Maybe you are heading out for a week in the countryside, or a friend has asked you to take some photos at their family barn. Chances are there will be horses to photograph. Just point and shoot, right? It turns out that although extremely beautiful and captivating, horses can be pretty difficult to capture in a photograph. They are large animals, prone to distortion from close-ups, and they don't always co-operate. You thought toddlers gave you a run for your money, try getting a horse to "pose" for you! With a few tips in mind, you can safely capture the essence of equine beauty and strength in your photos.
[ Top image Subindo... by Flickr user Eduardo Amorim]
Horses are big! Really big. Their size and strength is not something to be trifled with. If you are experienced with horses then I am preaching to the choir here, but it is important to consider the safety of everyone involved when photographing horses. If you are a horse newbie, then get an experienced horse handler to be your assistant for the shoot. Be aware of any triggers for that particular horse, and follow general horse safety guidelines. Don't walk behind your equine subject or use a flash.
For your own safety and to avoid distorting the horse's proportions, use a long lens and shoot from a distance. This is not the time to get up close and personal. Shots that are too close-up often make the horse's head look very large, with a bulbous nose and freakishly long back legs, not the desired outcome! A 200 or 300mm lens is ideal, but your longest zoom lens will do. Back up as far as the length of your lens allows for a strong composition. If the horse is a dot on the horizon, you've gone too far!
Cuentos de colorados by Flickr user Eduardo Amorim
It would be nice if horses would just hold still and pose for photographs but unless you are the horse whisperer that’s not going to happen. That means it is up to you to freeze the action. Photographing horses is all about the shutter speed. In this case, aperture is not your main concern. For a relatively easy solution, switch to shutter priority. In this mode, you select the shutter speed and your camera will choose an aperture for correct exposure. I wouldn't go slower than 1/250 for portraits and if you are trying to photograph a moving horse it may need to be as quick as 1/640. As you shoot, check that your focus is sharp. If light conditions are low (like in an indoor arena), you will have to bump up the ISO to compensate for that rapid shutter speed.
I would also suggest making a few other adjustments on your camera to make it more likely you will get the shot. Switch your camera to continuous or AI servo, auto focus mode. This should help you maintain focus on a moving target. I also recommend using your camera in burst mode. In this mode, each time you press the shutter button, you will take a rapid fire series of pictures. The more shots you take, the more likely you will have a keeper in there.
El picazo by Flickr user Eduardo Amorim
If you fill up an entire card with head shots of the horse staring right back at you, you will likely be disappointed with the result. Get a little creative with your composition. Horses have unique personalities and so do their owners. If you are photographing them together, try to capture the relationship between your subjects.
You may be used to standing right at your subject's eye level but horses are tall so you need to aim lower. Point your lens at the horse's mid shoulder for the best perspective.
If you are taking horse "glamour" shots, then your subject needs to be well groomed. Prepare ahead of time so that the horse is curried. Soft afternoon light will make the coat shine beautifully. Don't detract from the horse with a colorful nylon tack. Keep it simple with a conservative leather bridle or halter that will blend in. Also, horses are fly magnets so come armed with spray to keep those pesky critters away.
There is often lots of clutter in a barnyard setting. Be sure, wherever you are shooting, to consider the background and keep it clean. Trees and fences are usually good choices as long as they don't appear to be sprouting out of your subject's head.
Pay close attention to the horse's body language. A horse's ears say a lot about its mood. Good horse photographs show horses with perky, upright ears. This is the sign of an interested horse! Ears that are laid back can spell boredom or even worse anger so watch for these cues. A whistle or snap will usually do the trick to get the ears forward. The eyes are also important. Like with any portrait, it is critical that the horse's eyes are in focus, or at least the one nearest the camera. Horses have large, reflective eyes that make beautiful focal points but avoid the whites. This is a sign of fear.
With these tips in mind, you are ready to take pictures. Be safe and get creative. Consider focusing closely on the eyes, ears, or bits of the halter. Zoom out for the lone horse in pasture look. Photograph horses in groups or interacting with their owners. Choose a fast shutter speed to capture a horse frisking around a pasture. Use continuous focus and shoot in burst mode. Take lots of shots! Horses are majestic but portraying that can be difficult. Take the challenge, there is no time like the present to get out and try something new!
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