Horse Portraits: Creating The Dark & Dramatic

My favourite time to take Horse Portraits is in the Autumn, I just think that the natural hues and tones are at their best, but I also think that creating dark & dramatic horse portraits can also be very rewarding visually.

As I use flash for all of my equine portrait photography, I have decided to write a blog about the equipment I use and share some of the reasons why I choose different equipment in relation to the equine images I enjoy creating.

I will start with a barn or large stable, as these are both locations that often work very well in relation to lighting. The ambient lighting in these environments is usually darker than outside, so the advantage you have is that flashes don’t have to work as hard in terms of competing with ambient light, it’s also far easier to kill the ambient light as it is already low and just light the areas you want to light with flash mainly the horse and owner

An example of a three-light setup in a barn. Two Godox AD200’s via AD-B1 in medium Octabox camera left. One boomed Godox AD200 with round head.

Depending on the time of day and location it is possible to kill the ambient light outside and create dark and dramatic horse portraits, but the two issues that are often challenging are having enough flash power and controlling the cameras sync speed. The image below was taken in the winter on a very grey day and the background behind the girl and horse were a tall hedge row of conifers, so I was able to start with a natural dark background, but I did have to use the equipment I had at full power. When I took this image, I had a Godox 360 and two Godox AD200’s, certainly not enough power for a full-length dark horse portrait, but enough power to create this image.

Although many flashes now have HSS High Speed Sync (shoot with flash above your cameras sync speed) you lose a lot of power and the flash have to work really hard, so although you may be able to shoot at 1/500th instead of 1/200th the amount of light loss may be too great to provide the amount of light you require for the image you are trying to create.
You can use ND (neutral density filter) to reduce the ambient light, so that you can stay within your cameras sync speed, but you will lose flash power in relation the amount of stops of light the ND filter is reducing the ambient light by. HSS & ND use both have their places depending on your needs and conditions.

Hard Or Soft Light For Dark & Dramatic Horse Portraits?

If your amount of flash power is limited and you are struggling to kill the ambient light, you will benefit from using hard light and this is where reflectors and how you use them can really help, you will be surprised at how using different types of reflector can make your light more efficient.

Soft light has become the mainstay of most flash lit images these days, but if you are trying to kill the ambient using soft light, you are going to need a lot of power if the ambient light is challenging to control. Personally, I think both soft light and hard light can create stunning images, it’s really about your intention and the equipment you have or don’t have that can make the decision for you.

Once Coronavirus is no longer with us, I plan on making a video during my next Horse Portrait Shoot, showing the lighting modifier’s I use and the position in which I place the lights, so let’s hope I get the opportunity soon.

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