Starting An Equine Photography Business

Starting an Equine Photography Business

So you want to make a business of shooting horses. Awesome!! Now before we jump in and start shooting every living horse we see, lets get down to the business of running a business. Many factors go into owning and running a business and let’s be honest, many of them do not look or sound like fun. Trust me writing about it is not much fun either, but I am doing it to help you! So, don’t let the thought of it deter you from your dream job. What you need to understand is that by starting out the right way, your business is more likely to survive and grow. No one wants to say “well I started a business but had to close it because I did not make any money,” so lets start out with a roadmap to make you successful. While we have not covered everything here, these things are the biggest that you need to make sure you deal with.

The first step on your new business journey is to make a business plan. Creating a business plan sounds daunting and flat out scary, and for some they never do this. What I have learned though is that this is the equivalent to having a road map or blue print to run your business from. The more work you put into this step, the better prepared you will be. Ever try to build something very complex without a plan? (Ok if you are a guy – you probably have….) Your business should be no different, I would love to see you succeed and a plan will be more help than you can imagine. There are lots of resources to help you build a great business plan. Nolo press has a great book called How To Write A Business Plan and it is available at most book stores or online. (I do not endorse any book or product for remuneration but have used this book and it is easy to understand and helped me tremendously). Another great source for doing your business plan is the Small Business Administration . However you decide to work through creating a business plan, do it, and do it with as much passion as you would shooting a gorgeous horse with a long flowing mane.

If you have absolutely no idea on how to run a business, you may want to invest some time attending some business classes. There are many free resources for this as well as seminars. Again the SBA is a great resource. What you will find is that being a photographer is actually only about 20% shooting and the other 80% you will find yourself in some sort of business mode – accounting, marketing, post process, etc. You may as well figure the hard stuff out now so you can apply yourself to your passion of shooting. So again, find some resources to help you learn the ins and outs of running your business, it will make your life easier in the long run!

Where are you going to run your business? Are you going to get a studio space? or are you going to use a spare bedroom in your home? we need to find out what the zoning ordinances are for our area. Some areas will not allow you to run a business out of your home. Other areas may allow you to run your business out of your home, but you can not have clients come to your home office. Your state comptroller can help point you in the right direction of where to find information for your area. The answer to this could determine where you have your business, so be sure to research this.

We have all heard of a sole proprietorship, LLC, S Corp and C- Corp, we are now at the point that we need to determine what kind of business we are going to be. But, how do you choose the right one? This is a very important area and way more information than we can discuss here, especially since I am not a tax advisor or an attorney. They way that taxes are dealt with are different for each classification, which makes this a must have conversation with a tax advisor who can help you determine the best option for you. Really the best way to decide which you should use is to have a conversation with your tax advisor. So make an appointment with your tax advisor and be sure to have all your questions written down to take with you so you can make a very informed decision about this step.

So what do you want to call your new baby?? For some their name is the easy route but perhaps you want to have a clever name, like S. Sylvester Photography…oh wait, that is soooo not clever. There are some great names out there that are being used. Our next stop on our business creating journey is to come up with a name. Your best bet is to come up with a few names that you like, because we are going to have to make sure that someone else is not using the name we want. For me I had to go to the Texas Comptroller to see if the name I wanted had been used yet. So find your local comptroller and check the names you like and see which are available. The other thing I made sure to check was to see if the website name was available. How awful would it be to have come up with a great business name, register it with your state and then find out that the website was taken by someone else? If a website is similar in name to yours, this could potentially cause your customers to end up at the wrong website, so make sure you research your web domain thoroughly. Network Solutions will let you check several web domains at one time.

Now depending on what type of business you have decided to register as, you may need to get a tax-id number. Your tax advisor can tell you if you will need a new tax id number. If you are doing a sole proprietorship, then you should be able to just use your social security number. To make sure we are doing things on the straight and narrow, check with your tax advisor to be sure if you need a new tax id or not. Last thing you want to do is go to file your taxes and realize that you have a huge mess because you don’t have a tax id number.
Guess what?? We are not done with tax stuff…..ughh. The next thing on the list is to obtain a tax license from your state and/or local municipality. What you need will depend on your location, again the state comptroller is your friend for this question. They really are great about helping new businesses get all the information needed to get going. Find out what you need, then file all the appropriate paperwork with them to get your license. Remember also to find out what you need to charge in the form of sales tax, and what is actually taxed. In Texas we have to charge tax on the session fee as well as any product, but some states the session fee is not taxed but products are. So make sure you know exactly what you need to charge tax for and then file your tax forms monthly or quarterly as your license dictates.

