Photographing Fell Ponies
A Day Of Fell Pony Photography
It’s 7:15 in the morning and climbing up a steep hillside with a rucksack on my back I’m aware that I’m already far too hot, despite the cool mist that still shrouds the surrounding fells. I'm aware that this ghostly veil is shielding me from sun, which looks set to burn through very soon.
We’re in the middle of a heatwave – it’s July and for the second summer in a row temperature records are being broken on a daily basis. The ground is untypically parched and we’ve had no rain here for weeks. It's hard to believe that this is Cumbria, notorious for being one of the wettest places in England.
Conditions are in such contrast to the last time I was here, when thick snow covered the hills and sub-zero temperatures plummeted still further as icy winds blasted in from the Arctic.
At the time, those winter weather conditions were perfect and the ones I had impatiently been waiting for. I had for some time wanted to try and encapsulate the resilience and hardiness of this native fell pony breed; to illustrate as vividly as possible the environment that these ponies have been genetically geared to endure for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
Shaun Barr takes to the Cumbrian Fells to photograph the fell ponies, and makes a firm friend of this filly. iPhone.
Photographing Inspite Of The Weather
It’s probably accurate to say I am not a fair-weather photographer – most of my work is rooted in nature so I’m actually more than happy to shoot in rain and wind, and sometimes conditions that others may feel are just wholly unsuitable for photography.
I don’t believe there’s any such thing as weather that’s not good enough for photography, beyond extreme and dangerous conditions of course – all that’s needed is a an approach that takes the weather into account and adjusts to it.
Today looks like being a good example of that. Conditions are not ideal, with things look set to be exceptionally bright, creating the harshest light with lots of clear blue skies and high doses of strong sunshine. I would have preferred conditions to be a little more overcast, as I primarily have in mind black and white images, and I would have liked to have captured interesting cloud shapes.
A mare and foal fell pony enjoying summer days on the Cumbrian hills. ISO 200, 1/640s, f7.1, 60mm.
I have in mind a certain sense of drama I would like to capture within the landscape, and dark looming clouds were part of my vision – but if they’re not too be then I’ll simply adapt to what I’m given.
I’ve chosen this particular summer month of July to photograph the fell ponies as I’m hoping to see some foals – I don’t yet have any images of young fell ponies.
At this time of years some of the horses will have been brought down from the fells, so I’m not expecting to see the usual numbers, which would be around 15-20. But with the hill I was previously struggling up now well and truly conquered, my new found vista - which is stunningly beautiful as the haze begins to lift – doesn’t reveal any sign of the fell ponies.
A grey mare fell pony and her foal. ISO 200, 1/640s, f/7.1, 80mm.
Summer's Day On The Cumbrian Fells
I remove a couple of layers of clothing – something I should have done earlier - and start to climb back down the hill, but this time I head east, in the direction of Borrowdale and the Shap fells.
I love being out on these hills; they’re sometimes bleak and very often wild, but that’s part of their wonderful charm. Today though is classic summer: the lush grasses, which are now flowering, sparkle and move gracefully in the breeze, trembling on their long stems. White tufts of cotton grass blanket damper parts of the grassland.
I hear the skylarks' shrill singing and watch as one rises and rises high into the air, a disappearing dot against the now deep blue sky. The warm air is loud with the buzz of insects, bees and other pollinators busy with their non-stop work.
I rarely hear the call of curlew these days, so common when I was a child, but I can hear one now, and it’s a joy to listen to that distinctive sound. Meanwhile crows call out, alarmed at the mewing buzzard which circles overhead.
And I already know that if I don’t get to see the fell ponies today I will have been treated to some of the spectacular gems of nature and beauty that these hills have to offer. I will return refreshed and re-energised.
In the hazy heat of a hot summer's day, a grey mare and two fell pony foals. ISO 200, 1/550s, f/8, 80mm.
With no sightings on top of a second crag I determine to continue eastwards, and eventually, seemingly against the odds by now, I spot a few dark figures in the distance, figures that are the unmistakable shape of the Cumbrian fell ponies.
A half hour or so later I am fairly close to them, and as always at this point I make my approach carefully and respectfully. I view this as their territory; I’m on their ground, so I do not want to alarm them or unduly surprise them. So I wait for a few minutes until they’ve all familiarised themselves with my nearby presence before moving closer. And although I would always approach with similar caution at any time of year I have an extra reason for doing so this time – there are fell pony youngsters!
I’m thrilled and delighted to see first two, then three, and finally a total of four foals, with four mares minding them.
Earning the trust of the fell ponies, which are not overly familiar with regular human interaction, is key to being able to photograph them at their best. ISO 200, 1/240s, f/8, 34mm.
I pour myself a coffee, and prepare to spend the next few hours just being in the fell ponies' presence; this is something I dearly love to do and view it as an amazing privilege – it's one of my favourite ways to pass time. So I watch the tranquil summer’s day unfold, barely seeing another soul all day, and I have these wonderful fell ponies for company. To say I’m in my element is an understatement.
