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I’m lying flat on a windswept bank in the Cotswolds. It’s cold and wet – and my fingers are numb against the metal frame of a camera. Until now, I had always imagined that professional portrait photographers worked in a warm studio, with fashion models and a burbling coffee machine in the corner. However, Mark Harvey has picked a different path, photographing his way to the top by choosing animals as his subjects. Among them have been the horses of the Household Cavalry, as well as the official photograph of Frankel, the greatest-ever racehorse.
Harvey’s reputation for a natural style that avoids the clichéd pose has also seen him commissioned by clients as diverse as Dubai’s racehorse-owning ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum and Top Gear presenter Richard Hammond. National Geographic has both published his work and made it the subject of a documentary. “If you are relaxed with animals then you get a more natural photograph,” says Harvey. “I always work with horses and dogs in their own environment, so they feel comfortable and happy. I might build a studio of lights and reflector boards around them but the setting remains very much their own.”
However, shoots don’t always go according to plan. “I had one customer who owned two Labradors that she wanted in a photograph together. She didn’t have time to stay with me for the shoot but said the dogs understood the basic training commands. What she didn’t tell me was that both her pets were deaf, so it was impossible to handle them. On another occasion, I was chased by a flighty Norwegian Fjord horse and had to leap out of the arena.”
Harvey, 33, spends a lot of time rolling around on the ground to find the best angle for his shots – which is why, today, I’m lying in a field, with my chin touching the soil and an icy wind nipping my fingers. Harvey is teaching me how best to photograph animals, using my own dog, Malin, as the subject.
Malin is a large and friendly Hungarian Vizsla but keeping him still requires a certain amount of coercion. This is usually in the shape of a yellow tennis ball, which Harvey is now holding in his hand, as he lies flat and out of sight, in the long grass to my right. Our plan is for Harvey to throw the ball to my left, across the camera’s line of vision and with Malin in hot pursuit. Harvey’s expensive, medium-format digital Hasselblad is already splattered in mud from dozens of failed attempts, as Malin veers off and out of frame at the last moment.
“Lying down elevates the status of a dog and empowers them in the photograph,” explains Harvey. “It also isolates them from the background and shows off their shape, often against a clear sky.”
There is, Harvey adds, a “sweet point” for shooting a photograph of an animal. Too close and the features become distorted – too far away and the shape is lost. “With Frankel I found a distance where he looked powerful but you could still see his incredible muscle definition, accentuated by the lighting.”
However, not all photographs benefit from bright illumination. “Older animals, who may have lost some of their muscle definition through age, look better under a softer shade. I build the lighting around the animal to show it off at its best. Having control of light – instead of being at the mercy of the sun – adds a new dimension. If you light a subject correctly, it jumps out of the photo.”
Harvey has shown me where to place a portable light “soft box”, about four yards from the spot I intend to capture Malin in full flight. The unit, which looks like a giant black sunflower, is attached to a tripod and battery pack and helps to diffuse light. With the wind now threatening to knock the box over, we have a helper supporting it.
In the middle of all this is Malin, slathering at the mouth as Harvey prepares to launch the ball skyward. We’ve been working on various shots for over four hours but, so far, this one has proved the most elusive. Malin is so fast across my viewfinder that by the time I press the button, I’m left with either an empty frame, an image of his rear end or, if I click too soon, a long snout.
Harvey grew up in rural Leicestershire and loved to sketch and draw. “There were more horses than people in the hamlet where I lived but anything creative wasn’t considered a proper job. I think I was a decent artist – one day my teacher called home accusing my father of doing my art homework for me because it was so good.”
Soon the camera became his passion and, after studying for a degree in ecology at the University of East Anglia, he started photographing animals. “I’m primarily self-taught but at one stage I thought I should brush up on my photographic skills and enrolled on a course at Central St Martins, London. After a few months they told me I didn’t really need any tuition, which was a massive boost for me,” says Harvey, who took the college’s advice and duly left.
As I repeatedly try to capture Malin’s run, Harvey reminds me not to rush things. “I’m incredibly patient – you have to be with animals and children. It’s hard for a photographer to shoot any subject that he doesn’t understand, so I try to visualise what the animal wants to do, rather than force it to fit in with my plan.
“I usually start off by getting them used to the flash. For some reason, collies don’t like it very much. There can be all kinds of problems. Once I had to find a way to photograph a wolf which ran off if I looked it in the eye or pointed the camera directly at it.”
Finally, on my 43rd shot, I get the timing right. Keeping both eyes open, I suddenly glimpse Malin approaching and – a split second before he enters the frame – press the button. I’ve no idea what I’ve captured until Harvey flicks back through the images on the back of the camera but there it is – a Hungarian Vizsla, crashing through the undergrowth at full speed, tongue out, eyes fixed on the ball and in razor-sharp focus.
Later, we sit down and examine the photograph on a computer. “You never know what you have taken until the image is on a proper screen,” says Harvey. “This one is sharp, the subject is central and you’ve captured Malin turning in the same direction as the grass is bending with the breeze. It’s an excellent photo.” Content, I go home and await the call from National Geographic.
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