While I spend most of my time shooting landscapes, I’ve also spent many years shooting western photography as well. I grew up on a ranch in a small town in Colorado so I’ve had a lot of great opportunities to shoot horses, livestock, and cowboys/cowgirls. And after a few years of traveling, I started to see just how interesting and rare the cowboy culture is. It’s always an exciting challenge to see what you can capture!
I’ve also taught numerous western workshops over the years and had the opportunity to tackle the most common questions and struggles that photographers have — which I will dig into in this article. Some of these tips are quite basic, while others are geared towards more advanced photographers. Hopefully it will give you some new information that will help you improve your western and horse photography.
Keep it Simple
I’ve always said the number one thing in photography, which definitely applies to western photography, is to keep it simple. This is the key to creating powerful compositions. Make sure that you know exactly why you are taking the photo, what the subject is, and that there are very few other elements in the scene other than that subject. Most of the other supporting elements should be simple and clean with the purpose of adding to, not distracting from, the main focus. Here’s a quick video tutorial on simplicity for further explanation.
Position and Perspective
With most types of photography, your position relative to your subject and the subject’s background is absolutely critical to an amazing shot. In western photography, that generally means getting lower and placing your subject higher in order to get the perspective right. (see example image) In my western workshops, I am constantly placing riders on hilltops and moving my groups to the exact position where they are perfectly silhouetted against the sky without losing the view of their legs below the hill.
While that idea is very straightforward, you want to be doing the same thing with every aspect of your image — placing yourself exactly between your subject and the most interesting part of the sky, for example, or around other elements of the landscape like valleys and trees. The key is to be 100% aware of everything in your image and how those elements relate to each other.
Finding the Perfect Moment
As a landscape photographer, I am pretty big on the idea of thinking before you take a shot. Which means trying to make sure that every element is perfect and subject placement is a conscious decision. I’ve found that the more thought and care you can put into a photo, the better it turns out.
While I still recommend this approach with western photography (see perspective above) once the magic starts happening (both in landscape photo but especially western) I advise taking a ton of images, regardless how perfect each shot looks.
If you’re shooting a western scene that has many subjects, think horses running, cattle drive, cowboys swinging ropes, etc. there are just so many elements that must be perfect. The chances that everything will be is incredibly low. The more images you take, along with being super aware and moving your feet constantly, the higher your chances of success will be.
Using the Sky
Perhaps the number one mistake I notice clients making when shooting on my western workshops is including way too much foreground in the scene. Generally, that means the main subject is somewhere in the middle with equal amount of sky and field above and below. Of course, there are a couple situations where that balance can be perfect and is exactly what you want. But anytime you are in a situation where the foreground is quite boring (which seems to be the case a lot in western photography) and if the sky is even remotely interesting (which should always be a goal) in my mind you should always fill the frame with sky with a very small amount of foreground to anchor the scene.
Now onto camera settings…
Maintaining a Fast Shutter Speed
What shutter speed to be at
Determining the minimum shutter speed required for western photo can be a bit challenging, as you always have a variety of situations. Of course, a scene with horses walking doesn’t require as fast of a shutter speed as horses in a full-blown run. If you’re shooting in a situation where your horses or cowboys are moving quite slow 1/500th of a second should be fine. If they are running (and especially towards you) you want to aim for at least 1/1000th of a second or possibly even higher.
What about low light?
Of course, when you are shooting in brightly lit conditions (think outside during the middle of the day as example) it is quite easy to maintain this fast of a shutter speed. However, if you’re shooting indoors or very early in the morning or late in the evening it can be a serious challenge. Having a high-end modern camera and a very fast lens can make this much easier but there are still a few tricks you can work with:
> Using Auto ISO
Besides shooting wide open (at F2.8 or F4 depending on your lens) the only real way to maintain a fast enough shutter speed in low light situations is to increase your ISO. The problem with increasing the ISO, even with the best modern cameras, is the higher you go the more noise you introduce and the less dynamic range you have. So the goal is to keep the ISO as low as possible while still maintaining the minimum shutter speed you require.
Considering the pace that western photography moves at, I’ve found that using Auto ISO is the absolute best way to maintain a shutter speed while keeping the ISO as low as possible. While I can’t get into exactly how to set your camera up, as they are all slightly different, you can get online and research setting up Auto ISO with the user defined minimum shutter speed for your camera.
