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Taking Photographs of Heavy Horses PDF Print E-mail
Written by Editor   
Sunday, 05 November 2017 18:27

A few hints and suggestions for taking good photographs


Many books, magazines and online articles will give you tips and instructions about taking good photographs in general. They can tell you about light, angles, framing, shutter speed and so on. Most if not all of those will apply when photographing Heavy Horses. As with all photography you can also break those 'rules', but a good understanding of them will help you to break them deliberately to good effect. I will assume you have already made youself familiar with those. What general photography articles will not usually cover are aspects that are very specific to the subject matter, and that is what I will mention here.

Safety First warning triangle

A first 'rule' is that of safety- for you, for the horses, their handlers and members of the public. If at a show, make sure you follow any instructions given by signs, stewards, handlers, programs or schedules. Despite the impression of docility these are still horses, which can react unexpectedly and move very quickly. Stay alert, especially when you have your eye to a viewfinder, as it is easy to focus on what is in front of your camera and miss the ton of horse tanking right up behind you. When there is no barrier between yourself and any horses, remain on your feet- if you crouch down to get a different angle be ready to jump back up again quickly.


Now we come to photography guidelines specific to the horses themselves


Heavy horses should give an impression of power and strength. This can be enhanced when taking side-on photographs by positioning yourself slightly towards the rear of the horse. The perspective will then make the hindquarters look a little bigger and more powerful.

Grey percheron in harness, standing side on to the camera, photo taked from slightly to the rear

It is very subtle, but for this photograph the camera was positioned very slightly towards the back of the horse rather than directly to the side. You can just see the backs of the farther two legs. This angle gently emphasises the horse's powerhouse rear end. The horse is also stood four square with pricked ears, further points that will be mentioned later.


If you crouch down then perspective will help make the legs look a little bigger, while a higher elevation will slightly emphasise the bulk of the body. Adjust your vertical position to suit the horse- low down if you want to make feathery legs more spectacular, for example, or high up to show off a Suffolk's powerful frame. Choice of angle can also add drama to a shot, and can help to minimise or highlight background elements.

Shooting at an upwards angle to highlight legs and feather

Shooting at an upwards angle slightly elongates the horse's legs. It also adds drama to this spectacular harness. This photo was taken while lying on the ground, positioned safely BEHIND the arena barrier.


Head-on shots make the hindquarters look small. If you do need to take a head-on shot then try to have a good point of focus- a rosette on the bridle, or a conversation between the judge and the handler for example- to keep the eye from drifting back. If you can stand further back and zoom in then that will help lessen the distortion.

Taking a photo from a forward angle makes the hindquarters appear weak It is never an ideal angle, but othe attention can be drawn to other features such as the smiling rider and the rosette

The photo on the left does not present the horse well. The angle enlarges the horse's head and makes the hindquarters look small and weak. On the right, other aspects help draw the eye away from the shortcomings- the horse's turned head and pricked ears, the rider's smile and the rosette. This is always going to be an awkward angle to find a good shot.


Horses are led from the off (left-hand) side. Photograph from the horse's right if you want an unobstructed view of the horse, and from the left if you want an unobstructed view of the handler. When you are on the horse's right and photographing a fully-grown large heavy horse breed, then if you pick a lower vertical position to shoot from you are more likely to be able to include the handler's full face in the frame (beneath the horse's head).

In a heavy horse showing class the horses will be led all around the arena at the start and at the end of the class, so pick the arena side that will give you a good angle for lighting and the exact position along it to give yourself the best background behind the horses. At the end many will be wearing the rosettes won in that class, usually on the off (left, handler) side. There is plenty of time during the individual inspections and showing to move around and get different angles. Do bear in mind how crowded the viewing area is, however, when deciding where to stand and whether to move.

Zoom is your friend. A good zoom (or long lens) will let you fill the frame with a single horse from outside the fence even in a large show ring. Arena railings or rope posts are usually quite a good height to use as a rest for stability. Zoom doesn't have to be extreme. If you're working with a cameraphone or a digital snapshot camera then 8x zoom will give you a lot of options. With an SLR, my 75-300mm gives a good range and also lets me take closer shots that I would have to switch lenses for if using an even greater zoom.

