Bint Al Bahr Arabians

Preservation Breeders of Straight Babson Egyptians


Photo Tips

©2002  by Diana Johnson

Is it easier to hire a professional photographer to shoot your photos? Yes, but you still have all the prep work to do ahead of time and only who holds the camera changes.  The photographer owns the negatives and copy write and to get prints of your photos you must pay higher prices for a photo of your horse.  When you hire a photographer you not only hire their years of experience to frame the shot and push the shutter button but to buy the film, arrange for the developing, sort the photos, organize, label and store the photos and negatives indefinitely.  All of this work goes into your session fee and the price of the few prints you might order.  It is a bargain when you think about it…. but you want to learn to shoot your own photos.

You can take your own photos and be pleased with the results.  It just takes planning and attention to detail. These ideas are to help you take your own photos at a reasonable cost to pocketbook and to everyone’s sanity.  A good photo shoot is a group effort and takes patience, practice and persistence.  


For the purposes of this article I am going to assume you are using a 35mm camera with a zoom lens but these ideas can easily be applied to digital cameras or whatever you use. Automatic film advance is very helpful as you do not have to take the camera down from your eye after every frame to advance the film manually and lose some valuable shots.  Autofocus is quite handy but I like the camera to also have a manual focus setting as there are many times when autofocus gets in your way.  There is a slight delay time on autofocus that can cause you to miss action shots that require quick response from your shutter.  Legs move faster than the camera so however well you thought you timed the leg to be in the right place when you take the shot, the camera has its own timing on the shutter using autofocus.  An automatic light meter also comes on most cameras but refer to your instruction book for settings for your camera if it is manual.  Have you lost your camera’s instruction booklet?  Now might be a good time to order a new one (try the company website) since it will explain the settings and how to use them to your advantage.  I use a 70-200mm Zoom lens on a Minolta 7000 but I used to use an old Kodak Instamatic and did get some good shots once I learned how to correct for the lack of a zoom and compensate for the lack of a "through the lens view finder."  That was hard work with uncertain results so I am very grateful for a 35mm SLR camera.   

Schedule your “photo day” in advance, well before you need the photos.  It will take you time to sort, label and choose your photo.  Keep in mind you may need to repeat the photo session in case you did not get just what you wanted in the first attempt.  

A few days ahead  

Scout for good background and lighting a few days ahead of the scheduled photo shoot. This is the first step to getting a good photo.  Choose your location with light in mind.  For lighting, your shadow must point at the horse.  It is best to look for your location at the time of day that you will be shooting.  The softer light of early morning or early evening will keep your shadows to a minimum. The soft light from a bright hazy day will also work for you with the added advantage of not having to worry about shadows.  Select a properly lit background that is level, uncluttered and suitable to the color of the horse.  Light colored horses need to be shot against dark backgrounds and dark horses against light colored backgrounds.  This step may (or may not) only take a few moments but it is important since it is a key factor in the success of your project.  The same spot that worked so well in April may not work at all in June due to seasonal light direction so recheck before each photo session.  

A simple uncluttered background helps to focus the attention on the horse. Consider the trees and shrubs, will they add or distract from your photo? We once did “horse trotting” photos with trees in the background and when we got them back most of the photos had “broccoli” (trees) riding on the horses hindquarters.   A background of a flowering tree may look great through the lens as you shoot it but when the photos come back you may find the background is too busy and distracts from the horse.  If you just have to have those beautiful roses in the background, shoot some more shots with a plain background as a backup.  Mow the grass if needed so the horse’s feet will show.  If you can not find such a location consider whether your neighbor might or even trailer out to a suitable location.  It always helps to have backup spot to shoot incase something isn’t working in the selected location.  

Buy LOTS of film. Plan on more rolls than you will need. Ten rolls is not an unreasonable amount to have on hand for 1 or 2 horses.  You may or may not need it all.  Better to have more film than you need than not enough.  I like 35mm 200ASA Fujifilm as I find that horse colors come out truer to color with this film but a lot depends on who develops the film. It is also a good idea at this time to locate your spare camera battery.  My camera batteries last me about a year but they usually quit on me when I most need them so I now keep a spare one in my camera bag.  

Remind the people that agreed to assist you of the time and day they need to be there.  You will need a minimum of three people, with 4 being even better.  You need at least three people, one to shoot the photos, one to hold the horse and one to get the ears up.  If you found a fourth person, their job is to help with the grooming and to help the ears up person, handing props or bringing out another horse.  Every job is very important and the results of any photo shoot is a team effort.  Those of us who have tried to shoot photos by ourselves know the value of having help.  