> Aperture Priority
Using manual mode can be great for shooting landscapes and using live view – but anytime I am photographing a subject that moves I always shoot in Aperture Priority with Auto ISO turned on. This allows you to set the Aperture, while the camera’s metering system will automatically try to find the correct exposure. And with Auto ISO turned on the camera will work to maintain the minimum shutter speed by varying the ISO along with keeping the exposure correct.
The reason this is so powerful is because as the light changes, the camera is working to keep the ISO as low as it can while maintaining the minimum shutter speed you set. So for example, if you’re shooting directly into the sun, the ISO may be at 100 at 1/1000 but as horses change position and move to a situation where the sun is at your back, even seconds later you may need to be at ISO 3200 to maintain 1/1000. Auto ISO will do this automatically.
With the rodeo that western photography can be, having your camera make those decisions for you is 100% critical. You can use the exposure compensation dial to fine tune your exposure as needed. Again, a quick google search will give you more information on using exposure compensation. (note: some older Canon models work better using Shutter Priority with Auto ISO, again do a google such for your camera)
Dealing with Focus
Focusing is one of the biggest challenges in western photography. And unfortunately I don’t have a simple solution to make it a ton easier. So much depends on your camera and lens set-up and every manufacturer is different.
The main advice I can give is to consider keeping it simple and old school as often as possible. That basically means just using a single focal point in the dead center of the frame and focusing on whatever subject you want while holding down the focus button to rearrange the shot. This is slightly slower but it allows you to have 100% and total control of exactly where you are focusing. I find with western photography, there are often multiple subjects in a scene and I want full control of where the eye goes along with what is in focus and what’s not. This very basic single point focusing is what I use for 90% of my western photography.
The other mode that I commonly use is single point continuous. This is quite similar to the above, but in continuous the camera will continue to refocus as you hold the focus button down. Because of this, it works great when horses are running straight towards you — as you can hold the focus button down and continue to shoot (and ideally the camera will maintain focus on its own.) Most modern cameras also have many advanced multiple points focusing modes, and depending on the situation, along with your camera and experience level – you may be able to make great use out of these. I recommend doing more research on the modes of your particular camera. You could also get recommendations from sports photographers that have that have the same camera on the settings they prefer.
Keep in mind, regardless of what method you choose, and especially in low light situations, you probably won’t achieve perfect focus on every shot. Don’t be frustrated, do the best you can – and while I normally advise being very deliberate – I always tell people to also be very loose with the shutter button when it comes to western photography.
Exposure and High Key Situations
As mentioned above, I pretty much always use Aperture Priority along with Auto ISO and the exposure compensation button to get the exposure correct for western photography. However, since shooting in high key conditions is such a powerful tool for creating interesting and dramatic photographs, you have to be very aware of the exposure that your camera is giving you. Make extra sure you have all the details of the scene you are trying to capture.
The first step is to make sure you are shooting in raw, (this goes for all types of photography in my opinion). Raw files contain much more information and allow you more room to work with post-processing. That basically means not having white blown-out skies or black lost shadows.
The next step is using your histogram and learning how to use it. While understanding the histogram is beyond the scope of this article, again a quick Google search will yield endless information on the topic. Basically the histogram gives you extremely important data on whether or not you need to darken or brighten up the image with your exposure compensation button. A quick glance will tell you to make the picture darker or brighter. Learning this skill is absolutely mandatory for the high key scenes you often find with western photography!
As with almost all types of photography, post-processing is nearly as important as the shooting. Being able to work with the data that you so carefully captured (using ideas above) is 100% critical. Most importantly, editing is where you can truly turn your photographs into art and express your creative vision. I personally use Adobe Lightroom as I find it very powerful and much easier to use than Photoshop. For those of you that have been shooting and editing for years, of course this is obvious, but if you are just getting into photography, keep in mind this is something that you pretty much have to do if you want to create great images.
Practice in the field…
If you’re just getting into photography or if any of these ideas are a bit challenging, I would absolutely love it if you joined me on a western workshop! You will have the chance to shoot horses running against a mountain backdrop in the best light. It’s a great opportunity to put your skills to the test. All levels are welcome and we dig into these topics in more detail both as a group and one-on-one to make sure you have it down completely.