A very often overlooked step in the business process is insurance. Most homeowners policies do not cover businesses, and if you choose not to have insurance, you could actually run into problems with your homeowners insurance. “Why do I need it?’ you may ask, this scenario will hopefully help you understand why: Your friend wants cute pictures of her kid in the park that has that really cute little waterfall. You agree and off to the park we go with your gear and little Johnny in tow. Mom says “oh how cute would it be for him to sit on that rock next to the waterfall?” (now I am not talking a huge waterfall, just one of those cute little park ones…..) She sets Johnny up on the little rock, and he falls and hits his head and falls weird on his arm breaking it. Now we are off to the emergency room where Johnny gets stitches on his head and a really cool blue cast on his arm. Your friend has a $10k deductible that they have not yet met. The bill from today runs about $7k because the doctor wanted to do a ct scan since he hit his head, along with the xrays, cast, stitches etc. If your friend is super nice you may not have to pay anything, or they could ask you to pay the deductible (since you are the professional and should have known Johnny was going to maybe fall) or they could decide to sue you for damaging their precious little Johnny (even though he was being a brat and running all over and not listening to anyone). For me I would want my insurance co to say “we got this”. Horses can certainly create reasons for insurance!!

Contracts Yes you need them!!! Does not make a difference if you are shooting a horse show or a portrait session, have a contract.  Remember we are running a business.  Find an attorney who can help you with this.  Attorneys are not scary or mean or any number of other horrible things.  They want to see you succeed ad much as you do, so invest in your business and make sure you are protected.

Employees…..yes or no??? Most small startup companies usually do not have any employees other than the owner(s). If you plan on having employees, please check with your tax advisor and your state comptroller on what you need to do. Your tax advisor can help with 1099’s or W2’s depending on how you decide to deal with having employees.
Whew! I think that should keep you busy for a little while! Running a business is work, starting one is even more work, but it can be done and if done with much consideration and thought put into it should be successful and rewarding. A business plan can and should become your roadmap for the short term as well as your next 5 years. Each year make a point to revisit your business plan and revamp and tweak where needed, you will find it an amazing tool to help you keep your business in the black. Time to get to work and make your dream a reality!

Happy Shooting!


© Suzanne Sylvester/S. Sylvester Photography

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Becoming the Offical Horse Show Photographer

So you have decided you want to be a horse show photographer…..are you crazy?? Just kidding!! Being a horse show photographer may seem like a very glamorous job. Let me dispel that myth for you. What it really is, is long days that start at least an hour (usually more) before the horse show starts and end a couple of hours after the show is done for the day. It is everything going wrong at the most inopportune times, when you are sure that everything is working perfectly. It is only getting to scarf down a snack on the run. Bathroom breaks? Good luck. It is even going in the red after you pay your help, but it is also meeting lots of amazing people who love horses as much as you do. It is being privileged to get to shoot some horses that are just down right amazing, and let’s be honest it really is kind of cool to see your images in national magazines.

One of the first things you need to do is to study whatever discipline you decide you want to shoot. You may ask why you need to know anything about it. The reason is so you know when you are shooting the right moves or the wrong moves. It is imperative to make sure you are getting the shots that will sell. Yes, thinking outside of the box is wonderful and you should most certainly include those types of shots for your customers, (they love them) but you need to make sure you are getting the “money” shot, that one with the perfect foot placement or the perfect stop. If you need to practice your timing, that can be accomplished at a smaller show without an official photographer. Another great place to practice is to talk to a local trainer to see if they would mind you taking photos during lessons. You do not need to, nor should you go to a horse show and just start taking pictures. Many horse shows (and most of the larger ones) have an official photographer there that has paid his/her dues at the small shows and has worked their way up-to the “big” show. When you learn to drive a car, you do not go out and immediately drive a high dollar sports car, you learn and practice on an older model car, that may have a few dents and dings in it. Never go to a horse show and think you can shoot because it is a “public” place. Yes, it may be open to the public, but the horse show usually rents the facility and can in-turn dictate who gets to take pictures and who doesn’t. It is imperative that you are respectful to the official photographer at a horse show. The horse show photography world is a small one and you would hate to start your career with a horrible reputation. Not to mention the fact that when you are the official photographer, you would not want someone to shoot over the top of you….don’t do it to someone else because you feel entitled.
You need to learn how to capture the correct shots without shooting in burst mode. If you are using strobes, this is a requirement as strobes do not recycle fast enough to shoot in burst mode. Being able to get the shot in one frame also shows that you know how to use your equipment and know exactly what the competitors are looking for. Again, the key here is practice, practice, practice.