How do you get help?  If you don’t find prospective help at your dinner table then find a helpful friend and agree to shoot photos or be their helper for of one of their horse’s photo shoot the next weekend.  I think we all can agree, whatever the breed, we all need help getting photos taken.

Study photos that you like in magazines to see how a horse is standing or how the headshot is framed.  Think about how you can recreate that look.

Look at your horse and be realistic about your horse’s beauty, work to emphasis her best points.  Look to see what angles she looks best from then use them for your photo shot. 

The day before the photo shoot

Clean up the area to be used as background.  Make sure the water hose is not snaking across the lawn.  Check to make sure your neighbor hasn’t moved his tractor or truck into the selected background.  Check your “ears up bag” to make sure you have some props to make that job go smoother.  Some ideas to put in the bag (it can be a paper feed sack which can serve as an ears up on its own) include an umbrella, a plastic tarp, a large bed sheet for someone to cover up in and be a mystery monster (don’t let the horse watch the person put on the sheet), a shiny Mylar balloon from the grocery store, XXXX  One of my favorite attention getters is using another horse that the horse you are photographing is not familiar with.  Be all set up and ready to shoot before the strange horse or any ears upper makes its appearance.  We also get good results using a dowel with a tassel of shiny metallic Christmas icicles taped to the end.  

If you are shooting a stallion, nothing gets his attention like another horse.  It makes him easy to pose as you can direct his attention wherever you need it.  With a mare sometimes leading up a foal she doesn’t share a pasture with will put a gleam in her eye.  A neighbor’s dog or sheep or anything that is not part of the horses routine has potential to work.  Getting the ears up is easier than getting expression.  That little bit of extra expression that lights up their eyes makes the difference between a good photo and a wonderful photo.

The day before photo day do the main grooming, untangle the mane, wash and condition it.  Do any clipping that you need to. You may wish to bathe the horse at this time as well if your horse is a fairly clean horse then you can wet towel him or just rinse him off the morning of the photo shoot.  In our dry climate it takes very little time for a horse to dry off but your area may be different.  Be sure to allow enough drying time you need if you plan to wash the same morning as you shoot the photos.  If you plan to wash the same morning as the photos are taken, plan to have it done before your help arrives so they are not kept waiting. 

Check the halters or bridle and saddles you plan to use.  Make sure they are clean and in good repair and that they are adjusted to fit the horse so you do not have to spend precious light time doing adjustments.  Put your grooming kit in a bucket, clean damp and dry towels, flywipe, mane brush and body brush.  

The day of the photo shoot

RULE NUMBER ONE OF PHOTO DAY – EXERCISE PATIENCE.  Be patient with your help, the photographer, the horse, as well as yourself.  Do not expect the photos to come out perfect, just do the best you can.  Even the top professional photographers with their years of practice and experience get more duds than gems on a roll of film.  Keep shooting film, even if you think you got exactly the shot you wanted on the first roll, until the horse tires of the session and you can not rouse his interest one more time.  If you suspect you did not get the shot you wanted due to lack of enthusiasm from the horse.  Move to him to another location so the horse is in an area he is not familiar with.  His attention may not focus where you want it but he may perk up and maybe you can work it out and still get the shot you need.  Remember - Patience and persistence are the key ingredients for success.

Last minute preparations should include cleaning out the nostrils and eye corners with a clean damp towel, apply flywipe, and make sure the bridle path area is smooth.  For my situation this is important as I do not cut bridlepaths even on our showhorses.  Give the mane and tail a final fluffing.  Keep the mane brush and damp towel with the ears up stuff so it is handy for touch ups during the session. Don’t forget to check the fit of the halter, lay of the tassels or  position of the brow ornaments. All of this should be rechecked by the handler and the ears up person during the session.            

As the photographer you should stuff your pockets or fanny pack with film so you do not have to run to your camera bag for new rolls. 

Framing the shot and posing the horse…

Now you are ready to shoot. Move the horse to the selected background.  Pay attention to where the sun hits the horse.  A slight repositioning of you or the horse may improve your photo tremendously.  If the horse’s face is in shadow the resulting photo will lose those essential details of the face even though it looks like it might be okay through your view finder. Move your position and or have the horses head move to eliminate the shadow. 

When taking the photo hold your camera tight to your head with your elbows tight but relaxed against to your body.  Hold your breath as you squeeze the shutter button.  All this will help the clarity of your photo as well as insure your tight framing of the shot hasn’t wandered off the intended target.  You should position yourself so you are shooting slightly up at the horse.

Stand well back from the horse and use the zoom to bring the horse up close to you.  Being as far back as possible then zooming in will shorten the depth of field which will blur the background slightly. It also will make your horses proportions more realistic and avoid the “big nose, long face and tiny ears” distortion that is so easy to get. 

