Whether you’re a budding photographer or simply want to take portraits of you and your horse for your social media account, getting your equine partner to cooperate can be a challenge.
We’ve asked three Canadian professional equine photographers to give us (and you) some tricks of the trade so that your images of your horse or pony are picture-perfect.
Inspired by her paint pony, Roy, Niagara, Ontario-based Rachel Sulman started photographing horses when she was 13 and has been working as an equine photographer since 2015. Sulman says that during a portrait session, the biggest challenge is posing the horse.
“Horses are very large prey animals with a mind of their own. They typically don’t want to stand perfectly still for an hour, or even understand what we want from them in a photoshoot,” she explains. “I always strive to have an assistant with me whose job is to keep the horse’s attention, get their ears forward, and help with touch-ups like wiping a slobbery mouth or fixing a mane.”
“Horses are moving creatures, often traveling at great speeds or undergoing sudden changes in expression. When it comes to photographing them and, ultimately, being a ‘storyteller,’ I’d say the biggest challenge boils down to how prepared you are to capture those important moments,” explains Quinn Saunders, an equestrian media specialist born and raised in British Columbia. “With quick thinking and a solid plan for any situation, you can prepare yourself to take not just a good photo but a great one. Ensuring you are in the right place at the right time, and that your gear is dialed in, can allow for capturing truly magical moments.”
Working in both Toronto area and London, England, Vanessa French, who has been a professional equine photographer for eight years, says the biggest challenge she’s found in photographing horses tends to be predicting weather conditions.
“When your photoshoot takes place outside, you have to constantly be monitoring the weather because it can change every hour,” she explains. “I recently had to postpone a photoshoot twice in a row because of the rain, but it was ‘third time’s a charm’ and we ending up having perfect weather on our photoshoot day. When working with the weather you just have to be as flexible as possible.”
Prepare A Shot List
French suggests having some “go-to” poses in your head ready before starting your photoshoot so you can maximize your time. “I always try to achieve poses such as the rider hugging the horse with the horse’s head wrapped around them, the horse and rider walking away together, and the rider kissing their horse on the nose.”
Groom & Clean Tack
This may seem obvious, but make sure your horse is extremely clean – even a small manure stain or hay in the tail will show up in the photo. French says to prepare for the photoshoot as if it is a horse show day. “Bathe, oil hooves, show sheen, the works,” she says.
And it’s not only the horse that needs to shine on picture day. “Tack that looks dirty will photograph dirty. Take the extra ten minutes to clean your bridle thoroughly and make your bit sparkle. It really makes a difference,” advises Saunders.
Prep & Feed
Saunders says that preparation is key in almost every aspect of working with horses, and that’s no different for portrait shoots. She suggests you have plenty of cloths and rags on hand to wipe slobber during the shoot. “And ensure your horse has had their dinner, or at least a snack, before their photo session,” she says. “The lighting is often best in the evening, but horses can get hangry. It’s one of the simplest things you can do before your shoot starts to prevent grumpy expressions.”
Ride Before the Shoot
Unless your idea of a portrait includes a bolting horse, ensure your horse has been ridden or at least turned out or lunged so they aren’t too energized. “You do not want your horse coming out of his stall for the first time that day right before the shoot,” says French. “A calm horse makes the whole process much easier.”
Sulman suggests that when taking portraits of a horse, you want them to be evenly lit to avoid any unflattering shadows. “Try positioning the horse at the end of a barn aisle with him facing the open barn doors,” she says.
Best Time to Shoot
“I personally love to shoot during sunrise or sunset when the light is softest. This creates a beautiful glow during the photoshoot which is ideal for when you are trying to capture magical moments between a horse and rider,” says French. “If you shoot during midday, the sun can be very bright and harsh which is not always the most flattering light to photograph in.”
“Ears forward are the equine version of a smile!” says Sulman. “To get your horse’s ears forward, ask a friend to crinkle some peppermint wrappers just out of frame or play horse sounds on a phone from YouTube. Some horses do have a very strong reaction to horse sounds, so please ensure that someone is safely holding onto your horse the very first time you try this.
And there’s an app for that. “If shaking treats just isn’t getting those ears forward, one of the best apps to help is the ‘All Ears Selfie’ app,” says Saunders. “It has a selection of horse noises that are manually controlled by the user via a series of buttons. You can also take iPhone photos within the app.”
“Horses typically do not look their best when using a wide-angle lens, which is the default for most mobile phone cameras,” Sulman explains. “Try zooming in and shooting from slightly further away to get a more flattering shot.”
If you want to get a photo of yourself with your horse, but no one is around, Sulman says to try using the self-timer function. This option produces a better result than a traditional handheld selfie where you likely only get half the horse’s head in the photo. “Most phone cameras should have a timer option. Prop the phone upright against something sturdy and hit the shutter button,” she says. “You will have 10 seconds to get into position. Make sure to smile right at your lens for the best shot, or up at the horse for a cute candid.”