Horses are not just beautiful and intelligent creatures; they can be the subjects of some truly breathtaking photographs. And horse photography – which is all about capturing the grace and majesty of these animals – is intensely rewarding.
Yet photographing horses can present certain challenges. Horses are free-spirited, plus they can be easily spooked. Add to that the technical expertise required to photograph a horse in action, such as racing or jumping, and you might start to feel more than a bit overwhelmed.
But don’t worry! Even a beginner can learn to take great horse photos; they just need an experienced guide. I’ve done plenty of horse photography, and I’ve also spent plenty of time learning from trainers and owners. In this article, I share it all: how to capture beautiful horse portraits, how to create stunning horse race photos, and even how to effectively photograph events like show jumping.
Ready to create some gorgeous horse images? Let’s dive right in!
1. Be careful
Approaching a horse with a camera is not always straightforward. While some horses may be exceedingly gentle, others can be unpredictable or even aggressive. A single kick from a horse can cause serious injuries, so caution is essential.
Never stand behind a horse or catch them by surprise. Sudden movements or even wearing bright colors can startle them. It’s essential to be aware of the horse’s presence and ensure they know where you are.
Before diving into the photography session, have a chat with the owner or handler about the horse’s personality. Is the horse flighty or bitey? Have they ever seen a camera before? Understanding these aspects can help you approach with caution.
Flash photography is generally a no-no around horses unless you’re sure they are used to it. A flash could endanger not just you but also the horse and the handler. I advise avoiding it as much as possible.
2. Learn the horse’s language
Horses communicate through their ears, leg stance, and head movements. This language is understood by horse owners and trainers, but it might be new to you. Spend some time researching horse body language before your first shoot. You’ll want to understand how the horse is feeling to predict their behavior and avoid danger.
Horse owners often prefer certain positioning of ears, legs, and heads. For example, pinned-back ears signify an unhappy horse, while relaxed, forward ears can mean the horse is content. Understanding this language will not only keep you safe but also ensure you capture shots that the owners will love.
If you’re familiar with this equine language, you’ll have a better sense of what the owners want, and your photo shoot will be more successful. So invest a little time in this unique aspect of horse photography; it’s well worth it!
3. Start with an introduction
Photographing horses isn’t about jumping right in with your camera. It requires a delicate approach. When you first meet the horse, it’s essential to create a calm environment.
Let the handler introduce you if the horse is calm enough. Allow the horse to approach you, sniff the camera, and become familiar with your presence. Talk softly and move slowly; a gentle pat might be welcomed if the handler deems it appropriate.
Are you unsure how the horse will react to the sounds of your camera? Organize a few test shots with the handler. Ensuring that everyone is in a safe position during these test shots is vital. If the horse reacts negatively, a sudden buck or kick can be dangerous.
If your camera has a silent shooting mode, this is a great time to use it. But remember, “silent” doesn’t always mean entirely noiseless. Test it out to gauge the horse’s reaction.
4. Choose the right lens for horse photography
Selecting the right lens is a critical decision in horse photography. It can be influenced by various factors, including the horse’s temperament and the type of shots you’re aiming for.
If you’re doing a portrait session and the horse is comfortable with you getting close, a wide-to-standard zoom lens, like a 24-70mm with a maximum aperture of f/2.8, can be a great choice. With it, you can capture wide-angle shots or zoom in for tighter images.
A 50mm or 85mm prime lens is also a fantastic option. These lenses often offer quality at an affordable price, with a wide aperture like f/1.8 for beautiful background blur.
When photographing from the sidelines or with a skittish horse, a longer telephoto lens is a must. A 70-200mm lens will allow you to capture detailed images from a distance.
Sometimes, having a good telephoto zoom handy, even with a more approachable horse, can enhance your shots. It allows you to get those close-up details without invading the horse’s personal space.
5. Dial in the right horse photography settings
Setting your camera correctly is fundamental. Using Auto mode won’t do justice to these magnificent creatures; instead, you’ll likely end up with blurry shots.
Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, or Manual mode are your friends here. A fast shutter speed is essential – a minimum of 1/250s for general horse photography. If the horse is moving quickly, even faster speeds like 1/500s or 1/1000s are necessary.
Don’t be afraid to boost your ISO if you need to ensure a good exposure. Modern cameras handle high ISO quite well, but test your camera to know your limits.
A wide aperture, such as f/2.8 or f/4, can be valuable, especially in low-light conditions. But remember, a wider aperture narrows the window of sharpness. You’ll need to focus with precision, making sure the horse’s eyes and head are in sharp focus.
Getting the settings right will allow you to capture the horse’s grace and energy, adding depth and emotion to your photographs. It’s a combination of understanding the horse’s behavior and using your camera’s capabilities to their fullest potential. It’s not about having the most expensive gear, but about knowing how to use what you have to create stunning images.
6. Photograph the tender moments
Connecting with a horse is a magical experience. Capturing that connection between horse and rider in your lens? Even more so. Every horse owner has a bond with their companion that is unique, personal, and full of emotion. As a photographer, your mission is to capture that bond, that shared love, in a way that transcends the physical frame.
