Instagram is a wonderful thing. One of my favorite accounts I accidentally stumbled upon several years ago. Photographer Susan McClafferty of Mareish Media has developed her style (as artists do) so much that I’m never even a bit bored! Her Instagram is filled with gorgeous works of art so different than so many other photographers out there. Susan’s creative and sometimes cheeky take on equestrian photography is a break of fresh air. You won’t find many of those “same old shots” here and I’ll guarantee you’ll find more than a couple of fun surprises when you look at her work. Enjoy our updated interview and don’t forget to Follow her on social media! Her Insta will bring a smile to your day.
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 ten 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. I really felt like I still had a lot to learn and I still do feel that way but now I sell products with my artwork.
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 still have a full-time job as an IT consultant in healthcare so photography remains a secondary and yet passionate pursuit of mine.
In my IT world I’ve been an educator, creating course materials, teaching courses and I was an instructor at a community college prior to going back into consulting fulltime. I do enjoy one on one mentoring in photography and I’m considering stepping into the world of photography workshops once this pandemic is under control.
I have struggled to find the right place for me in this photography world. Although I started in equestrian sports photography, I’ve pretty much left that behind now. For me, my photography is art and I see myself as an artist. I don’t have the desire or the flexibility of schedule to do photoshoots for others as a service. I pursue those who I want to do photoshoots with and take on a few additional people that have reached out to me with the goal of creating art. I usually only produce a few final images from each of my shoots.
I have several ongoing photography projects right now and I have a standard model call on my website always looking for the next interesting subject for my work. I particularly love showcasing actors, actresses, athletes, models and other performers particularly in combination with the horses. And I’m always on the lookout for interesting looking horses of any breed. Its all about the Art!
What kind of equipment do you use?
I use Nikon camera equipment and Godox studio strobes. I’ve been really happy with Nikon image quality and I shoot with a Nikon D850 and usually my Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 zoom lens although I’m a bit of a lens hoarder. I’m very interested in getting a mirrorless camera (hoping Nikon really comes through with the rumored Z8/Z9 with big specs) and maybe even a medium format one (probably will rent the Fujifilm GFX 100 to give it a try). It’s a significant financial commitment especially if it also means new lenses. These large MP cameras are not for everyone but I care about megapixels as I want to print my images very large.
I have four studio strobes so far – all from Godox mostly 600w. Of course, the studio equipment doesn’t stop at the strobes themselves; I have backdrops and stands and a variety of light modifiers as anyone does that shoots in studio. I also have quite an array of color gels. When I’m in Virginia I set up the studio at one end of the barn where we don’t have any horses. The barn has a really nice warm quality of ambient light reflected off the wood so I have the option to keep some of the ambient in my shots or completely overpower it.
I have the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-1000 which is a professional printer so I can print out my own Limited Edition prints up to 17×22 and ensure the quality that I want.
To support my unending desire to create pretty themed photoshoots and get published in more magazines; I have an ever-growing extensive style shop. From gowns and parachute dresses to leather armor and latex pieces; baroque bridles in every color imaginable and a suitcase of unicorn horns and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I haven’t even had a chance to shoot all the pieces I have yet. One of my goals for 2021 is to get all those pieces into photoshoots and also destash the pieces I don’t plan to shoot again.
What programs do you use to digitally manipulate your photos and how much time do you spend to create an image on average?
Adobe Lightroom is my first stop to both catalog my images and do some adjustments to the raw images. I shoot 100% raw and often I shoot multiple images intended to create a composite digital art piece. I try to do as much as I can in Lightroom and then I head into Adobe Photoshop. I use the latest, greatest versions and I’m always trying to educate myself on all the newest features. PiXimperfect on YouTube is my goto source for new features in the Adobe products.
I have a variety of other programs as well. Topaz Studio is a favorite that I often use, as well as Portraiture for skin retouching, ParticleShop for some fun bits and the Nik Collection. I have a large collection of purchased textures, overlays and free stock images that I use in composites and I also try to take a lot of my own images as backgrounds, skies and bits and pieces.
For a fine art studio image, I’ll spend a few hours getting it just right and then I might come back and look at it again later to see if it needs any changes. If its going to be printed large I’ll print it out myself smaller to make sure the quality is what I expect. For styled photoshoot images it takes me a little less time unless they are destined for a large print. Composites can range from a day or two of work to many weeks of struggling with specific aspects. Usually if a composite piece doesn’t start to come together in the first day I’ll move onto a different image. Its always good to step away from an image and come back to it. I like to post images on social media and see what sticks before I edit the final version.
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 before coming back to the states again. Horses of all types have always been my passion.
What is your creative process? How do you get inspired?
I used to follow a lot of other equine photographers and I still follow some of my favorites as I want to support them but I don’t want to be too influenced by others in the same genre. As much as its impossible to do something truly unique; I push myself to aim for that. I love fashion, dance, music, bold colors and, of course, horses of every breed. I often look to fashion or dance images to inspire me on what I can do with horses. Most recently I’ve been excited about underwater photos and I’ve had the opportunity to take quite a few. They are definitely a shooting and editing challenge but the ethereal nature of the images is amazing.
In the studio with the horses I love to play. Play with odd and awkward shapes and bold and weird color combinations. I move around – getting down low and up high to find new perspectives. My primary horse trainer/handler, Christopher Webb, and I have got our own little language when we are at work in the studio in Virginia.
