BY LAUREN MAULDIN
Tis the season to throw a Santa hat or a bow on your horse and smile for the camera! While the best photos are undoubtedly shot by a professional equine photographer, sometimes budget or time won’t allow a pro shoot. So what’s a festive equestrian to do for their holiday card? You’d be surprised what your phone’s camera can accomplish with some creative editing.
The first thing to keep in mind are props. It doesn’t take a lot of money to add some holiday flair that won’t spook your horse. You can get a Santa hat at the dollar store. To help it fit your horse, cut one hole out for an ear. You can also sew some thin, elastic cording to hook under the hat like a throat latch. This will secure it for your photos.
If your horse is a little head shy, consider something around their neck. Wide craft ribbon with a decorative bow is a classic, easy choice.
If you want to get even more festive, you can create a wreath for their neck. Even though the look is reminiscent of a wreath, don’t get an actual wire wreath to put over your horse’s neck! You’ll find the fit doesn’t work well, and the stiff structure can be uncomfortable for them. Instead, grab a single strand of garland. You can drape around their neck, taking care to give them a second to sniff (and see if it’s edible!) so they’re not scared. To secure the garland, simply take the wire branches and twist them together. This will loop it temporarily.
You can decorate the garland with anything you like. I’ve actually grabbed the one that’s usually on my mantle (nothing like improvising), which has little pine cones and berries woven in. For more sparkle, add some battery-powered LED lights. They’re a great way to light up the situation without having to worry about the dangers of an extension cord or traditional tree lights.
Once you’ve figured out your props, it’s time to think about the shot. The best time of day took take a picture with any camera is the “golden hour,” which is the last hour before sunset. Of course, winter doesn’t always give us the best lighting. The day we shot these pictures was cloudy and overcast, which provided an opportunity to do some post photo editing.
One of the most popular equestrian photos, holiday or otherwise, is the black background shot. Even though this is best achieved by a DSLR camera, it is possible to get one with your cell phone. The first step is picking the right location. You want to look for a barn aisle or entryway into a covered arena—anywhere the light is darker behind the horse than in front of it. For these photos, the best time of day to get them is when the bright sunlight is shining directly into barn aisle but it’s still possible under any lighting situation.
You want to position your horse where the foreground of his body/shoulder is in the light coming into the barn aisle, and the back of him is towards the dark. I like a 3/4 angle, but you can decide what looks best to you. If you want your final photo to be without reins, unhook the side of your reins from the bit that is closest to the camera. This way a helper can hold your horse, but it will be easy to take the reins out later.
Now it’s pretty easy to tell that a lot has happened in editing from the original photo and the black background final. While there are a ton of different ways to edit photos to enhance the dark background from a shot like this, I’ll walk you through how I do it. I use Adobe Photoshop, but the steps are similar for any image editing service like free options such as pixlr.com or other online photo editors.
First, start with the original photo from your camera and crop it to your preferences.
Next you want to edit the levels. This controls the color balance and exposure of the photo. I take the darkness level down as low as I can to make the background as dark as possible while still being able to see the detail of the horse. You’ll see that the dark areas, especially further back in the barn aisle, have turned a brownish black.
Next I up the contrast quite a bit. This will help continue to darker and develop the black areas of the photo. The horse looks cartoonishly red at this point, but don’t worry—we’ll fix that.
To fix the unnatural, glowing red that we got from upping the contrast I then lower the saturation of the entire photo to get back to a more realistic looking bay color.
Now it’s time to pull it all together by creating the black background. Use the eyedrop tool to color sample the darkest part of your background. Use this color as your “black.” If you make it the blackest color possible without sampling, it will look very unnatural.
Once you have picked your black color, use the brush tool to fill in the areas of the barn background that show up. The goal is to have to paint as little as possible. Hopefully darkening your levels and upping the contrast will mean the area around the horse’s mane and face is already black, but you’ll see I had to paint around the ears here. Just lower the brush size, make sure it has a soft edge, and take your time.
The last thing I had to do was fix the rein over the bit, because I forgot to take my own advice and unhook it for the original photo! To remove the leather, I just copied the top of the D ring of the bit, paste it over the leather that was on the bottom of the D ring, and erase the extra bits. But it’s far, far easier just to unhook it to begin with.
There is a learning curve to editing and photography, but it can be a fun way to spend a rainy afternoon. Don’t get frustrated if your cell phone photos don’t look as good as a professional photographer—they won’t. That’s why we pay good pros for amazing photos! But if that isn’t an option, these tips can help you make great memories on a budget.
About the Author: Lauren holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of California Riverside, and is a lifelong rider and writer. Beyond equestrian journalism, she explores body positivity, mental health and addiction through personal narrative. She enjoys showing on the local hunter/jumper circuit in Austin, Texas.
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