Photographer William Shepley Discusses Shooting Portraits and Scenes of the "Equestrian West"


Janna Copley, Riata Ranch, California, 1997
All Photos © William Shepley

In the late 1980s I took on the challenge of shooting the equestrian culture of the American West. I was passionately interested in photographing the men and women who still follow the traditions of Western horsemanship. They all share an almost mystical love of their equine counterparts and the art of riding. Over a 14-year period I seasonally photographed the Western riders and titled the work the Equestrian West.

The long-term project was self-assigned and self-financed. It was, however, by chance that I began shooting the wranglers of the Sierra Nevada Mountains pack outfits. A university friend had married into a prominent family steeped in the culture of Western horsemanship and from that referral I was able to build a network of friendships with people who live this extraordinary lifestyle. I have photographed cowboys, wranglers, horse drives, roundups, branding, pack outfits, trick riders, team riding, rodeos, and an assortment of subject matter related to the iconic and 100 percent American-grown culture.

Art Gaytan, Los Angeles, 2002

Three Disciplines
The work encompassed three photographic disciplines: portraiture, landscape, and action. The backdrop is the vast contiguous landscape of Western North America. There were two main subjects in the genre, people and horses. Photographing the horse and rider together is like photographing any couple for a sitting. I am always astounded at the cooperation of the horse and sometimes I think they like being photographed. Ideally, the horse’s ears should be upright and facing forward. I use a hidden apple and just before the shot I expose it to the horse, the ears go forward—snap!

Be it man or horse, the eyes of my subjects are the most important feature. As mirrors of the soul, they carry the image to success. The most subtle inflections of muscles around the eyes, mouth, and forehead can dramatically alter the mood of the portrait and the portraitist must be able to recognize these subtleties and take advantage of them.

The space around the subject, his or her environment, is a very critical tool for defining the individual character. Fragments of information in the background, however insignificant, can speak volumes about the personality and even mistakenly misrepresent the person. For example, a US flag, either out of focus or fragmented in the background, will still give the viewer the impression that the sitter is a staunch American.

Charro, Guadalajara, Mexico, 1993

Linc Eddy, Dry Creek Ranch, Nevada, 1995

Light’s Influence And Effect
The nature of light as it falls on the face is a valuable tool for expressing emotion and attitude. I have learned to work with all types of ambient light and there is always a solution to the problem of getting the light right. If the light isn’t ideal then the subject can carry the portrait simply with the power of appearance. I favor the Rembrandt style of lighting that can be found in so many barns and stables throughout the West. Two big doors at either end can produce an infinite choice of dual light source combinations.

I prefer the key light (sun or other strong reflected source) to be coming from behind the lens at about 45 to 75 degrees above the horizon. Multiple reflective surfaces are fun to work with and, if possible when working in chiaroscuro lighting, I will ask my sitters to position themselves so that a sliver of reflected light coming from behind can accentuate the jaw, hair, shoulder, or edge of a cowboy hat. This will throw the composition into balance if the key light source is too dominant.

But to understand, and successfully photograph the Western riders, one must experience firsthand the power of riding a horse at full gallop. The feeling of wind in the face and the burst of acceleration and adrenaline will give the photographer the sense of the power of the horse and respect for those who ride them.

Branding, Three Creek Ranch, Idaho, 1995

Three Cowboys, Eastern Sierras, California, 1994

My Approach To The Take
The theater of the Equestrian West is largely outdoors. The stage includes rough sagebrush terrains and high mountain passes, colorful rodeo arenas, and richly textured cedar corrals. There are hundreds of yearly events and venues for Western-style horsemanship. But it’s the colorful characters, their personalities and styles, projected on the big screen, the West, that attract my lens.

My photographic approach is stealthy. I want to be invisible. Before I get in somebody’s face with my camera I will make sure that it’s safe and not interfering with their work or action. I may make eye contact and point to my camera and wait for a thumbs up from the rider. It’s the same with any subject. Permission is required.

When I am shooting an event I get set with a mental checklist of questions. Where is the action? What is the light doing? What lens to use? What aperture for depth of field? I break it down piece by piece, but of course the intuitive element is infinitely more important. Previsualization enhances intuition and is a form of imagination. Imagining what one’s creative intentions are before the shoot will send a message to the gods of synchronicity and serendipity, and precision timing rules the day.

Calf roper, Salinas Rodeo, California, 1998

Sierra Nevada Mountain backcountry, California, 1994

Compositional Considerations
I use geometry to compose my images and take advantage of any structure or object that can emphasize perspective, scale, and proportion. Geometric relationships, triangles, for example, show up in my compositions. Repetition of form is a secondary tool for composing dense, powerful imagery. I layer my images with fields of objects to increase its three-dimensionality and to fill empty space and strengthen the principle subject. It only takes a small part of something to recognize it. If you can recognize it then it becomes information. Information, and how it is interpreted by the viewer, can help or hinder the intentions of the photographer.

There are other considerations, such as when shooting action with a shorter lens. If a horse is going from right to left it is conventional to allow more space in the composition on the side of the direction the subject is traveling. So, the framing from the horse’s nose to the border of the composition will be longer than from his tail to the other border of the image. That rule pertains to humans, vehicles, or any moving object as well. If a rider is looking to the left or right, more compositional space should be added in the direction of the gaze.

Shooting the Western riders was full of hard work without any guarantee of success or compensation. Enduring long road trips and sometimes freezing camping conditions were driven by a passion and commitment to finish the work. But few subjects contain the abundance of photographic possibility, across a wide spectrum of people and events, as the Equestrian West. The pleasures and sense of accomplishment in shooting a long-term project like this are immeasurable.

Horse Drive, Casa Diablo, Eastern Sierra, 1995

Exhibits And Books
The final stage of a project like the Equestrian West is sharing it with others. Finding venues for exhibition or editorial exposure can be as difficult an effort as shooting a project of this size. The first public exhibition of large prints of the Equestrian West were shown at Los Angeles International Airport’s Bradley Terminal. A full complement of forty 20x24-inch gelatin silver photographs where exhibited at The Perfect Exposure Gallery in Los Angeles and the Soho Photo Gallery in Manhattan (2003). I have illustrated three books on Western riding, including the story of the Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls, a troop of international Western trick riders and trick ropers.

Tech Notes And Contacts
I used a Pentax 6x7. The images were shot on black-and-white negative and conventionally processed and printed for exhibition.

At present, I conduct seasonal photo tours in Rome, Italy, and annual photo workshops in Regensburg, Germany. I spend winters in Springdale, Utah, at the western entrance to Zion National Park.

For information on my photo tours and to see more of my work, please visit and