How far would you go to get the shot? If you're Andrius Burba, the answer is "however far it takes." Meet the photographer with the vision, ingenuity, and talent that came together to create this remarkable project, titled "Under-Horse."
Andrius Burba has shot animals standing on glass before (dogs, cats, and rabbits), but moving up to horses presented an entirely new challenge, one he called the most difficult of his career. Horses are stunningly beautiful animals, but they take a huge amount of training (both human and animal) to work with safely and successfully. So numerous were the considerations for this project that it took two months of planning before the shoot even began.
Whereas Burba could photograph other animals from the comfort of a studio, he needed to go to the horses to get his shots. This meant digging a 10-foot deep trench in the middle of a pasture, building a trench box, and placing a glass panel on top of it. Of course, with the average horse weighing about 1,100 pounds, he had to use incredibly strong glass, which itself was 10 feet by 6 feet and made of three panels fused together, with a total weight of 900 pounds. As Burba notes:
Everything was way bigger. The technique was the same, but I needed way bigger glass, more crew, a bigger studio, cleaner glass on set, and even more light.
Having never worked with horses before, Burba described it as a peculiar feeling having a "600-kilogram horse walking on [my] ceiling." Nonetheless, he was never afraid of them, finding them to be beautiful and brilliant creatures. In addition, he was not worried about the glass breaking, as they chose extra strong glass with several factors of safety, and theoretically, had the top panel shattered, the bottom two should have held. Nonetheless, having a half-ton horse on top of glass took some special considerations. Horses typically wear steel or aluminum shoes, which could have easily scratched or broken the glass. To get around this, each horse wore special rubber shoes that cost 30 euros a piece and took about 10 minutes to attach.
In terms of gear, though he normally shoots with a 5D Mark III, Burba decided he wanted some extra resolution, switching to a Nikon D810 with a NIKKOR 35mm f/1.4G lens. Lighting the horses properly took four Profoto Prohead Plus heads at 4,800 Ws a piece, powered by two Profoto generators, all shot into two 8-foot by 12-foot frame scrims, with two lights per side and a giant black flag overhead to keep the images clean.
To see the entire setup in action, check out the behind the scenes footage below (turn on closed captioning for English subtitles). As you can see, it took a combination of good training practices and bribery with treats (how I generally work with my horse) to convince the horses to stand on the glass and pose, but they actually handled the experience quite well, with only a few minor incidents when the horses spooked and moved off the glass. Three of the eight horses found the experience too foreign and refused to stand, but Burba showed proper respect and horsemanship and let them be, working with the remaining five instead. In fact, he notes the most difficult part of the experience actually had nothing to do with the horses, but was rather designing and organizing the entire shoot, especially since there was no precedent for such an endeavor and it took a crew of 40 people to pull it off (whereas the smaller animal shoots typically only required one assistant) — a crew for whom he was immensely grateful:
I can say without your team, you are nothing. You can't make anything big alone. You always need people to support your idea and believe in it.
Burba notes his favorite part was getting such a large crew together to all work toward a common goal. In addition, the sheer feeling of lying on the ground and watching a horse walk directly above him to pose was breathtaking. Once he realized the process was going smoothly and as planned, he really began to enjoy the experience for what it was and worry less about all the details.
One of the major challenges as compared to photographing smaller animals in studio was keeping the glass clean, which Burba said was not as easy as he thought it would be. Because the studio was built in the middle of a pasture and particularly because it rained, the horses brought a lot of mud onto the glass, despite the crew's best efforts to clean them beforehand. Altogether, the glass presented the biggest photographic challenge: it required constant cleaning (even when the horses were on it, requiring good crew coordination), picked up a lot of stray reflections (requiring him to wear all black and line the pit with black), and frequently fogged and iced over due to temperature differentials, forcing the crew to create a makeshift ventilation system.
In addition, working with horses takes a lot of patience and a keen understanding of the equine mentality, as human and horse must work in tandem (particularly given their size) and the handler must be able to anticipate the horse's behavior to ensure the safety of all involved and get the shots. You can see the nuance of the encouragement and technique of the handlers in the behind the scenes video above, especially since the horses were being asked to enter a very foreign, enclosed space.
For retouching, Burba turned to his good friends at Image-Rehab, with whom he has a longstanding relationship that he says allowed him to have the trust to hand over the shots from such an ambitious project.
I've been around horses my entire life, and I've never seen photos remotely like these, so I'd just like to express my personal admiration for Burba's stunning work. I might just have to convince him to come take a shot of my horse.
You can purchase limited edition prints from the project here. Be sure to check out Burba's website, Underlook, and follow him on Facebook. Check out the rest of the images from the shoot in the gallery below!
All images used with permission of Andrius Burba.