Top 10 Horse Photography Tips- Sell Your Dressage Horse With Good Photos


Sean Kelley

One of the most important factors in selling your horse is to have good photos. There are several things you can do to get good photos of your horse. Many are obvious and some are not so much


It does not matter if you are taking pictures to sell a horse or just trying to get a good photo to hang on the wall or send to your friends and family. It can mean real money to you however if you are trying to sell your horse and you don't have good pictures.

Maybe selling your horse is not about the money. You still will most likely spend a lot of time showing your horse, talking on the phone, and emailing people back about it. You probably also want to find the perfect new owner and home for your horse. A good photo helps make that happen.

 A picture is worth a thousand words, or so they say. Surprisingly, many people pay for classified horse ads and actually have a really bad photo or no photo of their horse at all. You not only need to have good photos but they have to stand out above the rest. How do you do that?

 Photographing horses is not easy. It is part art form, part technical knowledge, and can be part luck if you know less about the process. With the right equipment, practice, and planning you can more consistently create good photos that showcase your horse and help you avoid making mistakes that turn away potential buyers.

You may already be a good photographer of other subjects. You probably will not take good horse photos without practice however. Look in magazines to see what angles and types of photos are used. Still shots are a lot easier but good motion shots take a little more effort.

 When you take a photo or make a video of a horse, there are a number of things that can work against you. If you neglect my top 10 horse photo guidelines you make less of an impact and risk missing out on that one right buyer for your horse.

Get the right exposure.
This is the most obvious advice that you probably already know. If you use a camera set on automatic mode it can be difficult sometimes to get good exposures. The white arena sand against the dark trees or even a black horse can throw off your exposure. If you have a camera that you can set the exposure manually with then you may want to do that. Set (and lock) your exposure if possible to the clear blue northern sky or green grass. This is considered close to 50% grey for ideal exposure purposes. If all else fails and you don't get quite the right exposure than you can adjust it after the fact in a photo editing program like Photoshop or the many free and inexpensive options like Google's Picasa (free) and others. If you do make a mistake with exposure when taking horse pictures you can easily fix it after the fact in your computer but it will still not look good if your exposure is too far off. Your photo will be washed out or have too much contrast which does not create a realistic natural impression for buyers.

 Shoot from the best angle.
If you are shooting a dressage horse extending across the diagonal you probably do not want to be directly behind it at M as the rider trots the diagonal MXK do you? You probably also do not want to be directly in front either. Some angle in the front of the horse at around 30 degrees from the horse’s direct front is best. This will show the horses extensions without distorting its proportions too much. High or low angles have big impact too. If you crouch down while taking your picture it gives a small horse a bigger look. If you are higher than the horse on a hill it can make the horse look smaller or make the gaits appear less extended or make the horse's back appear differently. Each horse is unique and high and low angles can be beneficial or detrimental for different horses. Remember, you are not trying to create something that is not there but you definitely do not want to make a horse with a long back, for example, look like it has a longer back than it really does either.

Show the peak of action.
This can be a hard one. You need to have a horse that is in focus and extended or collected to the point of motion that you would like. Usually, for example, an extended trot is best just before the outstretched leg is fully extended and there is still a slight bend in the knee. A photo taken beyond that point makes your shot is much less effective. To help here, it can be very helpful to have a camera that can take continuous shots with while you hold down the shutter release. I have had other professionals tell me that they do not do this and they take each shot at the exact right moment but for most people pushing down the button and hoping for a good shot is the most practical approach. You can actually time this so that the camera takes its multiple shots when most of the up strides occur, otherwise you may have a lot of bad pictures in a row. Experiment with your camera with someone riding before you are ready to do it for real. If you have an automatic camera you may want to use your sports or action mode to help get the sharp action shots.

Fill the frame.
Ok, don't over do it. If you are shooting too tight, then you have no room for editing later. Leave yourself a little room in front of the horse and around the outside. You can fill the frame after the fact with your editing software by zooming and cropping the final image. You can certainly fill the frame with the camera's zoom or a telephoto lens. A telephoto lens is best if you have a camera with which you can interchange the lenses on. If you use a fixed (permanently attached) lens such as a purely automatic camera would offer, you may distort the horse a little depending on how wide you zoom out. Chances are you will make the horse appear longer than it really is if you are zoomed out too wide. If you are creating a headshot, the head might be longer or bigger than it is in real life too. A separate telephoto lens allows you to get close to the horse without distorting it. A long telephoto lens is also great for shows when the rider is on the far side of the arena and you cannot get any closer. In fact, a telephoto makes even a head shot look a lot better up close. Professional portrait photographers who take pictures of people use a certain "length" of lens so they do not distort their subjects even if they are just taking a tight close head shot. For example, something around 105 mm is preferred by many portrait photographers.

