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Integrating Animal Photography into your Business

Lesson 4 of 31

Guidelines for Horses and Other Animals

Norah Levine

Integrating Animal Photography into your Business

Norah Levine

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Lesson Info

4. Guidelines for Horses and Other Animals

Lesson Info

Guidelines for Horses and Other Animals

We're mostly photographing dogs and cats, no horses will be in the studio today. Not mostly, but. I wanted to talk about them a little bit, because it is part of what I do, and some of you might be interested in pulling it into your work as well. A little bit of notes about horses. Primarily I'm photographing them outdoors, or in and around a structure. It's kind of a completely different process than photographing dogs and cats in terms of posing. I usually have to involve a rider or a handler and I'm mostly working on location. Studio would be a possibility, but it's kind of a bigger ordeal to have a horse in a studio, so most of the time I'm going to them. When it comes to understanding their behavior, you know, again, you don't need to be an expert. For a long time I think I held back photographing horses because I didn't really know how to approach them, I was a little bit kind of intimidated by them, but getting a basic understanding of their behavior is really all you need to st...

ay safe and how to approach them and keep others safe as well during your photo shoots. They're large and powerful. So just because of that, it's important to learn about them and feel comfortable and make sure that everybody is safe. And so you know how to maneuver around them. But they're beautiful and well worthy of photographing and there's a market for it, so horses are expensive to care for, people invest a lot of money and time in their horses. They take a lot of pride in them. Some of the horses are pets just like dogs and cats and those are the people that are my client base, is those people who treat their horses as pets rather than ones that use them more for sporting. That kind of brings me to this part is the portraits versus eventing. When people call me about sessions with horses, I really indicate to them that my focus is on the horse, as a pet, and their relationship with their person. I'm not an expert in photographing proper positioning of horses and eventing, you know the sport of horseback riding. There's nothing wrong with it, it's amazing, the people that do it, it's just not what I'm interested in and what I'm an expert in. It's not what I focus on. And I think that acknowledgement really opened up doors for me, because I really thought I have to know everything, I have to know how they're perfectly stacked, and it has not been a problem for me, and as long as I indicate that to my clients ahead of time, I think they're really excited about doing it as a pet session about their relationship. I'm focusing on the intimate moments. I love photographing people and horses together. The reins aren't perfectly lined up, you know, and I didn't know that, and I'm focusing more on the connection there and it didn't really matter in the end. You don't need to know everything about it to capture emotional connection. If they do ask me to do part of some eventing or them on the horse, I'll do it. I'll definitely go along with it, it's just not a big part of what I do. And in those cases, when it comes to figuring out what's what when I'm editing, there's a lot of that same body posture, like things that I can pay attention to in terms of like the horse being pulled together, and looking like it's confident and comfortable and same with the person, you know, they're not slouching, looking at those kinds of indicators that the horse is doing well. So you get to choose your approach if you're going to work with horses. What kinds of things do you like? And what resonates with you? I've enjoyed working with horses and kind of exploring that different area. Happy horses are ignoring you and your gear. That's a really good indicator. Or really focused on their rider or their owner. Their eyes are soft, not a lot of white showing in their eyes, they're very emotive. Their eyes are super emotive. Their ears facing forward, perked up. Sometimes horses can turn their ears, they do a lot of turning for listening purposes, but if they're pinned back, there's something fierce going on for sure. But most of the time, I want to try to get those ears facing forward and that's what photographs pretty well and that's what the horse owner really wants. Horses are prey animals, so their eyes are they're kind of built for, they have kind of a different view of things. So, that's something to really keep in mind. You want their muscle, their body and musculature to be relaxed and loose. Soft mouth, soft jaw. Everything just kind of loosey-goosey. Or pulled together, in the sense of they feel confident, you can kind of see it in the way that they carry themselves. On the other hand, kind of unsettled horses. I photographed this horse, it was a really cold and windy day. He wasn't necessarily unhappy, he was just really feisty and something happened, I think the weather was just giving him too much over-stimulation, it can severely affect their behavior. Again, not necessarily, he wasn't necessarily like this the entire time but there were definitely moments where he was unsettled. Their eyes, so we can see here, a little bit of the white showing, he kind of just looks concerned. You can kind of see that. Wide eyes, the white showing. The ears here, this could go either way. The ears could be listening, could be pinned back, I didn't have a lot of pictures fortunately of like super pinned back ears. But you know what I'm talking about with them right back along their head. Their body movements can be kind of erratic. Running around, pulling on the reins, just really unsettled. Kicking and standing on their back legs is obviously a sense of kind of being unsettled. Here you can see flared nostrils here, indicating kind of an intensity. I think we had just finished running around one of the pens, and so it's not necessarily unsettled, but it's an excited look. You can see the muscles on the horse's face are a little bit tighter there. Other fun animals. So I've had the opportunity to photograph lots of different types of animals and most of them have been for stock, fine art, or not so much for commission work. Although maybe I could start a movement for getting more paid portraits or something. But it's important to learn about the animal behavior first. Ask questions about what they like, what they don't like, know that you have even less control with different types of animals. It's like if you thought you didn't have control with dogs and cats, this is even more. But it's fun. And kind of keeps things interesting. Their behaviors are going to vary depending on their interactions with the people and how much they're used to being around people. So I got to photograph pigs once. Yeah, he could sleep in the bed and was used to being inside, was kind of one of the dogs, she has other dogs too. They don't sit, so that's something I learned. I do a shoot with a pig, and I didn't know. I don't think I did a bunch of research beforehand, it was like oh, note to self, next time, know that pigs don't sit. (laughter) You know? And they don't love heights, which I also didn't know, so in my head I thought like oh, like creatively, I could put him here and do all that, it's like not, you know. If you've heard a pig squeal before. I think those are things, okay, this is great to know for later. If I photograph another pig, I'll know. But I can do as much research, I should have done a lot more research but I learned a lot from photographing pigs. I photographed goats as well. The little babies are easier to manage. And again, how used to being around people they are will impact your ability to photograph them. So yeah, they're really sweet. Chickens, I love photographing chickens. There's kind of a new, a lot of people now are having chickens as pets around their house so it's really nice. If they're used to being handled, I love incorporating chickens into my portraits with kids or families, so that's really fun. Farm and ranch animals. So mostly they're not trained. The experience as a photographer changes dramatically. Mostly, I'm doing it as an observer, so there's not a lot of control. Although, like the peacock for example, I have these visions in my head of like I want you to be over here, so I kind of put it out there and lead the peacock over there and sometimes it works sometimes it doesn't. But most of the time it's like this quiet interaction of just waiting for things to happen so it's a very different experience than more of the proactive shooting that I would do with a dog or a cat. So it involves a different kind of patience for sure. We did have, I know we're not going to be photographing a horse in this class, but do you have any sort of top tips on how to get the best photographs of a horse based upon their behavior or as you're reading their behavior, like how you flow with the horses. Sure, so like a recent shoot that I did I think A, it's easier when you have people involved. So if you can incorporate people to be interacting with the horses it's easier. Having them in a kind of contained space where you don't have to worry about them running out that's something that is important to consider. Your energy's really important when you're photographing horses. They're going to be a little bit more, you're going to have to be a little bit more subdued around them and kind of pay attention to what their energy is doing and how they're responding to your equipment. I use very low level, very minimal equipment when I'm photographing horses. I try to keep all my stuff to the side, my camera bag, everything, so nobody trips on anything. I really include the owner, the owner will maybe lead the horse around to an area and I'll try to find my location and say "Here's what I'd like, let's try this, can we get the horse over here?" We might use a reflector, there are ways to, sometimes horses are sensitive to that and they're okay with it, and some of them are really sensitive to it, so I have to be aware of that. I want to make sure that I have great communication with the owners of the horse in terms of like do you think they'd be okay with me using a flash? Just that communication with the owner is integral. Sometimes I'll use a flash and if they don't respond to it that's a good sign and maybe I'll use the flash but most of the time I'm using natural light. Try to really observe what goes on. And take some time, you know? My sessions are usually like two, I spend a couple of hours. If it's low equipment involved, I'll spend a couple of hours out there and just try different things and go to different locations and make sure they're relaxed and comfortable. Another really important point about horses is that you want to make sure that your movements are slow and low and that you don't back them into corners. Horses need an exit point. So in terms of their behavior, you want to make sure that you don't back them into any corner because if they run forward, they're going to run towards you. You want to keep safe in that regard. I've had assistants, I think working with horses is easier when I have a helper. If you want to get the horse's ears perked up, having somebody off in the distance, because they tend to respond to things off in the distance, they don't do a lot of things, they don't really respond to squeaky noises or toys. But somebody like throwing something in the distance or popping up an umbrella and those things, again, are only going to happen when I've communicated with the owner and when the owner is not on the horse. You test things out before you do them. But having somebody dancing in the background that kind of thing can be really helpful to getting the horse perked up and interested. In the last shoot I did, there was a horse that was falling asleep! It's not like (laughter) he was a little older so it was like we had to do kind of a lot to get them interested and kind of keep awake and alert. They're a lot of fun to photograph. But they definitely take a different level of energy, for sure.

