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3 Things to know about Black Background Equine Portraits

I've had a few inquiries recently about the set-up required for the black background equine portraiture that I create, so I thought I would write a post to describe the various options and process involved with each.

There are three ways that these black backgrounds are made: completely in photoshop, with artificial light or with a combination of natural light, studio lights and environment.

1. Completely in Photoshop

This is the option most event photographers will use for a photo taken in sunlight.  The horse is cut out or extracted from the background, or the background is simply painted over and blackened out using photoshop.

The problem with this method is it can look very un-natural like the horse has been cut out and stuck on a black background (which it essentially has been).

My background in photorealistic traditional painting has helped me develop a keen eye when it comes to lighting, light fall off and creating form from highlights and shadows.  I am a digital artist as well, so I use a wacom tablet and pressure sensitive pen to manipulate the light, reflected colours and shadows so that the black background wraps around the horse's form in a more realistic way.

This is a very time consuming process to do well, its my least favourite way of creating black backgrounds and because the results do not look natural, this is not the option I offer for private portrait clients.

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2. Artificial Studio Lighting

The second way is to create the black background in-camera using artificial studio lighting.  This is the easiest and least time consuming way to create black background portraits with minimal photoshop skill required.  The main problem with this method is the studio equipment required to create them.  Interestingly enough most horses I have used artificial lighting with are not concerned about the flash of light at all (even the hottest of thoroughbreds).

Some horses may prick their ears at the 'pop' when the lights trigger, but the thing most horses will be concerned about is the umbrella's, light stands and softboxes that are required for studio lighting.  While an indoor arena is ideal for these portraits with artificial lighting, it can be done in other environments.

Aesthetically speaking, artificial lights often look extremely 'hot' and harsh which is actually a hard look style studio photographers often aim for.

I personally don't like the hard light look, so when I use an artificial lighting set-up, I prefer to utilise the environment and backdrops with lower powered studio lighting so the photos don't look as harshly lit.

3. Natural Light  

The final way black background portraits can be created is 100% in camera with no artificial light at all.  This method creates the most natural looking images as they are created by manipulating natural light and shadow during the photography session, and then enhancing the shadows in photoshop.  The downside of the natural light method is that it does require the session to be held at a location where there is a barn, shed, stable or carport to create the shadow.

The horse is positioned at a specific point where the natural light and shadow meet in harmony, this positioning will change depending on the actual building being used as well as the size of the horse.

This method requires professional quality equipment as depending on the colour of the horse and other variables, it can be necessary to under-expose the photo which causes all sorts of problems with equipment that cannot handle low light well.  Black background portraits created with this method take more skill in photoshop or lightroom to process, but the end result when done well, is a very natural looking photograph.

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I prefer to combine the second and third methods when I create black background portraits, depending on my client's preference for the look of the final images, how the horse responds to the equipment and the facilities available at the session location.

When using artificial lighting I always take the time needed for the horse to adjust to the umbrella, softbox and backdrop stands, using the same training principles that I use with my own horses (think Warwick Schiller, Ray Hunt, Tom Dorrance, Buck Brannaman et al).

Knowing how to shoot these sessions with 100% natural light means that if your horse happens to be one of those that just won't accept studio lighting equipment, I will still be able create beautiful fine art black backgrounds portraits for you.

Conversely, white background portraits can be created using natural light from simply positioning the horse against big open sky or by using a white studio backdrop.  I offer both black and white backgrounds for my clients, the specific method used will depend on the environment the horse is in.

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Book your fine art black background equine portrait photography session here or contact me for a chat if you would like to know more about creating some beautiful portraits of your equine soul mate.

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