The unsung hero in any equine portrait session is the assistant/“ear catcher.” While portraits are certainly possible without this extra set of helpful hands, sessions go much smoother and faster when I can focus solely on snapping gorgeous images and noton simultaneously getting the horse’s attention.
But ear catching isn’t always as easy as it sounds, and I’ve found the following tips to be most helpful when trying to become the perfect, best-ever, can’t-shoot-without-you ear-catching extraordinaire.
1) Be creative
You never know what will catch a certain horse’s attention—and for how long one tool will hold his attention—so I have a crazy bag that’s filled with all types of items designed to do just that. Tools range from sounds (like my phone and rubber chicken) to sights (a mirror), tastes (treats and people food) and smells (treats and essential oils). If one tool isn’t working or has lost its novelty, try something else! Items can also be used in different ways—while a deaf horse can’t hear the outrageous shriek of the rubber chicken, he might be intrigued by it being tossed in the air or rolled across the ground.
2) Know when to stop
Eventually, you can “burn out” a horse’s attention—making it much harder to get that bright, alert look that is best in pictures—and the fastest way to do this is by trying to keep his attention continuously…even when I’m not taking pictures. Keep half an eye on what I’m doing—if I’m looking down at my camera, talking to the subject or moving somewhere, then STOP your ear-catching antics until you see me start shooting again. Similarly, if a horse perks his ears and keeps them forward, you don’t have to continue getting his attention; instead, stop what you’re doing until he relaxes/turns his ears, and then start back up again.
3) Get close
Many poses require a horse to not just look alert, but to also look a certain direction. You can help make this happen by being strategic in where you stand. While it feels natural to want to stay behind the photographer as I’m taking pictures…it is actually MORE helpful to me if you get as close to the horse and subject as possible. Being at a closer range helps your ear-catching tools (like tastes, sights and smells) be more effective, and it also means you can help catch and minor details (like phones in pockets or uneven reins) that I might miss due to standing further away.
Typically, you can stand about two arm’s lengths away from the horse’s nose, and you still won’t be in the shot. Other times, you can get in and out of the frame quickly—such as reaching your arm out with a “smell” tool and then pulling it back and out of the shot once you’ve caught the ears. This is far more effective than standing where you’re 100% out of the way … and trust me, I’ll let you know if you’re still in the shot!
4) Keep your eyes open
Be on the lookout for any small details that might have been overlooked—cell phones in pockets, uneven reins, a flyaway hair across the client’s face, a tangled necklace, etc. Don’t be afraid to jump in and fix this! Trust me, I’d rather we spend 30 seconds fixing something than spend 30 minutes per image retouching in Photoshop.
At the same time, keep an eye out for your own safety, as well as that of the clients. Avoid standing in kicking range, for example.
5) Don’t give up
Horses are animals, and they don’t always cooperate for portrait sessions. Sometimes they’re so bomb-proof they don’t care about any of your antics. Sometimes they’re nervous and move around too much. Sometimes they are more interested in the grass than anything we’re doing…and that’s OK! Our job is to find a way to work through these issues (such as finding a different spot to shoot, or coming up with a new and intriguing ear-catching idea). Approach these situations with positivity and a sense of humor, as our attitudes will influence the client’s.
I have worked with plenty of hard-to-ear-catch horses, and still walked away with great images the subject loves.
6) Bring your positive energy!
One year for elementary school picture day, I had my photo taken by this big, grumpy lady who yelled at me for fidgeting in the chair too much. I look fine in the picture, but I hate it because I remember the embarrassment of being called out by a strange lady in front of my friends. People attach emotions to items and memories, and that especially holds true with portrait sessions. I could take the best picture in the world of a client and horse, but they might still dislike it if they associate it with feeling bad about their horse being naughty, or not understanding directions, or not getting along with me. Your mood will affect the subject’s memory of the session, too, especially considering you’ll often be closer to them during poses than me. So, keep things lighthearted and avoid sounding frustrated. The client is already going to feel nervous if their horse is being a jerk, so it’s up to us to reassure them that we’ll still get great images. Use encouraging words, too! Point out things you like about what the subject is wearing, and let them know if you think a certain pose looks good…anything you can do to help boost their confidence is incredibly helpful.
Ear catching sounds easy and fun—and it is!—but it’s also an incredibly huge help for my portrait sessions. Bring your energy, sense of humor and creativity, and you’re sure to be a superstar. I truly appreciate your help in making my sessions as smooth and easy as possible!