Monday, January 9, 2012

Jaime Baker's Guide to Model Horse Photography

In addition to being one of the hobby's premiere finishwork artists, Jaime Baker also moderates one of the best Yahoo groups I've ever had the pleasure of joining.  It's not a typical artist's announcement group.  Instead the focus is on learning and sharing and DIY projects of all types.  This article was posted to that list yesterday and I am so pleased that Jaime has given me permission to repost it here.  Thanks, Jaime!

Jaime Baker's Guide to Model Horse Photography

by Jaime Baker

Ok, here we go.  I'm going to go through a series of photos right quick and explain what I do.  

These first two photos show how my photo tent is.   It's PVC but you can use a box or whatever you have that works.  The background goes up the back, CURVES downward and the model stands on top of the background.  The curve of the backdrop is important is preventing a horizon line that you may not want.  It also helps soften shadows.  Note that my lights are pointed at an angle both inward and downward.  When you have the lights with the little movable necks  on them like these clip lights you can wiggle them and adjust them to both create even light AND avoid shadows.  Always keep your eyes behind and below the horse when you fiddle with lights.  You want those shadows soft, otherwise they are distracting.  So here are pics of my setup.  It looks like I have the lights in the room turned off but that's not the case, it's just the camera metering off the light bulbs themselves making everything else darker.  
 Ok, so you want to diffuse your lights.  This will both soften the light to avoid high contrast as well as soften the shadows and glare.   If you look at the previous two photos you should see my tripod sitting right in front of that table.  When I shoot, the camera is on the tripod, I hold that sheet with one hand and pull it forward, towards my camera lens but ABOVE the camera lens, that way I'm shooting under it.  It's not blocking the lens, it's just diffusing the lights.  This first photo is just a straight shot, with that sheet pulled down in front of the lights.  NOTE - Look at the shadows both underneath and behind the horse.  They are fairly even, not jumping out at you.  It doesn't really look like a 'shadow' with a shape, it just looks a little darker down there.
This is the exact same set up except the sheet has been pulled up to where it is NOT in front of the lights at all.  So this is direct light on the horse.  Nothing else changed.  NOTE - now look at the shadows behind and below the horse and how stark they are.  Also notice the glare coming off the back of the horse....the white looks REALLY bright and blown out.  Too contrasty.  Also notice the glare/reflection coming off the glossed hooves.  Another distraction.
  Now then, when you diffuse the light, you lose light.  The horse will be a smidge darker.  This should be a non issue and should be fixed in a photo editing program.  You don't want it way too dark, but a little dark is not a big deal and easily fixable.

I shoot on a medium-high aperture of about F10-F13.  Aperture of F22 and higher will typically have focus to infinity.  I don't want this.  I only want the horse and details in focus, not the background.  My shutter speed is rarely higher than 1/30 of a second sometimes as low as 1/2 second depending on the color of the horse.  If you are setting your camera on some sort of auto type setting and your shutter speed is really high (1/125-1/250 or higher) you are losing your aperture.  Aperture controls your depth of field.  The lower the number on the aperture the lower the depth of field.  This is why a photo of the horse slightly turned will show, say, the face in super sharp focus but the backend of the horse soft or blurred.  You want the horse in as much focus as possible.  So try to keep your aperture at bare bones minimum of F8.  A wee bit higher is better.  To keep the background subtle and blurred, move the horse further away from the background and/or move the horse closer to the camera.  Also, I do not use any flash in my photos when I do a tent.  Just the two clip lights and that's it.  Adding on camera flash into the equation can make for harsh light and shadows and dull color.

On to adjusting in photo editing software.  I just spent an hour and 20 minutes editing photos.  Only took 12 minutes to get them all taken.  I shoot on a tripod ALWAYS and I always take 3-5 photos of EACH pose.  Why?  Because even my heartbeat can sometimes jar the camera when I go to press the shutter.  I don't have a cable release right now (these are cheap and can avoid you directly touching your camera to take the photo) so I just take multiples.  And every single time, I'll always have one or two that just aren't as tack sharp as I want them.  I go through each, finding the most in focus one and then I choose that one to adjust.  My particular camera shoots a wee bit warm toned regardless of the setting I have on the camera, so I know this going in.  I set it on the Custom White balance setting and then, when my photo tent and lights are ready I put a white sheet of paper in my setup, where the horse would be.  And I photograph  that white sheet of paper and then tell the camera to use that to get the white balance.  Not all cameras have a custom White balance setting but its something you can check for.  Once that is done, I photograph my subject.  It will get the colors closer but still not exact, that's why I have to edit them in software.  I use an old version of Photoshop, but Paintshop pro will do it and I'm sure there are a ton of other programs out there for cheap or free that will do just fine.  I like to be able to adjust the color balance, contrast and light value, and hue and saturation.  Those, to me, are the most important ones that I generally have to fiddle with.