Class Description

Pets play a large part of every household, be it the best friend or first “child.”  Yet capturing their personalities is often more difficult than just a click of the shutter.  Instructor Norah Levine’s photographs are often defined by her clean compositions and authentic moments shared by people and their pets.  Now you can join Norah as she shows you the basics of pet behavior and how to get animals comfortable with the camera.  After this class, you’ll be able to capture great images of pets AND learn how to incorporate them into your family photography.   

In this class you’ll learn:

  • How to incorporate pets into your family photography.

  • Gain an understanding of animal behavior and key body language cues.

  • Build a business model that allows you to appeal to commercial, private and nonprofit markets.

Class Materials

Bonus Materials with Purchase

Norah Levine Book Coupon Code

Norah Levine Resource Guide

Pet Packing List

Pre Shoot Questionnaire

Ratings and Reviews

Student Work

Related Classes



Norah is really great and I learned a lot watching her. Even non-pet related things, like how she's continually trying to better herself were really inspiring to me. Since watching this, I've learned to take every shoot as a learning opportunity by evaluating what went right and what didn't, and thinking of what I can do next time to do better. I liked the way she showed interacting with animals in a way that doesn't stress them (well, depending on the animal there may be some level of stress anyway I guess...) too. Great class.

Chelsea Beauchamp

So inspiring! Great information on both family pet photography as a craft as well as the business side. Norah obviously knows what she's doing and has tons of experience, so it's a good chance to hear/see what it's really like to take this on as a specialty whether it's the focus of your work or one of many parts of your work. She focuses not just on the mechanics, but on the personal side of working with people and animals. You can tell she's passionate about what she does, too. It's only been one day of class and I already feel totally inspired!