It can be difficult to put your own twist on things in Iceland – a place that is featured so often in the portfolios of photographers from all around the world. Thankfully, Liga Liepina has done just that with her captivating equine photography.
Liga is an Icelandic local who spends her time out in nature, capturing the spirit of the charming Icelandic horses that come her way. Her work is at once bewitching and serene, encompassing the characteristics of these gentle souls as they frolic through vast and oftentimes rugged landscapes.
This week, we had the honour of chatting with Liga about the inspiration behind her stunning images, what it takes to plan a shoot and her concerns about the impact of tourism-related photography upon Icelandic nature.
Liga Liepina is an equine photographer who is based in Iceland. Photo by: 'Liga Liepina'.
Hello Liga! Thank you for joining us this week. First of all, could you please tell us a little bit about yourself and your photographic journey? Where did your love for photography come from and how did you break into equine photography to get to where you are today?
My name is Liga Liepina and I am 32 years old. I was born in Latvia but moved to Iceland with my parents when I was 14 years old.
Horses came into my life very early on – I have been obsessed with these animals since I was a child and once I did my first riding lesson in Latvia, there was no turning back. I knew horses would be a huge part of my life forever. When I moved to Iceland, I quickly found a way to continue to ride and spent all my free time in stables. Now, I have four of my own horses as well.
Liga's work captures beautiful moments between Icelandic horses in nature. Photo by: 'Liga Liepina'.
I have been playing around with photography since I was teenager. After we moved to Iceland, my family spent a lot of time travelling around Iceland during summers and I was the one in charge of a small digital camera, taking pictures along the way. I had no proper knowledge of photography as such, I just enjoyed capturing moments that we could look back on. It stayed like that for quite a while – I didn't view photography as anything serious but certainly had fun clicking the shutter button.
As time went by, I decided to purchase my first professional camera; again, not really knowing what I was doing. The plan was to learn as I went and maybe to do more of landscape photography. At that time, I didn't really know that equine photography existed but since horses were part of my daily life, they ended up in front of my camera more and more. I started to explore photography via social media and learned about equine photography. Most of it was pretty much standard portraits of horses, which I did for a while as well, but the Icelandic landscapes kept drawing my attention and I started to experiment with combining horses and landscapes, so it evolved from there. I must say, I never viewed myself as artistic person but once I started doing equine photography, it was like my mind opened up and ideas just started to flow. I became easily inspired.
You have a spectacular portfolio of Icelandic horses in some iconic locations around the country. How do you use equine photography to tell the story of a particular place? What do you try to capture about the spirit of the horses or each location in which you shoot? What do you hope people will take away from your images?
Anyone who has been in Iceland may have noticed that there are horses all around – and would probably agree with me – that they are a huge part of the Icelandic landscape. With my photography, I try to take this a step further. If the horse fits so well in the landscape by the side of the road, why not in front of a waterfall or glacier as well? Both the Icelandic landscape and horses are wild and mysterious, yet so calming. My main goal is to show that through my photos.
Horses are an important part of the Icelandic landscape. Photo by: 'Liga Liepina'.
Your photographs border on whimsical, enchanting and romantic whilst capturing action and drama. Can you share with us a bit about how you came to develop your style in photography? What sorts of techniques do you use to convey atmosphere and mood? How has your style evolved over your career?
I don't think I've ever focused on developing a specific style as such; it just came naturally. I would probably say that my style reflects the emotions and feelings I have during the photoshoot, surrounded by amazing nature and horses. Surely, the editing has evolved as I have learned more over the years but the core of each photo, showing the dramatic combination of nature and horses, has stayed the same.
Liga's style reflects her emotions and feelings during a photo shoot. Photo by: 'Liga Liepina'.
Tell us about one of your most challenging assignments. How did you work through the challenges to fulfil the brief?
A lot of preparation goes into each photoshoot, from location scouting to selecting a horse, to praying to weather gods. I think that has helped me to avoid any serious challenges or troubles during a shoot. I'd say the main challenge would be how much (or little) the horse is ready to cooperate every now and then. Horses are live animals with a mind of their own. Sometimes, they are just not up for standing still or might be slightly insecure in relation to sounds from waterfalls or ocean. I always have to have a plan B ready. For example, if a horse is not standing still, I'll proceed on taking movement photos instead. If the horse is insecure at a new location, we'll give him extra time to get used to the surroundings or I might place him in a spot where he feels more comfortable. Safety and the wellbeing of my equine models is the priority and I have to be ready to adjust myself based on each model.
The safety and wellbeing of horses is always a priority during Liga's shoots. Photo by: 'Liga Liepina'.
What is one of the most inspiring encounters that you’ve had whilst shooting in-field?
Oh, I've had so many! When everything just clicks – the weather, landscape and horses cooperate – that gives me goosebumps. One of these situations was last summer, when I photographed two horses in front of Sólheimajökull glacier. We were at the location very late at night. The atmosphere by the glacier was very calm and somewhat magical and the horses enjoyed being in front of camera and started cuddling with each other, behaving naturally without being posed. Out of that came one of my most popular photos so far.
When everything falls into place, you can end up with stunning images in Iceland. Photo by: 'Liga Liepina'.
When brainstorming ideas for a new shoot, do you have the landscape in mind first or the horses that you want to use and the behaviours that you want to capture?
