Black Background Equine Photography

Equipment needed for Black Background Equine Photography

I currently shoot with a Nikon Z78 (mirrorless) and do almost all my black backgrounds with my Nikkor Z 85mm 1.8.

You should always try and stay at a focal length of at least 85mm so you don't end up with lens distortion, causing the horse to look very disproportionate.

The three main lenses I have shot with throughout my career have been 70-200 2.8 (Sigma, Nikkor, Tamron are all great), 85mm (Sigma and Nikkor), and Sigma 135mm. If I could only pick one of these for all things equine photography, I would choose the 70-200 2.8 because of its versatility!


Setting up for Black Background Equine Photography 

When it comes to black background portraits, where you choose to shoot plays a huge factor in the overall outcome of the images. 

I shoot them exclusively at the end of a barn aisle. Sure, you can take a photo of a horse standing in direct sunlight in a field, crop it out in Photoshop, and slap it onto a black background, but the lighting and shadows won't make any sense! 

In an ideal world, you would shoot at the end of a concrete barn aisle with no light coming from above, the sides or behind, only the entrance. 

The sun would be soft and entering the barn from behind you so the horse is well lit and the background is completely dark... this scenario rarely happens, so we have to know what essential things to look for when picking where to shoot. 

Sometimes you only have one option... there's only one end to the barn aisle and you have to deal with what you're given. Don't panic, between Lightroom and Photoshop we can fix most things, it just might take some more time. 

Let's say you have two ends of the barn aisle to choose from. One end, the sun is coming in very bright creating a harsh shadow on the aisle. The other end is evenly lit and there is some shade cast out over it from the barn, so where you would be standing to shoot will also be shaded. Which end do you pick? I will always go with the evenly lit aisle in the shade and avoid harsh shadows as much as possible. If you chose the end with the harsh shadow going across it, you will have to constantly make sure the horse is staying behind that shadow so they are in even light and not creating shadows all over their body. 

You might want to be nice and not inconvenience anyone, but I promise you requesting all doors and windows behind your subject are closed and all lights are turned off is 100% worth the hassle. I even go as far as using blankets or towels to cover up any light I can that may be peaking through a crack below a barn door or in a window! The less correcting you have to do in Photoshop the better. This will make for a more natural looking portrait and save you a ton of time in post-edit! 

Often times I show up to barns where there are no doors to shut and no way to block out the light that will be coming from behind my subject. While this definitely isn't ideal, it's still doable! It will just take a bit of darkening around the edges of the horse during editing to make it look natural! 

Camera settings for Black Background Equine Photography

There is no exact answer for “what camera settings do I go with?” when it comes to black backgrounds, because no two situations are identical. 

Here’s how I think of it: 

9 times out of 10, I keep my aperture between 1.8-2.2. 

If I know I need to keep my aperture there, it means I have to adjust my shutter speed & ISO according to that setting. 

My next priority after my aperture is going to be my shutter speed. 

I want my images to be super sharp and crisp, so I need to keep my shutter speed as high as possible. Although the horse will generally be standing pretty still, I don’t like to go below 1/1000 for my shutter speed. (Yes, there are going to be scenarios where you’re going to have to sacrifice your shutter speed – don’t panic!) 

So I know I want my aperture between 1.8-2.2 and my shutter speed at or faster than 1/1000, so my ISO is going to be the last thing I adjust to make those first two settings work for me. 

ISO capabilities vary greatly from camera to camera. Some cameras start to see noise with 

anything above ISO 400, and some handle a very high ISO and still remain a quality image. Knowing how your camera handles ISO is very important. Test it out in a variety of situations, and see where you start to get noise and what ISO you can go to and still have images that are salvageable in post-edit. 

My camera handles ISO quite well so I tend to rely on increasing it instead of decreasing my shutter speed! 

Posing for Black Background Equine Photography

There's no easy way to say this, so I'll just be blunt:

I know, this can be a tough pill to swallow since we all think our horses are beautiful & majestic no matter what they do, but the truth is, just like humans, horses have good angles. 

For black background, confirmation shots, & any other equine-only portraits, I can't emphasize enough how essential it is that you are being intentional with how the horse is standing.  

For full body black background portraits like the one above, I will spend a LONG time ensuring that the horse is standing as perfectly square as they are capable of doing. Once I've got their feet in place, I worry about their head/neck position. For most breeds, I want the nose slightly tipped out, neck arched down and forward, and a soft, interested expression in their eyes. 

It can be really easy to just focus on getting the horse to stand still & forget about making sure you're truly shooting them in the most flattering way possible! 

I have a pretty systematic way of posing that keeps things simple, organized, and ensures I get a variety of poses to choose from for the final images. Of course, if the horse is having a really hard time with a certain pose, I will move onto something else and circle back to it if the situation allows for it. 

1. I start with a full body shot, with the mane facing towards me. I will get the full body shot & then move closer and get the same angle, but shoulders up. 

2. Next, I will keep the horse in this general position, but have them turn their head and neck so they are looking the opposite direction. 

3. Once I have these shots (I take them at a few different angles), I will turn the horse around and do the exact same posing sequence, but facing the other direction. I will start again with their full body shot, but the mane will be facing away from me now, then move in to get the shoulders up profile shot, and end this sequence with them wrapping their head and neck the opposite direction. 

Once I have all those "standard" shots complete, I will start to get a little more creative with angles and poses! 

Getting the horse’s attention:

I've learned to come prepared with a variety of different props to use to get my subject's attention. Horses are all so different in what interests them, terrifies them, & their response to new objects. Below are some of my favorite props for getting the horse's attention. 

I try and reserve treats & grain as an absolute last resort. Once you break these out, you usually end up with drool or a horse that's gone rogue looking for snacks! 

Change things up frequently. If the horse loses interest in one object, quickly switch to the next & keep transitioning back & forth. 

I do use the All Ears selfie app to play horse sounds for some horses, but it tends to make a lot of them shoot their head up in the air & look a bit panicked which is not flattering 

Strange noises work great for horses that aren't interested in any of your visual props. I keep a battery-powered fan on me and when it's turned on, it makes a strange sound that interests most horses. 

Other prop ideas: a stick horse, a broom, a remote control car (for a really desensitized horse), a plastic bottle with rocks or change in it, bright colored plastic bags. 

When it comes to getting the horse's attention, they key to success is figuring out what works for THAT horse. They are not one-size fits all. Always use caution when working with a horse you don't know & start with the least amount of effort. I always ask the owner if there is anything I should be aware of before I break out any of my props. 


Editing for Black Background Equine Photography

Editing your images is a huge part of what makes them unique to you. Creating a style or a certain aesthetic that is consistent in your photography is part of being a professional photographer. People want to know what they can expect from a session with you and if every session looks completely different than the last, they won't know what they're going to get. 


My editing workflow is as follows:

Upload images to external hard drive

Cull images using Photo Mechanic

Upload culled images into Lightroom

Apply first Lightroom preset (a preset I have created for my black backgrounds that I fine tune for each image)

Export into Photoshop and do the heavy editing – blacking out background completely, editing out blemishes, editing eyes, editing coat for extra shine, etc

Import back into Lightroom to apply final preset (a preset I have created for my black backgrounds that I fine tune for each image)