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Tips on Equine Photography

Reprinted with permission from the New York Institute of Photography


Before the moving camera, a debate that had raged for years among horse lovers and painters was settled by still photography. Did a horse actually lift all four feet off the ground when galloping at top speed? Prior to artist, Eadweard Muybridge's work, horses were painted in the "hobbyhorse attitude"–front legs stretched forward and hind legs backward. If you've ever watched a horse run, you know that the movement of the horse's legs is too fast for the human eye to perceive. Painters had to guess how to represent this action on canvas.

We know the answer to the galloping horse debate today because of Muybridge, whose acutely timed succession of photographs of a horse running not only proved that their hooves move off the ground simultaneously, but also created a way of recording movement using still photography that inspired not only artists, but also inventors and scientists. With time, it became apparent that Muybridge's "stop-action series photography," as it was called, acted as the precursor to the moving camera. Muybridge had found a way to use the camera's "eye" to show us things we could not see with our own eyes.

Muybridge was born in Kingston-on-Thames, England in 1830. In the early 1860's he learned photography from daguerreotypist Silias Selleck in San Francisco. Prior to photographing "Occident," the galloping horse, he had a name for himself as a respected photographer. Between 1868 and 1873, he took over 2000 photographs of the American Far West.

Due to the deftness of Muybridge's photography, in 1872 his financially supportive well-to-do friend, Leland Stanford, the Governor of California, commissioned him to settle the galloping horse debate. Muybridge photographed Leland's horse Occident in a series of successive images. After experimenting with multiple cameras, shutters, and elementary time-release techniques, Muybridge caught the horse galloping at a shutter speed of less than the two-thousandth part of a second. The images of Occident clearly dashing forward with all four legs off the ground unleashed a newfound enthusiasm for the potential of photography to reveal nature's secrets. The potential for motion pictures became abundantly clear.

Upon his first trial, Muybridge used the fastest shutter available and was only able to recover the faintest image of the horse, though it clearly showed all four hooves off the ground simultaneously. It was a success, Muybridge thought, until he sent his results to the editor at San Francisco's Alto newspaper. The editor disputed his work, claiming the photograph had been manipulated. Muybridge decided to refine his methods. He went back to work.

Muybridge's second experiment involved arranging twelve cameras along the track. Each shutter now worked at a speed of less than two-thousandth part of a second. Strings were attached to electric switches that were stretched across the track for the horse to break through, one after another, allowing the shutters to be released by an electromagnetic control. A series of negatives were made, each of which clearly reproduced the image of the horse. From this, Muybridge gained massive attention in America and Europe, and his drawings from the photographs were published in many newspapers. Many people placed the photos in a zoetrope-a popular barrel-shaped toy that had slits in it for pictures; when twirled, looking through the slits produced the illusion of motion by showing brief glimpses of each successive phase of the action.

Stop-action photography led to Muybridge's work on a series of photographs of myriad animals in motion and humans, nude and clothed, doing everything from walking to running to laying bricks to vault jumping. Adding fire to the enthusiasm surrounding this, in 1880, he invented the zoogyroscope-an instrument that projected a series of his stop-action pictures consecutively one after another onto a screen, creating the first precursor to motion pictures. Between 1884 and 1885, he made 30,000 negatives using shutters controlled by clockwork and three cameras, each with thirteen lenses to take photographs from the side, front, and rear. Though much of his most prolific and memorable work was of the human figure, Muybridge began with horses and the movement of their physical form while galloping. Were it not for the enjoyment taken in watching horses and recreating their likeness, where would our field be now?

Basic Tips

During Muybridge's time, horses were more closely linked to the carriage than the camera. Now, the camera and the horse share a close bond, one that is both lucrative and for many infinitely rewarding. But whether one is photographing horses or the family pet, it's important that photographers choose a subject that touches them in an integral way. With the right lighting, angle and necessary simplifications, recreating the animal's personality on film can yield magnificent results. Still, capturing the precarious, enlightening, and occasionally awe-inspiring nature of any animal can sometimes be a great challenge. Because of the shape of most animals, it's important to think about lighting.

Is your subject most comfortable inside or outside? If you are outdoors, it's often good to photograph in the early morning or late afternoon when the midday sun won't cast an unflattering shadow over your subject. If inside, use a high-speed film such as ISO 400 or 800 film, which works best under low-light settings.

Tips for Photographing Any Animal

Make sure your animal is comfortable. Often, an animal will treat a camera in the same manner as sick children at medicine time. Allow your pet to sniff the camera, not lick, but simply become comfortable around the tool. After a little investigation, most pets will pay no attention to the camera, but don't forget the treats and the props! Whether it's a meaty bone or live roaches (for the snakes), snacks will keep your pet happily active-a perfect time to catch those spontaneous pictures. Regardless of how animated your subject is, using a fast shutter speed-generally 1/125th of a second or faster – will stop the action and make sure that you get a clean, sharp image of say, the animal's legs moving crazily about. Focusing on the head and neck will surely capture his/her personality.
- Lauren Ragland

To be continued ...

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