Saturday, April 16, 2016

Picture Perfect

Pictures are pretty darn important when trying to market a piece. They can make or break a sale, or be the deciding factor in whether or not your high-dollar piece actually brings in the amount it's worth. I cringe when I see dark or poorly-angled shots on the sales pages. So, I thought I'd write a little Model Horse Photography 101 article and list what I'm using at the moment to get the shots I do. I'm going to also tell you right now that good photography equipment is NOT cheap. It is, however, worth every penny and will be a much required investment if you really want to show off the quality of your work and sales pieces. 

My go-to camera is a Canon EOS 40D. It's "old" in terms of digital cameras but it continues to do it's job. I've done 10' long by 6' tall exhibit booth backdrops for the family biz with photos taken by this camera and could stand them up right next door to Garmin's booth with their high-dollar graphics and be proud of the work. I bought it used (owner used it once) back when it was being discontinued and the 50D was coming out so I got a good deal. My point is that you don't have to fork over thousands to get a really nice camera if you're smart about it. For the model horse photography, I use the standard lens that came with the camera body - which is a Canon 28-135 mm lens with the image stabilizer. 

Lighting - the god of photography. While a somewhat cloudy day is perfect for outside shots, I don't like depending on the weather. Our Colorado sunlight is especially harsh for photo subjects as well. It really is best if you can figure out a studio lighting situation. You want a temperature range that is not too cool and not too yellow or you will get green and red shots respectively. You can alter these in Photoshop if you must, but it's really better to try to set things up so you spend the least amount of time editing photos at a computer as possible. 

My personal photo area is in a basement room with a slit of a window (read: no natural light whatsoever), so I really need to make my own light. If you can let natural window light filter into your room, but not shine directly on your piece, that's best. Please please please do NOT take a photo of your horse with the window as the background. Your camera will hate you and will decide to darken your shots into just about silhouettes of whatever it was you were trying to photograph. Your camera lens reads only that it's pointing at a ton of light and so therefore adjusts the brightness of the shot down to compensate, giving you a shadowed-out shot. You'll get this look any time you point your lens directly at a light source.  

My basement room has a ceiling fixture that is just three bulbs (no cover or anything pretty on those). Even with a flash, this is not enough light. To boost the brightness without adding glare, I did purchase (on Melanie Miller's recommendation) some "cheap" studio lights. One of these lightboxes goes on each side of my subject: 

The one on the left is as far away from the piece as I can get as there is shelving right behind it. I have tables on the right so that one is as close as I can get it. The ideal situation would be 1' away on each side. There are five light bulbs in each "lightbox" and so I can adjust the lighting to make it even. I usually have about three turned on in the left one and all five turned on in the right one when shooting resins. I keep mine more or less beside the subject and turned slightly away from me to face it and the background. 


Camera flashes are a big help, but they do create a lot of glare if you don't use them properly. You can pick up cheap-o diffusers on Amazon for under $10 that will make a huge difference in giving you more light without the shine. If you REALLY get serious, then you can do what I just did and buy a separate flash. I can't recommend this option enough. Unlike the camera's stock flash, this one is directionally adjustable and far more powerful. This means I can point the flash upward to "bounce" off the ceiling and get the nice soft glow of light without the flash glare on the horse. You can also use it as a "slave" and move it around your studio to give you different options besides the directly-in-front option. I'm using Canon's Speedlite 430ES II flash and I just love it. It's made photographing so much easier and left me with far fewer hours to put in editing photos in Photoshop. Canon has it on sale right now: It's worth the money. Trust me. I wish I'd have bought this baby 10 years ago when I got the camera. 

Positioning. When it comes to model photos, nothing is more frustrating to me than seeing a shot looking down on the horse. Anyone can see how unflattering it is. It's also incredibly lazy. Bend your arse down to be looking straight at your subject. Seriously. One little squat to take a photo will not kill you. Sit on a stool if you need to. 

Another less obvious mistake I see a lot of people doing is that they put their subject 2" away from the backdrop. Now, I can understand that some folks just won't have room to much more than this, but if you can, drag your background forward several feet. This allows your camera to focus on the subject and blur out the background, making sure your eye only focuses on the part you want it to and not get cluttered with extra stuff to be distracted by. It makes an okay shot a professional-looking shot. Notice in the photo above I've also pulled the backdrop forward so that there's no "fold" in the backcorner. You want it as smooth as possible. Having your subject forward will also help to prevent the shadow of your piece showing up from the flash. 

My backdrop is painted muslin that I got from Silverlake Photo back when they sold pieces cheaper on ebay. I don't think I'd buy from them now as they're crazy-expensive. When looking for a backdrop, try to keep it neutral and medium-toned. You want something that will work with all colors of horses (gray and sand colors work well) and you want it mid-toned so that your camera has a nice mid range color to focus on to give your photograph proper white balance and not over or under expose your photos. I like a little bit of mottle just to keep it from appearing flat.  Don't go crazy with lots of color or an obnoxious color. Remember it is the BACKGROUND and your horse needs to be the star without having to clash with anything for attention. 

Hopefully this little article helps you move forward with your own model horse photography!