Take a moment to observe. Notice the horse and its owner, their interactions, their unspoken communication. Look for the soft moments, the shared glances, the loving gestures. It’s in these fleeting moments that the true essence of their relationship lies. Patience is key here, and waiting for these tender moments can often reward you with the most touching and powerful images.
An integral part of this process involves integrating the rider into your photoshoot. It’s essential for you to keep them engaged, keep them relaxed. Encourage them to interact with their horse naturally, as they would when no one is watching. These candid shots often result in the most authentic images, brimming with raw emotions and moments of connection. Remember, horse lovers are often just as excited to be part of the shoot as they are to have their equine companions photographed.
7. Don’t forget about the details
Horse photography is not just about the whole animal, but also about capturing the individual details that make each horse unique. These can range from the gleaming shine in their coat to the distinct patterns of their markings, the flowing mane, the softness in their eyes, and so much more.
I always find it useful to have a chat with the owner before I start clicking away. Get to know the horse through their eyes, understand what makes their horse special to them. They might have a fondness for certain features – the curve of the horse’s neck, the unique color of their eyes, the way their mane catches the light. Your job as a photographer is to capture these personal favorites in the best light possible.
Use your lens wisely for these detail shots. A telephoto lens works great if you want to maintain a safe distance, especially if the horse is a little skittish. However, with a calm and friendly horse, feel free to move closer and use a standard lens. Experiment with varying your aperture to create a range of effects, from an overall sharp image to a focused shot with a beautifully blurred background.
8. Take your time
A crucial tip for successful horse photography, which I can’t emphasize enough, is to take your time. Spend a day, if possible, with the horse and the owner. Get to know them, understand their dynamics, build a rapport. Patience and understanding go a long way in establishing trust, which in turn helps capture the best possible images.
Observe the horse’s habits, their likes and dislikes. Maybe they love a particular spot in the paddock, or they jump around gleefully after a good run. Keeping these nuances in mind will help you anticipate their actions and be prepared for spontaneous shots.
Slowing down also allows you to notice the small but significant details of the environment around you – interesting backgrounds, shifting light patterns, shadows, and reflections. All these elements can add depth and context to your photographs, turning a good picture into a great one.
Don’t rush the process. Horse photography, like all good things in life, takes time. It requires patience, practice, and a keen eye for detail. But rest assured, the results will be worth your effort.
9. Use similar techniques to photograph equine events
Photographing equine events like show jumping has its own challenges, but many of the principles remain the same. Finding a safe spot is crucial, and one where the horse can see you from a distance. Always stay put and never move towards the horse and rider, and remember, using flash is a big no-no. Checking with any officials before you start is also a smart move.
To capture both horse and rider in mid-jump – a favorite of horse riders – you’ll likely need a shutter speed around 1/650s to 1/800s. By setting your camera to continuous release (burst) mode, you can press the shutter just as the horse lifts off, increasing your chances of getting the perfect shot.
Focusing can be tricky, so you’ll need to be extra attentive. Prefocusing in advance where you know the horse will be is an option, but I find using your camera’s AF tracking to follow the horse generally better. It lets you shoot a variety of images as the horse moves in different directions, giving you a range of dynamic shots to choose from.
10. Work fast for horse race photography
Horse racing is a thrilling sport, and capturing it in a photograph requires a special touch. Horses at top speeds are incredibly fast, so I’d recommend the fastest shutter speed the light will allow. Use your camera’s continuous shooting mode, and don’t hesitate to take hundreds of shots. Among the failures and near-duplicates, you’ll find those magical moments that make it all worth it.
Getting close to the finish line at smaller race meets can make for breathtaking photos, but you’ll need permission. Assure the officials that you don’t use flash and that you understand how easily horses can be spooked. Your diligence can grant you access to some unique vantage points.
Here’s a pro tip: try panning shots during the races. It captures the sense of movement and speed, giving your photos an artistic flair. Lower your shutter speed to around 1/30s and move your camera along with your subject as you fire the shutter. If done right, you’ll end up with a sharp horse and rider against a stunning blur of motion in the background.
This technique might take a few tries to master, but the resulting images can be truly spectacular. Combining both standard and panning shots during horse races can provide you with an exciting and varied portfolio of images, each illustrating a different aspect of the race!
Horse photography tips: final words
From understanding a horse’s personality and body language to choosing the right lens and settings, we’ve explored essential tips and techniques so you can capture beautiful images of horses.
Remember to approach each photo session with care and patience; with some perseverance, you’ll capture plenty of horse photos you can be proud of – whether it’s a tender moment between rider and horse, or the thrilling speed of a race.
Now it’s your turn to grab a camera and explore the world of equine photography. Happy shooting, and have fun!
Over to you:
Which of these horse photography tips do you plan to use first? Do you have any advice of your own that we missed? Share your thoughts in the comments below!