How To: Take and Edit Black Background Equine PortraitsPosted on January 16, 2018
Black background equine portraits have become increasingly popular over the past few years. While the concept isn’t new, known as “low key” photography, it’s become a fad for equine photographers. I’m not surprised why—removing distracting details really highlights the beauty of a horse.
Most people don’t realize how much time and work goes into crafting each image by hand. There are varying ways to achieve the final result, but after shooting and editing black background equine portraits for almost three years, I’ve gotten it down to a science!
The Ideal Setup
I’m most often asked what my set up is (if I hang a black tarp behind the horses), but I personally do all of the black in post-processing. This doesn’t mean that the lighting and location aren’t important. The way you set up your shot truly dictates how realistic the final image will look and how much work you have to do in Photoshop to get the desired result.
All of my black background equine portraits are done at the opening of a barn aisle, preferably enclosed on both sides. This helps to give the horse a nice, even light without harsh shadows or highlights—simulating that ‘fade’ of light to dark you might see if the image was done in a more traditional studio set up.
I also rely entirely on natural light. Other lighting sources like off-camera flashes or strobes are definitely helpful, but I try to limit the amount of gear I’ll need for each shoot since I’m constantly on the road. Plus you never know how a horse may react to strange equipment for the first time! My aim is to always keep the horses I’m shooting comfortable with me and their surroundings.
When shooting black background equine portraits, I usually stick to the same tried-and-true arrangement of poses. However, it’s important to recognize the most flattering angles of each horse so you can really accentuate them. This takes more than a good eye.
An understanding of correct horse conformation is also crucial to black background sessions, especially for full body shots. While most horses are not conformationally correct, there are tricks to making them look more square and straight. My life-long work with horses has allowed me to more easily identify these traits so that I may either work around them or find better angles to accentuate.
The shoot itself is the easy part. What can sometimes be as quick as a ten minute session per horse could lead to hours of editing. It’s taken years of practice to find an editing system that works for me.
I personally hand-edit each image in Photoshop, brushing in the black background to create the ‘illusion’ of a controlled studio setting. This is where I remove any dirt, scratches, spit or scuffs on tack to make sure each image is perfect. I will also spend a great deal of time editing floors in full body shots which can sometimes mean replacing the floor entirely with a new image to further achieve that stage-like look. I’ll then bring each photo into Lightroom to add my own personal preset and make any final touches.
Recently I began offering online workshops for editing black background equine portraits where I share my step-by-step process and tricks I’ve learned. It’s really easy to make a bad black background, but extremely complicated to make a GOOD one! I’ve always encouraged everyone to just keep practicing and practicing until you can develop your own system to get the results you want. For those willing to learn and dedicate them to perfecting the craft, it will yield amazing images and results.