White Horses of France's Camargue 2015 Trip Report

By Jeff Vanuga on May 21, 2015

Horses have been a part of the history of mankind as far back as 25,000 BC and this connection is represented in the early Paleolithic cave paintings from Lascaux in southwestern France. Throughout human history horses have represented freedom, power and strength.

The history of the Camargue horse dates back an estimated 17,000 years. The isolation and later domestication of the horse are well-known parts of the culture in the region of Provence-Alpes Côte d'Azur and the Languedoc between Arles and the mouth of the Rhône near Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. This area is comprised of vast salt marshes where the Camargue horses evolved and adapted to the wet environment of marshes and wetlands. The horses are now a major tourist attraction—and the focus of our April photographic tour.

Our trip began in southern France in the town of Marseille, the country's largest city on the Mediterranean coast and historically considered France’s main trade port. Tour participants arrived from all parts of the world and the following morning we headed out in our two vans and a support vehicle with the luggage for the one-and-a-half-hour drive north to the city of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, our base of operations for the week. Our accommodations are at a quaint 4-star hotel with 10-star food. At our orientation dinner I always say that this is the best food I have ever eaten and our participants—who have traveled all over the world—look at me puzzled. By the second dinner folks say, OMG you were so right about the food! An impressive statement from these seasoned world travelers!  

The week’s activities include eight sessions of horse photography arranged by our local guide, Patrice. He works closely with the Guardians, who are considered the Camargue “cowboys,” in order to optimize the locations picked for the shoot. Location, lighting, and activity all play an important role in obtaining great horse images. The highlight of our shoots is photographing the horses running through the water, which creates images that are both iconic and romantic. Any Camargue horse images you see will show the horses running through water. The horses’ hoofs are highly adapted to this wet and muddy environment and they move through the water with the fluidness of horses cantering on dry land. Each of our morning and afternoon horse drives offers adequate time to photograph; in case you miss one drive there are always numerous opportunities to fine-tune your images with different compositions and settings.

During the horse shoots, we have numerous chances to photograph horse portraits and horses interacting. This year, during one shoot, we also witnessed stallions fighting. It was an intense time of shooting for everyone because it is only a rare moment in time when the horses will rear for that classic interaction. No retakes on this one, folks!
For the action shots the shutter speed is generally kept at 1/500 second or greater and some pans are made at 1/30‒1/60 second, depending on your panning skill and distance and speed of the subject. 

For me, one of the most memorable and romantic shoots was on the morning we encountered a thick fog that imparted an ethereal mood to our photographs. Patrice said he had seen thick fog only two or three times in his entire time of guiding in the Camargue—so we had a rare treat. The fog added a magical element as the white horses moved through the serene ghostly landscape. The only sound came from horses’ hoofs splashing the water and from birds calling in the marshes. But not a sound came from our group and I think most of us were rendered speechless by the scene before us.

As an added bonus we spent an evening at the Parc Ornithologique de Pont de Gau, a wetland in the middle of the Parc naturel régional de Camargue—a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Here we had an opportunity to capture the greater flamingo within close shooting distance and, at times, only feet away. This is a great place to photograph flamingos “up close and personal.” In addition, the wetland has a great variety of migratory and resident birds, including raptors, ducks, and stork and other wading birds.  

In summary, our shoot was a huge success with great weather, delicious meals and good camaraderie among the group. We made several short trips into Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, only a mile away, to enjoy relaxed lunches or to walk around the seaside city.  We will be offering White Horses of France’s Camargue again in 2017—so mark it on your calendars and book early. In the meantime, enjoy the slideshow to get an idea of the fun that lies ahead!  

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