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Artistic Expression In Equine Portraits - Part I

dark brown horse portrait

“…for there is no other feeling in the world to compare with it if one loves a great horse. It gives a thrill that nothing else ever can. It cannot be put into words because words cannot express it.” 

-Samuel Riddle


Can a photograph capture one’s soul?

We have all likely heard this belief attributed to tribes and people groups around the world.

And there are many discussion threads and opinions about the belief of a camera capturing your soul. I think it's safe to say that with so many cameras in use in our own day to day lives, most people in our society would not hold to that belief.

But it is an interesting question when considering portraits. I have heard it expressed (and may even have said it myself) that in a good horse portrait you “capture the soul” of the animal. What I believe is meant by this statement is that the best equine portraits are able to strongly convey the personality of the horse. 

This blog is about how I approach creating an artistic equine portrait - one that combines the technical excellence of a good photograph; the lines, textures, colors and composition of a great piece of art; and the “soul” of the horse. 

Others have covered this topic from a general perspective of evaluating images. So, I will do my best to present this from the point of view that will be most useful to a person who wants to enjoy an artistic horse portrait - not the photographer who will create the portrait.

Technical Excellence in Equine Fine Art Portraits

Many moons ago, before I embarked on my journey as an equine photographer, before all my photography studies, I approached a photograph like most people do. That is, with a simple determination of whether I liked it or not; whether it pleased me to look at it; maybe even whether I felt something when looking at it.

Of course, my studies kind of ruined that simple, straightforward approach. These days it’s almost impossible for me to look at a photograph, without running it through a set of filters and making a judgment on the quality and appeal of it. In a way, I miss that former simple approach in which I couldn’t really express why I liked the image, or why it appealed to me. I just knew that I liked it.

But I have subsequently learned that there are several technical factors that contribute to a photo being pleasing, including: focus/sharpness, use of depth of field, and correct light. These are factors that the layperson can quickly assess to determine if a photograph is well taken.

In my work, I review and assess hundreds of images each month and, for the sake of efficiency, quickly must make a judgment on their technical quality based on these initial factors. I’m not going to get too technical, but maybe just enough so that you have an idea of what to look for when assessing an equine portrait photograph, or any other photograph for that matter.


I can safely assume you know that, unlike fine wine, the focus of an image doesn’t improve with time. NEVER. The subject of an image is either in focus or it is not.

portrait of a dark brown horse

In an image, most ofent you can quickly tell where the photographer placed the focus point, as it should be the point to which your eyes are drawn to. The most important part of an equine portrait, that is, where you'd like to draw the viewer's eye to, should be in focus.

With that said, certain images are intentionally out of focus. In fact, there are several photographic techniques that make use of lack of focus. A "traditional" portrait of a beloved equine friend is probably not one of those situations: if focus is not present something will feel off.

Remember, I am talking only about portraits of beloved horses. There are legitimate uses for lack of focus/sharpness techniques in creating other types of artistic photography, such as “intentional camera movement” that will give birth to amazing images.

Ask Yourself: Is my eye naturally drawn to the most important part of the image, and is that part of the image clearly in focus?

One other note about focus… if you intend to have the image produced in large scale (assuming it's not purposely out of focus for creative reasons), a "sharp" image is critical. I have worked with clients to produce many large scale pieces of horse artwork, some up to 10 feet wide. As good as Photoshop and other editing software have gotten, if the original image is meant to be in focus but it's not, to produce a quality piece at large scale is not possible.

Ask Yourself: Am I planning to make a larger scale artwork using the image? If so, verify with the photographer that the image can be produced at the size you want without compromising quality.

Depth of Field

close up of a white horse with a black eye

Now we start to get into the subjective aspects of what makes a technically proficient portrait. There are great portraits with the entire horse and background totally in focus, and equally great portraits where only the horse’s eye is in focus and the body and background are blurry. This is a matter of taste, although I tend to lean towards the latter in order to keep attention focused where I want on the subject - in my case, always the eye.

Although this is a matter of taste, you can get a sense of the technical expertise of a horse photographer through their use of depth of field to create different effects and moods.

Ask Yourself: Are the subject and background totally in focus, or did the photographer create a pleasing effect where a portion of the image is in focus and the rest is out of focus? Does the use of depth of field hepls define the subject and clearly draws the viewer's eyes to where the photographer intended to?

Correct Light

Achieving the correct light in a studio setting might be the most difficult technical aspect of creating equine portraist . For the equine photographer, it isn’t just a matter of learning to use the equipment, but more importantly how to best set up the lights to achieve the desired effects.

Keeping this simple, a good definition of the “correct light” might be that no details are lost in lightest or darkest areas of an image. We will use this definition as a starting point.

Whether shooting equine portraits using natural light, or using studio lighting, it is important that light is directed to illuminate the subject as the photographer desires.

In studio light situations, the amount of light and positioning of the light source matter. Poor positioning and/or use of light can result in "blowout" of the light areas of the image as well as loss of details in the dark areas.

Either way, having too much light or too little light, detail will be lost in the image if the lighting is not correct.

black horse portraits against a black background

The other issue is unwanted shadows. Being in direct sunlight is almost never desirable for an equine portrait session because harsh shadows are inevitable and often cannot be avoided. Once again, using a good photo editior software can help, but is no match for a bad shadow; no photographer will be able to fully eliminate an unwanted shadow that falls across a strong image. Trying to eliminate it in post production results in loss of detail, thus affecting the quality of the photograph.

When you use studio lighting positioned correctly, it is possible to not only eliminate unwanted shadows, but to use shadows to create artistic effects. And these are my favorite types of portraits - intentionally highlighting certain parts of the animal.

Please note that, loss of background detail is expected when using black or white studio setting backgrounds.

Ask Yourself: Can I still see the details, no matter how faintly, in the whitest and blackest parts of the image where details is expected? If the image fades to complete black at the edges, is the transition smooth without strange looking “artifacts” or loss of detail where you would expect to be present?

I find it important to look carefully and critically at an image to determine the level of technical expertise employed in creating it. Look for stray dots (white on black or vice versa), artifacts (strange colors or outlines), unnatural transitions from light to dark areas. These things may not be apparent, or bother you, when looking at the image on a 6 inch screen; but they certainly will bother you if you have to look at them every day in a 6 foot horse print on your wall.

I encourage my clients to be “picky” because that is the standard I have set for myself. Our horses are our companions, they touch us deeply and emotionally. Having been a horse photographer for a long time, I see these connections daily.

My further thoughts on artistic expression and portraying the “soul” of the horse will have to wait for my next portrait blog. Part 2 to come…

Whether you are a horse enthusiast or simply someone who appreciates the power of photographic art, I invite you to explore the world of equine fine art portraits at Maria Marriott Photography.

About Maria Marriott

Maria Marriott is an award winning horse photographer who has dedicated her craft to capturing the beauty, strength and grace of equines, including several series of photographic art featuring America's wild mustangs.

Maria's photography has been recognized for its emotional impact and intimate portrayal of these iconic creatures. She works closely with several non-profit organizations focused on the benefits of equine therapy and preservation of wild horses on our Western lands.


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