 Avoid digital zoom if you can help it.

When you are looking at a new camera or your existing camera, you will likely see two types of zooms listed in the specifications. Digital and optical. Digital zoom is zoom that is created with software in the camera and it's use does not create the same quality as an image created with only optical zoom. Optical zoom is purely a mechanical zoom that is created without internal software and gives the best quality of image because there is no software manipulating (degrading) the picture inside the camera. You can usually even turn your digital zoom off so that you do not accidentally use it when you do not want to. I do this with my automatic cameras to get the best image. If I am a little bit too far away from the horse I can always zoom and crop the image in the computer which is much more capable to edit images than the camera anyway.

Get sharp action.
The right shutter speed is important to get that fast moving horse tack sharp. I usually set my camera manually to around 1/500th of a second for a sharp motion shot. With an automatic camera you can use the sports mode to help you get sharp in focus action. You will have to make other adjustments if you shoot in manual mode to get the right exposure. You can change your ISO setting to a higher number such as from 100 ISO to 400 ISO. This will result in a more grainy looking image (aka more noise). You can also reduce your depth of field. For a lot of lenses the best image quality is around f11 but if you open up you lens (lower f/ number on manual settings) you will get a brighter picture but sacrifice depth of field (the safe zone where your image is sharp).

 Edit your photo selection.
Take a lot of photos, choose the best 3 or 4 photos and include both trot and a canter shot if you can. Don't be afraid to delete the bad ones. A canter photo can be optional but walk really is not terribly useful for a still image. Some people like halt pictures but I do not. I have never heard anyone say that they saw an incredible walk picture but maybe a "cute" halt will show off the attractiveness of your horse and also makes for a good "safety" shot in case you have nothing else that works. Walk images are what a video camera is for in my opinion. Showcase your horse’s best assets. If it has a fantastic trot include that. Canter is hard to show well and you may want to avoid it if it is not very photogenic.

 Edit each photo in your computer.
You may have taken the perfect photo and you pull out your storage card and stick it directly into your printer and print it out. You might have a pretty good result. However, most digital images need some sharpening, especially if auto-sharpening is turned off on the camera (a good idea as this is best done in the computer). They are "naturally" fuzzy and need just a little help. Some cameras automatically fix this but it is often best if you are going for super good print quality to do this in the computer instead and turn off the auto sharpening in your camera.

You will likely need to adjust exposure, contrast, sharpness, crop out distracting backgrounds or magically erase a power pole coming out of the rider's head. Get yourself a good program to handle this for you. I use Photoshop which is expensive and has a steep learning curve but there are others out there you can try.

Plan the photo session.
Choreograph the shots if you can. Choose the best locations, plan the movements and the angles you want to make. Move around the arena and have a dialog with the rider so together you create the image you want.

If you have show photos use them if they are at least as good as photos you take at home. People like to see a horse at a show. Although it is usually not an option, try to avoid unpleasant distractions in the background such as power poles, garbage cans, etc.

One problem I often encounter is when I try to photograph a black horse in front of a dark green background. I get back in front of my computer and realize how hard it is to see the horse. It just blends in too much and there is not much you can do about it at that point other than a lot of moderately helpful and usually a little more advanced photoshop techniques.

This point cannot be over stated. When you understand the limits of your camera and all of your camera features, you can experiment with angles and other things to see what works for you and the horse you are photographing. Experiment a little. If there has been a period of time since I last used my camera, I often pull it out in a rush take some pictures, and realize I forgot to check a setting, and the picture are either useless or not as good as they could have been so preparation through practice is invaluable.

 Read the camera manual.
This advice is hard to follow but well worth it. If you know all of the features of your camera you will get much better results. I really do not use automatic cameras much myself but even in manual mode on an SLR camera there are numerous features of my camera that I sometimes forget I have. On occasion when I am tired or distracted (usually overseas travelling) I forget to change a certain setting and then the image quality is not as I would like. Knowing your camera makes a big difference in those pressure moments when you have just run to the ringside at a show from the truck and you start snapping away.

There are other ways to get good stills. It depends on what your end use is going to be. If you know you are only going to put your photo in an online ad or send it in emails you might be able to get away with lot more in terms of image quality. If you think you will ever want to print your horse photos and you want them to look really good you will want to take more care.

I have moved away from printing images at all much anymore. I create display ads for magazines and DVD labels but other than that I usually only use my photos for screen output. If you are going to create your own video clips you can also include your stills in them as well. In fact, if you are only going to use your images online, you might be able to get away with creating still frame captures from your video software. The quality is usually not the same but this is improving depending on your video software and video camera type.

I hope I have helped you with your horse photography.