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Interview with Matthew Seed

Photographer Matthew Seed has a diverse photography portfolio, which includes work in both fashion and advertising. However, he’s also known for his captivating shots of horses. We asked him to answer some questions for our readers.

Photographer Matthew Seed
Photographer Matthew Seed

While you have a diverse portfolio, horse photography is one component. How did you get started in this unique field? 

I have been a fashion and advertising photographer for nearly 25 years now and in that time I have shot most things. So, about 10 years ago I had an idea to try something really different and close to my heart. I grew up with and love horses so it seemed the natural choice to try and see if I could bring something to horse photography that I enjoyed doing personally. And really that’s what it was for me, a personal project and not to make a career out of.

My first few shoots I did not use flash, just getting to know horses again after a gap from being with them, then after about a year of trailing this I needed a new challenge. Studio lighting is my specialty as a fashion and advertising photographer, it’s the thing I enjoy the most about photography, using light to sculpt a new reality.

Daylight in the UK is not the best lighting to highlight the beauty of a horse. That’s when I had the idea to bring the most powerful flash I could to horses and see what happened. My main influence was not a photographer at all but George Stubbs, an Old Master famous for his equestrian paintings and studies.  His work had a drama and contrast to it that I loved and where George Stubbs used paint I had decided to use flash to bring to life my realities.
The rest is history.

One of Seed’s majestic shots of horses.
One of Seed’s majestic shots of horses.

Many of your images involving horses have dramatic lighting. What does that add to the picture?

An example of the dramatic lighting Seed uses to capture horses.
An example of the dramatic lighting Seed uses to capture horses.

The dramatic lighting is often misunderstood as being there to create dramatic skies, as a sort of super powerful fill in flash.  In truth, the dramatic skies are actually a by-product of what it is I actually am trying to achieve, which is sculpted light to define the horse’s body & shape. The lighting is very focused, powerful and directional. I am not just aiming lights at a horse to light it up, the lighting is very concentrated to create an artistic study of the horse.

It has to be the hardest lighting I have ever done and with possibly the hardest subject you could pick. It has taken me over 20 years of working in fashion and advertising photography to understand lighting well enough to be able to shoot like this, which is actually shooting blind. By blind I am referring to the fact that I do not use modeling lights so it’s all down to experience. In fact, if I had started to photograph horses earlier in my career I perhaps would not have even considered trying to achieve a dramatic effect with lighting at all.

Working with horses is dramatically different than working with people. How do you get a horse to cooperate during a shoot?

Seed says working with horses is much different than working with other animals.
Seed says working with horses is much different than working with other animals.

Horses are not like dogs, you can’t wave a biscuit in front of them and they will be your best friend. As flight animals, horses are much more distant than that. Horses have amazing qualities and, to me, they are mysterious, magical and powerful.  I always spend a considerable amount of time with a horse before I start to shoot.  It helps to build mutual trust. You also need tons of patience to wait for the right moment to shoot. I am naturally a very calm person too and love being around horses so that helps to build a kind of bond.

I suppose it’s a bit like horse whispering, in a way.  I do not claim to have mystical powers with horses but I do know the point at which I understand the horse in front of me and that, in a way, is a magical moment. Once we work out this bond, the rest of the shoot is much easier because I know what it is about the horse I am trying to capture.

Seed spends time with a horse before taking a shot like this.
Seed spends time with a horse before taking a shot like this.

This is not just some picture of a horse, owners love their horses intensely and they know them well. If you miss that spark of personality then it doesn’t matter how powerful your flash is or how dramatic the shots look, the owner will not see their horse. So, to use this technique with horses, I believe you need two things: one, is an instinctive understanding of flash lighting and the other is a deep understanding of horses.

You also have extensive experience in the high-end fashion and advertising industry. What was your most rewarding high-end fashion shoot and why?

My fashion and advertising career spans nearly 25 years so it’s hard to pick out one. My favorite and most satisfying shoot of recent years would have to be my recent work for the British company Silver Cross, which manufactured the world’s very first pram back in 1877. I worked very closely with the advertising agency and the Silver Cross team to help develop a new high-end brand identity.  To have worked on developing the new brand identity and be part of it all coming together with four quintessentially British locations was a real thrill.

A shot from the Silver Cross campaign.
A shot from the Silver Cross campaign.

We hired mansions, museums, theatres, London streets and country retreats working with top stylists and models and even dogs! These kinds of conceptual shoots are very satisfying to be a part of and see to fruition.  The new branding is soon to be launched!

Another fascinating shoot was earlier this year when I was flown over to Paris to photograph a horse for a Chinese car manufacturer. The brief was to shoot a stunt horse in a rearing position for a TV advert and billboard campaign in China and lighting was absolutely key. We had an interpreter from Taiwan who spoke Mandarin, French and English, which helped keep everyone on the same page. It was a great experience and unusual to work to such an exacting brief with horses.

What’s your go-to gear?

My kit is s follows:

Hasslblad H3 DII & H5 Cameras
Hasselblad 120mm lens
Hasselblad 80mm Lens
Hasselbald 35mm lens
Profoto Acute and Pro power packs and heads
Profoto light shaping tools including beauty dishes, Magnum Bowls, soft boxes etc.
Manfrotto Tripods include:
– 058B with a 3D Super Pro Head
– 190 Series for location
– 18cm table tripod

The amount of times I may be on a location shoot, shooting for a hotel etc. and I end up stuck in a corner with limited room and even though I have my huge 058B Manfrotto tripod standing there I end up on the floor with little 18cm table tripod with my Hasselblad camera sat on top. It always causes a chuckle with new clients but it has saved the day on numerous occasions.

A lot of your photography skills are self-taught. For other photographers who are doing the same, what advice do you have for them?

I started being obsessed with photography at age 12 so I crammed a lot in before I got to an age where I could have studied the subject in college. When I did eventually enroll, I decided it wasn’t for me because it was starting with the absolute basics, like black and white developing. By this stage I was already doing E6 processing and Cibachrome printing at home.  So, I decided to try and gain employment and learn on the job.

I managed to get a job sweeping floors in a pro commercial studio and spent the next eight years working my way up to senior fashion and adverting photographer before I decided to set up my own company. That first four or five years I rarely touched a camera apart from moving or cleaning it. I just watched, asked questions and absorbed as much as I could.

From time to time I hold master classes for individuals and college/university students. I often hear that students aim to get their qualification and then start out as a professional advertising or fashion photographer straight away.  It is very rare that students aim to assist established professional photographers these days and I think that they are missing out on invaluable knowledge, not to mention honing their skills in both photography and client management before they set out on their own.

To learn more about Matthew Seed and his work, check out his websites and follow him on Facebook:

Matthew Seed: The Horse Photographer
Matthew Seed: Fashion and Advertising
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