Horses on Black Backgrounds | Indianapolis Equine Portraits by Amy Latka

One of my most requested shots is the black background image.  These are beautiful, dramatic and focused completely on the horse.  In this blog entry, I will talk about the two ways I photograph these types of images, with samples of both.  The beauty of these images is in their simplicity.  You can shoot them with natural light or with flash (speedlights or strobes).  

Barn Door Black Backgrounds with Natural Light

An example of a black background created in a barn door setting with natural light.

An example of a black background created in a barn door setting with natural light.

When I first started making portraits of horses on black backdrops, I started in the barn door space.  A lot of times this was out of necessity.  For example, if you're forced to shoot during the day when the sun is overhead, the last place you want to have your client is in that bright sunlight.  Using a barn door or aisle helps you control the lighting.  The setup for these is pretty simple.  You need the following:

  • An arena entrance or barn aisle entrance where you can easily open or close the barn door as desired.  Preferably a space where you can close the doors at the far end.  So if its an aisle, close the door at the end of the aisle.
  • Bright INDIRECT lighting.  If you have direct, bright sunlight on the horse, you are much more likely to have exposure issues.  Indirect light is your friend.  If you do have direct sunlight coming in, simply have the client move back so that they are standing in the shadows and don't have direct sunlight on themselves or their horse. 
  • A camera body that allows you to manually control the settings.
  • A tripod is not required, but can be handy. Especially if you don't have an assistant to help you maneuver the horse/handler into the position you want.
  • If you're not going to use a tripod, then a monopod is highly recommended to help stabilize the camera.
  • Oh yeah...and a horse and handler. 

The key to this type of photography is to understanding the relationship between light, shutter speed, aperture and ISO.  As well as how aperture relates to depth of field.  I see a lot of people who want to shoot at a f-stop of f/2 or lower.  For these barn door shots, its rarely necessary to shoot with that shallow of a depth of field.  In fact, unless you're going for a really artsy shot, you want to make sure that BOTH of the horse's eyes are in focus.  And if you have a person in there too, you want their eyes in focus as well.  This means, you have to up your f-stop to something like f/5.  This is going to create the depth of field to allow the horse's entire head and the handler's head to be in the focal plane.  BUT, there is also a side effect to this!  The larger that f-number, the less light is going to be hitting your sensor.  What does that mean?  It means that your dark areas are going to show up as darker.  If you're not familiar with the Exposure Triangle, learn it.

Step 1: Time for the first part of our shoot: killing the ambient.  You're standing in front of the empty barn door.  You want a blank canvas -- a dark hole -- in front of you.  Its time to play with your camera and find out where the interior becomes dark.  In other words, we want to kill the ambient light INSIDE the barn.

I usually start with these settings and make adjustments from there.

ISO: 100  (increasing this makes the picture lighter)
Shutter:  1/500th  (increasing makes the picture darker, decreasing makes it lighter)
Aperture:  f/4 (increasing the f-number to f/4, f/5.6, f/8, etc. makes it darker)

Take a picture with these settings from where you'll be standing. Shoot into the barn door.  Ask yourself "Is my resulting image too bright?  It is black?  Can I see any detail?"  Once you find where black is, make a note of it.  Since sunlight changes throughout the day AND affects your ambient, you may have to make some slight adjustments depending upon how long you'll be shooting in this space.  

Step 2: The second part of this setup is to now add your subject.  Put the horse and handler at the entrance of the doorway -- so that they are framed in the barn door -- and do a test shot with the settings you found during Step 1.  Again, look at the image you created.  Is it too dark?  Is it too bright?  Is there direct sunlight on my subjects?  Do I like the direct light?  Are they too dark?  What happens when I adjust my ISO/shutter speed/aperture?  Do I like that change?  What if the horse/handler are too dark (underexposed)?  You can always bring them further out of the aisle or barn door.  Remember, we're not killing the sunlight OUTSIDE the barn, so if you bring them out in front of the barn door, you'll have ambient light to light them, while the backdrop (the aisle) is still black.  

If you're patient, you should be able to find your sweet spot -- the location half-in/half-out of the barn door where the exposure on the front of the horse is good and the ambient light drops off to black as the back of the horse goes into the barn.  This is your sweet spot.

What about PhotoShop?  Remember, you may need to do some post processing of your images to help darken it to black.  But the closer you can get to making your image IN CAMERA, the easier this process is over all AND the more natural it looks when viewed later.  We don't want to see harsh lines where the horse looks cut out and placed on black.  Learning to read the light and make your adjustments in camera is going to help increase the quality of the final image while decreasing your post-processing workflow.  Win-Win!

But...but...what if its cold and rainy on the day of your shoot and you can't stand outside?  What then?  If you have speedlights or strobes and triggers for using them off-camera, you're set.

Black Backgrounds with Off Camera Flash

This image was created using two speedlites with a wireless trigger system.

This image was created using two speedlites with a wireless trigger system.