Two of the foals, who are very close to each other and seem to do everything together, are the first to let curiosity get the better of them. Within a few minutes they are checking out my pockets, my rucksack and even my sleeves. It’s really important to remember that these are wild ponies and should not be fed. They are used to fending for themselves and need to retain that independence in order to survive.
Curiosity sated for a while and attention spans fully stretched, the foals make off in a short chase through the cotton grass.
Grey mare with her foal close by her side. ISO 200, 1/440s, f7.1, 68mm.
Most fell ponies are dark, often black, but there is one grey mare in the herd and she has another of the foals by her side. For the first hour or so this filly never leaves the mare’s side and in comparison to the other three youngsters seems particularly clingy to her mother.
It surprises me then, that this so far shy foal begins to take a shine to everything I do, and has a particular fondness for the legs of my tripod! She wants to be so close to me that I sometimes struggle to take any images at all, and whenever I step back away from her, she takes more steps forward towards me.
Not so quickly bored as the others she will go on to do this periodically throughout the rest of the day, interspersed with bouts of sleep, which all the foals do often, sprawled out across the grass beneath the mares’ watchful gazes.
These foals will have been born some time in May and so are a couple of months old now. They’ll spend their first winter down off the fell, before returning for a life up here all year round.
Fell pony foal basking in the Cumbrian sunshine. ISO 160, 1/320s, f7.1, 58mm.
As I photograph the fell ponies, I’m struck by just how agile these creatures are; something that’s just not readily apparent until you see them move, which is with a surprisingly light and athletic touch, scaling the steep and rough sided slopes here with admirable ease.
I find talk about camera gear a fairly dry subject, and ultimately not really that helpful - it's so easy to overly worry about the 'right' camera equipment when gear really is far less important than camera sellers would have us believe. But I will mention a few things that might be of use to know, simply in terms of my own lessons learned when photographing horses, and these fell ponies in particular.
When I first began to photograph Cumbria’s fell ponies I didn’t really know what to expect in terms of how close I could get to them. I use Fujifilm cameras, with an XT-3 being my go-to, and initially based my lens choices on my work photographing Konik ponies, for which I predominantly used a 100-400mm lens (on a cropped sensor camera). At the short end this proved pretty useful for close up head portraits, but I would often find I needed to be wider, and I rarely used anywhere near the long end of the lens. A persistent tennis-elbow issue, and the simple practicalities of lugging lots of weight around the Cumbrian fells meant I knew I would have to rethink my choices.
I'm not a lover of changing lenses in the field, which is just as well given some of the weather conditions I photograph in. I generally prefer to have a solution in one lens. I appreciate that some will find this too restricting but I personally fell that when photographing animals, and horses in particular, the time you spend watching and building a rapport with the fell ponies is so valuable, and for me needs to be done throughout all your time there. My eyes never leave the horses. And besides building up vital understanding and gaining a working knowledge of them by observing the fell ponies so closely, it also means you're not going to miss a shot due to having your head down changing lenses.
A mix of fell pony mares and foals enjoying the lush summer grassland on the Cumbrian fells. ISO 200, 1/850s, f/8, 56mm.
So I have now settled for the ever-versatile XF 16-80mm, a one-lens solution more than capable of providing me with a decent enough range of focal lengths, the ones which I use most often for the fell ponies. Of course it’s equally fine to bring a prime portrait lens or two accompanied with both wide and longer lenses, but as I said, these hills and mountains can be pretty taxing even for the fittest of climbers, and to enjoy, rather than endure, a day out on the fells, I prefer to travel gear-light, and I’m more than happy with the compromise this involves.
As for which is the best camera or lens, there really is no answer to that. Or rather, the answer is that if you take along the camera that you are most familiar with, then it's more than likely going to give you the best results. So whatever the camera, compact, bridge or interchangeable lens camera, if this is what you normally use, there is absolutely no reason not to grow with that camera. You don't need a 'special camera' to take good pictures, the smartphone camera revolution is testimony to that. But you do need to be familiar with the camera you've got, to understand its capabilities, its strengths and weaknesses (which all cameras possess - there is no 'perfect camera'.) So the best bit of advice I can give you is get to know your camera really well; and you'll do that far better if you take pictures regularly, experiment, try different things, and learn to see what works well and what doesn't - you may well find that your camera is much more capable than you expected!
A young Cumbrian fell pony gazes looks out towards the Lake District. ISO 200, 1/550s, f/8, 80mm.
As so often happens in the uplands and mountains, clouds begin to build, which adds interest to the sky I'd been hoping for. As it turns out, I end up with a mixture of both colour and black and white images. In the end when it comes to the weather, it's very much a case of working with what you're given, and I'm happy with the mix of formats here.
As the afternoon wears on the heat continues to build fiercely, and the horses rest, motionless but for the constantly swishing tails that attempt in vain to keep the insects at bay. I’m mindful my water supply is running low and I have a good 2 ½ hours of walking to do to get back, so I wish these wonderful horses a fond farewell, until the next time.
Cumbrian fell pony fine art prints are available to purchase, some of which you can see by clicking on the FELL PONIES page.
You can read more about fell ponies and other wild ponies such as Koniks as well as view more images on the website by using the links below: