British Equine Collectors' Forum

For All British Model Horse Collectors

Photographing Models

PLEASE NOTE:  Most of this advice applies to 35mm Film cameras but most people now use Digital cameras or mobile phones to take pictures, some of the advice here applies to both Film and Digital cameras and mobile phones.

Photographing Model Horses

So, you have some model horses which you want to photo show?  If you're hoping to do well you will need to show them at their best, and will need good shots of them.  Not sure how to go about it?  

The Equipment

You will need a camera preferably an SLR.  Other items which may be very useful include a flashgun, (unless there is already one built in the camera); tripod; cable release; close-up lens; reflector and of course a film.

The Camera is your main piece of equipment, and the camera you have dictates to some extent the way in which you photograph your models.  Generally, an SLR with a standard 50mm lens is suitable, though an excellent alternative is a short zoom (28mm or 35mm to 70mm or 80mm) , which will give you more flexibility, although most of the time you would not need the shorter end (less that 50mm) for photographing models.

Most standard lenses or short zooms will focus closely enough to photograph most sizes of model although to focus on stablemates you could need a close-up lens - if buying check first!  Some lenses have a macro facility - theses are good for focusing close to your model.  If money is no object, a macro lens is ideal and purpose built for photographing things which are very small. (A second hand manual SLR with lens in good order can be brought fairly cheaply these days)

The trouble with compacts:- you will probably find that your compact camera is not able to focus closely enough to your model. In this case the model won't occupy much of the resulting picture. It's worth checking your camera's closet focusing distance before use (look in the camera manual), there is no point in trying to focus closer that the closest focusing distance, which is normally about 1.5 metres, the resulting picture will be a disappointing blur.

The Flashgun:- is another bit of equipment you may need when working indoors or on dull days. Most modern cameras do have their own flash, which is usually alright. If yours has no flash they are widely available to buy, but do check that they are suitable for the job and compatible with your camera.
Ring Lights made for mobile phone social media content are widely available and are pretty cheap.

A Tripod:- is probably the piece of equipment you will try to manage without. The few extra minutes they take to set up justify with the results you will achieve.  It acts as a third hand, holding the camera safely in position, except when it is windy, leaving you with two hands free to deal with horse and scenery. It also, holds the camera perfectly still so no camera shake, and on dull days allows for longer exposure ( try second-hand shops or car boot sales, I brought one for £5, it's a bit tatty, but it works !!)  

A Cable Release:- is a gadget that attaches to the camera and enables you to press the shutter from a distance. It also presses the shutter a lot more smoothly than some people's fingers, saving camera shake.

A Reflector:- reflects light into darker shadow areas - useful on sunny days to lighten up the shadows.  You can buy one but it's cheaper to make your own.  A sheet of white card is fine for the job, though you may need an assistant to hold it in position, which effectively throws light into the shadows falling on your models. Take care not to include it in the shot. (Silver is a brighter alternative to white card: stick cooking foil on the wrong side, then you can choose which to use)

Presenting the Model

In all showing presentation can make or break your chances of success. With good presentation it's very often possible to make an exhibit look better than it actually is. If you use a picture or photo as a background it should preferably be matt, otherwise it may look very strange due to reflections and 'hotspots' (a bright white patch is actually light normally from the flash reflecting back at the camera). 

Other people prefer to use a natural set, bear in mind that your model is totally out of proportion with nature which is life-size. Study what you see through the lens very carefully before taking the shot.  Sometimes it's very effective to set the camera aperture to knock out most of your background out of focus. F5.6 should do the job with a traditional or classic model.  If you're photographing a mini getting an out of focus background is not a problem - it's usually the other way around!

Using the Camera

Before you do, you can not expect to take prize-winning shots, until you really get to know your camera and it's controls and how to use it.  If you don't know your camera that well then the instruction manual is essential reading matter.  You will need to study it carefully!  (No manual - ask in a camera shop or contact the camera's distributor. May can now be downloaded online.) It's also a good idea to get some library books on photography - it costs nothing and will give you a lot more information than you will learn from these few pages. The internet is full of helpful free advice to.

Aperture and Shutter Speed

Some of the main things you will have to get used to are setting the aperture, shutter speed and focusing. Whether or not you get these right can make or break your photo.  If you have a fully manual camera you have to set both correctly.  If you have a camera with aperture priority you set the aperture of choice, the camera sets a shutter speed to suit. If your camera has shutter priority, you set the shutter speed etc. (Of the three, this is the least satisfactory for close-ups)  If your camera is fully automatic, it will make the decision for you.

Aperture:  This is the mechanism which controls the amount of light getting to the film.

It is important because if too little light reaches the film the picture will be too dark.  If too much reaches the film the picture will be too light. 

(Too dark = underexposed, too light = overexposed).   If you look on the camera lens barrel you will normally see a ring with numbers on it, these will include some of the following: f2.8, f3.5, f4, f5.6, f8, f11, f16, f22 and f32.  This is the aperture ring, an auto focus camera may not have these, in which can you would look through the viewfinder or numbers. 