As far as general creativity sometimes an idea percolates in my mind for a long time before I bring it to fruition. Other times I think of it and do it right away. I’m not really interested in having one style of photography or editing. My interests are diverse and I think my images may vary quite a bit and I’m ok with that. I am easily bored so I’m just going to let my wild creative mind lead me and see where I go. Sometimes its dark and disturbing and other times its light and otherworldly and everything in between.
Describe how a photo shoot usually runs for you. How many events do you photograph a year?
I do photoshoots at least every other weekend sometimes quite a bit more than that. My preparation really depends on the type of shoot it is. If it’s an equine studio shoot then I make sure everything is charged up and I have spares of everything. I set up as much as I can ahead of time and take test shots to refine the lighting. The horses are bathed and prepped ahead of time – sometimes braided. I am very fortunate to have fabulous horse trainers/handlers that I work with at most shoots. When working with horses I find its critical to have at least one other person helping if not more and the quality of posing definitely shines through based on the experience of the handler.
For styled shoots I usually pick out everything ahead of time. I’m a planner by nature but sometimes I just don’t have time to get as organized as I want. If I’m working with a new subject, I want to collaborate with them in person so that I pick just the right pieces for them. I definitely do some legwork ahead of time with a new model but it really comes down to the day of the shoot.
I’m very picky about the location and time of day for a shoot if I’m using natural light. I don’t want to spend time cleaning up a busy background or trying to make up for a bad quality of light. I love the “golden hour” as most photographers do which is sunrise for an hour after and sunset and an hour before and I also love the “blue hour” although I find that its not usually a full hour at twilight. I definitely scout locations either right before the shoot or the day before depending on access.
I try to be very laid back with the models during the shoot. I want them to be comfortable and know how much I appreciate their time. I often use inspiration photos as a jump off point but I’m not trying to reproduce someone else’s image. I provide posing guidance but I really don’t like stiffness so I try to use concepts, emotions or a connection to the horse to get the poses and expressions that I want rather than directions on moving limbs etc.
I’d really like to find some stylists as well as hair and makeup artists to collaborate with realizing its challenging that I split my time between Florida, Virginia and Nova Scotia.
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 28 now and retired on the farm in Virginia. Zoe is a daughter of the great Castle Magic and she has been one of the loves of my life. I definitely learned one of my best photography lessons from Zoe. I had so few photos of her from when we were competing at our peak because I only wanted “perfect” shots. In the last ten years that all changed and I treasure every photo I have. Zoe still participates in styled shoots although I don’t put anyone up on her anymore and this year, I took my favorite photos of her in the studio and she is one of my prized Botanical Beasts in my 2021 Calendar. She really has inspired me to seek out other senior superstar horses and get some great studio shots of them.
I also have an amazing Dutch warmblood mare, Zowie. She was a jumper and then a hunter. I haven’t competed her in a few years now and I’m not sure if I will again. I think both she and I have given up that part of our lives. She is a really smart mare and we are very attached to each other. I’ve been doing some liberty work with her. She is an expert rearer so its on my bucket list to get her doing that on demand for photoshoots. Zow is my absolute pro supermodel in the studio.
And last but not least is my amusing Lusitano gelding, Roucio who I adopted in 2019. I made an exception to my love of mares (i.e. Mare-ish) for this handsome, quirky boy. My blue-eyed boy is a bullfighter at heart but also a sensible and funny little guy. Friends ride him for pleasure but mostly he’s retired and just comes out to perform for photoshoots. If there is a horse of mine that makes a ridiculous face during a photoshoot it is sure to be Rou.
Do you do portrait sessions or only sports photos?
I no longer take equestrian sports photos except sporadically for fun. Most of my photos are portraits of one type or another although I still love to take photos of horse at liberty as well.
What artists/photographers do you most admire?
The list is long but I’ll give you some of the heavy hitters for me. I love the work of Annie Leibovitz, Lindsay Adler, Ivan Duran, Lois Greenfield, Vadim Stein, Alexander Yakovlev, Cheryl Walsh, Brett Stanley, etc, etc.
Specifically, for equine work I love Janey Lazenby, Sandra Reitenbach, and Olga Bazhutova.
How can our readers purchase your photos?
From my website www.mareishmedia.com I have Limited Edition prints as well as stock images and loads of other products for sale. I have a shop on Fine Art America as well as Zazzle and I’m continuously looking for unique, boutique products that work well with my artwork. I just released my Botanical Beasts 2021 Calendar so definitely go and check that out. My website, my Facebook page and my Instagram have links to everything.
What’s next for you?
One of my goals for 2021 is to take my artwork to the next level by transforming it into mixed media artwork. My family is filled with traditional medium artists and I’m excited to jump in and embellish my photographic pieces with some actual brush strokes. I would also love to find a gallery to represent me so I could have some art shows. That would be everything.
I’ll definitely continue on refining my work with dancers and underwater performers and coming up with new and exciting products to sell. You never know I might find yet another genre to add to my bag of tricks.
And my equine studio work continues to be a huge passion. I’m in Ocala for the winter 20/21 and I’m seeking out every interesting looking horse to get more images. At some point probably a fine art photography book will be in the works.
I have plans for several equine magazines and that photography workshop. If there were only more hours in the day.