When I learned how to use wireless flashes, it made me impatient with natural light.  You see, learning to control and create light meant that I wasn't dependent upon the position of the sun in the sky.  And therefore, it became much easier to create the light that I wanted to create, when ever and where ever I wanted to create it.  This includes the horse barn.

Another two-light shot.  One on each side of the horse.

Another two-light shot.  One on each side of the horse.

Here is what I used to create the above image:

  • A tripod with a quick-release for my camera (not required, but very helpful)
  • Two speedlights on light stands
  • A set of Yongnuo wireless trigger & transceivers
  • Snoots and grids to control the direction of the light
  • One empty indoor riding arena with doors closed
  • One (patient) horse
  • One assistant...oh wait...just me.  An assistant/horse handler would have been very helpful!

There is only one real rule for shooting with this setup and that is that you have to know how to stop your camera down to kill the ambient light.  And since we discussed that in the first part above, you're golden! Same rules apply.  So that's pretty simple, right?  

Next is setting up your lights.  I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that you are familiar with how to use your flash in manual mode AND that you have whatever necessary equipment you need/want/choose to use to shoot OCF (Off Camera Flash).  The cool part about using lights, especially speedlights on stands, is that they are so very portable.  They're easy to move about and carry with you on location.  You can also raise/lower them to light different aspect of your subject.

How did I set up the flashes to get the shot I got?  Well, first, let me say that there are no rules. You can put them where ever you want in relation to each other.  If if you think of a clock with your subject (horse, person, whatever) in the center where the hands converge, then you have the entire circle around them to place the lights.  For the shot above, the key light (the primary light) was camera right at about the 3 o'clock position to the horse.  Then, I had a second light camera left at about the 10 o'clock position.  

Here is a pull back image so that you can see.

Here you can see not only the placement of the lights, but also the ambient light in the barn.  There was quite a bit of ambient, but by stopping down the aperture, we can make it appear black, with only the lights from our speedlights to light our subject.

Here you can see not only the placement of the lights, but also the ambient light in the barn.  There was quite a bit of ambient, but by stopping down the aperture, we can make it appear black, with only the lights from our speedlights to light our subject.

Don't get caught up in the horse facing away from me.  Again, the beauty of this is that you can set up your subject however you want.  If you wanted the light behind them, you could also do that.  It really just depends upon what you want to create.  

Here is another shot that had the lights at 9 o'clock and 12 o'clock in relation to the horse.

A couple things to note with this setup.  1) The light in front of the horse is turned long way since the horse is tall and I wanted to light the front of it.  2) The light behind the horse was lowered to create the rim-light affect in the top image.

A couple things to note with this setup.  1) The light in front of the horse is turned long way since the horse is tall and I wanted to light the front of it.  2) The light behind the horse was lowered to create the rim-light affect in the top image.

Questions?  Let me know!  Leave a comment below.  My number one suggestion is just to go out and play.  I do recommend having an assistant to hold the horse.  But most importantly, go out and play with your equipment.  Learn what you can create and where you might be limited by your current equipment.  Think about what you want to create and try to create it.  Maybe you have a vision for what you want to create.  Maybe you just want to see if you can get your OCF to work or you want to figure out how to stop down your aperture.  Just go with a goal in mind and have fun doing it!  And don't forget to put a link to your images in the comments below. I would love to see the black ground images you're creating with horses!

BTS Self Portrait | Indianapolis Portrait Photographer by Amy Latka

Happy New Year!  I don't know about you, but I had a great holiday with family and friends.  I hope yours was filled with special memories of people and places.  

I got to thinking about what I wanted to write about for this post.  I wanted to use some new equipment (a new flash, a new octabox and an intervalometer) and decided that I should take a self-portrait (the original selfie).  I wanted to challenge myself a bit by using a shallower depth of field.  I asked questions in a couple of forums about how to do this while keeping myself in focus and there were no real definitive answers.  Most people said they just set their camera on at f/5 or above and took a bunch of shots hoping for one to be in focus.  That wasn't good enough for me.  I wanted to know how to figure this out.

On one of the forums, someone mentioned using a string.  This got me thinking about using a depth of field calculator, because there really is no mystery -- you just have to know where the focal plane is.  You are either in or out of the focal plane.  If you know where it is (what distance it is) from your camera, you can easily put yourself in the focal plane.  