To see it's function, providing you have no film in the camera, try the following:- set the aperture ring at f2.8 or f3.5, open the back of the camera and press the shutter, you will see the aperture open really wide so a lot of light can reach the film.  Set the aperture ring to f16 and you will the opposite happens.  In very dull conditions you will need a lot of light in order to get a decent shot.  You won't necessary need to use f2.8 or f3.5 as this may result in a small area of the photo being clear, though it's ideal for portraits or small details. 

Shutter: This is where the shutter speed kicks in.

You will normally find the shutter speed dial on the top of your camera. Again it has a series of numbers including some of the following: B 1.2, 4.8, 15, 30, 60, 125, 250, 500, 1000, and 2000. These are the seconds/fractions of seconds that the shutter is open when you press to take the photo.  The longer the shutter is open, the more light it allows to the film.  Without a film set the dial to 'B' open the back of the camera, and press the shutter. On 'B' the shutter stays open until you lift your finger. 

The Warning Time: The longer the shutter is open the more likely you are to get a blurred photo due to the dreaded camera shake.  A shutter speed of 125 or 250 is usually suitable for avoiding it.

To photograph a Model horse you will be aiming for the whole horse being in focus.  For a traditional size model an aperture of f8.6 - f11 should do the trick.  If you want the background in focus try f11 - f16, if you want the whole background thrown out of focus try f4- f5.6.  The closer you are to the model the less of the picture will be in focus.  So, for a mini model your aperture will need to be different.  You may need f11 - f16 for just the horse to be completely in focus.  Your shutter speed needs to be at least 60 if you are hand-holding the camera. and at this most of your shots are going to be spoiled by camera shake and the closer you are to the horse the more critical this will become.  125 - 250 are far more appropriate speeds, unless you use a tripod. 

However, you can't just choose any old shutter speed/aperture, they have to work together on what is a satisfactory setting for each of them.  Unless you camera is auto-everything, you will have to match up needles/arrows/LEDS, seen by looking through the viewfinder.  To match the aforementioned you have to alter the shutter speed dial or aperture or both.  If you're working in good light, you should manage an aperture of at least 5.6 with a shutter speed of at least 125. 

There is another thing to remember - very small but very important.

Setting the Film Speed on the camera:

Films are coded so that some cameras (mainly auto focus) can set their own speed, but if your camera is a manual model the chances are that you will have to set the film speed (i.e. 100 ASA, 400 ASA, etc) yourself.  There is a dial for this somewhere on your camera ? consult the camera instructions.

What Film?

You need a colour print film with a speed of between 100 and 400 ASA. The make of film is your choice, though a well known brand film is usually the best and 400 ASA allows you to photo indoors and outside. Remember the better quality the film the better the photos!  Though when you first start, it may be best to learn with the cheaper films, i.e. supermarkets own brand, or ones handed out for free when you collect your developed photos. 

One thing to remember is that generally the slower the film the smaller the grain the sharper the image. but it needs more light to take the shot.  The film speed really refers to how sensitive the film is to light.

Lighting Your Photos.

The sun is an excellent source of light, but it can present you with far more problems than you may imagine. It can cast ugly unnatural shadows over your model (you need to be very observant in order to avoid this). Midday isn't the most forgiving time of day for photography, when working in direct sun.  Morning and late afternoon are better, while early morning and early evening are the most atmospheric. 

Winter sun is probably the worst with it's very harsh light - and while you may think it is bright your camera may well not believe you!  Winter light on the whole is very weak. 

If you are having problems with shadows don't forget that you can throw some light into them with a reflector (though you may need a helper to control it).  Of course there is no dire need for you to take your photos in bright sunshine.  A bright but overcast day will give few problems with shadows and excellent colour.  Alternatively, there is no reason for not working in the shade on a sunny day.

You may prefer to work inside - and with the somewhat unreliable British weather you may well have to at times.  If the sun is bright and lights the room up well and evenly, you may be able to use natural light instead of a flash (consult you camera's light meter).  However, the light won't be as intense as it is outside and you will need to use a tripod to keep the camera steady.  Watch out for those shadows (don't have electric lights on as well, they will alter the colours of your pictures, making things look yellow). 

Electronic Flash is the type of lighting usually used for indoor photography (it can also be used outside).   There may be two main problems:- 

  • A dark halo around the model.
  • A 'hotspot' where the flash has reflected off a shiny model leaving a bright/white area with no detail.

To avoid the first one make sure the model is standing well away from the backdrop, this is a big help and the easiest, though not the most perfect solution. 

To avoid the second to be quite honest it may be best to avoid photographing shiny models with a flash.  (You could try fastening a piece of translucent white paper- greaseproof, or tissue paper or old fashioned hard toilet paper (always useful if not for the purpose for which it was intended!) - over the flash gun).