A business plan is something that very few photographers do, and yet it is like a roadmap for your business.  When you take the time to sit down and do a business plan, you are being very thoughtful of how you need to run a sustainable business. You can always adjust your plan, but it will serve as a great road map for being successful.  Another important thing to do is your CODB, and to detriment your COGS, these numbers are critical to your success or failure. You need to know if you are making money, or losing money. (if you need help figuring these out, there is another how-to in regards to these things.) Many photographers who charge really low prices for their images have gone back and done their CODB and have figured out that they are making about $2/hour. How fun is that? Once you have your CODB and COGS numbers determined, then you can decide what prices you need to charge. Do not base your prices off what someone else is charging, their CODB may not be exactly like yours.

I recommend if you sell digitals, that you only sell low resolution images for use on personal websites and personal social media, remember, you are in the business of selling prints. Your most valuable item are your digital “negatives” these are what make you money.  If you sell them for a small amount of money, you are giving away the “farm” so to speak. If you sell your high resolution images for very little money you are devaluing your work and is odd as it sounds, you are also devaluing the work of every other show photographer out there. Ok enough of the rant…

So how do you get to be the one they call the “official” photographer? Typically, horse shows book their contractors (announcers, judges, videographers, photographer and secretary 6-12 months in advance of their shows). Again, we are going to start small, we are going to learn to walk before we run. If there is a small show near you, or a small show you are interested in shooting, contact the show producer or show manager and ask them if they have an official photographer. If they do have one, thank them and let them know if they ever need your services, that they should feel free to contact you. Then follow up with an email, again, thanking them for their time and that you would be available in the future. Be sure to include a few sample images and your contact information!

If they say yes, congratulations! You have just landed your first show! In your conversation they may ask what it will take for you to be the official photographer. Now is your opportunity to let them know what your requirements are (need a booth, an RV spot, power, etc.). It is also the time to ask them things that you need to know like how many arenas will be running at once, indoor, or outdoor, etc. Make sure to find out if there is a dress code. Many rodeos and certain types of horse shows do require a specific dress code, so while you should always look professional in representing your business, you need to make sure that there are no other dress requirements. Take notes while you are talking to them, so that you will remember what all you need to cover in your contract.
Umm…now what? Unfortunately the day of doing business on a hand shake seem to be gone. For every horse show I shoot, I have the show manager sign a contract. Not only does this protect me, it honestly protects them as well. You need to have such things in your contract as:• Will you be supplied a booth space (if you need one – small shows that are one or two days, usually not)?
• Will you be supplied with power? ( you may need for a booth or for strobes)
• Contact information of the show plus a description of the show (usually the name and location)
• Are outside shooter allowed? If so, to what extent? If other shooter show up and shoot what will happen?
• Are they providing you with meals?
• Are you providing them with photos? If so, how many and what are they allowed to do with them?
• Are they going to make you pay a vendor fee? If so, then I would suggest that they do not get photos to use. I typically give my shows photos, and I never pay a vendor fee.
You need to remember that both parties (you and the horse show) need to feel like this is a symbiotic relationship, you both need to get something out of this arrangement.
One you have decided what you want to cover in your contract, I would suggest that you get the help of an attorney to complete your final draft. Employing an attorney is not as scary as it sounds, and again this is for your protection. Remember, you are running a business, this is part of it. This does not need to be done for each show. Once you and your attorney have come up with a working contract, you should be able to adjust it as need for each show you shoot.

As soon as possible, send a copy of your contract to the show producer for their signature and be sure to address any concerns that either of you have. Many of these things will show up in your initial contact with the show producer, so this should just be a follow-up in regards to concerns.

Make sure you list the show date(s) on your calendar. It would be horrible for you to miss your first show!

Before your horse show starts (usually a day or two) make sure all your gear is clean and working properly. Really your gear should be checked long before this, but since mine is used daily, I have a pretty good idea. Make sure you have all of your batteries charged, make sure you have backup gear, and make sure you get everything packed and ready to go. Be sure to include snacks and water, lots of water, and any other personal care items you may need . Lists are your friend! And I promise you will add to that list after each horse show of things you may need or have forgotten.

