Hannah Freeland is a highly regarded equine photographer with a portfolio that is truly awe-inpsiring. Her work over the past decade has allowed her to capture the connection between people and their horses and ponies all over the world. In this interview Hannah discusses her approach to this unique style of photography and the journey she has made to turn her talent into a fast growing business.
What got you into equine photography and what do you enjoy most about it?
From a very early age, maybe 3 or 4, I have ridden horses and been obsessed. Throughout my teenage years I rode and kept my ponies with my Aunt and without noticing I also had a camera in my hand. I used to ask my friends if they would mind standing with their pony while I took their picture. I had a fascination with making people happy by capturing the friendship between them and their pony. I never imagined I could create a career from this.
I got my ‘big break’ about 10 years ago. I was running my own business creating websites and graphic designs for clients, all the while, offering free photo shoots for these clients. Because it was something I loved so much I had a disconnect in people paying me for this. Why would someone pay you to do something you love?
A great friend of mine, who is a successful Fine Art photographer gave me the greatest gift. She gave me a mentorship with Emily Hancock FBIPP. She told me that I needed to believe I could create a successful equine photography business, earn money and love what I do. She told me I didn’t need to be working on websites and graphic design, so that I can do their photography, I could just be a photographer! Madness!!
The mentorship with Emily was a dream come true, Emily was, and still is, hugely successful and not only that, she was willing to share the secrets behind her success. Well, that was the start of turning my fledgling equine photography business into a thriving and sustainable career.
The thing I enjoy the most is still creating happiness for my clients. I get to do this wonderful job, visit new yards and home stables each day, meet amazing riders and horses. I get to hang out with my equine buddies, all the while creating memories and capturing fun for my clients. I keep my shoots light and fun, my main objective is for my client to walk away from the shoot feeling proud of their horse and confident in themselves. This feeling connects my client to their images in a deeper, more profound way. Each time they see the portrait of themselves with their horse, they feel joy and pride. Being able to make people happy, cry with laughter and love their horses just a little bit more is what makes me tick.
What is your general approach to a photography shoot?
My main objective is to get my clients to be as relaxed as possible. Because I know horses, I can read their mood pretty quickly. I spend a lot of time preparing my clients and walking them through the experience, even before we have ever met. Information is key and people feel more at ease knowing what’s going to be happening. I will tell my clients over and over again that I know horses well and the second we feel the horse needs a break or a change in scenery that’s what we do. Nothing is painful on a shoot of mine, I don’t ask my clients to stand for long in one spot or pose.
I spent many years photographing behind the scenes action on the eventing field. Because of this, I am quick. I see the moment and I capture it. My clients constantly express how quickly the shoot happens, yet they don’t feel at all rushed. I have worked with horses my whole life and I understand them, unfortunately you cannot explain to horses what you’re doing on shoot day. All they understand is that they are cleaner than they’ve ever been, their owner looks different today and we are moving around the yard and asking him to stand still. What’s great, and often happens, is that the horse settles into this experience, and because he is told “good boy” constantly he starts to enjoy and strut his stuff.
The key is to stay relaxed and confident. My clients MUST feel their best and they must feel like they are nailing each shot. It’s my job to give them this confidence.
Do you have a plan for the types of photos/conformation/poses you would like or do you work without too much of a plan?
Having been an equine photographer for over 12 years, I have a system that I work with. Of course, you never know what’s going to be presented to you on a yard or home stables, but the system doesn’t change.
On arriving at the location, I will do a location scout with my client. I’m looking for stables, barns, foliage, tracks, small pathways, natural frames, long grass and vistas. We walk around the main yard in a circle and I ask the clients if they have any special spots around them that they would like to include in the shoot. Some locations come with huge winding driveways, covered in daffodils, others come with a picaresque pond. I recently visited a client in Boston, USA and she had the most incredible barn with a swing she had had made so this was a definite feature of the shoot. This is a trained skill, as I walk around I make notes of the locations I want to use for each shoot, and then we make a plan to match the outfits to the locations.
Do you get involved with posing the horses or do you leave this to your clients?
I talk through each location with the client. I will explain what will happen, ideally, but I allow the horse to settle into the spot so that he’s comfortable and then I pose the client. The most important element is always connection. If the horse moves, that’s fine, it needs to be on their terms to get the best shot, it’s also easier for me to move my feet than it is to move theirs. If I’m up against it with lighting or a small background than I will physically get into the position for the client, so they know exactly what I’m looking for.
Trying to explain “please put your horse here, stand in front of him and look up” when they are nervous and excited is difficult. It’s much easier for me to stand in the position I would like the client in and show them what I mean.
What are the biggest challenges you face in this field of photography?
Challenges probably change every year as the business grows. All photographers understand the ‘Cricket’ months, the phone doesn’t ring and the requests for shoots slow down to a trickle. I overcome this by fitting in my creative work in the slower months, I travel for commissions as well, so that I’m not dictated all the time by the British weather and I spend a great deal of time on marketing and planning strategies to make the most of this time.
