I stumbled across equine photographer Melanie Levy’s website Equus Luminous a week or so ago and couldn’t take my eyes off her fabulous photos! She very kindly agreed to answer some questions about her profession and advice about how others can get into photography.
Have you always been interested in horses and when did you start in photography of horses?
From my initial ride at age five, I’ve had a passion for horses. I received my first horse, an Arab weanling, at age nine and still have him 19 years later. I also have a Hanoverian mare that is due to foal literally any minute here.
My first horse photo was taken when I was 10, with my dad’s old manual Nikon SLR, and I’ve never stopped since. I went pro nearly six years ago, after moving from Chicago to Arizona.
How much of your day/week is hands on with horses?
It depends on how many shoots I have, but I spend about 3 days a week working directly with horses and their people, more if I have a show on the weekend.
In this field is it possible for someone to be a full time professional, earning a livable income?
It depends on many factors, such as natural skill, location, clientele, equine knowledge, etc., but yes, under the right conditions, one can make a decent living. Certainly not six figures for most, but enough to live on. If a photographer is able to shoot many disciplines and other related subjects, such as pets and people portraits, they can do very well.
What are the general steps taken to be recognised as an equine photographer and getting your service used?
I recommend taking at least 3 or 4 college level photography classes before anything. If one can find a school where they actually still teach with film, that’s much better than learning with digital. Discovering how to print in the darkroom alone will not only challenge aspiring photographers, but also teach them many skills needed in the ‘digital darkroom’, i.e. Photoshop.
After the basics of photography are covered, it’s best to visit local boarding, training, or breeding facilities and ask to practice. Take MANY more photos than needed. If you have a digital camera, it’s easy to see any mistakes right off the bat and correct them. It’s certainly nice to print up a few photos and give them to the owners as a thank you, which will likely get you invited back too.
Equine events are also a great place to practice, but make sure there isn’t already an Official Photographer who has an exclusive shooting contract. If so, get their contact info before the event and ask permission to shoot on the grounds. Or find them on the grounds and ask during a slow moment. As long as the images aren’t being sold, the OP won’t likely have a problem with this. They will also appreciate the common courtesy, as it’s very difficult to make a living shooting horse shows these days, considering swarms of parents with digital cameras and ‘hacks’ who unethically sell (or worse, give away) photos behind the OP’s back.
I should mention it takes quite some time to build up a photo business. Don’t expect to buy a nice camera and lens, instantly be able to take superb photos, and have clients lining up at your door. That’s definitely not the case. Most small businesses either ‘make it or break it’ within 5 years. It takes about that long to build up a decent client list anyway and start to figure things out anyway..
Any advice for those interested in pursuing this horse related service?
You MUST know the craft, both the equine and photography aspects, extremely well. Many ‘non-equine’ photographers can technically take a nice image, but it likely won’t sell, because that’s not what the owner/breeder/rider was looking for. Study equine magazines relentlessly, and over time, it will become apparent how a phenomenal equine image is constructed. Light, timing, stride, angle, depth of field, composition, focal length, positioning, body language – all of these aspects must come together to make one great photograph.
Regardless of experience, DON’T UNDER CHARGE!!! There are many reasons I say this, and loudly. 🙂 First of all, once a low price has been set, it’s very hard to increase pricing for the same service later. Second, it undercuts the long-time pros that have worked very hard to set a standard which allows them to stay in business, therefore impacting the entire equine photo industry at some point.
Third, working at no cost or nearly free doesn’t pay the bills. Even if a person LOVES shooting horses, and would work for nothing, they need to think about all the funding it will take to keep their business going, such as camera equipment ($10K investment, at least, for a new pro going digital), powerful computers with tons of storage for hundreds of thousands of images, rent, photo printing, postage, insurance, monthly utilities ¦ the list goes on and on. If one doesn’t take these things into consideration, they’ll be out of business before they even begin.
Here is a link to a wonderful cost of doing business (CDB) calculator for photographers, which will help to see how much money needs to be made each shooting day to cover expenses and maybe, hopefully, even get paid for hard work too!:) http://tinyurl.com/ynsruk (Calculator is in US dollars)
A great tip for beginners is to offer a coupon, even if it’s for 100% off. Let the client know the VALUE of the shoot, even if they’re not charged, whether it’s because of lack of photography experience, really beautiful horses for models and a signed release, or whatever the case may be. Many equine photographers have pricing listed on their websites. Check quite a few out before setting any shoot or print pricing, to make sure everything is within a normal range.
Also, NEVER sell images commercially (i.e., to Ariat or Dover Saddlery) without a model release. If the person can’t be recognized (blurred in the background, head cut off, facing away, etc.) then a release isn’t truly needed, but still get one whenever you can, as you never know â€¦ some people may be able to recognize the person without seeing a face. Most horse images are OK to sell, just so long as the horse isn’t recognizable himself, such as a famous racehorse, Olympic horse, or ‘movie star’ such as the horse who played Seabiscuit.
Is there anything else with horses you’d love to learn about or try?
Videography is an obvious next step for my business. I’ve shot a few promotional videos for stallions, and some personal videos too, but I’d really like to invest in a pro camera (instead of renting one every time) and add that to my list of services.
Also, relating to riding, after growing up showing hunter/jumpers, I’d really like to learn some other disciplines well, such as reining, cutting, driving, and sidesaddle too.
Favourite horse memory?
The first day I saw the love of my life, Apache, my Arab gelding. He was a little bay weanling at the time and I was a horse-crazy girl, begging for my very own equine after years of lessons and riding camps. I fell in love when they turned him out to strut his stuff. Apache sealed the deal when he was back in the stall – he stuck his rump up to the door and let me scratch his cute little bum for 10 minutes straight . 🙂 I will never forget that wonderful day.
To travel internationally for equine shoots and events, start a small but high quality Warmblood breeding program, and become an ‘equine household name’ for photography. Also, live happily ever after, of course. 🙂
Best thing about your sport/profession?
LOVE working for myself, however it’s surely a love/hate relationship at times. Owning and running a business alone is usually quite stressful, because of the many hats the owner must wear; though in turn, self employment can also be incredibly rewarding.
But I’d say the absolute best part of my business is that I feel blessed to preserve life’s special and irreplaceable moments for eternity. Horses and days pass, but can be easily recalled and cherished with photographs.
And I like to make people cry too. 🙂 Not in a bad way, but by moving them so much with my images that they can’t help but have joyful tears in their eyes. Yeah, that’s the best.
“The horse symbolizes beauty, grace, and power, and a rider feels part of that spirit.”