Your big day has arrived. I usually arrive to an outdoor single/two day horse show about an hour before the scheduled start time. (If it is an in-door show and you need to setup lights, or setup a booth, then you will need to arrive much earlier to make sure you can have everything in place before the show starts.) This gives me time to learn the lay of the land so to speak. I will check in with the show office so they know I am there. I introduce myself to the secretary and pickup any draw sheets or back number lists that I need. I also say hello to the announcer. Remember the announcer can be your biggest sales person!! Give them one of your business cards and ask that they announce your presence and how everyone can find their photos and donuts never hurt. During this time I also go check out the arena to see where I need to shoot from, and learn the course/pattern if there is one.
Make sure you have a backup of anything that may break….camera, lens, lights, transmitters, computers, hard drives, etc.. I personally have had at least one of each of those thing break at a horse shows. (on a single day I had 2 cameras and a lens die….) You need to be able to continue on with your job, remember we are professionals, lets act like it.

Next stop…the arena to start shooting! Remember to breath and enjoy the experience.

© Suzanne Sylvester/S. Sylvester Photography


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Horse Show Work Flow

by Suzanne Sylvester/S. Sylvester Photography

Now that you have been contracted to be the official photographer for the horse show, what comes next?

There is a lot that needs to happen in the background to be successful at a horse show. You need to have enough photographers to cover all the arenas, a backdrop (if you have one) and to run your sales booth. I  am going to discuss the sales booth and selling aspect. If you are shooting a small one or two day show (and even some three day shows) you can get away with only selling on-line. If you are covering a show that is four days or more, I highly encourage you to have a booth where competitors and spectators can come and view and order their photos. When I started offering on-site sales, my numbers more than tripled…yes tripled. Now are the processes that I am going to teach you the only way to do things? No of course not, but I can tell you that what I am going to teach you works, I have tried (and failed) many, many different ways, always looking for the best possible solution. So take what you learn from here and combine it with what works for you.

Raw vs JPEG

I prefer to shoot both. I shoot large RAW and small JPEG. The reason? You have more editing control from RAW files, but you can not upload them to a sales website, and using them for viewing may or may not work depending on the software you use. The JPEGs are used for onsite viewing as well as uploading to the ordering site. I prefer to edit from RAW as I  sell to lots of magazines, and commercial companies, and clear, crisp good sized photos are an absolute must for them.

Sorting/Storing Images

I use a computer for the “back office” which is what I call the main computer in the booth. It is used to download, sort and edit photos. Images are stored on an external hard drive which is backed up at a minimum of nightly. Backing up several times through out the day is the best option.

On the back office computer the following folders are created: Raw, Horses, Draw Sheets, Orders and Working Folder. The RAW files are moved to a folder within the raw folder, so let’s say first day of the horse show is Wednesday, we make a folder again inside the main RAW folder and name it Year.Month.Date_Wednesday then within the folder we have Raw 1, Raw 2 etc.. When the next card for that day comes along it gets the same naming convention only changed to the next number.  The JPEGs are moved to the “Working Folder” where they are then sorted into each horse’s folder.

One the second image you will see Raw 1 front, and Raw 1 side.  This was done because I had two photographers shooting two locations in one arena.

Notice that the “Working Folder” is missing.  This file is where all the JPEGs are moved to from the cards.  Once the horse show is over, the folder is no longer needed, so it is deleted. I have found that moving all the JPEGs to the “Working Folder” is easier than trying to sort from the card itself (which really is not a good idea anyhow…)

You can get a master back number list or draw sheets that show the horse’s number/rider name and horse name from the show secretary. Every secretary I have found is more than happy to get this information to the official photographer.  The “Horse” folder contains a list of every horse/rider combination. At one time I tried to do by class, but here is the thing, if someone shows in multiple classes, they now have to look through several folders and a ton of other people’s photos to find their own. Then they have to try to go back and forth between the folders to decide what exactly they want to buy. Creating each horse/rider their own folder, you have now made it easier for them to find their photos, and do you want to know what happens when it is easier to find their photos? They order more, I promise they really do…. I not only photograph horse shows, I show, and I will not buy if I have to go sorting through a bunch of photos just to find the ones of me or my horses. Make it easy on your customers, the easier it is for them, the more they will purchase. 