On these photos, because the background is not neutral and is very vibrant, it put a cast on the horse.  Light bounces.  So when you point lights at a horse/background that light bounces back towards you/the camera.  In other words, in this case it made the white on my horse have a tealish green cast.  When you start having issues knowing where to make adjustments check your whites and make sure they have no color cast to them.  On other colored horses with no white markings, you just have to start learning the program you have available and making adjustments the best way you can.  Do not stare at your photos on your computer screen for a long amount of time.  Always have something white to look at.  A wall, sheet of paper, something close by.  Because your eyes will automatically begin correcting the color if you stare at the photos for too long.

For my next photo you will see before adjustments at the top and after adjustments below.  The first thing I did was adjusted the curves on the photo.  A 'curve' adjustment will generally allow you to adjust the photo light/dark wise without affecting the contrast as long as you keep everything in the middle.  Again, these are things you can play with to see what all they do.  So, first thing was to lighten the photo a bit using the curves level.  Then I went into the hue/saturation settings and adjusted the hue by +2 and decreased the saturation by -15.  Most cameras these days are pretty much going to shoot with too much saturation.  That's what makes you say 'ooooooooooo what a pretty picture!' but it may not be very true to life.  For my customs I want little to no surprises when there new owners receive them.  This is why I take so many and spend so much time adjusting each one.  I keep the horse right by me when I do adjustments as well so I can constantly look back and forth to get my color right.

Sometimes hue/saturation adjustments are all you need.  Not for me.  Each camera is different, each background, each light, the color of the horse, these are all variables that come into play on how much and what you need to adjust.  I can only tell you what I do for my setups, this may or may not work for you.  

My next step was to adjust the color balance to get rid of the green cast on my white.  I went into something called 'Variations' on Photoshop.  This is another way to adjust color balance.  Most programs will simply have a 'color balance' section to adjust from.  For me, I put it on the lowest adjustment setting and added one click of blue and one click of magenta.  How do you figure out color balance for photos?  Well for me it was 4 years of college with a degree in Photography:)  Here is your breakdown

Photo too blue - add yellow
Photo too yellow - add blue
Photo too magenta - add green
Photo too green - add magenta
Photo too red - add cyan
Photo too cyan - add red

These are your opposites.  This is not the same as color theory like in art really, since you only have these 6 colors to adjust.   It's up to you to be able to distinguish the difference between magenta and red, cyan and blue and figure out where to make your adjustments.  Remember, magenta is kinda like hot pink, cyan is more a greenish blue than a royal type blue.  

On some of my photos the variations level adjusted a bit too much in the way of adding blue.  So for that, I went into the color balance and went with -3 on the yellow (which added more yellow back into the photo that the variations level took out).  It's how the program is set up, yellow is on the negative end, blue on the positive, so by doing -3 yellow it is the same as adding 3 of yellow.  I'm sure it's confusing but just find a color balance option and crank it all the way one way or another and you'll see if it's adding more of one color versus the other.  Just play with it!  You have a bit more micro control in a 'color balance' setting versus a variations setting.  None of this is really going to make much sense unless the program you use allows for these adjustments.  Again, just learn your program.  Most of what I do with Photoshop is self taught.  If I can figure it out anybody can:)

Lastly, if my whites looked really blown out, I took the contrast down by about -3 or so.  Again something to fiddle with.  If your photos are too dull, you may want to up the contrast a hair to make them pop.  Black and white horses are a bear to photograph just because the camera's meter does not see white nor does it see black.  It meters off 18% gray (or thereabouts, there are arguments on the percentage).  For more info on gray scale you can go hereand do a Google search on how a camera meters.

And as I mentioned, here is an example of one of my photos before adjustment and after.  

If you were to just look at the top photo, there doesn't really look like anything is wrong with it.  It's a matter of training your eye to see color casts and hues that shouldn't be there.  And that just takes practice:)

Hopefully this helps some of you.  Ask questions if needed!

Thank you so much, Jaime!  I know this tutorial is going to be extremely helpful to a lot of people, myself included.
Jaime's incredible Little Lone Star resin is for sale right now on eBay.  Be sure to check out his auction,  if just to look at those detail shots.  The finishwork and the photography are equally exceptional!


  1. Thanks for reposting this, its a REALLY great article!

  2. Hello Jenn,
    I just wanted to let you know, thanks to an old post of yours, I have discovered what has been missing all along in making my tack reach that next level. It is the Gum Tragacanth!!!! The edges of my leather look sooooo much better now. Thanks so very very much!!!! I also took Shannon's advice and have gotten a super skiver from Tandy. I have always used an exacto or utility knife like you. This super skiver does have a learning curve, but wow is it faster and once you get control, you'll never turn back!!!! So thanks to my two favorite Tack blog writers!!
    Oh, here;s a silly question. What is the picture of on your blog page. It is clearly a part of a saddle, but I can't figure out what is hanging off of it. Silly me!!!

  3. This is a fantastic how-to article. Thank you for reposting it, I'll be sure to put it to good use!