It is a mix of both. Sometimes, I pick location first and other times, I have a specific horse in mind and select the location based on what would suit him.
Just like any other portrait shoot, there has to be a balance between your model and their surroundings. Photo by: 'Liga Liepina'.
What goes into selecting a particular horse or horses for a shoot? Is it the way they look, their personalities or do you simply choose the horses based on who is available on the day?
I must admit, I am quite picky when it comes to selecting my models. Of course, looks play a huge part in why a specific horse is selected – especially if I have a specific location in mind. For example, the colour of the horse might be very important for some locations but the personality of the horse is also a big deal. I often work with the same horses on multiple shoots, so I have gotten to know them and their characters. That helps me to select a horse that will suit best for each project.
Liga carefully selects her models for each equine photography shoot. Photo by: 'Liga Liepina'.
It can be very difficult to direct human models in portrait photography, let alone animals! How do you plan your shoots to get them to turn out the way that you want? Do you have assistants to help you direct the horses or do you simply wait for the right behaviours to occur so that you can capture that moment in time? How do you balance pre-visualisation of an image versus how the horses behave on the day?
The owner or the rider of the horse is there to handle the horse at the photoshoot. Going into the shoot, I usually do have a specific image in mind and by explaining my idea to the handler, we are able to set up the best possible conditions. On location shoots, the horses are posed in specific way to achieve the result I have in mind but of course, sometimes the horses have their own ideas on how they would like to do things so I have to be extremely flexible and adjust my ideas based on how the horses behave. While the horses are posed for the photos, I strongly believe they should be allowed to be just horses as well and sometimes, their natural movement or behaviour results in some of my favourite photos. While pre-visualisation is very important at the beginning of the shoot, nothing is set in stone and I keep my mind open.
While posed, the horses are still able to let their own personalities and behaviour shine through. Photo by: 'Liga Liepina'.
What qualities are important for a photographer to have in order to be successful in the industry? How would you encourage people to approach photography during their trips to Iceland and in particular, the horses that they may see grazing on farmland at the side of the road?
For equine photographers especially, I believe you have to be very patient, flexible and have respect for the horses. The wellbeing and safety of the animals should always be the top priority!
To people visiting Iceland, I would like to say – please use common sense and be respectful about your surroundings. The Icelandic nature is stunning but also very vulnerable. Respect signs, do not wander off specially designed trails and (my personal pet peeve) do not stop your rental car in the middle of road to take photos – find a safe place to park first! Photographing horses by the side of the road could seem like a great idea but make sure you are doing it safely. Under no circumstances should you enter the paddocks. This can be dangerous both for horses and people! Feeding horses or using drones is also a bad idea. I personally would recommend asking the farm owners for permission, if possible, I'm sure they would appreciate it a lot.
Use common sense when visiting Iceland if you plan to photograph horses in the landscape. Photo by: 'Liga Liepina'.
The impact of location-specific tourism upon nature, wildlife, culture and the environment is a discussion that often accompanies travel photography on social media these days. What are your thoughts on how this has affected Iceland in general?
I have surely noticed that it has affected Iceland and in many ways negatively, when it comes to specific locations that might not be ready to receive such big numbers of travellers. But at the same time, we have to realise that we live in a world where social media is a big part of our lives. I do not blame photographers for wanting to visit locations that have all of a sudden become extremely popular on social media. I think we just need all to work together to protect our nature. It might be difficult for Icelandic authorities to keep up with the growing numbers of travellers, so it is also up to us as travellers and photographers to be respectful towards the nature and do everything we can to minimise the impact.
It is important that you minimise your environmental impact when shooting in Iceland. Photo by: 'Liga Liepina'.
What do you think that photographers can do to minimise their impact on the environment when they travel?
Number one, two and three in my mind is use your common sense! Follow the rules and guidelines at each location and make sure to protect the surroundings around you. Wandering off that trail or climbing up that cliff is not worth it! Instead, use your photography to raise awareness of various environmental issues.
What is your dream assignment? Does it involve equine photography or would you like to explore a different style or genre?
I definitely want to continue exploring equine photography. I have so many locations and projects in mind here in Iceland that I have yet to execute. The dream would also be to expand a little outside of Iceland and explore, for example, Lusitano horses in Portugal, in various settings, like traditional architecture.
Liga has a dream to expand her portfolio outside of Iceland. Photo by: 'Liga Liepina'.
In the past, you have held equine photography workshops for aspiring photographers seeking to capture images of Icelandic horses in nature. Are there any further workshops scheduled this year?
At the moment, I am focusing on my own photography and do not have any tours or workshop planned. But it does not mean there won't be any tours or workshops available later on. It all depends on how much time I will have available in the near future.
What’s next for you? Do you have any upcoming plans for exhibitions and the like?
I have so many plans and ideas for the future, I just wish there were more hours in the day to be able to do it all. I am very excited about the idea of my own exhibition but while it's still in works, I prefer to keep the details to myself for the moment :)
Liga has plans for an exhibition of her incredible body of work in the future. Photo by: 'Liga Liepina'.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us today! Do you have any final words of advice for our readers?
I just want to thank you showing interest in my work and I'm honoured to have the opportunity to share things about myself and my photography! Stay safe!
Follow in Liga's footsteps and capture the spirit of being out in nature! Check out our range of international photo tours and photography workshops.