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Photographic Wildlife

Grazing on Images of Wild Horses

Somer McCain photo of horses in silhouette against the sky
Ridge runners of the Stewart Creek herd area, Wyoming.

Wildlife and equine photographer Somer McCain has always had a love for horses, having grown up riding them. After moving to Colorado a few years back, she began photographing horse shows and wild horses. “I feel like I’ve found a niche that I’m very passionate about in the wild horses,” she explains. Other wildlife Somer often photographs include elk, pronghorns, coyotes, grouse, and raptors, which she’ll come across when searching for wild horses.

Check out her Instagram feed and you’ll see it is full of images of wild horses.

“As a horse person, being able to watch them in the wild feels pretty special. You get to witness behaviors and interactions that are otherwise micromanaged in domestic horses to minimize injuries. The flip side is that you get to witness the natural consequences of that and see life come full circle.”

Somer McCain photo of a family of 3 horses on the open plains
Small family band at sunrise in Lost Creek herd area, Wyoming.

Somer is acutely aware of the etiquette around photographing wildlife. For example, wild horse viewing dictates you keep a minimum 100 feet from the animals so you don’t disturb them causing them to change their behavior. Because of this she will often use a 500mm lens on her Z cameras.

“The horses I photograph vary from overly curious and walking towards me to some that will take off at the sight of my vehicle from a mile away. My main lens now is the 500mm and its managed to be a pretty good sweet spot for the variety of tolerance the horses have for my presence.”

Somer McCain photo of a horse in B&W
“Stallion keeping an eye on me near Pilot Butte Scenic Horse Loop, Wyoming.”

As with many other types of photography, composition and lighting are both integral parts of Somer’s photography.

Placing the horizon lines in the lower third of the images showcases the great open spaces they’re found on.

“I always knew wild mustangs were out there but never gave much thought to ‘where?’ So I definitely like to showcase the spaces they’re in when I can to emphasize that they do not live in a vacuum and make their existence in the wild more real for others.”

“I really like getting backlit photos when I can. I feel like it conveys the same sense of magic and wonder that I experience when I’m out there. And while I’d like to have my preferred lighting in all scenarios, it’s really dependent on if I can find the right horses at the right time. So I take what I can get and work around what the horses will let me have.”

Somer explains: “For instance, the silhouettes with the blue sky is one of my favorites and a really lucky shot. This particular herd always takes off when they see my vehicle and I was very fortunate to be slightly ahead of them and turn off onto a dirt two track road just in time to catch them up high on a ridge. One of my favorite parts of photographing wild horses is that a lot of my shots feel ‘lucky’ because I really can’t explicitly plan out shots that I want. It’s very much a hunt of sorts.”

She continues, “For less reactive horses I really like to get them with a softer light to emphasize the delicate and emotional interactions they can have with each other.”

Somer McCain photo of a horse with bokeh in the foreground
‘Tango’ pinto stallion of Sand Wash Basin, Colorado.

5 tips for photographing horses, wild & domestic:

  • For wild horses, a good ability to read horse/wildlife behavior in general is very helpful. Too much physical presence applies pressure to them that will cause them to move away from you or potentially have an aggressive reaction. It’s important to remember these are wild horses and will react to protect themselves or let you know if you ever get too close.
  • You must keep at least 100 feet from wild horses you encounter.
  • When photographing, the positioning of the legs can be important. Having their hind legs under them and their front legs really reaching forward implies a sense of power and forward movement. While having their legs “just anywhere” can make them appear gangly and awkward.
  • They also spend a lot of time with their heads down and hidden while grazing, so you have to be patient and wait for them to pick up their heads.
  • Be prepared to do a bit of driving when photographing wild horses. Many of the herd areas have mostly decent roads throughout hundreds of thousands of acres so driving a lot is a guarantee but seeing horses where you want them to be is not.
Somer McCain photo of a horse and foal
Foal and yearling sharing a moment near Pilot Butte Scenic Horse Loop, Wyoming.