I started doing amateur photography back in June of 2016, a couple of years after a friend of mine upgraded cameras and sold me her old Nikon D40, but I only just started seriously practicing after I realized how much fun I had taking photos at the 2017 Whidbey Island Horse Trials. Not only is it a great experience to go out and watch the shows, but it’s been very cool to connect with other riders over some of the photos I’ve taken. Now I’ve even got a whole section of my blog that’s dedicated to horse show photos!
Sorting through my photos used to mean deleting 80% of them because they were blurry, out of focus, or too dark/bright to use. Shooting with a DSLR can have a large learning curve, but over the past few shows I feel like I’ve learned a lot about how to take pictures of horses in action.
I’m not a professional by any means, but I’m finally at the point where the 80% I used to delete has turned into an 80% that I can be proud of. Now I want to write down what I’ve learned along the way!
PREPARING BEFORE THE SHOW
═══════ Pick the right shows to go to!
Taking photos is more fun if you go to shows for a discipline that you’re interested in! I use the calendar on a site called NW Equine to help find events in my area, then I prioritize shows at venues that I like—particularly if they have outdoor arenas, since shooting photos in an indoor sucks.
═══════ Get a good backpack and dress smart!
I’ve got a High Sierra Loop with a million pockets. I pack a small first aid kit, sunscreen, snacks, and a couple of water bottles. I’m also careful not to over pack because a heavy backpack makes for an unhappy back, plus I leave a camping chair in the car in case I need it. Clothing wise, my go to footwear is my pair of waterproof Merrell hiking boots (so comfy!) and I bring along a light jacket in case the wind picks up.
═══════ Make sure your camera is ready!
Charge your battery, put your memory card in (make sure it has enough space for 3,000+ pictures!), and clean your lens before you start taking photos so that your proofs are dot/smudge free.
═══════ Respect the show photographer!
Being a photographer is a hard way to make a living, so as an amateur it’s polite to stay out of their way and avoid posting too many free photos on social media (which can take away from the photographer’s profits). I typically post my top 5 photos to Instagram, top 10 to my blog, and top 25 to Facebook.
SETTING UP THE CAMERA
═══════ Ditch the lens cover, but remember to turn your camera off!
It takes forever to take a lens cover off, find somewhere to put it, turn on your camera, and line up a shot. Leave the lens cover in your bag. Conversely, when you’re not actively taking photos, turn the camera off to save battery. It’ll turn back on in an instant when you need it.
═══════ Don’t worry, any lens will do!
Contrary to what some photography snobs will say, you can take good photos with a kit lens. All of my Evergreen Classic photos were taken with a basic Nikon 18-55mm lens. For the Meadow Wood Dressage Finale I used my new 55-300mm (yay, zoom!), but it’s not something you need to take photos at a show.
═══════ Turn your ISO down and your image quality/size up!
ISO, image quality, and image size are three settings that are buried deep in your camera’s menu system. In my D40 I get to them by pressing the menu button and then scrolling down to the SHOOTING MENU. I keep my image quality set to fine (I haven’t noticed any real benefit from shooting in a raw format), my image size set to large, and my ISO somewhere between 200 and 400.
═══════ Know what to do in low light!
If you really, really, really have to shoot in an indoor arena, then be prepared. She Moved to Texas has a great post about how to use your camera’s manual mode and adjust your settings to take photos indoors. The photos you get might not be awesome, but sometimes subpar photos are better than no photos at all.
═══════ Shoot on Aperture Priority mode!
DSLR cameras have a lot of different modes, but most photographers use Aperture Priority (represented by the letter A on the camera’s dial). I was shooting on Shutter Priority (the letter S), then I accidentally used Aperture Priority and the photos were so. much. better! There’s a lot of complicated numbers involved with DSLR’s, but here’s a cheat sheet: on Aperture Priority I usually crank up the aperture (represented by the number by the F) until my shutter speed is between 400 and 800. Any slower and you might get motion blur when you’re photographing horses in motion, and you can’t fix blurriness in editing.
Here’s one of the very first photos I shot in Aperture Priority mode! Even on my camera’s tiny screen, I could tell it was miles above the photos I’d been taking in Shutter Priority mode.
GENERAL TIPS FOR TAKING PHOTOS
═══════ Take bursts of shots for riders on the flat!
The best flat shots have a clear view of all four of the horse’s legs, with the horse in frame and moving in an uphill manner. It’s almost impossible to time the perfect pictures, which means that the easiest way to get these perfect shots is to get the horse in frame and then hold down the shutter release so that you get a long burst of shots that you can browse through to find the best one.
