Instagram is a wonderful thing! One of my favorite accounts I accidentally stumbled upon belongs to photographer Susan McClafferty of Mareish Media. Susan’s creative and cheeky take on equestrian photography is a breath of fresh air. You won’t find any of the same old shots here and I guarantee you’ll find more than a couple of fun surprises when you look at her work! Enjoy our latest artist interview and don’t forget to follow her on social media! She’ll bring a smile to your Instagraming!
How did you become a photographer and how long have you been doing it professionally? What is your background?
I’ve been dabbling in photography for a long time, probably 30 years. I started taking it more seriously probably eight years ago when I started primarily with videography and then started incorporating photography. Although I would share some images on social media I wasn’t really trying to sell anything even though a support group around me was suggesting that I should. I really felt like I still had a lot to learn and I still do feel that way.
It’s one of the things that I love about photography is that it’s much like riding horses; you always have room for improvement. I sold my first photo officially in 2017 to be used in an advertisement. Since then I have set up an LLC for Mareish Media along with the related liability insurance I will need for any professional work. I did take photos of a few classes at the South Florida Hunter Jumper Association Charity show in the fall with the approval of show management so I did also sell some photos from that. I have a full-time job as an IT consultant in healthcare so photography remains a part-time and yet passionate pursuit of mine.
I am still evolving what my business practices will be and what kind of images I will sell. I am not as interested in straight event photography as I am in interesting edits of any type of horses. I continue to explore as many different styles and as many different disciplines and breeds as I can looking for the right niche for me. 2018 is a big year for me to make some decisions and get some items up for sale on my website.
What kind of equipment do you use?
I currently use Nikon equipment so I shoot with a Nikon D500 and either my Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 zoom lens or my Nikon 85mm f1.8 prime portrait lens. I have my eye on a few other lenses but I also rented the Sony A9 mirrorless camera for a week this winter and I was pretty impressed so I need to make a decision on whether I switch to Sony or add it to my collection of photography gear.
Although I have a monopod with little feet on it I almost always handhold the camera instead. Some professional photographers like to pre-focus the camera and just click a shot or two but I still like to follow the horse and use continuous mode to capture a sequence. I have a lot more images to cull through that way but I find more interesting images than if I was just looking for the classic image at the top of the jump, for example. Probably the only discipline that I stray from that technique is the hunters where it is very hard to capture a good image that’s not the classic pose with the knees at the highest point over the jump.
I have a big photo shoot planned in Virginia at the end of June where I will be starting to play with lighting and some flash techniques both inside a studio and outside and based on that I will probably end up adding additional equipment.
What programs do you use to digitally manipulate your photos and how much time do you spend to create an image on average?
I try to shoot as close as I can to what I want in camera (SOOC as they call it). I do very little postprocessing on most sport shots that I take. I do catalog them all using Adobe Lightroom CC. I might do a crop or adjust the horizon and maybe a few tweaks to the exposure or clarity but not much.
Now when I’m doing something creative like my carousel horses then I start in Lightroom and do some initial work on the foundational image and then I take it into Adobe Photoshop to do the layered work and composition. I occasionally will buy a stock image to use in a composite image but mostly I take my own stock images for this purpose. If I use a technique that I end up liking a lot and I think I will do it many times and if it’s appropriate to be a Photoshop action then I will create my own action for that technique.
On average I spend a few hours to half a day at most on any of my creative images and I always feel like they need more work but I’m easily bored and I move on to the next idea. Instagram has become my place to test out ideas and see what “sticks” and what people like. Sometimes it takes me a few tries to get a style the way I like it. Other times my first try at a style is the best one and then I overwork the other ones. All part of the creative process. This is all the foundational work for deciding what I will eventually sell. The “In the Dust” image of my previous trainer Ian Silitch on Cordovo still has the most likes that I have ever received on a single image coming in currently at 2,036.
How did the horse become a primary subject?
I am a lifelong equestrian. I started riding when I was 11 and my first competitions were as a hunter rider in North Carolina. I rode ponies and junior hunters there and then junior hunters and eventually some jumpers in Canada. Horses of all types have always been my passion.
What is your creative process? How do you get inspired?
I guess with sports photography I’m just looking for something interesting. If a horse jumps in great form every photographer has a great picture of it over the jumps. I personally love the connection pictures between the horse and the rider when they’ve had the most amazing round of their lives and their expressing their appreciation to their four-legged partner. Or you tried your hardest to win that class and you broke the timers just a few milliseconds behind the time of the leader.
I get some great knockdowns and crash shots to which I have mixed feelings about so I don’t usually post them. As a rider and horse owner myself I always try to keep in mind that somebody maybe trying to sell that horse and perhaps something will be read into that picture that is not actually a problem for that horse or rider. Riders understand that all horses can knock a jump down and a rider can make a mistake no matter what level they are and a horse can occasionally be surprised and stop or have a foot in the water but I’m not sure the general public really understand that so I try to be sensitive to that.
Being a Hunter Jumper rider I primarily started in that discipline but this year I really tried to spread out and understand what it would take to get a good dressage picture or what it would take to get a good polo picture or a race horse picture or horses at liberty so it’s been a wonderful exploration for me.
As far as my creative styles I think I am inspired by many things. Sometimes it will be a photograph of somebody else’s which I do not copy but it may inspire me to think in a certain way about a creative style. Sometimes it’s things in popular culture like I’m quite curious about trying to explore steam punk with horses. Sometimes it’s a little retro like looking back at a pop art style and applying that to horses like my paint splatter pictures. The thing that amazes me most about my own creative process is that I could have a plan to do a particular composite or style and then suddenly I look on Instagram and it will pop up that somebody else will have done it so I feel like I have to put it further down on my list to do later because I don’t want to be seen as copying anybody. It is important to me that I am uniquely me.