Only now when the photographer is in position and ready to shoot should the horse see any of the ears up stuff.  The less time he sees it, the longer he will retain his interest in it.  Show only one item at a time and start from farther away and move to where the horse takes an interest in it. Stop and continue to show the object and wait for the horse to lose interest. Listen for the photographer to direct you in the angle of the horses interest.  When the horse is not longer interested do something different, move it differently move closer to the horse. Watch the horse’s reaction for clues on what works.  Ears forward on a sleepy horse is not what you are looking for.

The handler’s job  

The handler's job at this point is to follow the suggestions of the photographer in posing the horse and try to keep out of the photo. Not an easy job!  The handler will need to be aware of where their hands are and to do their best to keep them back away from the horse to avoid them becoming distracting elements in the final photo.  It really helps the handler if the horse has a good whoa on him.  Ask the photographer if you can stand at the off side hip and still be out the photo for headshots for a horse that keeps moving forward.  

It is also the handler’s job to recheck the nostrils for dirt as well as check the mane and forelock to make sure it does not cover the eyes.

As the photographer, take advantage of the horse freezing into a lovely pose head or body for longer than you think you need to get the shot you want.  Shoot again after moving a few feet to the left or right.  Crouch down and shoot again. Zoom in or out, slightly reframing the shot.  The subtle differences in each shot will give each frame a different look.  While your first shot may have the eyes closed the next two shots of the pose may be good, but the fourth might be the one you had hoped for.  In each shot the horse will vary slightly as will the background.  Don’t be afraid of using too many frames on a good “frozen” pose.  Often those poses will show expression or intensity that will give more life to your results.  That special look in the eye or curve to the neck may not last more than a second or two, be ready to capture them.  With headshots shoot both landscape (the greater width of photo is horizontal) and portrait (vertical) especially if the horse freezes in a good pose.

For headshots  

Tip the horse’s head slightly towards you so you can just see the curve of the opposite side’s eye is almost visible.  This will show the sculpting of the face, a broad forehead as well as the lovely curve from eye to nostril.  I personally like a natural loose full forelock, dry and fluffy not greased.  Frame the photo down onto the lower chest and leave plenty of space in front of the nose as well as some space above the ears. Allow enough background around the horse to allow slight cropping.  If later you want an 8x10 of a photo it will need cropping as a 35mm negative gives too wide (or tall) an image for 8x10 so too close framing will not give your photo its best look when blown up. 

For posed body shots    

For side views stand even with the horse’s rib cage, check your background to see if you can improve the shot by lowering or raising yourself to take out anything that parallels the horse’s top line that may distract from the horse or make his top line look strange.  This also applies to the belly line but not as critical.  Check to see if the background has enough contrast to let the horse stand out.  Think about how the horses in the magazine photos you liked were posed and try to copy the pose.  It doesn’t hurt if you sat down with your helper prior to the photo day and looked at the photos together discussing  how the pose might be duplicated.  Once you have done a few horses and can work together as a team, it will be easier for the handler and ears up helper  to understand what the photographer wants and how to get the pose when they ask for a “more upright stance” or “more neck” for example.

Undersaddle Shots   

Remind the rider that they always have to have their “ears up” and you will be watching the horse’s expression and leg movements not theirs. Talking while riding will give them funny faces but a too serious face will make riding that horse look like a lot of work.  The impression you want the rider to make is that they are enjoying a relaxed fun ride.  You might go over what they plan to wear before the photo day so you  can co-ordinate the saddle blanket color, horse color and the riders outfit color to create a more harmonious effect.  The horse should be the center of attention in the photo not the florescent lime green shirt of the rider with the pink saddle pad.  

As for what poses to strive for capturing, study magazine photos.  Note which foreleg is in front, the close one or the off leg.  Look at what that does for the hindquarters.  If that photo shows the effect you want, watch your horses legs and time your shutter to click just before that foreleg reaches that point.  This is where it can be tricky with autofocus.  Autofocus will vary its response time to the shutter depending on light and distance on every photo.  If you have a manual focus option this might be the time to use it.  Since the horse is traveling a set path parallel to you, focus should not be a problem once you manually set it.  This leaves you free to concentrate on the leg action.  Take your photo just a fraction before you think you will need to, if you wait until the leg is where you want it, you are too late and will have missed the shot.  If your camera allows you to do rapid succession shots you can try that hoping one will have the leg just right.

At Liberty

Most of what is applicable for under saddle also goes for at liberty shots.  What changes is the predictability of the path the horse is going to travel.  With no rider to guide it the horse will turn, take a path too close to you or too far from you and add other variables with the lighting that are difficult to deal with.  For liberty shots a couple of helpers just to keep the horse moving in a confined area.  Plan on using twice the film you would for under saddle. You still have to deal with the same background problems, as well as lighting and have added a fence to the photo area that must be presentable and something you want people to see as representative of your farm.  Make sure that the fence is in good repair because your very best photo will be in front of the only broken board or an obvious patch that will distract from the beauty of the horse.