═══════ Watch out for the arena fence!
The close up shots can be appealing, especially if your camera doesn’t have a lot of zoom, but usually when the horses are super close up there’s also a really inconvenient fence right in the way. Getting up higher (or sometimes lower!) can help you clear the arena fence, so look for something like a set of bleachers or a picnic table that you can sit on top of. Just don’t scare any of the horses!
═══════ Avoid distracting backgrounds!
It doesn’t matter how good the horse and rider look, if there’s something ugly in the background (that’s too challenging to edit out), then the picture is pretty much worthless.
═══════ Take empty shots to help with future editing!
If you get a shot you like but the background isn’t clear, wait for people/horses to move and then take another picture. You can use that picture in editing to replace the distracting element with empty space.
═══════ Don’t shoot towards the sun!
Little known fact: the sun moves. At some point during the day it’s probably going to change directions completely, at which point all of the awesome places you’ve been standing and taking photos from are going to be all but useless when you realize that every picture you take has a ridiculously bright background and a horse that’s completely cloaked in shadow. Always take pictures facing away from the sun.
FINDING THE RIGHT FENCES
═══════ Shoot from in front with a slight angle!
Photos taken from behind or from the side are cool, but for the most part the best photographs are taken from in front with the fence at a slight angle. It’s the most consistently flattering way to take photos (but don’t get stuck feeling like it’s the only angle!). Knowing what angle looks best will help you figure out which fences you should focus on from where you’re standing.
═══════ Learn the course as you go!
Usually there are course maps posted somewhere nearby the arena, but for the most part I learn the course while I’m taking photos. I track the first rider in my viewfinder and make note of which jumps they take and in what order. Oftentimes I can look at which ways the fences/filler are facing and combine that with the rider’s body language to guess where they’re going ahead of time.
═══════ Ignore the fences you can’t photo!
If there are fences that are too far away, blocked by other fences, or put the horse and rider at an awkward angle, stop photographing them. Don’t waste time trying to get good photographs on fences that can’t possibly give you good photographs. Also watch out for fences where the photos seem like they might turn out well, but where the standards block the horse’s or rider’s face.
═══════ Scout the fences you want photos at!
Sometimes a tricky combination or a particularly intimidating oxer catches my eye even though I’m not in a good position to get photographs of it. When that happens, I make it a point to move to a different side of the arena—one where I can find that in-front-with-a-slight-angle view of that fence. I change positions around the arena every four or five rounds, just so that I can get a lot of variety.
═══════ Remember the warmup rings!
It’s easy to get drawn in by the action of the main competition rings, but make sure to look at the fences in the warmup rings, too! Usually the jumps themselves are less interesting, but there are still cute photos to be taken—plus you can listen to the trainers coach the riders, too.
FIGURING OUT YOUR TIMING OVER FENCES
═══════ Read the rider’s intentions to find the fence before they do!
It’s good practice when you’re riding a course to always be looking for your next fence. Keep that in mind when you’re watching. The ability to read a rider’s intentions can help you narrow down which fence they’ll be tackling next, which can improve your timing for when it’s time to start snapping pics.
═══════ If you can’t see the approach, count the strides!
Riders are trained to count their strides to fences to help them find a better takeoff position. Counting can be a great tactic for photographers, too! If the rider’s approach to the jump is blocked, count the rhythm of the horse’s canter and then use that to predict when they’ll jump.
═══════ Keep your finger on the trigger!
Once the fence is in view, I set my finger on the shutter release and do a half press so that the autofocus can prepare. That means there won’t be any delay when the perfect moment hits.
═══════ Try to photograph the horse at the apex of its jump!
There’s a moment that’s too early, a moment that’s too late, and a moment that’s just right (Coach Stewart would call it the Goldilocks moment!). Too early and you’ve got a horse that’s not quite taking off. Too late and you’ve got a horse in the process of landing. The perfect moment is right when the horse is at the apex of the jump. If you’ve got a really fast camera you can stop worrying about timing and just take a burst of shots, but if you’re camera is like mine (AKA more than a decade old) you’ll need to hone your timing. My tip is to look for moment the horse’s knees snap up!
ONE LAST PIECE OF ADVICE
It doesn’t matter what equipment or experience you have! When I first started taking photos at local hunter/jumper shows I barely knew what half of the settings on my camera did, but part of the fun of photography is having a visual representation of how you’ve improved over time. Not only that, but it encourages me to get out of the house and become more involved in the equestrian community.
If you feel a passion for capturing the power and grace of a horse in motion, then start snapping some pics!
“Skill in photography is acquired by practice and not by purchase.”
-Percy W. Harris