Photography: Rachael Waller
Every niche requires specialized knowledge and a relationship with the subject. Few niches though demand a connection as close as the bond that equine photographers feel with horses. Whether they’re shooting portraits for clients, documenting action shots to illustrate magazine articles or creating fine art pictures that will hang first on gallery walls and then in the ranches of wealthy buyers, for the photographer, it’s always an affinity with horses and an understanding of the breed – as well as a knowledge of photography – that’s necessary to land the shot. That part of the craft has to be felt, not learned.
Rachael Waller has been a professional photographer for 20 years, and first learned her photography skills assisting her father, Robert James Waller, a photographer and author of The Bridges of Madison County. She later completed a BFA and MFA in film at California Institute of The Arts. But she has also been around horses since she was young, owns thirteen of them, is married to Rod Rondeaux, a Hollywood horse stuntman, and regularly helps equine rescue charities. That dedication, she says, is essential for creating effective images of horses.
“I have been knee deep in mud, asleep with hay in my hair… been smack dab in the middle of wild stallions fighting on the range, and stood in a field with a herd passing me at a thunderous speed (I can still feel the wind in my hair from that one!), up all night waiting on a foal birth to photograph and if I didn’t love horses, I wouldn’t have experienced any of that or captured some of the most amazing moments in my life,” she told us. “I love the big faces that I see through my lens, the messy manes, the deep expressive eyes, the personalities, a foal’s warm breath on a crisp spring morning.
“Anyone can snap a photo of a horse. In order to bring out their spirit and presence, that split second must be surrounded by love and compassion or it doesn’t work.”
Dedication then is one challenge that equine photographers have to overcome, and either you have it – in which case, it’s no challenge at all – or you don’t, in which case it’s insurmountable. But it’s not the only challenge. Equine photographers have to face the same lighting difficulties as other branches of photography. They have to make sure that feeder bins or bits of fencing haven’t crept into the shot in the same way that architectural photographers have to handle dustbins and yard furniture. But they also have to know whether a horse has had time to eat its breakfast, whether it’s been abused and is still healing, and whether it’s just unruly. Like portrait subjects, horses can also get tired, upset and annoyed, explains Rachael.
Equine Photographers Need Patience
If patience is a photographer’s most important tool after the body and lens then, it’s particularly important while photographing horses.
“I work with many rescued horses and waiting is part of the process,” says Rachael. “All horses will give you ‘their’ moment, when they are ready to.”
Rachael, who is also a documentary photographer and recently became Latin rock band Del Castillo’s official photographer, sells her work in galleries, to magazines and through interior designers. Every year, she submits images to a number of key galleries as well as to several juried exhibitions. Those submissions feed a word-of-mouth referral system that helps to bring in commissions.
Ken Sullins, an equine surgeon and part-time photographer, also finds that gallery exhibitions help his images to sell. While he has a website, sales from his online gallery, he says, are more occasional than brisk. A local gallery, where buyers can see his high-end canvases, tends to be more effective, and his business plan includes donating to charity auctions, which increases exposure.
But buyers differ too. Photo editors want pictures that tell a story but horse-lovers tend to buy the scenic shots and the “cute” mares and foals that Ken places in his online gallery, while equine professionals generally prefer to see something with a little more artistry and a deeper connection.
“It may be a close up of an eye, interaction of a team, athleticism or emotion of a mare and foal,” Ken explains. “It is however, more difficult to get those images in front of the right people.”
When it comes to access, owning horses is, of course, a big help. In addition to the horses on her own ranches, Rachael Waller has a network of friends, clients and horse sanctuaries that give her a palette of 400 horses to photograph, ranging from stallions and Mustangs to rescued horses with dorsal stripes. That provides plenty of variety. Ken Sullins tends to shoot at the horse farms which are his hospital’s clients, and he also attends the kind of events which he knows can provide the right subject material, light and access.
Make Friends with the Official Photographer
Those events can also be good entrances for anyone interested in trying their hand at equine photography, recommends Rachael. Most shows will have an official photographer so you should talk to them or the show officials first about shooting. Becoming an assistant can be helpful too, so it’s worth making sure that you don’t get in his or her way. Local horse groups and rescue centers can also be good ways in, and sometimes it’s possible to find a workshop that teach horse-lovers how to capture equine images.
Originality is also important for equine photographs. It’s a relatively small niche and most photographers can identify who shot an image just by looking at it, says Rachael. Copying someone else’s style won’t get you very far, but developing an approach of your own should help you to stand out.
“There is also only so many angles and parts of a horse we can all shoot so it comes down to style and vision,” Rachael points out.
It’s notable too that both Rachael and Ken Sullins do spend a great deal of time helping horses. Ken gives away occasional images and Rachael always donates a percentage of a sale when she photographs wild horses or works for a rescue center. Some of that is just good business, but most of it comes from the dedication to horses that an equine photography business depends on.