Hardware Setup

Attached to the back office computer via a network cable is a laptop. Attached to the laptop is a large monitor. The laptop is run by the sales person so all the customers have to do is sit back and watch. Did you notice I said salesperson? I do not have order takers working for me, my people interact with the customers and help them decide what pictures to order, and what products they want to order. My salespeople chat with the customer, get to know them and find out what they need, or may be interested in. I am all about customer service. 

(This photo is during setup- all un-necessary items get removed and a banner added)


I do not/will not do on site printing. The cost of a half way decent printer starts at about $400. The first issue with printing on site is the amount of dirt and dust you will encounter at a horse shows, even if the show is indoors and your booth is up on the concourse. Dust and dirt destroys printers. I am not sure about you, but going through several printers a year is not my idea of a great way to spend money. The second issue is keeping a printer calibrated so that your colors are accurate. Send your stuff to a pro lab, customers are happy when they are told that I value the product I put out and will only have their images printed by a professional lab, and that they will receive their beautiful prints in the mail in just a couple of weeks. The third thing is cost, it really is not cheaper to print your own, between printers, ink and paper, it is much cheaper in the long run to send them out to be printed, and if you use a great professional lab, then your prints will be amazing. You are a professional, put out the most professional product you can.

Booth Setup

Booth set up can be a daunting task. The more complex booth you have, the more work it is to set up and tear down. I will simply leave your booth to your imagination. I would just keep it professional looking, I mean who wants to do business with someone who has no pride in their own business?


Products can be just about anything! Just remember to show your customers what you want to sell. Sounds odd, but it is true. I have about 18 – 11” x 14” prints framed and matted in my booth (making them 16” x 20”), along with usually one large canvas. The canvas is typically 36” x 48” and people love it. I very rarely sold anything larger than 8 x 10, until I started showing people larger images, then all of a sudden they started buying larger prints. I do have 2 – 8 x 10 prints in my booth. One is an acrylic sample and the other is a metal sample, I also use them to show people sizes. Want to get the them to buy something larger? Hold that 8 x 10 up to the wall and show them how small it really is.


First off…Please, please stop giving your work away!!! I have seen an awful lot of photographers who are only charging a few dollars for their images. If you sit down and do the math, you may be shocked to see that you are making only a few dollars an hour for your time. If you are not sure what you should be charging, do yourself a favor and figure out your CODB and your COGS. If you need help with that we have tutorials to help you.

I have two price lists, one for prints purchased on line and one for prints purchased at the show. The prices listed for purchasing on site, is about 10-15% cheaper than the website and also contains items that can only be purchased at the show. This makes people commit to buying now, rather than waiting to purchase later when they get home, or a month later or never. I have a printed price list at the table that we show people (we do not let anyone take it since prices are subject to change at any time, and I prefer not to have the price list floating around) this price list has two columns, one is the website price and one is the show price, so they can see that by buying now they will save money. They get to actually see the price difference rather than being told. Again, I have found that this encourages an immediate buying response.

Extra Tid-bits

“Favorites” Box

One of the other things I do, is to have a box of 4 x6 cards that have a space for a customer’s name,  phone, email and horse’s name. (I should probably add a space for the horse show name…) I call these our “favorites” cards. When a customer comes to the booth, I fill one out and then keep an ongoing list of their favorite images. When they are done they are filed in the “favorite’s box”, so they are readily available when the customer comes back. These cards serve two great purposes, the first is that customers usually come to see their photos throughout the show, this list helps them remember the ones they already love and keeps you from having to weed through all of their images again. The second purpose for it is that you now have your customer’s information, if a customer does not make it back to the booth (it does not mean they don’t want to buy, sometimes horse showing just gets in the way…lol), you can email the customer a list of the image numbers they have selected once your images are live on your website. I have found that when I send this list to customers with a link to the gallery, 90% of the time they end up buying.



Have you decided what type of payments you are going to accept? I accept just about anything except small children. Ok maybe that is not completely true, but I do take cash, checks and credit cards. Whatever forms of payment you decide to take, make sure you are all setup and ready to roll when you hit the horse show.