Posing the Model

In-hand Shots

Basically stick to the rule of photographing the models best side, with four legs visible - even if only slightly.  Try to avoid having three legs on your model and at an unusual angle.  Reasons are a follows:

  • Good position for judge to assess conformation, type, bone and whatever else they wish to assess. This may also cover a multitude of sins. i.e. too narrow in the body, cow hocked, etc.
  • The camera lens doesn't always translate what you see or think you see, as you see it! So, if you tilt your 50mm camera lens down towards the horse, on the resulting picture you will find that the animal has short legs. Looking up and the legs are too long, and head too small. Horse at angle means head appears too large, behind nearest means too big a bum!  This distortion is more noticeable with a wide-angle lens, 28mm should give stunningly horrific effects!
  • The third reason is to do with focus. When a whole horse is in focus, it will allow the judge to see all of the model, including it's faults! 
  • If a horse is at an angle, once the eye is in focus, the rear may possibly not be.  This is even more extreme with smaller models. 

Some horses are not at their best photographed in this way, however.  Look back at point 2 mentioned earlier, and think of those cresty models which always look front heavy.  You may well be able to make him less so by standing him at an angle, with his behind closer to the camera.  Even that horse with poor conformation don't give up on them. Look for the good points, try various angles and you may get a winning shot out of him yet! 

Performance Shots.

Here you will need to know about the discipline in order to know how best to portray it. Not actual personal experience, there are plenty of magazines and books on the market to help you out.  In some cases the judge may well have to assess things like rider position, correct tack/ harness etc. whatever points a judge would consider for that particular discipline. While some are best viewed in profile, in other cases what is required is an interesting and convincing picture. 

Ridden Hunter, Dressage, and Lead rein may well require different treatment to Cross Country and Gymkhana Games. Earlier comments about backgrounds also apply here. In some cases you will be including more scenery and props if appropriate to the picture. An aperture of between f11 and f22 should keep plenty of the shot in focus, if that's your choice.

Taking the photo

Set up your horse and background.  If you are showing him in hand then the horse is the subject of the photo.  If you are showing in performance classes, then the horse, rider and accessories are the subject of the photo.   

  • Focus the lens on the horse, then look around him, carefully. If there is a lot of background, move closer to the horse.  If the head is out of shot, or tail move back. Check again that everything is in focus, the horse is taking up the frame, he doesn't have a tree or bush sticking out of the middle of his back or head, and no stray bits are in the way, i.e. coffee cups, your finger, etc. 
  • Check your film speed, aperture and shutter speed - once done - and on a tripod, squeeze the shutter. If you don't have a tripod, try to have something to lean on or against, to steady yourself - otherwise you could get camera shake.

Processing and Presentation

You now have your finished film. Needless to say, make sure you have wound the film back. There are plenty of places to have your film processed, mail order, chemist, camera shop etc. Some may give you a free film but needless to say that this will be a cheap film, so it is up to you if you use them for your models. Also, there are also some companies more reliable than others. Try somewhere recommended by someone first. 

Presenting your Photos

For photo-showing the normal size pictures of 6" x 4" are ideal.  Don't be afraid to trim photos if necessary, they are judging your model not the size of your photos (but don't cut them too small, there is nothing more annoying to a judge than 'postage stamp' sized photos !).  Though if you have the bigger pictures, i.e. 7" x 5", then you can always trim these down and the photo will be filled with the model and you still get a good size photo. Though, please remember to use a metal ruler or guillotine to give you a good straight edge. 

It is also a good idea to get a small flip-up photo album with plastic sleeves which display each photo separately, cut them out of the album and put a photo in each. This will protect your photos whilst in the post.


Everyone has a few shots which are less than perfect.  The problem is when you get a lot of them and/or you don't know what went wrong.  Below are some common problems and some normal causes.:

Fault  +  Probable Cause  =  Remedy

  • Whole shot blurred  -  Camera movement  -  Use a Tripod or shutter speed of 125 plus
  • Part of shot blurred  -  Focus incorrect  -  Practice/focus more carefully
  • Too dark  -  Underexposed  -  Check exposure
  • Too light  -  Over exposed  -  Check exposure
  • Insipid colour  -  Overexposed or stored incorrectly  -  Check exposure, store film in fridge, or wrong film or poor processing, check film, use different processor
  • Greenish Cast/Gritty  -  Film couldn't cope with dark conditions, underexposed appearance   -  Use better quality  film, i.e. Kodak Gold Ultra
  • Scratched negatives  -  Dust inside camera or processing fault  -  Cleaning kits available from suppliers
  • Whole film black no pictures  -  Film not loaded properly, camera fault  -  Practice loading film, repair may be required.
  • Photos Fade  -  Stored incorrectly  -  Use acid free/archival quality storage materials.
  • Photos Fade 2  -  Unsatisfactory processing  -  Go elsewhere! 
Above picture shows that set-ups don't need to be complicated. Here the top of an oven is being used to great effect, along with a Ring Light and a tripod.

BECF would like to thank Lydia Beesley, Bernadette O'Neill and Catherine While for their contributions in helping to make this Information Sheet.

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