(setting the horse up)
By Suzanne Sylvester/S. Sylvester Photography
This tutorial is a brief overview of standing a horse up for shooting conformation shots. We will have a much more detailed class in the future.
Shooting conformation shots sounds simple doesn’t it? It can be, but the reality of it is that it is an art. When we shoot portraits of people we try to make a person look their best. How many times have you, a client or even someone you know ask a photographer to make them look slimmer, to make their nose look smaller or any other myriad of “fixes”. Now before you rush over to fix their request in Photoshop, you really should know how to “fix” it in camera. We do this by posing our subject in the most flattering way possible. Horses are no different. When we are taking conformation shots of horses, it is usually because our customers want to sell the horse or are standing it at stud. Regardless of the reason a customer wants conformation shots, we should do our absolute best to make the horse look amazing when we take the shot. Using Photoshop to correct the conformation of a horse is not only unethical, it could get you or the owner in deep trouble. How would it look for a buyer to show up to look at horse only to find that its legs/hip/neck (pick a body part) are not what was represented? So, let’s learn how to use our knowledge of equine conformation to our advantage when shooting them.
We need to remember that all horses have a flaw or two, just like we do. So, what do we do to “help” the horse out a bit?
Before getting started, your subject should be well groomed, clean and wearing a halter that is neat and tidy. While a leather or silver halter is not required, a clean well fitting one should be used so as not to distract from the horse. And remember fly spray! There is not much worse than getting a horse in position, then having them get mad and start kicking at flies. You should also find a location that is free from buildings, vehicles etc. If you must shoot in-front of a fence, make sure to move the horse far enough away from the fence that you can get a nice bokeh that will make it less distracting. The fence should also not cut your horse in half, placing a fence line below the belly is ok if a fence has to be included.
Leg placement for conformation shots is not like standing a horse up for a halter class. We do not want the horse to stand square, as that will not allow us to see all four legs. So where do we want to have them put their feet? The legs that are closest to the camera should be squarely underneath the horse. Not to far forward or too far back. The legs on the other side should be slightly to the horses center. The hind leg should be placed approximately 1 ½ of a hoof length in front of the other hind leg. The front foot should be about 1 ½ hoof length behind the other front leg. Ideally we want to shoot the horse with the mane on the same side as the camera. There will be times when that will not work, or that the client wants shots of both sides of the horse.
Standing vs Leaning
Let’s discuss “standing” vs “leaning”. When a horse stands up correctly with weight evenly distributed on all four feet, you will notice that the horse looks naturally balanced.
While this photo has many things wrong with it including the head and neck being held to high, I am using this series of photos to demonstrate leaning. By using the same horse, you can easily see the differences, particularly in the legs and body. This is a yearling quarter horse filly.
Photo 1a shows this filly standing with her weight evenly distributed among all four feet. I would like to see her right hind foot forward just about two inches so that you could draw a straight line from the point of her butt straight down the back of the canon bone to the ground. This shows that she is evenly balanced.
Notice what happens to the horse’s body when they shift their weight backwards. Image 1b shows that when this filly leans back she tips her legs back, removing the direct line from tip of her rump down the back of her cannon bone to the ground. Did you also notice what it does to her back? All of a sudden her back is hollow and she is no longer displaying a nice top line. (We won’t discuss her head and neck, as well….it is BAD and yes, horses can put their head and necks down while rocking back on their hind end). She also has her left front foot to far back.
This last photo 1c shows our filly leaning forward over her front legs. By doing this while her back looks better, her hip now looks weak and her hind leg looks weak through her gaskin as well. Overall, she looks very long through the body, which if we look back to picture 1a we notice that she is actually fairly well balanced. She also has her left front foot to far back.
Head and Neck Placement
Now that we have our leg placement and know not to get your subject leaning, let’s discuss head and neck placement.
The majority of stock type horses should show the neck just above level (reining horses prefer the neck level or just below). This will show how pretty and long the neck is, and how clean a throat latch the horse has. You want to have the horse turn its head just slightly to ward the camera so that you can see the bulge of the opposite eye, and a bit of the horse’s face.
In this last photo (2), you can see that the horse is standing with her weight evenly distributed on all four feet. Her neck is pretty good, it could be a tad lower to enhance her neck a bit. We can see each of her legs showing that they are clean of any bows, etc. Her head is turned just enough toward the camera that you can just see her right eye. Her ears are forward and she has a bright expression on her face. Her halter fits her (it could be a tad smaller) and is clean and tidy with the halter ends through the buckles. The location is very good in that there are no fences cutting the horse in half, and the background has a nice bokeh to it leaving the focus on the horse. This is a horse I would want to see in person. Your customers would be thrilled with a shot like this and it will set you apart from a lot of the other equine photographers.
© Suzanne Sylvester/S. Sylvester Photography