5 Tips for better horse and human portraits, easy steps for significantly better horse pictures
Everyone can take better horse and rider portraits
If you keep trying to get good portraits of your horse and are frustrated because they never turn out as good as you would like, or if you have a friend or family member that wants some portraits of them with their horse, these 5 tips can help you capture much better portraits. Even if you know little about horses, I explain why these tips are important for better horse and rider portraits. I hope that you will consider commenting at the end if you find these tips helpful and informative.
1.) LONGER LENS: If you want horse and human, horse and rider portraits you can be proud of, it is important to use long lenses and stand back a good distance from your subjects. Why is this? It’s because horses are large and long animals and there will be distortion of the conformation of the horse if you are close in with a short focal length lens. It is not a problem with the lens, but a problem of perspective. When you are close in with a short lens, you will see that the horse will have a BIG HEAD and tiny bottom. Have you seen those cute puppy portraits where the photographer uses a very wide lens to create these really cute puppy portraits with the eyes or the nose of the puppy REALLY BIG and the body is super tiny. That is exactly what I am talking about and I see it all the time. However, it does not look cute on a horse. A horse with a large front end and a tiny back end is deformed, bad breeding, terrible conformation.
So, you want to stand back 20-30-40 feet and use a lens not shorter than 150mm. Many pros use the Canon 70-200mm f2.8 lens and for portraits keep the lens at between 150 and 200mm. Longer is good as I know many pros that shoot certain breeds with 300mm lenses for the best look and conformation of the horse. I see so many horses for sale photographs that are taken with short lenses from 5-10 feet from the horse. Based on the look (really bad conformation, BIG HEAD and teeny tiny bottom), I have no idea how these horses would ever sell. If you want top dollar for your horse you need professional photographs that are taken by someone who understands the importance of good conformation for that breed.
2.) QUICK REFLEXES: When taking a portrait of a horse and rider, I explain to the person to relax and look at me. If they watch the horse to see when his ears are perked forward, then look toward me, it will be too late for me to get the shot. By the time they look at me the ears will be going in another direction and the moment is lost. To get ears perked forward and bright alert eyes I have someone behind or next to me do things that will get the attention of the horse. For a good portrait of the horse it is important that the horse look alert and interested with ears perked forward and eyes bright and open. If someone has sqeeky toy or a tupperware with some grain inside I explain that these will only work for a short time and not to do anything with them until I am fully ready. Then I give the signal. The horses ears perk forward, I click the shutter and capture the very quick moment. Inevitably the person in the portrait then looks up at the horse whose ears are already going every which way and thinks…oh, well that is not going to look good. But, they don’t realize that in that 1/1000 of one second I did in fact capture the ears of the horse perked forward (there are 1000 moments in one second if the shutter is set at 1/1000 of one second and 35/1000ths later when the person looks up at the ears can be a very long time after the image is already captured). Of course if you are shooting with a small point and shoot camera that has a delay when you click the shutter, this becomes exceedingly difficult to accomplish. By the time you push the button and the camera shutter finally clicks, the horse’s ears will be facing another direction – I guaranty it. – but keep trying and take lots and lots of pictures and you may get lucky.
3.) GROOMING AND TACK: This is really before the other two, but those are critical and this is esthetic. Of course you want to groom the horse and brush off dirt and grim, but if you bath the horse it is important to give time for the horse to become dry before the session. If you take pictures of a wet horse it will look like a wet horse. Next you want to have the nicest lead line you can find, not the bright orange rope lead that you like because it is easy to find in the grass, but if possible a leather lead or at least a rope lead that is a solid color (black, brown, white) so that it does not become a distraction from the image. Another nice alternative is a CLEAN leather bridle and reins. This can also help the person have more control of the horse during the session. Nothing detracts more from a great horse and rider portrait than a ratty lead.
4.) WATCH YOUR BACKGROUNDS: One thing that truly differentiates a snap shot from a professional looking horse and rider portrait is a clean uncluttered background. Sometimes this can be a tricky thing as when I visit a farm for a farm call portrait session sometimes there will be old rusty gates or perhaps semi repaired sections of fence around the barn yard. But, by taking some time and walking around I can find a better background opportunity. I look for foliage that creates a shaded darker background for the portrait. I want my subjects to be the most important part of the portrait and if you take your portrait with a bright background your eye is drawn to the brightest part of the image and drawn away from your subjects. Ideally we find a wooded area where I can shoot the subjects in open shade (in the brighter part of a shaded area) and have the background in the deep shade. In addition I like to use a large 52″ reflector with feathered light onto the horse and rider. This adds catch lights in their eyes and brings up their brightness by one or two stops again darkening the background and making them stand out better in the image. One more thing you can do to eliminate a distracting background is to use a wider f stop on your lens (lower number) like f 4, f 5.6 for example when using a long lens these will soften the focus of the background significantly.
5.) GOOD COLOR AND GOOD LIGHT: As I mentioned in #4, I frequently take portraits of horses and riders in open shade. But, if you want good portraits you need to have good color too. If you leave your camera on auto white balance, you may end up with portraits that seem very cool because shade picks up the color of the sky and is cooler in color than bright sun or you may pick up a color cast from the foliage or the red barn near by. To get good color, I use a color target from PHOTOVISION.com. These targets help me check exposure and provide a center stripe of perfect gray for color matching. I always take portraits in RAW so that I can use the dropper when processing the images to click on the perfect gray portion of the target which gives me great color for my images (not green-reflected from the foliage, not blue reflected from the sky, but nice pleasing warm images with accurate color) If you don’t have a tool of this type, then you will need to either take a custom white balance of the scene (read your camera manual about how to do this) or adjust to feel when processing the images (It is very important to have a color balanced monitor in this case and you may be tweaking for a long time to get a good accurate color).
So, there you go. Now go out and take better equine and rider portraits. Don’t forget that fall is a great time to hire a professional equine photographer for portraits of you and your equine companion. I am available evenings and weekends for farm calls in SW Ohio including Dayton area, Cincinnati and northern Kentucky, and even as far as Columbus and Indianapolis. You can call me at 937-478-6222 or email me using the CONTACT page on this web site. To find an equine photographer in other areas of the country go to the Equine Photographers Network and look at the portfolios of photographers there (If you will go to my home page, you can click on the equine photographers network logo at the bottom of the page to take you there)
If you have some tips you would like to add to this post, please feel free to add them with your comments. If you appreciate having this type of post and found it helpful, please comment about that as well. Near to title at the top of the page is a link “Leave Comment or Comments”.