Friday, February 29, 2008

Conformation photos: Tips and tricks

This warmblood is for sale online for more than $10,000. The photo is pretty in its own way, but it isn't likely to help sell this horse. At this distance, this angle, and in this lighting it's a shadowy specter of a horse. Anyone looking to spend that kind of money won't be inspired by an image which reveals so little. If the ad had claimed he was a feral mustang, I wouldn't bat an eye. Photos can be terribly misleading, and it can work for you or against you. Whether you're showing off your best broodmare, selling a riding horse, or just capturing your on beloved horse on film, invest some time into getting a great picture.

This from Flying Change Photography. The horse in this photo is stunning, but the photographer has given him every advantage. The lighting, the background, the positioning of the animal are all pretty much ideal (although the tree in the background obscures him a bit). Just as important, the horse has been captured in a good moment--alert, unafraid but keenly interested in something out of the picture. I love that the tail is behind the hock so that the hind leg can be evaluated.

So how do you take a good conformation shot?

This advice is geared to folks interested in conformation shots, although I suppose some of principles apply to other types of shots. As is often the case, this advice has been compiled from the resources listed at the bottom--I'm not a photographer myself.

1. Select the site.

  • Choose an uncluttered area -- no cars, equipment, etc.
  • Choose a site with a "contrasting" background, e.g., don't stand up a palamino in a sand ring.
  • The area directly behind the horse should be more or less the came color or intensity throughout.
  • Find a site with level ground. If you can, identify a reference point (such as a fence or groundline) to gauge horizontal balance.
2. Pick a good day and time of day.
  • Best times of day are about an hour or two after sunrise or before sunset. The light at this time will add a "glow."
  • If you want more sharpness, shoot in the late AM or early PM (e.g. 10 am or 2 pm).
  • Shoot with the sun behind your shoulder and slightly from the rear of the horse.
  • For most horses, a bright overcast day is best. Overcast light is more evenly distributed, with fewer harsh shadows.
  • For black, grey, or white horses, pick a more overcast day or low angled sun. They require a lot of side lighting to show the detail in their muscles as they move.
  • When shooting in bright daylight, use a flash to eliminate shadows.
3. Prepare your horse.
  • Your horse should be immaculately clean.
  • Braid your horse if he has a nice neck.
  • Shoeing should be recent, hooves polished.
  • Use a leather halter/lead or bridle (cleaned, polished).
  • Get your horse used to the tripod and other equipment. 4.Ask two friends to help.
  • Have them block out a few hours.
  • One will hold the horse, and one will get the horse's attention.
4. Position your horse.
  • Set up the horse in the designated location.
  • The height of the camera should be the middle of the barrel.
  • The camera should be positioned directly across from the girth area.
  • The camera should be at a distance so that the horse "fills up" the frame.
  • The cannon bones of the legs nearest the viewer should be vertical; the far feet should angle slightly inward so that all four feet are visible. The horse should cover a lot of ground, but should not be "parked out."
  • Turn the horse's head slightly toward the camera.
  • For a dressage prospect, the neck should be slightly elevated; hunters should be stretched out and down.
  • The horse should look alert and curious, with the neck arched.
5. Take the photos!
  • Walk the horse forward into the standing postion. Do not back them into it.
  • One assistant should hold the animal, the other should stand 20 feet in front with a bag, some grain, or a lunge whip to get the horse's attention.
  • The session could last 1-2 hours, giving the horse frequent breaks.
  • Try different "distractors" -- grain, lunge whip, etc.
  • Take many, many photos.
RESOURCES There is a WONDERFUl thread on the COTH list. Take a look for some super examples and advice from folks who know their stuff! Improving your horse photography by Susan Sexton, from Equisearch Equine Photography 101 From Florida Owner-Breeder blog Taking perfect conformation photos from the Stallions of Canada Photographing your horse from Photographing horses from Photo Knowhow Photographing horses: How to Capture the Perfect Equine Image (a book on Conformation photos: Tips and tricks from FHOTD discussion list Conformation photos and tips for taking them from the Horse forum Shooting horses: tips for equine photography from Associated Content


  1. That's a good post. I'm always amazed by people who put their horses up for sale and upload a picture of their horse grazing or a picture of the horse walking away. It always makes me wonder if they are too scared to put a halter on the horse and stand it up for a decent photo.

  2. I love ity when people advertise a horse as having a huge scopey jump, and they have a picture of the hrse jumping a cross rail with awful technique. I agree, a good photo can make or break a sale.

  3. Fantastic tips! And thanks for all the links too, looks like a log of good information. I'm going to try to put it all to good use tomorrow. :)

  4. Nice, educational post. My surprise is at your choice of names for your blog. "Behind the bit" is a term used to describe an *undesirable* position of the horse's head, ie: behind the vertical (that's what it means). The horse's face front should be just a little bit in front of the vertical, showing that the horse's mouth, poll and neck are relaxed and happy in the work. The horse in the photo is, in fact, behind the vertical (behind the bit) and I wonder if the blogger actually knows anything about dressage. If they did, they would change the name and photo of this blog!

  5. Hi Anon, if YOU knew anything about dressage you would know that the horse's head is not fixed, and at the lower levels in particular you will see the horse's had oscillate somewhat. Behind the bit is a play on words in this case -- what sits behind the bit? The horse and the rider -- and yes it is 'undesirable' -- but that doesn't mean it can't be a blog title.


Hi Guys, Your comments are valued and appreciated -- until recently I never rejected a post. Please note that I reserve the right to reject an anonymous post.