The Art of Equine Art by Dale Wesley Hill
So what does it take to photograph a horse? A bit of confidence doesn’t go amiss, along with decent public liability insurance!
It’s one thing shooting these magnificent animals in a field from 100 meters away on a 300mm lens, but when you have a 600kg, 7 feet tall temperamental powerhouse standing in between 3 strobes a few feet in front of you, trust me it’s a little daunting; respect is a good place to start!
Why did I start shooting horses? Because I’m a certified loon!
Oh, and because I photographed a young lady about 3 years ago who owned horses, then owned a farm, then asked me to go and do a yard shoot for the girls with their horses for a few quid, which then led to me thinking, “Lights, I have lights, shoot horses in the lights, it will be fun…obviously”!
So that’s how it began. I was over the moon with my first set of studio images, until the owner said they were rubbish! “Eh, but why”? “Well, on that one she looks like a donkey, on this one she looks like she’s having a seizure, and on this one she looks like she’s about to kick your face in”! Etiquette you see. As with any subject you’re shooting, you have to know a little about it. So it was time to become educated in a bit of equine etiquette, which of course I did!
There are a number of things to consider when shooting horses in the manner in which I do. The first is location. Ordinarily, I use strobe lights as you would see in any studio, which require power and an indoor space. Mostly, shooting takes place in an indoor arena or very large barn, preferably with low light. This helps to keep the backgrounds dark for my signature low key portraits.
Another fundamental consideration is safety; especially for the handler, and is a very important factor in attaining a successful equine portrait. This is where communication is pivotal. It’s not a frequent environment for a horse, standing in between a set of strobe lights, so there is an expectation that he will ‘freak’ a little at these things flashing and beeping. The 1st thing I do prior to any shooting is to acclimatize the horse to the settings. I do this by flashing the strobes as he is being led into the area, and have the handler walk him around for a minute or 2 to see how he reacts. Ordinarily, the horse will very quickly become ‘not bothered at all’ and shooting commences. There are however a few occasions when the lights have gone over (see intro re: Insurance)! I always ask the handler to wear a hard hat (not the builder’s type, the kind you would see on a horse rider). A horse’s skull is very large, heavy and bloody tough! You wouldn’t want that swinging across and batting you on the napper! To that, I will always ask the handler to keep me aware of the horse’s mannerisms throughout the shoot, in terms of them showing signs of agitation or anxiety; this is very important as I will halt shooting if this is the case.
The horse handler must understand what I’m asking of them; they know their horse better than I do. I will explain to them exactly how I want the horse to stand, and which way I want its head to turn etc. This is often not an easy task, but patience is a must! (This is the part of the shoot that is akin to photographing toddlers)!
I typically use 3x 250w Neewer Strobes. 2 camera left with 30×20 inch softboxes, and 1 camera right with a shoot through brolly for fill.
Because horses are fairly large, the 2 strobes together gives me a powerful light source. Camera settings, I normally shoot with an 18-250 Sigma HSM, a shutter speed of at least 1/200th and between F13 up to F16. I’m restricted to a slow shutter speed because that’s the fastest it will sync with the strobes before getting ‘shutter curtain’ (a black band that appears across the image as the camera captures its own shutter closing).
One other factor in the shooting specs is the colour of the horse; dark and black horses are difficult to light, which sees lower F stops and higher iso, whereas white horses sees higher F stops.
I try not to alter the power of the lights as it’s impractical to keep on wandering over to them throughout a shoot. “Why high F stops?” Higher F stops allow me to keep the backgrounds reasonably dark so I don’t have to do too much in post production. Ideally, a backdrop would be used, but as you can imagine, having a backdrop behind a horse (with at least 5 meters of space between the horse), it would need to be about 10 meters wide and 5 meters tall, again being a tad impractical to fit into my wee Peugeot 107!
As with any portrait, position is key to producing a pleasing image. Equine etiquette tells us that the ears should always be pointing forward; this shows that the horse is alert, (generally) comfortable and is paying attention. We also don’t want to see whites of eyes as this can be a sign of anger. There are 3 main positions I like to shoot
1. 45° head tilt
2. Reverse head
3. Full profile
These positions are good for showing the horse in its entirety. Position 2 is especially important to show the neck and chest muscles; after all, these are powerful animals and it’s nice to see where their power comes from.
Once the shoot is done, (typically around 40 minutes for 1 horse), then it’s a case of packing up, heading home and having a shower!
Editing my pics can take anywhere between 30 minutes to an hour, depending on the work I have to do or the effect I want. Once I’ve selected an image, I open this in ACR and perform some minor adjustments, such as lens calibration, some exposure adjustments; I may also add a little clarity to bring out the textures in the hair. Then the image is opened up in Photoshop. Ordinarily I have to darken down the background a little more. To do this, I create a duplicate layer, then using ACR as a filter (as you can in CC), I drop the blacks right down, then mask back in the area over the horse leaving the background dark. A little bit of care must be taken around the edges of the horse, as you don’t want to make it look like a cut out!
Once that is done, I’ll then decide on the size and crop of the image. From there, I’ll begin adding my textures and light overlays. The blending has to be right here; again, you don’t want the appearance of a cut and paste job. I begin with a lightening texture (this will help lift additional textures), and set the mode to screen, then drop the opacity way down to around 10%. I’ll then gently mask this from the main area of the horse, especially over the face and eyes. From there, I’ll start adding a main texture and (sometimes) a light overlay, again blending these and masking them off over the horse until the blend is seamless.
There are various other things that I do, but to divulge those means I would then have to kidnap you – and I don’t have the space!
So there you go good folk, that’s pretty much how I attain my equine portraits. You’re more than welcome to come and watch me perform a shoot anytime you can if it’s of interest.
More equine images by Dale Wesley Hill are in Members Galleries 2016 here