The area used should be small enough to not run your horse movers to exhaustion and to allow you to have the horse large within your view finder.  You will still need an ears up person or maybe even two of them.  Without them your horse will likely look away from the camera toward what ever is on the other side of the fence.  The goal is to move the horse but not at fast speed.  A clean shiny horse is still essential.  Try to choose an area where the horse can parallel a fence line and have the sun on him flat to his side.  Better yet schedule the day to be a bright overcast day so the shadows are not a problem!  

After the photos come back…  

Your photos now need labels.  If the photos did not come back with negative numbers printed on the back, it is now your job to do that before the photos get shuffled and your job to do this becomes more difficult.  You need to label them with a roll designation as well so you do not confuse negative # 12 on one roll with negative # 12 of another roll.  You can assign them with letters or numbers.  You may wish to identify the roll father such as  BW2-14 can mean “Bint Western tack roll 2 – negative number 14”  Cover your negative number  labeling on the back of the photo with a scrap of scotch tape so the ink will not transfer to the front of the next photo in the stack.  I like to order double prints so I can keep one set of labeled photos with the negatives.  

Cull your photos.  Now that you have a pile of culls, go through them one more time with these thoughts in mind.  Can this body shot of Ibn when he moved his leg but has a pretty head angle be cropped to a headshot and used on your website?  Was an otherwise wonderful photo culled because it was too light or too dark and would a trip to the 1 hour photo shop to do reprints that are lighter or darker save this shot?  

Would cropping save this photo? A photo can look entirely different when cropped.  Experiment with cropping.  You can use post-a-notes to crop photos and leave no damage on the photo.  Learning to crop can improve how you frame the subject in the view finder.  Look at each photo and decide what it is you like or don’t like about each.  You can learn as much from what you throw away as you can from what you keep. 

Unidentied Rhinoceros!

This example illustrates how a cull photo might be saved with some creative cropping.  

(Curser will identify horse)

Hadba El Saghira ( Hallanny Mistanny X AK Shesarra)  an elegant desert beauty

Throw away any odd angle photos that distort body proportions as well as any unflattering photos.  Do not keep any photos that do not have some significant value in showing your horse to good advantage.  Do NOT go through your roll and select photos “you can spare” and send them out as “better than nothing” to inquiries.  A bad photo is worse than no photo.  Keep in mind that more people will see the photos you send out than those you kept in your “good stack.”  Toss those cull photos away!  They take up precious storage space that will soon be needed for all those good shots you are taking.   

Get reprints of the best photos. Make labels for the back of the photo on your computer.   I recommend that you include on your label the horse’s name, sire and dam, birth year, sex and breeding group, when the photo was taken and the photographers name. For example “Bint Sweetie (Ibn Studly x Sweetie), 1989 Al Khamsa Special group mare, May 2001 Sally Shutterbug photo.”  Use tape to attach the labels to the backs of the photos.  Resist the temptation to send out unlabeled photos. Store the labels and the negatives with the reprints so you can easily see when you need to order more.  I order at least 10 to 20 reprints of any photo I plan to use for advertising or sending out.  The fewer times that the reprint labs get a hold of your negatives, the longer the negatives will last undamaged.  Always get more reprints before sending off your last photo. Whenever you send off your last photo, you risk not getting it back and then forgetting to order reprints before a need for that photo arises again.  

Does this mean you shouldn’t carry your camera sometimes without any preparation just in case some horse might give you a photo opportunity?  Carry your camera and you will get some great candid shots!  As you know there are always times you will wish “If only I had my camera now.”  

Should you take photos of muddy horses with knotted manes?  Sometimes but maybe not for advertising photos!  Most of the time your horses will look shiny and clean even if not bathed so do take advantage of those candid opportunities as well.  Farm visitors with children can provide some good opportunities especially with foals.  Again carry your camera, stuff your pockets with film and take lots of photos.

Does all this seem like a lot of work?   Yes, it is.  Will it all be worth it?  Yes, most of the time.  Will there be whole rolls that are throw aways?  Yes possibly, but you can still learn from those rolls how to correct those faults for next time.  Will you be taking the photos you always dreamed of the first time you try?  Probably not but there may be some real gems in there that will encourage you to keep taking photos and learning what works best for you and your horses.  No gems in the pile?  Not a total loss as you can learn from those rolls and set yourself up for greater success on the next photo shoot. 

Remember it just takes Patience, Practice and Persistence!


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