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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  1. If going, I’d want to add an additional week. Have you any suggestions? Cruises? Can’t go to France for just 5 days!!

    Post a Reply
    • Hi Marilyn,
      I agree. If you are going all the way to France, plan on staying for more than 5 days. Most of our groups fly into Marseilles and drive to Arles and spend a couple of days in Arles prior to the program. Arles is a beautiful walled city on the Rhone River that goes back centuries. It is where Van Gogh and many others did much of their art. I plan to be there at least two days prior to the program to show folks around Arles. Museums, galleries, exhibits, a 2000 year old Roman Colosseum, etc. In the past, participants have traveled to other locations in Provence, to Italy, etc. One year a couple of us traveled north through Provence up into the French Alps and flew home from Geneva. I’m sure if you look at some travel sites, you will find lots of ideas. If you’d like me to send you the program details, please email me your email address at [email protected]. We have a couple of spaces still available. Also, check out the information on
      All the best,
      Tony Bonanno

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  2. I was immediately intrigued by the title of Tony’s article as it brought back memories of my own ventures into the Camargue in 1981. However, I was there for a different purpose, although the Gardians were certainly a part of the story. I was doing a travel film in France and part of my story was the gathering of the gypsies of Europe in St. Marie de la Mer each May to honor the two St. Mary’s of the sea. In my research I came across one of the Gardians who was featured in an article I. National Geographic. I corresponded with him prior to the trip and he invited me and my wife to visit while we were there. And indeed we did. We spent the better part of a day at his Mas (ranch) but since horses and bulls were not on my agenda I did little filming. However, the Gardians on horseback were in my filming of the gypsy procession to the sea with their patron saint, the Black Sarah.

    Now I only do still photography and would love to return to the Camargue with your group but… I’m afraid the years have caught up with me. At 84 wading the marshes of the Camargue might be a bit too strenuous for me.

    Dr. Ed Rennell
    North hills, Michigan

    Post a Reply
    • Hi Edwin,
      Thanks for sharing your story. Wish I could have been with you in 1981. There certainly has been a lot of change suspect, but much the same with the Gardians and their herders I would think. I have only been there once when the Gypsies were there. Added another dimension to the cultural component of the Camargue. Was fascinating.
      Tony Bonanno

      Post a Reply
  3. Thank you for the kind words Beth…

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  4. This particular body of photographic work is nothing short of amazing, for you have truly captured the unique spirit of the amazing horses of the Camargue — as well as their hardy “gardians”! Perhaps even more important, these photos open my eyes not only to their beauty but you capture their synergy. For me, the photos, combined with the fascinating story accompanying them, has enabled me to not only fully appreciate them, but to want to travel to the Camargue to see it for myself…so maybe I’ll even join you next time! Thank you for your tribute to this very special breed, and their gardians…truly uplifting and inspirational!

    Post a Reply
    • I’ll keep you posted Antoinette !

      Post a Reply
    • Ms Matlins, I totally agree. Tony Bonanno, takes incredible photographs. I have been following his works of art for several years. I am never let down. Each photo outdoes the other. He captures it all!

      Post a Reply


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