George Wilson: Wild Horses

September for me means South Dakota and wild horses. I typically spend the month walking among the herds at the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary. It is there that I guide other photographers up close to these magnificent animals, imparting bits and pieces of photographic information and equine photography tips. The sanctuary is home to more than 500 wild mustangs running free across 11,000 acres of grasslands, canyons and the Cheyenne River. Founded in 1988 by Dayton O. Hyde, it is a non-profit organization that receives no state or federal funding. The time I spend there among the galloping herds is both a labor of love and a contribution to the organization. I believe in what they are doing. In this remote location south of Hot Springs, South Dakota, I spend my time acting as a guide, photographing the horses for their promotional needs and generally doing whatever needs doing on the ranch.

For this article, I am focusing on the backstory of how I got the shot shown above. Well before dawn, I arose from a sound sleep in the pitch dark of Cheyenne Canyon with the sole intent of capturing horses in the dawn light. The brisk morning temperature was biting and in mid-September snow was predicted within just a few days. The crunch of gravel and dirt was all that I could see as there was no moonlight illuminating my path. I climbed into a sanctuary vehicle and steered up the dirt road. Here I was entering the world of the wild mustang – wild is the key word here. Wild horses, like all animals are unpredictable at best. The vehicle pitched forward following a road through a pine forest along the rim of Cheyenne Canyon. Meandering, turning and then emerging out onto an open plain dominated by Sun Dance Hill, the traditional location of the Sun Dance for the Lakota Indians of the area for hundreds of years. Today, the Lakota still gather to celebrate a short distance to the South on Sanctuary land.

On that day I could see, though strained, the ghost like outlines of the horses. Slowly walking and nibbling on the Buffalo grass, they almost ignored my initial approach. The curious ones have come to welcome me in my daily forays into the herds populating the sanctuary. Others maintain a safe zone from me. In time they will come close. I hope.

East of me, down a slight hill and behind the mountains, a faint glow marked the first dull fingers of light begining to bathe the landscape in light. I surveyed the scene. There were no clouds in the sky and the horses were on the high side of the hill. The lack of clouds would reduce the “drama” in the image. I closed my eyes and stood feeling the breeze on my skin, smelling the sage in the air. It was silent, except for the occasional step or snort of a horse. The image I decided, would be a silohutte in the morning light. Photography, you must remember, is a thinking process. A photographer must convey to the viewer without words, the feelings, emotions and sense of place or event.

Then I had to hustle. Normally ISO, aperture and shutter speed are the normal first thoughts, but I am a photographer free of the bonds of Photoshop. The image must be correct in the camera, leaving me only with the ability to crop, dodge, burn and sharpen (tools that closely align with my traditional wet darkroom training).

I used the manual exposure mode, giving me total control over the image. ISO, that was easy, 100. Even though the light was low, I wanted very good quality, low digital noise and the ability to make a very large print. The low ISO limits my flexibility a bit, but allows me the color control I seek. The camera was set to spot metering as well, my preferred mode. I pick and choose my point of exposure rather than allowing the pre-programmed whim of the camera to make those decisions for me. Yes, the nice people at Nikon do a great job of programming things. But how do they know what I am looking for in an image? The camera will only read the light, it has absolutely no idea what I am taking a photograph of. My shutter speed was going to be no more than 1/80. Fast enough to remove any hand shake from the image and movement of the horses standing stoicly in front of me now.

I recognized the horse upon approach. He was un-named and lacked a sponsor. He approached slowly, head low until he was standing next to me. A slow deliberate rise and we were eye-to-eye. In the past he has curiously attached himself to me. Touching my hand to his nose then gently sliding across to his cheek there is a bond, a bond that is without words, between this horse and myself. We live in two very different worlds and share this patch of real estate each year for a very brief time.

I quickly changed the settings on my Nikon D7100. For white balance, I selected the Kelvin value (K) of 10,000. I am telling the camera that the light is very blue in color. The computer in the camera will add reds and yellows to try and correct the white balance. These colors will enhance my sunrise colors. Years ago, I would have done this with filters but the digital age has lightened my camera bag a bit. Under the picture control option I select VIVID. Now the camera will be looking for the reds and yellows of the sunrise.

Metering was limited to a patch of sky away from the influence of the great ball of light rising past me on the other side of the mountains. My starting point is typically 3 stops under exposed and then I watch my LCD to quickly adjust the exposure based on appearance with either aperture or shutter speed. More often than not it is aperture. Once the sun is perching over the horizon, an aperture of f/16 or smaller will often produce a starburst effect in my images for a punch of drama.

Slowly, I crouched down and my equine friend drew silently closer as I clicked through the first few frames with my 17-35mm. Yes, a wide angle lens can optically distort an image, but for this photo I needed a strong foreground silohuette – the horse - and a minimized background – the mountains. The wide angle lens tends to “push” the background away, making my foreground image more prominent. Lenses control perspective. Learning to apply this aspect of photography puts you one step closer to mastery of your craft.

By this time coyotes were singing in the distance. A snort, a turned head and a few more clicks of the shutter got me the shot. I sat back in the grass to view my LCD. My friend approached closer, almost wanting to see for himself what I had captured. There was sniffing on the back of my neck and a nibble on my vest. Each image is a gift. As a photographer I am an observer asking to be there, to share a moment. To intrude, if just for a moment, into personal space. The horses here reach out to me and to each visitor as if to say “hear me, understand me, protect me”.

Compositionally speaking, I utilized the age old rule of thirds with the horse’s line of sight guiding the viewer across the open expanse of the image. The final image is cropped to 16x32 to create a longer more panoramic feel.

Camera Settings

  • Nikon D7100 with 17-35mm lens
  • Focal length: 24mm
  • Aperture: f/6.3
  • Shutter speed: 1/160th
  • ISO 100
  • White Balance: 10,000K

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

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