Pros & Cons of Being an Equine Photographer

In case you hadn’t already realised, I love my job. I live it and breathe it. It’s not just what I do, it’s what I am.
We’ve all heard the age-old adage ‘Never work with children or animals.’ I regularly work with both, at the same time. And if I had a pound for every time someone at a shoot quoted that back to me, when something wasn’t going completely to plan, I’d be making some pretty decent pocket money.
However, I genuinely wouldn’t change what I do, or my subject matter, for the world. I feel like I was just meant to do this job and to me, even when they get difficult, photographing horses is never a hardship. I feel totally blessed to be able to do what I do.
But as with every profession, there are definitely pros and cons to photographing horses. So I thought it’d be entertaining to give you a little insight into what’s great and what’s not so great, in my job.
Pro – I love horses
It’s that simple. I have ridden and had horses since I was three years old. I spent every waking hour down the yard when I was a child and my entire life has just always revolved around horses.
So when people ask me ‘Why on earth would you choose horses as your speciality? They’re so difficult.’ the answer is that it was just the obvious option for me. I’ve never felt the compulsion to photograph anything like I do horses. To be perfectly honest, I’m not really that into the technical photography side of things (that sounds mad, doesn’t it?), it’s more that I enjoy capturing the animals that I am so totally passionate about and making art with them.
I must have photographed hundreds and hundreds of horses in the short four years I’ve been doing this job and I still often find myself looking at my screen, whilst editing images from a recent shoot, thinking ‘Wow, how beautiful is he/she?’ and ‘How lucky am I?’
Con – Horses don’t understand the concept of a photoshoot
Let’s start with an obvious one. Horses have absolutely no idea what you want from them when you ask them to stand still and have their picture taken.
You can’t ask them to ‘Just lift your chin a little’‘put your left hand there’ or ‘look towards me’. You just get what they give you and you have to find a way to make it work.
There are ways and tricks to encourage your equine model to cooperate, of course, but they don’t always work and there are certainly no guarantees. I try to work with the horse, rather than getting them to work with me, though. So if they decide they want to look in the direction of their friends back in the field, we’ll go with that and limit everybodies stress levels.
Pro – I’m nosey
And I’m totally not ashamed of that. I really enjoy going to people’s yards, seeing where they keep their horses, finding out their stories, etc. It’s one of my favourite parts of the job.
Con – I have very little control over the location
Many studio photographers would have heart failure at the idea of working the way I work. Not only do I not have the option of controlling the settings I work in, I also don’t have much control over the backdrop I photograph against.
Because, for the most part, I travel to where the horse is kept, again, I have to make the best of what I am given. I don’t have a clean, white backdrop to make my subjects pop from the picture. Or access to studio lighting. I have ordinary, run-of-the-mill livery yards. Or if I’m lucky, I have a client who keeps their horses at their pretty home, or has access to a scenic field or bridleway.
But I have to say, I love the challenge and the creative process that comes with finding spaces to use, at each new location.
Pro – Horse owners love their horses like parents love their children
I always love how passionate my clients are about their horses. The likelihood is that if somebody has spent money and effort on booking me for a shoot, they are totally smitten with the equine love of their life. And it’s so heart warming to hear them tell me all about their babies. Every relationship between horse and rider is different and each partnership has been on their own journey together, with highs and lows that have shaped them, and I really enjoy learning all about these relationships.
And as somebody who is equally passionate about these animals, before I even arrive I can be sure that I will have something in common with client. Something to talk about and ease their nerves. And like any horsey girl, once you get me started on horsey talk, I’m happy to chat for hours.
Con – Horses are impatient
Sometimes I get lucky and I get an equine model that can stand still for hours on end, whilst I snap away, but most of the time, I have to be ready to be lightning quick. I might get a minute, where they are happy to stand and stare pensively, in the direction I want them to look in.
I often find if I have a particularly impatient animal on my hands, it’s best to keep them moving. So I ask them to walk away, walk back, walk past me, etc. and also don’t use any one spot for too long, changing locations and moving around regularly, if possible.
Pro – Horses are beautiful
Whether you’re a horse fanatic or not, you have to admit that horses are stuningly beautiful animals. They are all appealing in their own way, whether you are photographing an adorable fluffy kid’s Shetland; a prize winning, toned, muscled showjumping Warmblood; a majestic, jet black Friesian stallion, with a flowing mane; or somebodies greying, wooly, veteran childhood pony, at the grand old age of 40. They all having something to offer a photographer.
Con – Spooking
So, you want a horse to put his ears forward, but you don’t want it to look like a rabbit in headlights. Your model wants photographs of her riding bareback in a dress, but you definitely don’t want shots of her on a bolting horse, heading in the other direction, dress blowing in the wind.
As I mentioned earlier, we have ways and means of getting a horse to ‘smile’ for the camera, but, obviously, every horse’s tolerance levels varies. I have squeaky toys and home-made rattles that we use. Some horses are terrified of the squeaky toys, some don’t even bat an eyelid at them.
