Equestrian photography: how to take the perfect shot, make your hobby into your job, and what happens when it goes wrong…

  • Whether you’re struggling to get that perfect picture of your beloved horse for Instagram, are looking for an equestrian career option that taps into your more creative side or just love pictures of horses, read on to learn more about life as an equine photographer…

    Sophie Callahan turned her weekend hobby of equine portraiture into a full time job despite her dad’s doubts…

    “I got into photography after I fell off my own horse and ended up going to shows with a camera instead. I’d never had any training but decided I quite liked it, so I started photographing events, which became of source of pocket money through university. Then after university I ran an event photography business, Big Image, with my dad, which turned into a national franchise.

    “During that period, I found an equine portrait photographer online and thought ‘that’s what I want to be doing – it’s way more creative, it’s way more me’. My dad didn’t think there would be a market for that but I said, ‘I’ll do it at weekends as a passion project and see how it goes’. A year later we ended selling Big Image because I was so busy with equine photography shoots, my dad went back to a corporate job in London, and I never looked back.

    “I have two types of days in my job; shoot days and editing days. I try and only do one shoot on a shoot day so my client gets as much time as needed, although when it rains shoots do back up because I’ve had to reschedule (a few weeks ago I had eight shoots in one week). A typical editing day is literally me getting up, putting on a clean pair of pyjamas and sitting at my desk and getting lost in editing. In a normal week I try and fit in three to four shoots and then two days of editing alongside admin and marketing.

    “I do mostly portraiture. This kind of photography has been huge in America for a long time as having your photo taken there is par for the course; you have a toddler shoot, a maternity shoot, etc, whereas over here we’re taught it’s a bit self-absorbed to have your photo taken and put up on the wall. There is less of that thinking now and it is becoming much more fashionable.

    “My shoots are very much guided by the horse and the owner because obviously nobody knows that horse like they do. So if they’re happy to get on bareback and gallop across the field, then great. But some owners will be like “absolutely not, we shall just stand there and look pretty”. I’ve had a few ‘trash the wedding dress’ shoots too.

    “One of my most incredible shoots was with a stunt team. I photographed the horse in the new Beauty and the Beast film and the stallion that was in The Huntsman with Chris Hemsworth. The girl who runs the stunt team was galloping around at sunset on him with no tack on, which was just awesome.

    “Accidents do happen on shoots sometimes. I often make the owners kiss their horse on the nose and one pony lifted his head at the wrong time and bust his owner’s lip. I just said ‘keep smiling, I’ll edit out the blood, it’s fine’.”

    Top tip for posing in a photo shoot with your horse:

    “One of the biggest things people worry about is what to wear and my top tip would be to wear something you feel totally comfortable in because that feeds through to the rest of the shoot. You do not want to be worrying about a dress riding up while your horse is spinning around on the end of the lead rope.’

    Top tip for taking a picture of your horse:

    “Use the free Horse Sounds app on your phone — press that and I guarantee you can get the ears forward.’

    After years photographing celebrities in her signature portraiture style, Lucy Sewill decided to turn her lens to her other passion in life, horses. Lucy’s work in this field, as well the story of how her life has been entwined with horses, is detailed in her book Horses & Humans

    “I did a lot of endurance riding when I was younger and I had this amazing endurance horse who had Cushing’s disease, which is common in horses but only one in a million people get it. I’ve had a lifetime of really random illnesses that really never made sense like heart infections, but once I had this horse and found out a lot about her condition, I thought ‘maybe this is something I’ve got’. I then went to my GP and it turned out I do have it.

    “So when I got to the stage in my career as a celebrity photographer where I could start to choose my own subjects, I went to my publisher and said I want to do horses, mainly because of what had happened.

    “Once my publisher said yes, I travelled to places such as America to see Monty Roberts and Dublin to see the urban cowboys as well as all around England, and tried to use the skills I had developed through photographing human beings in the equine world.