Image taken from far side of Newbury showground

I'm not certain exactly how large the main arena is at Newbury Showground. An approximate measurement on Google Maps makes it about 50m by 120m (that's VERY roughly 300 x160 feet, or a little bit smaller than a professional soccer pitch). I took this image from the back of the stands across the width of the main arena and was still able to fill the frame with a team at the Royal Berkshire Show.

Horses and harness look good when shining in the sun. Many- by no means all- heavy horse events are slow. For those that are, one of the great advantages is that you can afford to take your time. You can wait fifteen minutes for the sun to come out, because the same class with the same horses will still be going on. Or, given the thousands of photos that will fit on a memory card these days, you can take photos now and also wait fifteen minutes for the sunshine.

When standing, heavy horses are usually stood up 'four square', with the hooves making the corners of a rectangle, so if you want them looking correct by show standards then try to catch them like that. A resting hind hoof can suit a casual image such as a relaxed, friendly interaction between handler and horse.

Many horses will have some or all of their mane plaited into a long plait that runs the length of the top of the neck. The end of the plait, and any unplaited mane, will be laid on the right hand side of the neck. Photograph from the horse's left to have a mane-free shot, which can help with an impression of muscle, power and strength. Photograph from the horse's right to show off the ribbons and plaiting.

For the following pointers having a camera that will shoot a rapid sequence can be of benefit, as you can pick the best shot out of the selection

Catch the horses with their ears pricked (turned forwards) to give them an attractive, alert appearance. If you are asked to take a photograph then the handler may be able to wave something or make a noise to get the horse's attention, so that it pricks its ears. Check with the handler before doing anything yourself to attempt this, as they may want to avoid frightening the animal. At the end of classes, immediately after the prize-giving and before the horses are led for a final circuit, there may be a short photo shoot for the winners, where sometimes a ring steward will be helping to persuade the horse to prick its ears.

Try to catch horses with their lips closed, their tongues in and their jaws straight (not pushed to one side), unless you want a quirky image.

Try to photograph horses when the top of their neck is arched gently upwards (like a doorway arch) and avoid catching them if their noses are poked forwards so that the top line of their neck dips downwards (an arched neck looks strong, a bowed neck looks weak).

Generally speaking, the muzzle should be lower than the eyes and the nostrils should be further forwards than the eyes if the horse is standing still or moving forwards. This will be different if you want to catch the act of a horse tossing its head about.

During the walk, a horse usually looks best with its weight on one foreleg and the other foreleg swinging forwards.

percheron drawing a tip cart- least favourable part of the walk

At this point in the walk the horse can look rump-high and ungainly in a static image

Not much better, from this angle. It would look better completely side on as there would be more evenly matched spaces between the two hind legs and the two front legs, which would help to make the horse look balanced

third point in walk sequence showing one of the more photogenic moments

Here's one of the more photogenic parts of the walk sequence, weight on one foreleg with the other swinging forwards. In a static image this gives a sense of forward motion and levels out the withers (top of the shoulder) and rump of the horse. However, you can also see one of the pitfalls of having an eye glued to the viewfinder while panning and shooting a sequence- distracting background elements behind the horse which are easy to miss until after you've taken the photograph.


During the trot, a horse may look best at the point of suspension (not touching the ground), when the hooves are at their furthest forward or backward positions and the legs are extended, or just before that point with the front knee bent and the two forward-moving hooves with their toes downwards. However, for some breeds it can also work well to catch them when the front knee is at its highest point and the front hoof is tucked well back, to show off a high-stepping action. This latter point in the stride also often works better for horses moving towards or away from the camera.

When being driven in pairs or teams, it looks more impressive if each pair if horses is in step with its partner (horses will seldom remain like this even if well matched as they will need to keep making turns, which will bring them out of step because the outside horse must move more quickly than the inside horse). It looks even more impressive when an entire team of four (or more) is in step, so congratulations if you catch a photograph of that!

A pair moving together very nicely

A pair of shires in the Musical Drive at the 2017 Great Dorset Steam Fair, moving so nicely together that they almost look like copies of the same horse.

Last Updated on Sunday, 05 November 2017 23:51