Order Forms

Again, this is kind of a personal thing. I use a 8 ½” x 11” order form. They are duplicate form so you keep a copy and the customer gets one as well. Make sure you have room for notes, file names, product, size, space for sales amount, customer info and mine also have a customer acknowledgement line where the customer signs that the order is correct, and that they have read our image use policies. The image policies are printed on the back of each page, so the customer has a copy and you have one as well. Having them sign off that the order is correct is imperative if you are doing any kind of custom edits like collages, adding text, background changes or anything else you may offer.

Business Cards

You should have these, and lots of them. I place them in several spots on the table so that customers are sure to see them.


Remember to have fun!!  I can promise you that issues will come up!  Computers will die, cameras will die, you will have forgotten something….the list goes on and on.  Just take a deep breath, do not panic and have a plan to fix the issue.  Good luck!

© Suzanne Sylvester/S. Sylvester Photography

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Do Halters Make A Difference?

(Part of the stock horse type conformation series)

by: Suzanne Sylvester/S. Sylvester Photography


Basic conformation shots (usually used for sale horse ads, or for stallion promotion) are best done with a neat, clean leather halter.  While you can use a silver halter, I prefer not using one on a horse that you are doing conformation shots of.  Silver halters, while beautiful, can detract from a beautiful head as much as then can enhance one.  If the halter is a big clunky one, it can make a refined head look awful, and a slim dainty halter can make a horse’s head look huge. Show horse ads, or stallion ads, by all means use one! After all they are gorgeous and your customer will likely have one that will enhance your subjects head.

Let’s take a look at what different halters look like in conformation shots.  I have used just pictures of the horses’ heads as that is all we will be focusing on in this segment.

Rope Halters

We have all seen them and most of us have probably used them, in-fact you will find them on most ranches.  They are cheaper than regular halters and when you use a ton of them, they are very cost effective.  But for photos? Here is what using them on a horse during a conformation shoot can look like.


The rope halter on this horse made his head look really long. In reality, he actually had a pretty decent head. (not the prettiest, but a lot better than what it looks like here…).  One of the other issues with using a rope halter is editing out the lead rope,  unless the rope is almost laying on the ground, you get really weird angles on the bottom of the halter. Look at photo 2, the angle of the bottom of the halter, is just well…..ick! At least we don’t have the “tail” of the halter hanging down under the horses jaw.  On the plus side, the halter is on the horse so that it fits.


Let’s just avoid rope halters, shall we?

Nylon Halters

A nylon halter while not as nice as a leather halter can actually be ok.  I would suggest not using old faded halters, or ones with frayed ends or a ton of adjustable hardware on it.  Fit is essential! An ill fitting halter can again make a horse’s head look nothing like the real thing.


The worst part of this halter is that it has so much hardware on it.  While being able to adjust the halter at the chin and throat are super handy, they take away from the horse.  Your eye ends up being drawn to the halter hardware rather than the horse’s cute face.


While this halter still has more hardware than I like to see, it is not near as prominent as photo number 3.  The halter looks to be fairly new and not faded.  The ends of the halter are all contained in the buckles and tucked in so as to be less distracting.  This halter is not a bad second choice to a plain leather one.


Leather Halters

What can I say? Leather is just neat, clean and does not draw attention away from a horse’s head.  Name plates on the halters are fine, they are usually simple and clean.  Leather halters need to still be clean, no different than if you are going to a horse show, dirty, cracked halters are all a distraction and could be a problem if it breaks during your shoot and the horse runs off.



This handsome guy is sporting a very basic leather halter.  Your eye is not drawn to the halter but rather to a beautiful face. Notice that while we are looking at the off side of the horse, there is a buckle on this side.  The nice thing about using a halter that is adjustable on both sides is that you can get a better fit.


As we have seen in several of these photos fit of the halter is as important as the type of halter you use.  The halter should fit nicely up under the throat (not to tight) and should cross over the bridge of the horse’s nose. Be sure not to run the nose piece to low (see photo 1…) but also be sure not to run it up to close to the eyes either.  I do not have any preference as to what type of lead rope is used, as I remove them in post.  I can say that a frayed rope is harder to remove in post than one that is not…lol

Halters are important enough to me on these shots that I bring several to my shoots. I have various sizes so that I can fit a yearling up to a stallion.  Just another way to offer service to your customers.  If you offer this service to your customers be sure to clean the halters after each session so as not to accidently pass any potential illnesses to the next customer.

© Suzanne Sylvester/S. Sylvester Photography



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Stock Horse Type Conformation Shots

(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/Feet Placement

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


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