How to Photograph Horses

I am glad the ground is soft—until I realize that I am standing in a pile of horse manure.

I step aside and knock my boots against the post, then lean into the fence, clicking my tongue and calling to the horses beyond the fence. The animals are beautiful—black, bay, chestnut, cream and white, with strong jaws and wild, blowing manes. They whinny and jump, jostle and nudge one another—they are warm bodies of energy, ready to fly against the cold wind of Eyafjörður, the longest fjord in northern Iceland.

I wanted Annie to see these horses. Icelandics are a remarkably individual and genuine breed, friendly but sensitive, sturdy but kind. Staring into their shiny amber eyes is like looking back in time, 1,100 years ago when the early Viking settlers carried them over on open wooden ships from Norway.

In 982 AD, the Icelandic Althing (parliament) prohibited any more foreign horses from entering the country, so that today, Iceland’s 80,000 horses are all descended from the original Norse breed. They are incredibly strong animals, sturdy and unflinching, easily coping with nasty elements of wind, rain, rock and dust, yet wonderfully gentle—if they want to be.

While I’m still adjusting the settings on my camera, Annie is already there, right up into the horses, talking to them in her sweet and motherly tone, touching their velvety warm nostrils and getting to know her subjects.

She clicks her shutter now and again, then moves, gets to know a new batch of horses and then begins the process of turning this moment into art that can be shared. I watch her at work—this has been my luxury in my expedition around Iceland—to observe a National Geographic photographer in her element, working, living, and shooting the world around us.

Unlike previous days, the light isn’t great. The skies are overcast and overblown with a kind of white fluorescent light, but with Annie there are no excuses. She’s photographing the horses up-close, leaving nothing out of this great event: beautiful horses, a summer day, a distant place—cold wind.

“So how do you shoot a horse?” I ask her, out loud. I have been taking pictures of horses for years—for work and for fun, but I figure that over the span of Annie’s career, she’s covered horses on about every continent.

She doesn’t even pause, doesn’t even really consider the question for more than a few seconds—but answers simply.

“Oh, it’s really no different than anything else,” Annie speaks to me while shooting, “It’s the combination of light and graphic and moment.”

She keeps clicking, and then pauses to look right at me.

“That’s really your holy trinity.” She repeats: “Composition. Light. Moment—Yeah.” And now she’s back in with the horses, concentrating on her composition.

Like a boxer in the ring, she bobs around, shifting up and down, from high and low—one second standing, then the next, pushing herself through the slats of the fence and shooting upward into the horses soft nuzzles, smiling with each click, like she always does, enthralled and joyful for this process to which she belongs.

Composition. Light. Moment. It sounds so simple, and yet so unattainable as well. The light and moment are beyond our control—one must learn to hunt these down. Composition, though—that is something we can control (to an extent), and as photographers, we must work constantly to build.

And that is Annie’s tip for photographing horses—that it’s just like shooting everything else.

Two hours pass and the afternoon has turned to evening; although this far north, the sunlight hasn’t changed a degree. I ask Annie if she’s ready now—ready to go horseback riding. That is the activity at hand, but she declines. It’s not that she’s a party pooper—she’s already had her fun. For Annie, snapping the swirl of horses around us offers far more fun than climbing on one for an hour.

“Once you got tourists wearing funny hats on horses in a row, it stops being interesting,” declares Annie.

And she’s right. The moment of freedom has passed and the current composition of horses tethered in a row is nowhere near as interesting as the horse shapes before: Icelandic horses moving freely, together, without bridle or saddle.

And so, after two hours shooting horses, we leave the animals and return to Akureyri, where I take Annie to the outdoor swimming pools and together, we soak in the natural hot spring water bubbling from below.

The water ripples with clear blue, releasing towers of steam—evening’s summer light bathes the city in a light yellow glow. It is a whole new light than before—new light and a new moment.

A whole new way of seeing.