Majestic beauty: Capturing the art of horses
It’s almost that time of year again. Pretty soon, horses will be everywhere. Oh, you thought I was talking about spring flowers? Right. Those will be everywhere soon too but if you’re an equine photographer like I am, it’s all about the horses.
If you’re planning on getting out there to shoot, here are a few tips on making better equine images.
What’s the best lens?
Good equine photography is all about starting with the right lens. I know we love our nifty fifties and our 35mm and 85mm primes but for equine images, pro photogs reach for the 70-200 f/2.8. It doesn’t matter what brand you use — Canon and Nikon both have great versions. It also won’t matter too much if your version is an f/4. Horses are big animals and the little bit of extra depth of field from the f/4 aperture almost never hurts. What WILL hurt is if you use too short of a focal length. Even if you can get in super close, you don’t usually want to because you’ll get a distorted horse in your final image. Think giant head and tiny butt. It’s not pretty! Stand back and shoot at 200mm. Your final images will be beautiful and distortion free.
(Don’t believe me? Take a shot with your iPhone and also with your DSLR at 200mm and then compare the two. The wide angle lens on your iPhone will show distortion. Trust me.)
Where should I focus?
99% of the time, you want to focus on a horse’s eye. I like to set my focus point up so that it’s expanded, and looks like a little cross. That seems to help my camera tag focus where I want it to, even if things are moving quickly. If you’re not adept at moving your focus point around the frame quickly, leave it in the middle and use the “focus and recompose” method.
For the other 1% of the time, you might be focusing on a detail like a boot or hoof or saddle. Those can be cool shots too, just make sure that it’s obvious what your goal is. For example, when you compose your image, use the rule of thirds to frame the boot so that the viewer’s eye automatically goes to the boot. If the boot is sharply focused, you’ll have a winning image.
Frame it up.
Horses are big, beautiful animals but they are rarely in a flower-filled meadow perfectly framed by a gracefully arching tree at sunset. Often they’re surrounded by fences, sponsorship signs, people-filled bleachers, spastic trees, trash cans and the occasional porta-potty. If you want a good image, you have to find it. Take a minute to look around you before you put your camera up to your eye. Find the composition you want and then start watching the horse and rider. Position yourself so that you have a clear background or an interesting view and then wait for the horse and rider to come to you. After 10 or 15 minutes, relocate and repeat.
I don’t usually recommend chimping because horses move too fast. If you chimp, you’ll miss a lot of images. In this case though, you have permission to check your viewfinder one time to look for garbage cans and stray branches. If you see any, move your position accordingly; if you’re in the clear, shoot to your heart’s content!
Freeze or Drag?
Shutter speed can be an issue when you’re making images of fast-moving animals like horses. If you want frozen motion, your minimum shutter speed is 1/750. 1/1000 or 1/2000 is better, especially if the horse is moving fast. I tend to get pretty freakin’ excited when I’m out photographing horses and sometimes I forget to watch my shutter speed. If you’re like me, try this method: Set your camera to manual. Set your ISO to auto. Set your shutter speed to 1/750 or 1/1000. Set your aperture to f/2.8 or f/4. Now, even if the light changes, your shutter speed won’t drop because your auto ISO is going to fill in the slack.
Note: This method might not work if it’s super bright daylight. You’ll need a faster shutter speed than 1/1000 in order not to over expose. Remember to periodically check your histogram to make sure your exposure is on the money.
If you want to emphasize motion, go ahead and drag your shutter speed. By drag, I mean shoot at slower than 1/750. It will take a bit of experimenting to figure out if you need to be at 1/500, 1/250 or even 1/100. The method is the same: focus on the horse’s eye (or the detail you’ve chosen) and hold still. Your goal is for the eye to be sharp but to see some motion in the legs, mane or tail of the horse. If you’re dragging your shutter speed to show motion, a very steady panning motion can be effective too.
Where are all the pretty horses?
Some of my favorite horses to shoot in the Chicago metro area are at Arlington International Race Track, Barrington Hills Polo and The Tempel Lipizzans. If you happen to be free on the morning of Saturday, April 30, you can join me and a bunch of other cool photogs at Tempel Farms. We’ll be spending three hours on the farm, photographing their beautiful white Lipizzan horses. You can see all the event details by visiting my website. And, because you’re you, here’s a promo code for 25% off the event: EQUINE25. See you there!