Portraying horses: poetry in motion

Mike Leske is a network engineer living in Germany.  Interested in photography for a long time and driven by a passion for travel, his interest lies in nature and landscape photography.  In this tutorial Mike gives us his best tips about how to capture horses.


ICELANDIC HAIRSTYLE

It was this instant when the horses aligned at the fence and stared into the camera: a coincidental moment when nature revealed its beauty just minutes after the sky cleared from dense fog.
Exploring the Icelandic nature and landscape had been on our travel agenda for a long time. In March 2014 it finally came true, and we stepped into a world that was purely breathtaking. Prior to our trip we had seen so many astonishing photographs of the well-known landmarks, and we made sure that our travel itinerary included a set of icy waterfalls, snow-covered landscapes, the aurora borealis and, of course, Icelandic horses. Landscape photography can be planned well ahead of time, but finding a set of Icelandic horses was more challenging than expected. 

 
NIKON D600 . Nikkor 16-35 f/4 . 16mm . 1/100sec . f/16 . ISO 100
 
 
The day I captured this photograph we planned a day trip around the Snæfellsnes peninsula. When we left Reykjavik in the morning, the weather was not very promising: icy temperatures, rough wind and dense fog covering the sky. The further north we drove, the more the landscape turned into an “ice land.” We were surprised by the huge amount of snow still covering the ground in early spring, but the winter of 2014 was extremely long as we learned from the residents. At that time, some cities in northern Iceland were reachable only by air due to the heavy snow. There on the Snæfellsnes peninsula we rarely saw another car on the streets.

"We were excited to find some horses in this snow-covered landscape; I always imagined them in a rather greenish landscape."

Just before we discovered the horses, the fog lost its density and finally gave way to the indescribable blue Icelandic sky and its puffy white clouds passing by. We found the group of horses very close to a fence just a few meters away from the road. We were excited to find some horses in this snow-covered landscape; I always imagined them in a rather greenish landscape. The wind was still blowing strongly, but the entire winter scene was absolutely stunning. Initially the horses were waiting for us at a fence facing south, but because the sun was directly behind them, it guaranteed a burned out sky.

With a bit of whistling and finger snapping I was able to get the horses’ attention, and I managed to line them up behind a fence facing west with the blue sky and winter landscape in the background, the sun coming from the left side and the wind blowing from the right side. The horses still moved quite a lot, and with my 16mm wide-angle lens I needed to be really close to their noses to fill the frame.

"Surely the photograph would have lost a lot of its tension and impact without the wind giving the horses’ manes a human-like hairstyle."

It was this shot from the series that struck me most, specifically because the line of sight of all four horses converged in the lens, enhancing the impact. To me the white horse on the left represents an impressive strength. The line of sight captivates me every time I look at this picture. Surely the photograph would have lost a lot of its tension and impact without the wind giving the horses’ manes a human-like hairstyle. Without a cap on my head I likely would have looked very similar.

After this experience, I realized that planning ahead of time is important, but “the” moment for a certain photograph can also appear when you least expect it, so always be ready for it to happen.

The day on Snæfellsnes was certainly the most beautiful and thrilling day of our Iceland travel, ranging from sheer happiness to moments of feeling close to death. When we were leaving Snæfellsnes, we stopped at a vista point to see a spectacular sunset. As we were returning to the car, the wind smashed open the car door and broke it, leaving us with a terrifying, unsettling feeling in a pretty deserted region. Minutes later we found ourselves in a deep snowstorm, 50 miles (80 km) away from the next road junction and approaching darkness.


 
 

POST PROCESSING
Almost all of the post-processing steps were executed in Lightroom; it usually provides all of the tools I need to finish my photos. Only the final sharpening was done in Nik Sharpener Pro plugin for a specific reason.

This is the original RAW file.



 


1) First I slightly cropped the image to remove a fence post on the right side of the frame. 

2) Next, the white balance and lighting required attention as winter scenes easily trick the sensor. To get back the bright color of the snow, I made some adjustments in the Basic panel. I increased Temperature to +0.5 K, Exposure to approximately +1/3 stop, Highlights to +40 and Whites to +5. 

3) To get more details in the horse on the right, Shadows were slightly opened to +20 and Contrast was lowered to –13. The Blacks were reduced by –10 to increase the overall dynamic range in the photo.

4) To retrieve some of the contrast lost in the previous steps, Clarity was set to +50 and the Tone Curve was set to Medium Contrast.


 


5) To recover the incredible blue color in the sky I increased Vibrance (+50) in the Basic panel, and in the HSL panel I reduced the Luminance of Aqua (–25) and Blue (–28). Orange Luminance was increased to +13 to slightly lighten up the brown horses in the middle of the picture.


 


6) The last adjustments in Lightroom were applying standard Lens Corrections, adding Post-Crop Vignetting (–25), Luminance Smoothing (+30) and minor retouching using the Spot Healing tool. 

7) The last and most crucial step in post-processing was applying sharpening in Nik Output Sharpener with special focus on recovering the Structure (+50%) in the horses' hair. This last step really seemed to freeze the moment and in doing so, it perfectly illustrated the strong wind that day.
 
TIPS
1) Winter scenes easily trick the camera's sensor by the pure amount of whiteness. Make sure to practice before traveling to a winter wonderland to know how your camera behaves and how you should compensate.

2) Check the histogram. Small changes in direction may lead the camera to a completely new calculation. Make sure the whites do not burn using exposure compensation.

3) It was essential to get close and attract the horses' attention. A bit of whistling and snapping my fingers kept the horses interested.

4) With a 16mm lens the animals are closer than they appear through the viewfinder. Keep in mind that if you smell their breath, you may want to protect your lens and back off a bit.

5) When you're traveling, make sure you have insurance that covers damage to your rental car. CDW only covers damage for other parties involved.
 
 

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