Taking pictures of animals is both fun and challenging, so it's no wonder that Flickr, Facebook and every other photo sharing website out there are full of images of everything from family pets to wild animals to the residents of the local zoo.
If you've ever spent any time photographing animals, you know that different species require different tricks. Cats, for example, need to be stalked. Cats are like teenagers - if they know that camera is around, they'll avoid it. Dogs, on the other hand, tend to be more accommodating than cats. Spend a few minutes throwing a stick for an active dog, and you'll probably come away from the experience with a few good photos.
Now what about horses? Ah, they're even trickier. Our canine and feline friends are carnivores, but horses are prey animals, so their behavior is very different from the behavior of our household pets. Photographing horses requires some altogether different tricks.
[ Top image Untitled by Flickr user Al-Meshal]
Horses are big, like a half-ton big. Unless you are comfortable around them and have some experience working with them, you will need a handler to help you - someone who does have experience working with horses. (Even if you are an experienced horseperson you will still need someone to hold the horse's lead while you get the shot.) Some horses are naturally calm or just very well-trained, but you should treat even these animals as potentially dangerous. Don't walk behind a horse (he might kick if he thinks you're a threat), don't make sudden or loud noises and for goodness sake, don't wave a plastic bag at him because to a horse, a plastic bag is like a zombie apocalypse.
Photographing the standing horse
OK now that that's out of the way, let's take some pictures. If you're planning to do some glam shots of the horse in question (vs. shots of him from a distance) you will need him to be pretty clean. Horses love to roll in dirt and mud, and they have access to a lot of it. So make sure that your subject's eyes are clear of debris, that he's been curried and that the knots have been removed from his mane and tail. Also make sure that you have a bottle of fly spray on hand - flies love horses, especially in warm weather, and you don't want to spend a lot of time in post-processing trying to clone the damned things out of your final images. Finally, have your handler choose a clean and well-maintained bridle or halter for the photos.
As with any type of photography, pay attention to the background. You don't want empty feed sacks, stacks of rusty tractor parts or other junk in your image. A rustic "horsey" sort of background is of course desirable, but all working ranches have their uglier regions and you should try to find the ones that will best compliment your subject. Trees, of course, are always a good choice. So is the side of a barn, or a high stack of hay bales - though the latter will undoubtedly distract your subject, since horses like hay about as much as they dislike plastic bags.
Use the morning or afternoon sun whenever you can - that golden light will make your subject's coat shine, and it will put long shadows into your scene that will make your viewer nostalgic for horse country, even if she's never been outside of suburban Los Angeles.
Ears, ears, ears
Arabian horse by Flickr user khaleel haidar
Ear position is not something you probably give a whole lot of thought to when shooting a cat or a dog. But in horse photography, it can make or break a shot. Most of the time, particularly when the horse is standing still, you will want to try and capture him with his ears forward. Unless a horse is unusually lazy, you can usually get him to prick up his ears by making a whistling noise or snapping your fingers. Shaking a bucket full of feed works, too (sometimes too well). Just don't cluck or make kissing sounds, because your subject might think the gates just opened at the Kentucky Derby (clucking/kissing are often used as cues to tell a horse to move).
Exceptions to the "ears forward" rule depend on the mood of the photo. When taking action shots, like at rodeos, gymkhanas, races etc, you often do not want those ears to be forward because pinned or swiveling ears will better convey the intensity of the moment.
Photographing the moving horse
Horses move fast, so you'll need to set your shutter speed somewhere in the 1/500 range or higher. Unless your horses is snoozing it's a good idea to stick to this shutter speed even when shooting him at rest, just in case that tail swats a fly or he does a sudden and spectacular spook that you'll regret missing.
Good moving horse shots are best done in an arena or a small pasture. It helps if your horse has a rider, of course, but you can also get great shots of a riderless horse. You'll need that helper here, too, even though your subject may no longer be on a lead. Sometimes horses just don't want to run, and someone will need to stand out there and make those aforementioned kissing noises to get him moving. If your camera can take rapid shots (continuous mode), make sure it's set up to do this because you may only have a a few seconds in which to capture that perfect shot.
Horses are big, as I've mentioned, which impacts more than just your safety. It also means that images shot from up close may have some distortion. For this reason a good zoom lens is an essential piece of equipment. Try to stand at a distance from your subject and zoom in so that you don't inadvertently give your subject extra long legs or a fat nose.
Horses - especially show horses - have conformation standards that are assigned by their breed association. Most horse owners want their animals to meet these standards both in-person and in a photograph. If you're shooting a horse for its owner, remember that you'll need to shoot the animal in such a way as to minimize distortion. The best angle for a "glam" type shot is from the horse's mid-shoulder. This will minimize distortion in your subject's legs.
Horses at f/1.4 by Flickr user Stuck in Customs
Don't just go for the long shot of the entire horse, or knock off a bunch of shots of the horse looking straight into the camera. If you're shooting a horse with a rider, you can zoom in on the bit or the rider's boot, for example. Fill the frame with the horse's head and shoulders. Or, try taking a photo of just the horse's eye. You could also try having the horse and handler walk away from you, or you could try having the handler give the horse a treat. Don't forget that the interaction between horse and human can make for compelling images.
lone rider by Flickr user Loving Earth
It's definitely worth checking out some Flickr images of horses or even looking at a few horse magazines if you aren't already familiar with horse photography. Just remember that horses are different than other animals, and need to be treated with respect and caution. And leave those plastic bags at home.
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