I have also spent the last few years highlighting how beautiful ‘out of season’ shoots can be. Winter shoots are some of my favorites. Adding in the element of frost, cold misty mornings or cool early evenings can be very special and make my clients shoot even more creative. At the start of each year I release special dates for ‘creative’ shoots for my clients. These get booked up really quickly and so I tend not to have a super quiet period.
What is your approach to black and white photography? Do you shoot for black and white or is a decision often made during the edit?
I convert images into black and white in post-production. I don’t shoot specifically for black and white and I certainly don’t pick the ones I do show in black and white for any other reason than a feeling. I just know which ones would give that extra something in black and white.
In fact, when I went through the process of gaining my Associateship with the BIPP I examined my black and whites and actually how flat a lot of them were. Once I started analyzing my images, I could see that there was another 30%– 40% I could be adding by bringing down the blacks properly and increasing the contrast. Really learning how to look at your images and critique without emotion is a hard task and not one I have mastered yet, but I know I see a huge improvement in my work when I open myself to critique and review.
What equipment do you typically carry with you on a photo shoot?
I only use natural lighting, so whatever the day is giving me. I have worked hard on knowing how to use natural light and I shoot at the best times for the season. I still get so excited when you get the perfect back light, shimmering through trees and glistening behind my client. It’s a special thing to get the elements all in a row and working together.
I shoot with a “Nikon AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm 2.8G ED VR II” 99% of the time. I tend to stick to the 200mm end as I love the depth this gives you, but if I need it I have the scope of the 70mm should space be an issue. I shoot with the Nikon 850d at the moment, the file sizes and clarity are insane and I’m loving the results at the moment. I tend to upgrade every 2 years or whenever I feel the results are lacking in something.
In your opinion, what makes a great image in this genre?
Connection, connection and connection. My clients swoon when they see the true relationship between them and their horse. As a horse owner, we all presume that we are the only ones who can see the friendship. While we give our horses that special scratch or a big cuddle, we predict that others don’t see what we’re feeling – this is what I capture. I want my clients to feel the gentle friendship of their horses as they see and feel it.
Great images in equine portraiture need to feel easy. Nothing should be tight, this includes the pose, their hand position and even the crop. Allow the image to breathe and relax, the same as the client. I could go on and on about lighting, location, busy backgrounds, but overall, if the connection and feeling is there, there is a lot that can be forgiven. You also need to make some of your own rules, be the photographer that people notice and stick to what feels good to you.
Do you edit your photos much? If so what does this typically involve?
I edit 90% of my images in Lightroom. I have some gorgeous presets from Rooke and Rover Crew and some from VSCO which I use for my current edits. I tend to bring down the blacks and tweak the exposure if needs be. I spend a little time making sure my subjects are the lightest part of the image. Your eye should be drawn to them first, not the bright patches in the backdrop.
I think editing is such a personal thing. I know my editing got better when I understood the limits with the do’s and don’ts. Ultimately though, my editing got better when my images got better. I get a lot more right in camera and the edit just enhances what’s already there.
If there are things to be removed I either take it into Photoshop if it’s an easy job or send it off to my Photoshop wizard who is wonderfully quick at removing the dreaded slobber from around the horse’s mouth.
Have any other photographers inspired you?
Oh so many, where to start? It’s rather an eclectic range of inspirations. Of course, Emily Hancock, my inspiration and my rock. I’m so proud to say she is now my partner in crime as we run the Training Barn together, but she continues to push me every single day as a mentor and as a friend.
I’m also inspired by: Ripley, Annie Leibovitz, Mannings, Tim Flach, Tim Walker, Peter Clarke, Peter Lindbergh and Raphael Macek, Richard Phibbs and many many more.
I have business inspirations, artists, photographers and designers that all inspire me every day. I love to see how people change their perspective on the art they create or the business that they run. I listen to podcasts every day, and they are all made up of influencers, business tycoons and people who generally inspire me to be a better business person or artist.
What advice would you give people that are just starting out in equine photography?
Get to know your style. What are you offering that makes you, you? Your clients will want to book you for what YOU are offering, so you need to figure this out. Also, ask yourself about the type of client you want to work for. So many photographers go out and photograph everything and everyone, I was there, don’t worry, but at some point, you need to sit down and ask yourself;
“If I could get up every day and find joy and inspiration from my clients, what sort of client would this be?” Some suggestions would be:
- A professional rider/athlete who life revolves around his/her horses and the sport. What could you capture for them that no one else has shown.
- Children with their ponies
- Polo players and their support team
- Fly on the wall
- Fully controlled by you
The options are endless, but the more you can narrow down what your super talent is the more bookings you will get for this specific talent.
What does the future hold for you as a photographer?
Now that I have achieved my Associateship with the BIPP I would like to go for my fellowship. This will take a few years as I want to experiment with a couple of creative options that I am working on at the moment.
My business and the team is growing fairly quickly at this stage and I’m concentrating on hiring the best people for the best jobs so that I can concentrate on my clients and delivering a 5* service.
There is so much in my business plan that I need another plan to break it down into achievable timelines. I want to travel more, spend more time being creative and experimental and delivering the extra va va voom to my clients.