Describe how a photo shoot usually runs for you. How many events do you photograph a year?
Up until this year I probably only did three or four photo shoots per year. This year will be substantially more. I already have six or seven planned or done including a large two day photo shoot in Virginia with costumes and specialized horse tack and special effects and scenery so I’m very excited about that.
I like to meticulously plan things out and have a schedule particularly for a large and complicated photo shoot which is a bit more formal. If it’s one person and one horse then it’s a bit more casual. We will discuss outfits and I will provide guidance ahead of time on the types of outfits I think they should consider. We’ll also share back and forth various poses and things that we’d like to get out of the shoot.
I think the biggest thing for other photographers starting out doing photo shoots is realizing that you really have to understand what posing looks good for both horse and rider and you need to guide your subjects because otherwise they will all look like snapshots that you took on your old Kodak camera. People always want to look directly at the camera and smile and those are hardly ever my favorite photo shoot pictures. I am certainly not the expert on posing but there are lots of online tutorials and guides to help anyone that wants to give this a try.
Paying attention to the scenery and the lighting is the other very important thing for a portrait photo shoot. I love the “golden hour” as most photographers do which is sunrise for an hour after and sunset and an hour before. But changing light conditions also means that you need to be confident with your camera settings and adjusting as needed to get the best out of the changing light. I definitely scout locations either right before the shoot or the day before depending on access.
What is your history with horses? Tell me a little bit about the most important horses in your life.
Being an old-timer, as they say for middle-aged riders, I rode almost entirely thoroughbreds when I was a junior. My last thoroughbred hunter Zoe (show name La-Dee-Da), I showed until she was 22 and she is 26 now and retired on my best friend’s farm in Virginia. Zoe is a daughter of the great Castle Magic and she has been one of the loves of my life. Due to various issues I stopped riding for a period of six years and Zoe was sold to my best friend then when I turned 50 I realized I better start riding again if I was ever going to so I called my friend and I was very lucky to get Zoe back in my life again to pursue the hunters. It was amazing and I am so grateful to my friend and Ian Silitch for helping me get back in the show ring successfully with this great mare.
My story of Zoe plays a prominent role in why I do photography. When I competed Zoe before stopping riding I always went up and looked at the official photographers photos and they were never good enough either she wasn’t jumping in perfect form or I didn’t look good or the photographer didn’t catch us at the right spot so I literally had maybe one or two pictures of this incredible heart horse.
I swore when I got her back that I would never let that happen again and I took and bought so many pictures of her that she turns the other way when I pull out a camera now. Ha ha. This desire to make sure that I had great pictures of my horse transferred to my friends and my trainer and the people that rode with my trainer and then my trainers before Ian and my other friends and it just kind of expanded from there. I started by videoing everyone in our barn and convincing someone to video me and then I found I enjoyed photography more. And at this point I was passionately trying to improve my photography and I upgraded my equipment.
I currently have an amazing Dutch warmblood hunter mare called Zowie and I ride with Ellie Raidt and Chris Gilman in Wellington. I am blessed beyond belief to have found this mare and she found me because, as you can expect it was very hard for me to move on from Zoe, but I literally found another heart horse or maybe this one is my soul.
I have had many horses over the years including the ones I rode for other people as a junior but these two are on the top of the list.
Do you do portrait sessions or only sports photos?
I do. My sports photography has transformed from an activity to support my friends to fodder for my latest creative style or the pursuit of fine art to enter in photography contests. I still do get out there and take pictures of my friends but being a fairly new resident of South Florida that happens more when I’m in Virginia or Ocala.
I generally don’t pursue trying to be an official photographer for any of the large horse shows and since I am not selling my photos to the media then I don’t usually pursue media credentials either. I’m sure this could change at some point and I have had discussions of shooting photos for official photographers and been approached to shoot for a few horse shows but at this point that’s not my primary pursuit.
What artists/photographers do you most admire?
Oh my a long list. I love the artwork of Sharon Lynn Campbell and Steve Messenger and Franckie Alarcon.
I love the photography of Dixi Larina, Olga Bazhutova, Lucio Landa, Romeo Ghete, Tiffany van Halle, Stefano Grasso (simply a Master for the LGCT circuit), Alden Corrigan, Erin Gilmore, Jessica Rodrigues, Tamara Gooch but the very top of the list for me right
now is EJ Lazenby in the UK. Simply phenomenal. I’m sure I’ve missed tons that I love because the list is truly long.
How can our readers purchase your photos?
I am limited on what I am selling right now. If somebody is interested in a photo shoot then they could certainly email me at [email protected] and as I have more images to be able to sell I will be posting them on my website. I certainly have plans to have a number of fine art prints and interesting creative styles that I can sell available in 2018. I’m also looking into calendars and greeting cards and as part of my website with SmugMug they do offer photos printed on a lot of different interesting items other than just straight photos.
Do you have anything else you would like to say or focus on?
Hey… if anyone is looking for another photographer to shoot images for them and can provide media credentials at the WEG in Tryon in September, I’m going to be there with friends watching the Show Jumping and Vaulting and I could arrive earlier if there was a reason too. 🙂
I’m Canadian, British, Irish, American and grew up in Australia until I was six so I’ll be rooting for all five teams. Anyone? 🙂