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Photographing the White Horses of the Camargue

Image © Tony Bonanno, 2019. All Rights Reserved.

By Tony Bonanno—

I’ve photographed horses for many years– quarter horses on western ranches, grand prix jumpers, rodeo horses and wild roaming Spanish Mustangs, but none have intrigued me more than the White Horses of the Camargue in the South of France.

I’d never heard of them until about five years ago when I was leading a photo workshop in Cuba and one of the participants, Jody Willard, a photojournalist from California mentioned them. Jodie was an experienced equine photographer and she described the beautiful White Horses and the “Gardian” culture (the “keepers” of the horses).

A year later, in the Spring of 2015, I found myself co-leading a photo workshop with her in France and that’s when my love affair with the Camargue began. We did four workshops together, after which I continued offering them because I wanted to share these thrilling experiences with others.

The Camargue Horse is an ancient breed, estimated to be 12,000 to 14,000 years old. Over the centuries, these horses adapted to the harsh environment of the Camargue wetlands and marshes of Southern France. They are hardy, disease-resistant, agile, and sure-footed.

Image © Tony Bonanno, 2019. All Rights Reserved.

When running through the waters of the Rhone Delta they appear to have a synergy that is almost otherworldly. They are wonderful animals to watch and study– and to photograph. Today, most of the horses are semi-feral and live on the menades– large expanses of open lands or ranches managed by the Gardians (the French word for “guardian”). The Gardians and their herders, who work for them, are a traditional culture who raise black Camargue cattle and Camargue bulls that are used in the bull rings of Southern France

Gardians are responsible for managing the semi-feral herds and ensuring the purity of the breed and their protection, and the Camargue horse is their traditional mount. They’ve been at this for generations and are proud of their lifestyle, culture, and their horses. As one Gardian told me, “I and my horse are one.” It is a love affair– and a challenge for myself and my workshop participants to capture this love affair in images.

Image © Tony Bonanno, 2019. All Rights Reserved.

Photographing the horses in their aquatic environment, especially when galloping with the Gardians and the herders require certain techniques for best results. Cameras with good focus tracking and high resolution sensors are really helpful. It’s useless to try to create a final composition in the viewfinder when the horses are flying through the water.

The rule of thumb is to shoot “wide” and create the final composition in post production. Aside from equipment challenges, there’s the environment itself. You are in swamps, marshes, sandy beaches, muck, mud, and often in water. Mosquitoes can be plentiful, so working “covered up” with netting, waders, and other gear is often the dress of the day.

The Camargue workshop that I conduct is not for the faint of heart. Yet, one of the challenges (and rewards) is working in the horse’s environment– not in an arena or stable or nice grassy field, but in the marshes, ponds, brackish waters, and wetlands, in which they evolved and still live.

Image © Tony Bonanno, 2019. All Rights Reserved.

As an interesting side note–for a Camargue horse to be considered a “pure breed”, they must be born in the wild. And they are born dark. The horse doesn’t turn white until they’re grown and between 4-7 years old. Most of the Gardians’ herds are free roaming but some are used for their own mounts and also for tourists who wish to ride them.

To capture these beautiful animals when they’re running free, I use a Nikon D850. My favorite lens is the 70-200 f/2.8. It’s fast, has just the right focal length range to nail most of the activity, and is not overly cumbersome. I prefer to use shutter speeds of 1/1000 sec. or faster which usually allow an aperture of f-8 or f-11. Wider focal length zooms –24-70 for example– are very useful for more static activity and when photographing the Gardians and herders.

Image © Tony Bonanno, 2019. All Rights Reserved.

I put a lot of faith in post processing. Not to fix mistakes, but to strengthen composition. As I tell my workshop participants, the image is not finished until you finish the post processing. I shoot RAW files to ensure they have as much data as possible and I work almost exclusively in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop.

I often find that an image is stronger in B&W than color, especially if there are elements that really emphasize composition (textures, patterns, strong contrast) but I’m very careful not to “over process” any images so that they maintain a semblance of reality and don’t go “over the top.”

Even though I don’t speak French, my friendship with the Gardians and their families has grown. Several of the Gardians have shown an interest in my fine art prints. And I’m honored that I’ve been invited to their homes to see my work on their walls. Some of the work had to be shipped to France.

Image © Tony Bonanno, 2019. All Rights Reserved.

I do all my own printing (and my prints for clients) on several models of Canon printers. My favorite paper for jobs that require shipping has turned out to be Red River UltraPro Luster 300. [See Resources below.]

Why? Because it is minimally reflective, has a nice satin texture, reproduces a wide gamut very well, has good D-Max and, most of all, it is ROBUST for a photo paper. It has just the right weight for large prints with minimal risk to damage from handling by galleries, framers, and others involved in the display of the work.

Red River’s Baryta  and other high end “art” papers are superb in many ways, but their surfaces are much more delicate and prone to abuse, especially when work is being shipped– and the care that is exercised on the receiving end is not known. For my own galleries and exhibitions, where I have total control over the printing, framing, and handling I have other favorites surfaces [See Resources below.]

“Three white cottages” was painted by Vincent van Gogh when he visited Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in June of 1888.

Gardians today live in more modernized versions but with the same charm. Image © Tony Bonanno, 2019. All Rights Reserved.

When planning a trip to the Camargue, I fly into Marseilles, about a two hour drive from our base in Saintes Maries de la Mer. I like to encourage my workshop participants to meet me in Arles, France, a day or two before the workshop. Arles is a walled city that was once the provincial capital of ancient Rome and is known for it’s history, culture, art (Van Gogh), and architecture. Since it’s on the way to our base, meeting there a couple of days before the workshop provides an opportunity to explore much of the region’s rich culture and history, engage in some great street photography, and to overcome jet lag prior to beginning the workshop.

There are very few adventures (photographic or otherwise) that can equal the thrill of capturing images of the thundering White Horses of the Camargue with water exploding around them, and also documenting the life of the Gardians– especially when all the arrangements and permissions have been obtained prior to your arrival.

I’d be delighted to have you join me to capture one of the greatest equestrian experiences in the world today.


Tony Bonanno is a Red River Pro and an internationally acclaimed photographer based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His fine art images have been exhibited in numerous galleries and museums throughout the US and abroad.


Visit Tony’s websites:

Take a workshop with Tony:

The next workshop to the Camargue is scheduled for May 10-15th 2020. For more information, email Tony at [email protected].

Some of Tony’s favorite Red River papers are:

UltraPro Luster 300 (stands up well to handling)

Palo Duro Baryta Fiber 300

Palo Duro Smooth Rag 310

Tony’s fine art Camargue prints are on display at Ernesto Mayans Gallery, 601 Canyon Rd, Santa Fe, New Mexico, and at Sterling Fine Art Gallery, 306 N. Bullard St., Silver City, New Mexico.

Look for Tony’s book “The White Horse of the Carmargue” to be published by Art Guild Press during the first half of 2020.

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Original Publication Date: August 31, 2019

Article Last updated: August 31, 2019

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