Horses make for fantastic additions to a photo, whether you are taking pictures of a beloved companion or using them for a fashion shoot. However, I often see photographers treat horses like an afterthought in a photo, when they could make them look so much better with a little knowledge and practice. Here are 10 tips to improve your work with horses.
Safety Before Anything Else
Horses are extremely large and powerful prey creatures, which means if they feel threatened (or if they're just ornery), they can lash out in a variety of ways that can seriously injure or kill you. More than anything, listen closely to everything the horse's handler says to you and don't do anything without clearing it with them first. In addition, here are some basic safety tips:
- Always alert the horse to your presence by speaking in a gentle voice. Avoid sudden motions, and don't wave your arms above your head.
- Approach the horse from the side instead of directly from the front. Horses have trouble seeing directly in front of them.
- Never, never approach a horse from behind. Horses have a blind spot there, and many will readily kick in defense.
- Be mindful of the horse's feet. Horses can accidentally step on you, and it can injure you. Wear sturdy shoes — absolutely no sandals or thin shoes. Horse also frequently stomp their feet to shake off flies, so be mindful of this.
- If the handler allows you to approach the horse, move slowly, and hold out your hand with the palm open, fingers flat, and thumb flat and pressed against the side of the hand (think of a karate chop), and hold it out for the horse to sniff your palm. It's crucial to keep your hand like this to avoid the horse accidentally mistaking your fingers for a treat. Do not approach a horse like this unless the handler clears you to do so; some horses are known biters and will nip at you no matter how you approach them.
- Remember, there is a difference between being comfortable around a horse and letting your guard down. They are still half-ton creatures hard-wired to run or lash out if they feel they are in danger. Most horses are sweet creatures with no bad intentions, but their flight instinct is very strong. There's an old joke: there are only two things that spook a horse: things that move and things that don't.
- Don't loop anything attached to the horse around your body. If something spooks them and they bolt, you could be dragged and trampled.
- Don't put yourself in a narrow space between the horse and something like a wall or a doorway.
- Watch for warning signs: a horse that pins their ears flat against their head is likely angry or feels endangered and is about to kick or bite. If a horse's ears begin swiveling quickly, they're highly alert and potentially looking for a threat. A horse with wide eyes (particularly if you can see the whites of their eyes) is alert and possibly scared, meaning they may attempt to bolt or take defensive actions. A horse swishing their tail or making a clawing motion with one of their front feet is likely annoyed at something. A horse that begins breathing loudly and/or pacing frantically is scared and may attempt to bolt or defend themselves.
- Don't sit or squat around a horse. You want to be able to move quickly if something goes wrong.
- When in doubt, defer to the handler. If you are shooting with a model too, let the handler approve any poses or changes.
- Acclimate them to your camera's shutter sound by taking a few clicks in the presence of their handler while they reassure them.
It's All About the Ears
Ears forward, always. Horse owners recognize a horse with ears forward and relaxed eyes as a happy horse and will normally not be interested in photos with ears pinned back or to the side. You can use a wide variety of methods to get their attention and cause them to focus their ears straight ahead. Simple clicks with your mouth, rustling a peppermint wrapper, or using sounds from your phone can all help. Make sure you clear these methods with the handler first, though, as many horses respond to a click as a cue to move forward or may chase a treat aggressively.
Use a Standard Focal Length
Horses are prized for their physiques, so unless you are going for the occasional creative shot, it is best to stick with relatively standard focal lengths that render the features close to what the human eye sees. A 50mm lens is my favorite tool, though short telephotos work great as well. Focal lengths of 50mm or above also keep you at a relatively safe distance. Though I would normally recommend against a UV filter, with horses, it isn't a bad idea, simply because barns tend to have a ton of dust and sand floating around, so bring something to clean your lens too.
Stick With Natural Light
Light stands and flash can spook horses. Even the glint of a reflector can spook them. My favorite trick is to place them in the barn door. Barns tend to be pretty cavernous and relatively dark compared to the outdoors, and you can get a nice soft light with a dark background using this technique. Normally, all it takes is pulling down the shadows in post a bit to make the background completely black.
Show Off (or Hide) the Horse's Physique
The horse's handler will know how to pose the horse to show off their conformation (their body structure in relation to their athletic ability). Poses that show their muscles are often a good idea. For example, have the handler hold the horse at an oblique angle and then angle their head toward the camera. This will engage their neck muscles. You don't want them to look strained, but engaging their muscles a bit helps a lot.
On the other hand, as a horse ages, their physique changes, just like you or me. They often lose some weight and muscle tone, which can make them appear bonier than a younger horse. Don't be afraid to compose your image or ask the handler to pose the horse in a way that can diminish this look.
Use Burst Mode and Continuous Autofocus
Horses are fidgety creatures. Much like other animals, you are often trying to catch quick moments where the pose and expression are just right. Using burst mode and continuous autofocus can help quite a bit.
Use a Decently Fast Shutter Speed
You generally want a decent shutter speed, as despite their size, horses can move quickly and often make sudden, jerky movements. I generally aim for 1/250 s or so for posed portraits. If you are taking action shots, you'll want to use a faster speed, of course.
Use a Narrow Aperture
When it comes to aperture, I like to aim for f/5.6 or so. While you might use something like f/1.8 for a human portrait, two factors make me stop down my lens more when it comes to horses. First, their faces are much bigger and longer than a human face, so you use more depth of field to get them entirely in focus. Second, while a super narrow depth of field with just the eyes in focus can make a human portrait look interesting, it looks strange with a horse the majority of the time. Most of the time, the owner will want to see their entire companion in focus.
Yes, horses are imposing, powerful creatures, and a lot of people are anxious around them, and that's perfectly understandable. However, despite their size, they are very sensitive to the surrounding environment. If they sense that someone around them is anxious, it will often make them anxious, as they assume something is wrong. Even if you're nervous, try to project a calm demeanor.
Capture Their Personality
Just like a dog or cat, horses have their own unique personalities, and owners love them. Be sure to ask their owner to help bring out that personality, and don't be afraid to share a goofy shot too; those are often the ones owners will love the most.
Bonus Tip: Make Sure They Are Groomed and Their Tack Is Clean
Their handler or owner will likely groom their horse before the shoot. Make sure their tack (the halter, bridle, saddle, etc.) are clean as well. Try to keep a clean cloth handy, as they will often slobber a bit.
Horses can be a fantastic addition to a photo or a great subject of their own. Just be sure to observe proper safety precautions and defer to their handler for working around them.