“How do I start out as an equine photographer? I know I love horses & I love photography, but I don’t even know how to take the first step or what that step should be!”
I get this question all.the.time. And I keep writing the same thing over & over, so I figured I’d break down exactly how I made this dream job my career…
I grew up always loving photography, but not truly realizing it. I has cameras when I was younger & I’m pretty sure when my cousin and I got out first digital cameras, we took pictures of anything that would stay still long enough for us to photograph it.
I have also loved horses since (I’m pretty sure) the day I came out of the womb. Horses have been my obsession for as long as I can remember. For my fifth birthday, we went on a family trip to Disney world, but all I could talk about was my first “official” riding lesson that I would get to have when we came back home… Sorry mom!
When I quit my corporate job abruptly, I knew I had to find a way to make money, but I honestly had no idea how I was going to replace my salary. I had a beginner DSLR and I had done some videos and photos here and there, but nothing serious.
I knew I had to give this thing a shot, because my love for photography & creating works of art was as strong as my love of every horse I have ever encountered.’
When I first started out, I had a $400 DSLR (Nikon D3300), no additional lenses (looking back it would’ve been a good investment to have this lens instead of the zoom that came with the kit), and I edited on my iPad using an app called Photofox. I didn’t even own a computer, let alone have all the Adobe products I use now. Please don’t wait until you have a $2,500 camera and lens set up in order to start taking photos. Start where you are with exactly what you have.
Let me break these steps down as simply as possible:
1. I took pictures for free, a lot. I offered to do photoshoots of friend’s horses for free. I took pictures of my horse. I bothered people at my barn and convinced them to let me photograph them.
2. I set up a website & got the necessary software to actually deliver images once they were taken. My first website was SIMPLE. I’m talking one page, barely any information, a few photos, and absolutely no bells or whistles. I just needed a place to refer people and somewhere that had my contact information... you could just use a Facebook business page if a website is too overwhelming to start out. I also purchased the least expensive ($20 per month) subscription to Pixieset.com which I used to deliver client galleries. It’s super simple to use & you have a ton of options for delivering a client’s digital images, setting up a store for them to purchase directly from their gallery (I wouldn’t worry about this right off the bat), and downloading their files.
3. Once I felt somewhat confident photographing horses & people I knew, I put out “model calls” or basically an offer for free photoshoots services in order to build up my portfolio. I posted in Facebook groups for equestrians local to my area, I posted on my own Facebook & asked friends to share with other equestrians. In these model call ads, I always posted a few photos of my best work. I wanted people to know that even though the shoot was free, it wasn’t going to be a complete waste of their time… remember, even though you’re offering the shoot for free, the person is still going to have to bathe their horse, clean some tack, take time out of their day, etc… and since they are really doing YOU the favor of being able to practice, you need to have something worthy of delivering. I never asked for money in exchange for digital files or anything, I just did the shoot for free and sent them the digital album.
4. After doing a handful of free sessions with people & horses I didn’t actually know, I decided to start charging. In the beginning, I had one set price - $100. I didn’t know about setting a limit to the number of images I would guarantee to deliver, a time limit for the session, a retainer payment, or having different package options. I kept it simple. I did have a paper “client agreement form” that I would have people fill out and complete when I got to the barn. I now use jotform.com and take care of all my client agreements & retainer payments directly through there long before I ever enter a barn for a shoot.
5. Social media: the key to my success. I created a Facebook page & Instagram account for my photography. These became so essential to my growth. I posted any and all my favorite images from each session I did. I would post photos on a client’s Facebook wall as a “sneak peek” for them. Then their friends would see the photos I’d taken of their horse and inquire about a session. I posted on Instagram, I tagged people, I used hashtags, and geolocations to attract more clients. I didn’t get discouraged when I would only get 5 likes (or zero likes) on a post. I kept going. I kept posting and I kept learning about how to use social media effectively.
Things I wish I would have done sooner:
1. Had a legitimate client agreement form – I now use Jotform.com & it makes life so much easier than trying to use paper forms when you show up to a session. It also looks more professional & weeds out clients who aren’t serious.
2. Collected a retainer payment to book an appointment. In the beginning, I had one person cancel THE DAY OF about 5 times. I was too desperate for clients to turn her down then, but now I would never tolerate that. I collect a retainer payment up front (I do $50-100 depending on the session cost). It’s minimal, but I don’t have last minute cancellations and it weeds out anyone who isn’t seriously going to book the shoot. I used to be scared it would deter people from booking but not once has charging a retainer cost me a serious client.
3. Not been so hard on myself. I spent WAY too much time looking at other photographer’s on Instagram and wishing I could take pictures and edit like them. What I didn’t consider was the fact that A. they had been doing this for years longer than me, B. They had much nicer camera gear & editing software then I did. No matter what anyone tells you, the equipment does affect your final product. I am not at all saying that you can’t take stunning photos with a $300 camera, however, I was comparing the sharpness, the colors, the fine details, the editing, of much more sophisticated equipment to my work. Please just stop comparing yourself to other photographers in general. Focus on improving your own work, but not trying to make your work look like anyone else’s.
4. Pay attention to the details. Pay attention to how the horse is standing, make sure you are working the most flattering angles, same goes for humans. Oh, and before you start every session, make sure your clients TAKE THEIR HAIRTIES OFF (after spending hours editing these out of sessions, you start to remember how important that is). Look for the giant blue trashcan in the background, look for the dirt spot in the middle of the horse’s face, and make sure the reins are even. These things are way harder to edit after the fact then they are to take care of during the session!
5. This is a long process. You aren’t going to become the world’s greatest equine photographer overnight. Keep going. If you love it, like truly love it, then you WILL get better & better. You will be able to make money doing this, but it takes time to build up your skill level & your clientele.
If you aren’t that great at photography yet, but you love it, PLEASE keep going.Keep practicing.Keep learning.Keep experimenting.Please don’t give up just because you aren’t “there” yet.If you’re a photographer but you just feel like your work will never be like that of your idols, take as many pictures as you can.Watch all the videos you can on how to improve.Practice any chance you get, even if it means shooting for free.Don’t give up because you’re using a $200 camera and only have one lens.Don’t give up because you can’t make your black background look flawless.Don’t quit because you think you just aren’t talented at this.Everything in life takes work. And patience. LOTS of patience.Don’t beat yourself up because your photos are a little out of focus.Don’t beat yourself up because you can’t get the tones just right when you edit.With every click of your shutter, think of it as one lesson learned.Didn’t love the way that angle came out? Shoot it differently next time.Didn’t use a high enough shutter speed and your images were a bit blurry? Remember that for your next shoot.Didn’t realize there was a giant blue trash can behind your subject in every picture? Be more aware next time.Didn’t remind your model to take her hair tie off her wrist? Make that the first thing you tell your subject before you shoot next time.You WILL improve, slowly but surely. It won’t happen overnight and comparing yourself to those who are years ahead of you on this journey definitely won’t do any good.
Enjoy where you’re at RIGHT NOW and think of each shoot as one baby step the journey of a lifetime!
The only reason you won’t become the photographer you want to be is if you quit. So don’t you dare do that.
Keep going. Keep learning. But most importantly…
Keep creating the art that sets your soul on fire.