And then of course, there are the horse eating monsters living in the nearby trees and bushes. And we have no control over those whatsoever. It’s a stressful life.
Pro – Horses have no insecurities
I’ve never had a horse who worried about looking fat, or their wrinkles showing up on camera. I don’t have to be concerned about them not wanting a particular image on Facebook or worrying what their friends think. It sounds silly, but it’s great to photograph a subject that isn’t worried about their appearance. Kids are often the same. Animals and children have no inhibitions and as a result, the expressions and the character that you capture, through your lens, are one hundred percent natural and true.
Don’t worry. Pete won’t get upset with me using this less than attractive image of him.
Con – Good old British weather
I work outdoors, so I’m a pro at watching the weather forecast. If my Mum wants to know what the weather is going to be like on a certain day, she calls me because she knows I’m always weather watching. As I’m sure most of you will identify with, it’s actually something that I’ve always done anyway, worrying about what rugs to put on horses, whether to turn out or not, etc. so now I’ve just transferred that habit to my job, too.
One of the most frustrating things about my job is having to cancel shoots due to bad weather. I try to avoid it, but sometimes you just can’t. If the forecast is predicting showers, I often advise that we go ahead and dodge the wet weather. But there are occasions where you’re just better to cut your losses. If the rain looks like it’s set in for the day, we reschedule. Soggy ponies, soggy owners and soggy photographers do not make good art and you just end up wasting everybodies time, money and energy.
However, sometimes the forecast doesn’t get it right and I leave home in beautiful sunshine and arrive at my destination to dreary, heavy skies and relentless rain. It happens, it’s unavoidable and you just have to do what you can.
Equally, in the summer, in the middle of the day, the bright sunshine can cause me just as many problems. If I don’t have any shade to work with and the sunlight is beating down on us, making the horses hot and restless, making my models squint and blowing out my images, it can make my job quite difficult.
And then there are the days when the weather can’t make up it’s mind and flits from sun to clouds every other second, playing havoc with my lighting.
Weather is probably my biggest challenge.
Pro – Horses improve people’s confidence
This is my favourite pro. I mentioned about horses having no inhibitions, but the most beautiful thing about them is that they eliminate their owner’s insecurities too.
So many of my clients would never dream of putting themselves in front of a camera in any other situation. If you point a camera at most girls or women, they’d shy away, fuss with their hair and be suddenly plagued by their inadequacies.
When I turn up, my models are often apprehensive and flustered, worrying about outfits, hair and make-up.
They’re nervous about posing and almost everybody tells me how they aren’t natural in front of the camera, they aren’t photogenic and they’ve never done this before. You can almost see them questioning why on earth they got themselves into this position. However, you then put their horse next to them and tell them to focus their attention on the animal and suddenly, everything becomes much more bearable and much less uncomfortable for them. Suddenly the shoot isn’t just about them. It’s about their horse, the connection they share with their horse and the pride they feel, having that animal in their life. My client might not be confident in their own physical appearance, or in their ability to pose like a high fashion model, but one thing they are confident about is the love they have for their horses. You can almost see the nerves and worry fall away. I think this is what I love the most, about photographing horses and people together. It’s an amazing thing to witness.
Con – Every horse is different
When you think you’ve got it sussed, you’ll meet an equine model who will throw everything you’ve learnt about photographing horses out the window and teach you a whole new set of rules. This is certainly not a job I will ever be able to do with my eyes closed. Whilst I’ve gotten some parts of it down to an art, there are a lot of aspects that will forever keep me on my toes.
As anyone who has worked or dealt with horses knows, they are unpredictable and individual. Every one has their own likes and dislikes, things that they will do and won’t do.
Some of them are happier to be photographed in the field they’re turned out in, whereas some will throw a hissy fit if they’re asked to do anything other than eat or play in their own field. Some horses want to be within viewing distance of their friends, but that will blow another horse’s mind. I’m hyper aware of the way an owner reacts to my suggestions, as often they are too polite or nervous to really let me know what their horse will and won’t put up with and it can be a bit of a guessing game. But the trick is to watch the horse’s reaction at all times, to everything you do, and work out what they are happiest with.
Keeping my equine models happy and calm is in everybodies best interest and this requires a different approach at every shoot. As I have mentioned before, this isn’t a schooling session and I’m not there to teach the horse manners or overcome their fears. I’m there to get good photographs and a happy horse is an attractive horse.
Pro – Every horse is different
Yep, it’s absolutely a pro and a con! I’m a horse addict, so meeting new horses everywhere I go is a major pro. Every horse has their own character, their own personality and I have to figure it out and capture it on camera.
I’m a sucker for unusual horses, but really I do love them all. Honestly, I’ve never had an equine model that I wouldn’t work with again, and I bet photographers who work with only human models couldn’t say the same thing. 😉
They all look different, react differently and my job is different every time I go out to a shoot. As somebody who is easily bored and has a creative mind that enjoys a challenge and a change, added to that my passion for horses, I really do feel like I’ve found my perfect job!
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