    “I’d always been quite frustrated with horse photography because it doesn’t really necessarily show much of what’s really going on. What I like to do when I shoot is create a studio in an enclosed area and put the horse and person together and just see what happens. The horse always leads the shoot, so you never know where a shoot is going, especially if you take a horse’s tack off and give them that freedom. You can see what they really think of a person and they have wonderful facial expressions, which we don’t really see when they have bridles on.

    “My favourite shoot took place at home, my acrobat friend set up her silks in the tree in my horses’ field. We just let the horses in and the pictures were of the horses naturally walking up to her to see what this person was doing in their tree.

    “A more humorous outcome of letting the horse lead was the shoot with Chilli Morning, William Fox-Pitt’s former eventer. He’s a big and powerful stallion and was about to go off to the Olympics, and knew he was important. He was very good about standing on the back drop I set up for about 10 minutes but then he got bored, got hold of it in his teeth and ripped it as if to say ‘that’s it, I’m done’.”

    Top tip for posing in a photo shoot with your horse:

    “I would say be really brave and take the tack off and see what happens. You horse will be more interested in what’s going on, become much more expressive and you’ll get something very beautiful.”

    Top tip for taking a picture of your horse:

    “Put your horse somewhere different or do something different with it so it becomes a bit more interested in its environment. The horse just standing somewhere where it is normally all the time is probably going to look a bit dozy and not very alert.”

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    After a career mentor convinced her that she could combine her passion of horses and photography, Hannah Freeland now travels the world doing equine portraiture and photographing equestrian stars, all attracted to the whole photography experience she offers

    “I’ve always had a camera in my hand, but I assumed that you couldn’t have a fulltime job you love that combines all of your passions. Then 10 years ago I was really lucky that a great friend bought me a mentor to kick my arse weekly for a year. My friend said ‘look, you’re wasting talent here, you’ve got to create a full time equine photography business’. And that’s what I did.

    “About 99.99% of my work is private portraits and 0.1% commercial work for some really lovely clients that I do about four or five times a year. The whole point of hiring me is to create artwork that will last for generations, the sort of thing mummies can pass to their daughters and they can pass to their daughters so they can see Granny with her pony.

    “I also offer a whole experience. After the photo shoot has happened and I’ve edited the photos, I then either travel back to the client’s home or the client comes to me and we look through the images together on my big screen. We start off with a beautiful slide show to music and then we go through the images one by one. My clients then order frames, albums and prints. The digital versions are secondary; it’s all about getting these images on the wall, not stuck on an iPad.

    “I travel a lot around the globe and am booked up for over a year, but that’s taken 10 years of proper hustle and graft and connecting with amazing people. I strongly believe that word of mouth is the strongest form of marketing. This is where collaborations work. I collaborate with trainers or top top players within a certain discipline, because once they see what I can do and the experience they get then they start telling followers, who trust them, about me. With my most recent collaborator, I gifted him a couple of big frames, an album and some digitals for him to use on social media, which is a package worth about £3,500.

    “One of the highlights of my career so far was working alongside Harry Meade for three years, capturing everything behind the scenes as well as in front, (you have to run like a blue-arsed fly around the cross-country course to photograph six horses). Harry used a lot of the photos for his blog and social media. And his sponsors loved them so they got a lot of the photos – those shots of putting the saddle cloth on or the bridle that’s been sponsored are always very popular. I gave Equus Leather, who used to sponsor Harry, some lovely dog collar shots from when his dog was fast asleep in the lorry doorway.”

    Top tip for posing in a photo shoot with your horse:

    “It’s all about relaxing and having fun.”

    Top tip for taking a picture of your horse:

    “Don’t have a busy background so avoid anything like a tree or telegraph pole or a fence coming out of the horse’s head or back

    “Also try and get the horse to relax and bend. Bends are so beautiful in horses. Get your horse in position and make your feet move, because your horse will absolutely watch what you’re doing and as they bend their neck to follow you, you’ll see that beautiful bend, and that muzzle will come out so stunningly.”

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