How to Take Black Background Horse Photos

How to Take Black Background Horse Photos

There’s a not-so-secret trick that equine photographers keep in their bag of tricks.  It’s striking and classic, and makes people go “oooo” and “ahhhh”.  What am I talking about?  The “black background” shot.

Maple the OTTB
Maple the OTTB

It’s one of the most impressive pictures you can take of your horse, but it’s also one of the easiest.  There’s no special lighting or big black backdrops we set up behind the horses… the trick is a barn aisleway or door with the light shining in on it.

Let’s look at Simon’s birthday picture from this year:


This was taken with a cell phone, but do you see how dark it is surrounding his face?  That’s the kind of situation that I look for when taking a black background shot.

To get the look, position your horse so his head is light by the sun and the back of him is still in the shadows.  Then, you want to get in front of him and look through the view finder of your camera.  Don’t worry if it doesn’t look 100% black, but try to move your frame so there’s no light shining through something in the background.  In the above example, you can see the open barn doors at the end of the hall.  To make this 100% perfect, you’d ideally want to shut any interior doors or windows.

Original photo

This is one of my shots Saturday, straight off the camera.  As you can see, the lighting isn’t perfect inside the barn.  It’s just a tad too light, but workable.  Also, this was taken midday so the sunlight is pretty harsh – which washes out the horse.

Post processed

Some photoshopping, and I can both fix the blackness of the background as well as some of the harsh lighting on Simon.  Ideally though, you’d take these shots earlier in the morning or just before the sun sets.  That way the horse is lit up from the black background, but it’s not so dark.

Much better lighting example
Much better lighting example

Careful positioning of the frame and ideal lighting conditions are the ways to get these photos.  You can see in this shot (which I like a bit better honestly) I let too much of the near to me barn get in the frame.  Since the interior wall is so close, the camera picks up the details too easily to black out post processing.

Halfway dark, but not the right framing
Halfway dark, but not the right framing

Of course, you can always do a wonder in photoshop… but that isn’t always the best look.  I call this next one “If Simon were a book cover”.  It looks like it’s a documentary about an amazing mean hunter/jumper or something?


These “instructions” may seem shockingly simple, but it’s really not that hard.  Look for light hitting an open space that isn’t well lit, like a barn aisle or a stall or even a 3 sided shelter in a turnout pasture.  Practice makes perfect!

22 thoughts on “How to Take Black Background Horse Photos

  1. We tried really hard to imitate this look in my shoot with Baron, but the light was so flat from the uber overcast day, it just wasn’t going to happen- there were no shadows! Taking these hints with my back to the barn soon to try again!

  2. *smacks forehead!

    DUH! Lord have mercy, I could not for the life of me figure out what I was doing wrong! I never realized the black background. Looks like a photo-shoot is in Dassah’s future! Thanks so much!

  3. Ooh, yay! I’m taking a photography course for school this year and one of the things I needed to figure out is how to work some magic with Photoshop when editing. Woot woot for tutorials!

  4. You can make your life immeasurably easier by using a west facing opening in the morning or an east facing opening in the afternoon. The light fall off will be more dramatic and require less post processing. My personal favorite is doing this shot in the morning – the light isn’t quite so warm so it gives you a “cleaner” black and really softens the shadows caused the linear parts of the horse. 🙂 Love these shots and I do them constantly. This was a super casual snap of a very fidgety yearling:

  5. Excellent Tips! Very helpful especially for people just learning and teaching themselves. I have been taking some photos and working in Photoshop but having problems with getting the black background to look natural, what are some tips you can give to make the background look more natural?

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