From horse lover to equestrian photographer: the portrait photography of Shelley Paulson

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Please tell us about your start. What got you interested in photography?

About 13 years ago, I was working as the communications director for a large construction company. Part of my job was photographing our projects for a yearly calendar. I had a basic film camera, which I mostly took bad photos with. I left that job to freelance full time as a web and print designer. I was finding that most of my clients had photography needs as well, so I bought the very first Canon Digital Rebel. Because I could instantly see my photos, and easily edit them, I grew much more quickly. As soon as I got that camera, I went out to the barn where I boarded my horse and started taking photos of my favorite subjects.

What led you to photographing people with their horses?

I became a horse lover at a very young age. My mom recently passed on to me papers from as early as kindergarten and almost every one of them had a horse drawn on it. So it was natural for me to not just aim my camera at horses, but to bring the person who loves that horse into the photo. Over time, this has grown into a true passion for me. I’m constantly looking for new ways to portray these deeply beautiful and close bonds between horses and the people who love them.

Does your personal experience with horses help you as an equine photographer?

Absolutely. I actually don’t recommend photographing horses if you don’t have experience handling them. Horses are prey animals, so can be easily spooked, and even the most docile horse can become dangerous when frightened. At every session, I am working with both the horse and the person to position them in the right light and location, which means I am using my horse handling skills. My lifetime of experience with horses also helps me read the body language and capture a variety of moments and poses that bring out the true beauty of each individual animal.

What do you enjoy photographing the most when you are not shooting portraits or horses?

One of my favorite non-horse or human things to photograph is the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights). The beauty of lights and color dancing in the sky is magical. There was an event earlier this year where I just sat in my front yard and watched the lights pulse overhead for hours. They are not normally so visible by the naked eye, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget that night.

We understand that you are also a videographer, can you please tell us more about how you evolved into shooting video?

A few years ago, I had an accident that caused me to need to work my way out of wedding photography. I loved weddings, but was no longer able to handle the stress of the day, as well as the long timeframe. I didn’t know exactly what was next for me, but I happened to catch a presentation at WPPI where photographer Bruce Dorn shared about his transition to DSLR video. He showed a short documentary about a young woman who does barrel racing with her horse. My heart was leaping out of my chest as he talked and as I watched his film. I knew this was the next thing for me.

The learning curve has been steeper than expected, but I am growing all the time and I am learning to love the process. I have had 6 of my equestrian films accepted into the Equus Film Festival in New York City in the past few years. I am excited about my future as a filmmaker!

Do you have any words of wisdom for other photographers who want to get into equine photography?

If they don’t already know how to work with horses, I recommend finding a place to take riding lessons first. Through lessons, you can learn how to safely work around horses and begin to learn their body language. For people with horse experience, my advice would be to be mindful of the light. Horses photographed alone almost always look best with the sun on them, coming from behind the camera. The opposite is true with people. I almost never photograph a person in direct sun. I choose instead to place them in the shade or in back light.

Minnesota-based equestrian photographer Shelley Paulson is considered to be one of the country’s best equestrian portrait artists, creating meaningful photographs that capture the emotional bond between people and their horses. Her equestrian work has been published worldwide and can be seen in various magazines, product packaging, and marketing collateral for major equine brands. She is now moving into DSLR filmmaking, with a focus on telling equestrian stories with compelling narrative and beautiful moving imagery. Shelley has traveled extensively both for photography assignments and teaching/mentoring, but her favorite place is at home with her husband, two schnauzers, and her beloved quarter horse, Maggie Sue. See more of her beautiful work here:

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