Although horses photograph beautifully, getting the perfect shot is a challenge that requires a special set of skills. In this article, experienced horse breeder and equine photographer, Nicole Emanuel, shares tips and advice on how to capture eye-catching images of horses…
Managing how horses move
Horses are almost always moving; whipping their tails, flicking their ears, walking, trotting, galloping or racing. To record that movement when they are moving at high speed, you can either use a fast shutter speed (at least 1/1000 second) or pan using a slower 1/15 second exposure. The fast shutter will freeze the action and provide the clearest image of your subject, even capturing intricate details such as a flying mane.
If your aim is freezing action, it is more effective to use a long lens with a wide aperture – for example 200mm at f/4.5. This will ensure you isolate the subject and keep the background out of focus.
For capturing really high-speed motion, such as horse racing, I recommend using shutter speeds of between 1/2000 second and 1/4000 second. Cameras with high speed continuous drive modes, such as Fujifilm’s X-T3, are capable of shooting 20 frames per second, which should ensure you don’t miss any of the action.
To show motion streaks, or simply for an artistic blur, a shutter speed of 1/15 second will do the trick, provided you can keep the camera steady during the exposure. Slow shutter speeds like this can really emphasise the speed of your subject by having the background blurred with a streaky effect, while the horse’s head and body are comparatively sharp.
Push your limits with a full zoom
One of the biggest challenges with equine photography is getting close enough to your subject, so a long lens is absolutely essential.
Tracking a fast-moving subject takes a lot of practice. I recommend starting with a 70-200mm lens at the 200mm focal length. Try to push your limits to zoom in tight on the subject.
Once you’re confident enough of maintaining correct framing and not cutting off any ears, feet or nose, move on to a longer lens such as a 200mm-400mm. This will allow you to get in super-close to the action and capture some beautiful, high-detail shots of just the head and neck of a horse, with every detail of the sweeping mane included.
Horses have their best angles too
Any subject in motion can wind up producing some awkward poses and facial expressions. Horses are no exception, so it’s important to know exactly when to strike to capture their elegance and majesty.
Some classic poses to avoid are right before a gallop where a horse’s forelegs are underneath them, or simply when they on the “wrong leg”. Much like humans, horses can look awkward if they are in the wrong position, and it can look very unbalanced if they are captured on the wrong leg.
Generally speaking, leg positioning in equine photography is paramount. With thoroughbreds and Australian stock horses for example, a traditional pose preferred by both photographers and breeders is the near side with front and rear legs vertical and reasonably parallel. The off-side legs should be just visible inside the frame created by the near-side legs.
Know your subject
With any portrait it’s important to capture the essence and personality of your subject; this stands true with equine photography. Different breeds will warrant different styles. For example, a quarter horse breeder with a champion stallion will not want their horse posed like an Arabian, much like an Arabian breeder does not want theirs to pose like a quarter horse.
This goes beyond just pricked ears. There are many elements that must come together to create the perfect portrait, such as a commanding expression, wide open eyes, and correct head angle, whether at 45 degrees or on the side.
This also holds true for different disciplines. For example, stock horses would traditionally be photographed camp drafting or doing stockwork, and thoroughbreds are best captured in full gallop on a race track or posed in the traditional side-on stance. The beautiful breeds such as Arabians, Andalusians, Friesians, Gypsy cobs and coloured horses like Palominos look their most spectacular when running free.
Equine photography is both challenging and rewarding. With these tips in your pocket, and quite a lot practice, you can master the skills to capture beautiful horse images of your own.
By Nicole Emanuel, Fujifilm X Ambassador and Equine photographer with over 25 years of experience.