In September of each year I travel far from my home in Florida to an unincorporated area of Fall River County, South Dakota. It is a yearly sojourn to the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, a non-profit dedicated to preserving the American Mustang, Spanish Mustang and a few other breeds in a “running free” environment. Encompassing more than 11,000 acres, I have stood on canyon rims and looked down upon horses that may have never seen a human being. The isolation, splendor and lack of a reliable cell phone signal keep me coming back each year.
Not only do I shoot advertising images, but I guide other photographers out into the various herds giving them a once in a lifetime opportunity with these magnificent creatures. Some of my images end up in calendars. Some are limited edition prints which are given to donors or sold to support the sanctuary. This non-profit refuses to accept state or federal funds to support their horses, numbering more 700. They rely on private donors, tours and volunteers.
It was only days ago I stepped off the plane and back into the humidity of Florida. My time at the sanctuary seems distant now but I cannot wait to get back there. This year, most of my clients were landscape photographers unfamiliar with “horse work.” As we drove out to the various herds, I conducted a crash course on equine photography techniques. I have photographed hundreds of different horses and the general “rule” remains the same. Make the animal look its best.
First, before any shutter release is pressed, safety is discussed. Horses are big and weigh around a thousand pounds. While a photographer needs to be comfortable around them, they must also be constantly vigilant to not become too comfortable or careless. I advocate an atmosphere of mutual respect at all times. Some horses are naturally calm and even curious. Some are unapproachable and a quarter mile is too close for comfort. I advise that new photographers treat every horse as if it poses potential danger to their own well-being. Don’t walk behind a horse, I call this the business end of the animal. Don’t make sudden or loud noises. Using a flash is not a good idea and waving a reflector/diffuser is even less of one.
It's alos important to use a long lens. My “go to lens” is an 80-200mm f2.8. This gets me close enough to ensure the animal maintains its “comfort zone” while providing me with enough space not to get run over by a spooked horse. Remember that a horse can be a 1,000 lb. powder keg. Begin by shooting a variety of shots. This actually has a calming effect on them. Curious by nature, they may watch you. Maintaining eye contact allows for some great portraits.
Use a fast shutter speed. My minimum is 1/250 with 1/500 being more typical. These wild horses, like all wildlife, are unpredictable at best. Fast shutter speeds help ensure there will be no blurring, especially of galloping hooves and flying manes. You may want the horse to look at you or to peak the ears forward. I carry a dog squeaky toy in the field or just whistle. It makes a difference.
In Figure 1 below, I found these four Spanish Mustangs in an interesting combination, they were ignoring me until I whistled, then purely by chance, the horse closest to me turned his head and made eye contact.
Now, let’s talk about actually making the images:
Horses, depending on the breed, can be very tall and you will find that the head and neck are roughly the same length as the front legs. If you shoot higher than the horse, the head and neck appear longer than the legs and the horse will appear distorted. Conversely, from below, the opposite will happen. To compensate for this affect, shoot at shoulder level. This spreads the upper and lower halves of the animal evenly. Yes, we all like to walk around shooting at eye level, but this is the world from our vantage point and may not always present the subject from the best angle. Knee pads are a standard item for my wild horse work.
It is all about the ears when the subject is a horse. In photography of cats and dogs it is not really a factor but in the horse world, lazy or even pinned ears are unflattering to the horse. With the ears in this position, the horse does not appear alert and aware of its surroundings. Use the squeaky toy mentioned or whistle. This will help to get those ears forward for a better image.
In Figure 2 on the left, the horse is pivoting its ears listening in several directions. Yes, the animal is alert but appears distracted. In Figure 3 on the right, whistling got the horse to perk its ears forward in my direction.
After the ears pay attention to the legs. Do not create a three legged horse. Legs lined up behind one another create an unflattering optical illusion. Horse owners may also think you are trying to hide something. Be sure to show all four legs in your images. In Figure 4 below, the rear leg is obscured by the horse’s long tail and the front leg is hidden. We know all four legs are there but we cannot see them. I continued to shoot as the horse walked and then in Figure 5 you can see all legs much more clearly.
Decide what you like or what the owner likes about a horse or horses in general. For my own work I believe eyes are the windows to the soul. I very often focus on the details of the eyes and headshots of horses. This falls into a composition technique of mine where I show only a part of the subject. I put the viewer through a subconscious exercise of determining what the image is. That engages the viewer and makes them stay just a bit longer in front of one of my photographs.
For Figure 6 below, I was drawn to the dried prairie grass tangled in the fore lock of the horse. It created a nice contrasting element in the image of the eyes. If you look close, you can see my reflection in the horse’s eye.
Figure 7 below again finds me focusing on the eyes. This horse in the Spanish herd always seemed to be thinking of new ways to be mischievous. My mother would have called him “Heck’s Bad Boy.” In photographing his eyes I chose a composition where he appears to peak over the bottom edge of the photograph with his ears forward showing his alertness and at the same time the mischievous nature of his personality. Using a rule of thirds composition, he is looking through the image rather than being placed in the center of the frame.
Everyone likes shots of horses running and these have a place on my shot list as well. But, once again, the photographer needs to pay attention and show all four legs. Using a fast shutter speed, a wide aperture (f4 usually works for horses due to the deeper depth of field at a distance) and a longer lens, you can usually get the shot. If I know where the horses will run, I will try to face them. It is much easier for the photographer and the camera’s focusing system to track a horse coming at you rather than one going across the scene. Horses move fast, so you’ll need to set your shutter speed somewhere in the 1/500 range or higher.
In Figure 8 below, the morning was full of fog and my visibility was low. Using the same 80-200mm f2.8, my shooting preference, I pre-focused on an area that the horses would cross that was in clear visibility. This kept just one or two animals in great soft light, while the remainder of the herd stayed partially visible in the fog. Shooting on continuous high I was able to isolate several shots of numerous horses. Note that in this image, I was shooting at shoulder height, the ears are forward and all four legs are visible.
Static horses are the last group of shots. Here again all of the rules apply for ears, legs and shooting height. I treat this group as “horses as part of the landscape.” I am interested in how wild horses are part of their environment as a type of portrait. Like portraits of people, I look for clean backgrounds with a clear separation. Empty feed sacks, fences, tractors, feed trucks may give a ranch feel, but generally do not have a place in horse photographs.
In Figure 9 below, this band of horses spends their nights on the edge of a pine forest so it was natural for me to use that as part of the environment in this shot. The fog formed a clean simple background that helped focus the viewer onto the horse at left. The use of the rule of thirds allowed me to let this mare gaze across the image. I kept the ears forward, but did not fully adhere to the show all legs rule. I think the image works regardless of that. The basic guidelines outlined above will make your equine photographs more dynamic.
George Wilson has more than 30 years of experience as a professional photographer, and his work has appeared in many national and international publications. Now focusing on nature and wildlife photography, George exhibits his infrared black and white landscape work and teaches photography at numerous art centers, botanical gardens and at the Walt Disney World Resort in his home state of Florida. A key element to George’s work is his dedication to traditional photography as his post processing is strictly limited to tools aligning with the traditional darkroom. To see more of George's work, visit wilsonphotographyfl.com