Photographing the wild horses of North Carolina

What is is about the form of a horse that evokes so much emotion? Is it their gentle nature as they gaze in a pasture? Or maybe the power of their muscles visibly flexing as they gallop? We have all seen horses in competition, at the track, maybe have ridden a time or two, and many of us have had the pleasure of being up close and personal. But the wild ones…

With no halter and reins, and their harem and only the open land, wild horses are truly a sight to behold…and to photograph. This past October I spent four days with wild horses on two barrier islands near Beaufort, North Carolina. Each island had two characteristics in common: you could only get there by boat, and there are no people or homes there. The horses are in charge.

On Bird Shoal is the Rachel Carson Reserve, over 2000 acres with a group of horses that tends to stay together, about 30 in total. On Shackleford Banks, the horses prefer to stay in harems, groups of one stallion, perhaps one or two mares, and any recent foals as the family unit. There are about 120 horses on the nine-mile long island.

  Shackleford Banks is the long thin island and the Rachel Carson Reserve is just above the west end.

Shackleford Banks is the long thin island and the Rachel Carson Reserve is just above the west end.

To photograph the horses, you need to find them. That’s not necessarily an easy task unless you have some understanding of horse behavior, and have some insiders knowledge about these horses in particular. Wildlife photographers quickly learn that you’ve got to do your research. Learn about your subject and their habits. I was very lucky to have the help of Jared Lloyd who conducts workshops in the area, Fred at ncwildhorses.com, and Captain Monty of Seavision Charters, who was incredibly helpful in understanding the horses behavior and feeding patterns.

A word about gear: as a Nikon shooter, my primary camera is a Nikon D850 and because I knew I would be walking (and walking and walking) through dunes, brush, mud and thigh deep water, I needed a light enough rig that would give me the reach I needed and not weigh me down during 3-4 hour shooting sessions at the beginning and end of the day. So I went with the recent Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 and the TC-14E III teleconverter. Some of the morning shoots I used the 70-200mm f/2.8 with the teleconverter as well. The combination is sharp, light and on the end of my monopod was just right to throw over my shoulder while moving around.

 Using a long telephoto lens doesn’t mean you have to be far away.

Using a long telephoto lens doesn’t mean you have to be far away.

Each day brought us to different light conditions and different activities. So what do wild horses do all day? Mostly eat. That means most of the time their heads are down, in the grass, munching. For a photographer that means patience is needed. Lots of patience. As with all wildlife photography, your goal should be not to interrupt the behavior of your subject. Looking for natural gestures in a natural setting will make your nature photography more meaningful.

Also, look for interesting abstracts or patterns. Sometimes its all about the eyes, but sometimes its not.

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Fortunately these horses see people quite often and are not frightened by them. You are permitted to approach as close as 50 feet but do remember they are wild, and therefore unpredictable. Sometimes, in fact, the horses may be curious about you and come in for a closer look.

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As my goal was to create photographs that feature the form of the horse I processed the images in monochrome. I processed the RAW files in Lightroom using the split-toning section, toning only the shadows.

If you are interested in photographing wild horses, there are several places around the country that you can find them. On the east coast, in addition to this area, the northern part of the Outer Banks as well as Chincoteague Island in Virginia. In the west there are wild horses in parts of Wyoming, Colorado, Nevada and South Dakota.

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