Let’s talk about staging the horse photograph and what happens on location. Staging the horse photograph is always something I plan out ahead of time if I know the backdrop. As you may have guessed from my photos, there is not a lot of posing, per se, that I really do with the horse in the traditional sense. I will definitely have the owner or trainer pose the horse if it is a photograph that will be used to advertise or sell the horse, announce a win of a competition, or to show off the horses achievement. Those have come out very well and rely on the time of day for lighting the shot with natural light, picking out the right spot with a great backdrop to add some color, sense of depth and atmosphere to the photo. I usually ask for the owner, or handler, to have all four hooves easily under the horse with the front hooves together and the rear hooves placed together like they are well balanced from head to hind end. I research the breed to determine what characteristics need to be featured.
Having fun during the photo shoot.
What I really enjoy though is not posing the horse. I like photographing a horse on the move mostly. If I have the room and the scenery to take my photographs of the horse with his mane and tail flowing as he runs, I will. I will play with the angle of the light and adjust my position or wait until the horse moves into the proper light. I may take a few steps to the left or right after I take a shot because I noticed that the tree looks like it is coming out of the horses head, or there are too many distractions in the background for my taste. Overall I will look around and get a feel for the area that the horse may travel as I ask them to move for me. Typically then the horse will take a path that I had not anticipated them taking. I will move to accommodate the new path that the horse or horses have chosen as I photograph them. Horses have a wonderful sense of humor when they are allowed to follow their own course. This is when I take some time to just be with them and follow along through my camera.
I have some general ideas of what I think will look good in a photograph, but I leave enough fluidity throughout the entire shoot that I don’t get shut down with frustration at them. If I feel like I really want the horses to come directly at me through a break in a couple of trees, then I will ask my assistant to move them through that space. It really helps to have someone who can maneuver the horses around with some body language without driving them too deeply into the flight response that they get lathered up and are not feeling any connection. I want them to be horses and to have some sense of play as I photograph them. The facial expressions translate differently to me through the end photograph and I keep in mind that these will be photographs that people want to connect to the feeling of again and again. If I can capture that sense of playful as they run around and snort and chase each other then it feels more fun in the moment and translates well in the photograph in the end results.
Using props during your horse photo shoot.
I will also pack a few things that I have found to work to get those facial expressions before I go on the photo shoot. Some plastic bags work well for several things because they make the horse curious, engage the fight, flight, or freeze response, and can be transported easily. I have tied them to the end of a stick to get the horses ears forward, to chase them with it, or to get them to change directions quickly too. I don’t take treats as the horses then go into the freeze or the shakedown the photographer mode and then that engages my fight, flight or freeze response and I don’t get very good photographs when they chase me! I will also take some time to be close to them and to let them sense me when we first start, this way they can feel that I am not intentionally scaring them but engaging that curiosity and playfulness that I talked about before. If I have done all of those things then the time I spend in the creative mode of getting the light to shine on their faces as they come through the trees will translate closest to how I am witnessing them.
So the best way I can share with you to stage, pose, position or get the best timed photographs with the horses you photograph is to encourage you to play with them as you shoot. Have an assistant that you can communicate your ideas with that knows how to play with horses too and go have some fun for several hours just noticing how the horses express themselves in your presence. Speed is great but look for them taking notice of you in their space as well. Let them sniff around and sense the location. Look for the light to fall on them highlighting their mane or muscles as they move. There is no rush for me during a shoot like this. I just want to be there with the horse and find out when they look best to me through my lenses. It’s all very organic, it’s less about what to take and more about the experience you want to share with them while you are with them. Shoots like this are my happy place and editing allows me to get some artistic outcome as well.
Be watching for another post about the technical aspects of photographing the horse-proper lenses, shutter speed, aperture and more. Please contact me to book your own personal or commercial photo session.
Jody Miller is a professional photographer specializing in Horse Photography, Equine Photography, and Equestrian photography. Her work can be viewed online here in her gallery section, and she is also featured at Arts Prescott Gallery, in Arizona.