Photo Tips: The Horse at Liberty


Cantering horseEveryone loves to have pictures of horses running freely. Unfettered by tack or a rider, they look so beautiful as they gallop through a field. Catching that beautiful action with your camera is the ultimate challenge. However, before you try a liberty shoot always consider the safety of the horse and yourself. A horse that is used to being outside and is familiar with the pasture or paddock and frequently runs around on his own is a good candidate.

If you are going to pressure your horse to move out at liberty make sure that pressure is gentle, and stop flagging as soon as they start moving. The best pictures are when the horse is moving in a relaxed manner. A horse that is racing around with pent up energy often moves with a high head and hollowed back and rarely makes a pleasing image and could be at risk for a pasture injury. Liberty photos are difficult because the horse can go anywhere, but your best light and background will only be in one location. The trick is getting the horse to move through your shoot zone.

Sometimes a horse will naturally want to run towards a gate or in the direction of another horse. If that line puts the horse in your shoot zone you can have someone lead the horse away and then release him. I had one little Haflinger Mare that would run directly to me whenever she was released. The first time it happened, she came barreling at me and then stopped four feet in front of me. Once I got over the shock I realized how perfect that was, I quickly rewarded her, told her she was a good girl and handed her a bit of horse pellets I had in my pocket. She got it right away and from that point on she would gallop to me time and again from wherever she was released.

It is very nice to be able to photograph a horse running directly at the camera without fear of being run over, which brings me to another bit of sage advice. Be careful as some horses–especially young horses–do not respect your space. I have a video clip a horse owner took of her two-year-old taking a high speed run at me. I waved that filly off with my monopod and jumped out of the way at the last second, but it was a very close call.

Some of the easiest liberty pictures to set up are when horses have a routine like cantering out to pasture in the morning or cantering back to the barn at night. If you know in advance where they are going you can pick your spot and wait for them to pass by. Liberty pictures are difficult and you don’t know how fast or slow they will decide to move. You’ll typically need a minimum of 1/1000 shutter speed, and even that might be slow so remember to follow your subject as you push the shutter. Last but not least, keep shooting until the action stops.

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