How NOT to photograph horses

Nico Equestrian Photography, Technique 4 Comments

This is one of those posts which I will never publicise. Why? Because people will have strong opinions about images of horses, some will take it as personal (it isn’t) and I don’t want to hang myself out to dry. I do, however, value your opinion and would be grateful for your comments below, if you have any.

Very soon after I started photographing horses it became clear that there were flattering moments to capture the movement of a horse, and many more unflattering ones.

This was then drummed home when I started working for event photographers, selling to competitors on-site. Images of horses which I created had to be taken straight from the camera and displayed on a screen to the competitors, and anything less than flattering could not be included or the competitor would question why it was taken in the first place.

Before someone else points it out, yes, I know there is a difference between photos taken for editorial use and those for competitors on the day.

Editorial images, especially for the mainstream or non-equestrian press, focus more on the rider and less on the horse. They tend to be framed much tighter and are often taken from more head-on to get a better view of the rider’s face. They are, in effect, images of riders, not images of horses. None of these things are bad things, and there is still no reason why we shouldn’t still make the shot flattering.

Why am I writing this? Recently I’ve seen a lot more “equestrian” images surfacing which are not “right” and it is not good for our profession. Riders don’t like them, and it doesn’t reflect well on what we do as professional equestrian photographers. Call it self-policing, if you will. If someone doesn’t point out to a photographer that a shot of theirs doesn’t look right, they will continue to make those images. In the long run they will be grateful that it was pointed out.

Here are some moments you SHOULDN’T set out to capture, or should perhaps delete if you do.

1. Trotting shots on the “wrong” leg.

One of the first things I learned as an equestrian photographer was that the nearest leg to the camera should be forward when you capture a trot. Image of horses trotting with the leg furthest from the camera forward are said to be “on the wrong leg”.

Why is this? When the nearest foreleg is extended forward it shows off the musculature and conformation of that leg and shoulder and creates an image of the horse which looks balanced. The exact timing of the shot varies between a working, medium or extended trot but in general you want that nearest leg to you to be fully extended and for the cannon bones of the airborne legs to be at the same angle. In a working trot this should result in a pleasing “M” shape created by the legs, with the nearest legs to you being the furthest forward and furthest behind and the two legs meeting in the middle being the ones furthest from camera.

Conformation shots, or “stood up” photographs, are often used to sell horses or show off how good their limbs and bones are for breeding purposes. The technique for these is broadly similar, with the legs nearest the camera further apart than the ones further away, so that all four legs can be seen.

2. Arse shots.

Let’s face it. For most of us it’s not our best feature. Your horse probably feels the same. Don’t choose to take a photo of a horse from behind unless you have to. Perhaps you can’t get to the landing side of the jump or you hadn’t quite got there yet and you only have one chance. In these situations get as close to side-on as you can – the more behind the horse you are, the worse it looks.

3. Horses walking.

I know it is one of the natural gaits but I have honestly never seen a good photo of a horse walking. They just never look “right”. Feel free to prove me – and all the other professional photographers I know – wrong!

4. Pre-take-off jumping shots.

Timing images of horses jumping really isn’t that difficult and there are several points in the air when a horse looks great. Just before it takes off is not one of them.

There is something about the pre-take-off shot moment which is not photogenic. The hind legs are normally splayed, the front legs often untidy and the compressed and unbalanced look a horse has at this point is generally unflattering.

5. After a horse’s legs have landed.

This is another “just looks wrong” image.

The horse has jumped, and now landed, both forelegs are on the floor and the rest is still following. It looks unbalanced, the horse’s expression and head position is often ungainly and the rider rarely looks their best at this point either.

These are one’s I, personally, wouldn’t capture either, but are less clear-cut.

  1. The “flea” position.
    That moment when galloping when all four legs meet in the middle, under the horse. Difficult to describe why this doesn’t work for me but, trust me, all the equine photographers I respect feel the same way
  2. The “dragonfly” position.
    This is a point during a canter or gallop when the horse appears to leave both back legs behind, as a dragonfly does on take off. It looks horrid, even on the back of a camera. This is a good time to press “delete”.

Please feel free to add your own “no!” positions in the comments below!

Comments 4

  1. Nico, everyone has to start somewhere, I learn more about equestrianisim the more I photograph it. As I grew up in central London as a child I never came into contact with horses let alone ride them.

    Anyway, I found your above article interesting and valuable so thanks for the post.

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  2. Hi Nico ,

    I’m just starting out in horse photography and have attended some local events, thank you for your advice and perspective!

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