Ready For a Close-Up

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You need photos of your sale horse (or your yearling or your stallion) for ads and flyers, and those photos must show the horse at his best. But there’s a problem—the pictures you take are blurry or distorted or so dark that he barely shows up.

Here’s help: Ten tips for getting the best possible shot, gleaned from a group of equine photographers. Whether you’re using a digital or film camera, the photographers say, you can take better pictures if you:

1. Know what you want to show, and plan your photo shoot to capture the features you want to emphasize.

• Show a performance horse in action, doing whatever he excels in—jumping a fence or performing a great sliding stop, for example.

• If his great virtue is his gentle, unflappable temperament, show him “babysitting” a child rider.

• If you’re promoting a stallion or a yearling, potential customers will want a good look at the horse’s conformation. Show him without tack, and stand him up in a way that’s flattering and customary for his breed. In most cases, that’s with the near front leg slightly ahead of the far front, and the near hind slightly behind the far hind. (Saddlebreds and some other breeds are often presented with front legs even and hind legs parked behind, to emphasize a flat croup and high tailset.)

2. Choose the location carefully.

• A busy, cluttered background is a common problem, notes Barbara Sheridan, who teaches equine photography at the University of Guelph in Canada. “A manure pile or a parking lot with cars in the background takes away from the subject,” she says. “Also, make sure objects in the background—such as trees or telephone poles—are not ‘growing’ out of the horse.”

• For a conformation shot, the ground should be level. Strategically placing the horse on a very slight rise can improve the picture for a horse that’s built “downhill” (hindquarters high), but savvy customers won’t be fooled.

3. Shoot in good light.

• Take the picture outdoors in the morning or afternoon, not in harsh midday light, the photographers say. “A bright, overcast day is best for even lighting because there will be no or limited shadows,” photographer Chrissy Kadar of Frederick, Maryland, suggests.

• Backlighting creates interesting effects, Chrissy adds. But for a breed shot or sale shot in which the goal is to show the horse clearly, the sun should be behind you, not behind the horse.

4. Clean him up. Present the horse as you would for a show, trimmed and clean, with his coat shining.

• A light touch of Vaseline or baby oil around the nostrils and eyes can highlight facial features. But avoid a greased-up look, says stallion promoter Andrea Laycock Mattson of Wamego, Kansas, whose DIY photo advice is online at Fly spray will keep him from swishing his tail and stamping, she adds.

• Don’t forget to clean any tack or other equipment that will be in the picture.

5. Enlist a helper.

• To get a good picture, you’ll need a good rider or a knowledgeable handler to pose him—and if the helper will end up in the picture, he or she should be as well turned out as the horse.

• For a posed shot you may want a second person to rattle a plastic bag or a can of pebbles a short distance away, so that the horse will look up and prick his ears. “No one wants to see a half-asleep horse, with its lip hanging,” says Chrissy Kadar.

6. Choose a good angle.

• In most cases the camera should be level with the horse’s heart line. You can make a jump seem more dramatic by shooting from a lower angle. Avoid shooting down on the horse; that will make his legs seem short, says Andrea Mattson.

• A posed conformation shot should generally be taken straight from the side, to avoid distortion, but there are breed differences. For example, it’s customary to shoot stock breeds from a point about 45 degrees to the rear; the distortion that results emphasizes powerful hindquarters.

7. Let the horse fill the frame. That is, get the whole horse in the picture, but go “tight” (without a lot of space around him) so that details will be clear.

• Stand back at least 15 or 20 feet and zoom in to get a true image. If you stand close and take the picture with a standard “snapshot” lens, the image will be distorted, says Andrea.

• If you’re shooting digital, use the camera’s optical zoom for this; you’ll lose clarity and detail if you rely on the digital zoom function to enlarge the image.

8. Catch the action. It’s all about timing, the photographers say—to capture the point when the action is most dramatic, you must press the shutter just prior to the peak moment.The only way to do this is to practice until you develop an internal rhythm that tells you when to click.

• With inexpensive digital cameras, “shutter lag” makes this hard—after you press the shutter, the camera pauses before taking the picture. The delay occurs while the camera focuses and sets the exposure. Most cameras will pre-focus if you depress the shutter button halfway, which should help reduce the lag.

• To show off the trot, Kadar suggests, frame the horse as he trots down a diagonal line; for the canter, put the horse on a large circle and try to catch the horse turning into your shot, with the leading leg toward you.

• For jumpers, a good-size spread fence is best because the horse will have more “hang time” than he will over a small vertical, the photographers agree. Frame the jump in your shot and let the horse come into it, but allow some space in the frame around the jump—you’ll need to see the horse’s approach to time the shot.

• For a sliding stop, start with a side view and pan, following the horse with the camera. Try to catch the action at the point where the horse’s front legs are off the ground, with one leg extended.

9. Make it sharp.

• Steady the camera. A tripod (or a monopod) can help guarantee a sharp image, Kadar says. No tripod? Lean against a fence or another solid object to keep your body still as you shoot.

• A good quality lens is key for clarity. In a digital camera, a high megapixel count (7 megapixels and up) will allow high-quality enlargements and print reproduction.

• Use a fast shutter speed, such as 1/500, to freeze action. Shutter speed is the fraction of a second that the shutter stays open to admit light; the shorter the time, the less blurring you’ll get. But because less light will enter the camera, you’ll need to use a “fast” film (or sensitivity setting, in a digital camera) with a rating of ISO 400. If your camera has preset modes, choose the “sport” or “action” mode.

10. Save it. Digital images are stored as files of digital data on a memory card; how this is done affects what you can do with the image. Here’s what you need to know.

• A digital photo is made up of pixels—basically, dots of color. If the photo is stored fully, there are lots of pixels, the resulting file is big, and the memory card fills up fast. The camera can compress the file by throwing away some of the data, to store more images on the card. But because there are now fewer pixels, image quality is lost.

• Even low-quality compressed (JPEG format) files are fine for e-mail and Internet postings. But if you try to enlarge or zoom in on the image, objects in the photo will look blurry or have stair-step edges.

• For enlargements or print reproduction, use your camera’s finest quality or compression setting. Use a large memory card, and delete images you don’t want or need as you go along. For ads and other print uses, a digital image should have 300 dots, or pixels, per inch at the finished size—so the number of pixels in your saved file will limit the size of your printed pictures.

There’s much more to know about equine photography—these tips barely scrape the surface. Two recent books are excellent guides:

Photographing Horses: How to Capture the Perfect Equine Image (Lyons Press, 2006), by photographer Leslie Groves, a former editor of The Quarter Horse Journal.

Photographing and “Videoing” Horses Explained: Digital and Film: The Horse Owner’s Manual for Improved Portraits, Schooling Tools, Sales and Promotions (Trafalgar Square Books, 2007) by equine photographer Charles Mann and videographer Stormy May.