The next thing I needed to do was to decide where I was going to do this self portrait.  I don't currently have studio space, so I had to make sure that I had appropriate space in my home.  Once I decided where to set up, I just needed to collect all the things together that I would need.  Here is what I figured I would need:

  1. Depth of Field Calculator (I used this one)
  2. Tape Measure at least 12' long
  3. Tripod
  4. Intervalometer (I have this one)
  5. Speedlite & Octabox on a lightstand
  6. Backdrop (I used the back side of a piece of crushed black velvet clamped on to the rim of the half wall behind me.  I do have full sized studio backdrops, but no space or need for them for this project.)
  7. Reflector -- You'll see in the photos that I choose to use a space that had an off-white half-wall which acted as a reflector.  If I didn't have this, I would have needed a large reflector to help light the far side of my face.
  8. Camera, Lens and Flash Triggers  (Canon 7D, Canon 70-200 f/2.8 II L, and Yongnuo 622C-TX flash trigger/tranceiver.
  9. Photovision Digital Calibration Target

Here is my setup.  I knew I would have 10-12' of space.  The tape measure is set up so that the 10' mark is approximately equal to the SENSOR of the camera.  In other words, the end of the tape measure that you see below is 10' from the sensor.  This is really important because the depth of field is calculated from the distance from the sensor (or film, back in the day) -- or whatever part of the camera you are exposing the image on.  

Please forgive the awesome cell-phone quality snap.  ;)

Here is a closer view of the lighting and seating area.  Note the location of the end of the measuring tape along the wall.  This is really important.  Its not there by accident. ;)

I knew for this small space that I wasn't going to be able to use a lot of zoom.  I set my lens at 70mm, which is not only the shortest it could go, but also a good number to reduce lens distortion.  I wanted to shoot at f/2.8, to give me a fairly small focal plane.  In order to not make this a craps shoot, I used the depth of field calculator to figure out the depth of the focal plane.  Consider this the "play space" in which you can move around and still be in focus.  The smaller the f-number, the smaller the focal plane.  f/1.4 has a super shallow depth of field (often seen in beautiful wedding detail pics). Whereas the other end of the spectrum, f/22 has practically everything in focus at every distance (great for landscapes).  Since I wanted to shoot at f/2.8 I knew I would have a relatively shallow depth of field.  This is why the tape measure is important.

Entering the camera's settings into the depth of field calculator on the left hand side yields the measurement information I need (given on the right) to determine the focal plane.  Based on these settings, focus would start at 9.68 feet from the camera's sensor and end at 10.3 feet from the camera's sensor.  In other words, with my camera at these settings, I would have just shy of 8 inches of focal plane to stay in.  But what 8 inches?  Well, the tape measure marks the middle of that 8 inches.  So as long as my face was in line  with the end of the tape measure, it would be in focus.

I mentioned the intervalometer above.  This is essentially a wired camera shutter release.  The difference being that with a wireless, you have to push the button to take the picture.  With the intervalometer, you can control a number of things including both the frequency and quantity of pictures taken.  I set my frequency to take a photo every 15 seconds. I set the quantity to infinite (in other words, I would tell it when to stop).

Once I had everything set up, I just had to get my exposure set correctly.  For this, I used my Photovision Digital Target.  I simply hung it on an extra light stand and took some test shots to see where I was at on exposure -- adjusting my flash power and shutter speed accordingly.  Once I had the exposure correct, I used the test image of the target to set my custom white balance.  I can't recommend these digital targets highly enough.  Having properly exposed white, grey and black in your histogram takes all of the mystery (and challenge) out of proper white balance.  When you buy the target it comes with a DVD on how to use it.  This alone is worth the purchase price!

Now...we're ready to shoot!  Here are the results of my fun little project. The top two are a couple of my favorites and the final is a contact sheet of some of my favs as well.

And so hopefully the mystery has been solved for you!  You can use this method to determine your focal plane at any aperture setting.  If nothing else, play with the DOF calculator to help understand the relationship between depth of field and aperture (Av on a Canon system, or A on a Nikon).

I would love to hear about your adventures in self portraits (with or without your 4 legged family members).  Feel free to comment or ask questions below!

Welcome to the Family | Equine Portraits in Martinsville, IN by Amy Latka

In late September 2011, I was contacted by a gentleman who was interested in purchasing a portrait session as a gift for his wife.  She had a new horse and they wanted portraits done of both the horse and their family.  And so it was that met Dana C., owner of Ralph, a beautiful bay Arabian gelding. 

Fast forward to last year, when Dana purchased a second horse, another bay Arabian, but this time, a mare.  Like the supermodel whose name she shares, Giselle is a looker!  She has all of the beautiful attributes of a nice Arabian.  Dana's husband contacted me again for another portrait session as a gift.  They were in need of portraits with Giselle.  I was happy to oblige.  

Special thanks go out to Dana and Brooke Coffee of Hill View Arabians for their help preparing and handling horses during this session.  It always nice to have extra hands.

Friendship | Equine Portraits in Greenwood, IN by Amy Latka

We all have those friends that we don't see very often, but that we just pick right back up with as soon as we are together.  Bridgette P. is one of those friends for me.  Though I don't see her often, whenever I do see her smiling face, I know that laughter and good times are not far away.  We met many years ago at a horse show where she was competing and I was the official photographer, and something just clicked.  I think we're of the same tribe.

And so it was especially nice to receive a request from Bridgette for a portrait session.  She was the organizer and coordinator of the Travis Creek Farm mini-sessions I shot back in October.  I jumped at the chance to not only photograph her with her new dressage mount, Hank, but also with her beautiful family.