photos.
- Do I need all that space there for this picture to make sense?
- Does my subject look like a mime in a box; do I need more space to make this picture make sense?
- Does my subject placement look right, should I move him around? Is he just centered?
It never hurts to try different crops and see what you like best.
A last tip for cropping; save a copy before you crop. You never know when you may want to try a different crop or if you want to get a print, your crop may not work. This is also a good idea if you make a “whoops” at any point.
There was nothing terrible about the first image. There is quite a bit of fence perhaps. It is just too much space for our subject. By cropping it closer it makes a much simpler image and idea.
Little nibbles are quick tips that don't really have a specified place, but might come in handy.
- • White and Paint/Pinto (with a lot of white) horses photograph best in overcast light. It keeps them from 'blowing out', where they appear too bright.
- • Horse won't perk up those ears? Try a peppermint wrapper or if you want something unique, try a mirror. (Not glass) Plastic bags and the like are good, but it is always good to start small, at you don't want to end up with an overreaction and a mess.
- • Fly masks, blankets, and even halters detract from action photos. If you must leave a halter on, that is understandable. If not, take it all off. Not much to see in a horse covered with clothing!
- • Late afternoon and evening sunlight has a warmer tone, which really accentuate horses with a 'warmer' toned coat. If you want to see your chestnut/bay/darker palomino/etc. horse's coat really pop, try photographing them at this time.
We have now come to the end. I hope you enjoyed it and learned a little something.
This article provided by permission from Shannon Roepke
© 2012 Shannon Roepke - http://www.slrpix.com/