Not every sport requires athletes to communicate with a 500kg animal with a mind of its’ own – jumping huge obstacles, galloping at speeds of up to 50km/hr or produce an elegant series of movements while making it appear effortless. Equestrian sports are exciting to watch, and a lot of fun to photograph. Whether you are a professional photographer or a supporter with a camera, I hope this post will give you some ideas about how you can improve your equestrian photography in future.
What gear do you need?
For professional work you really need a DSLR and at least a basic zoom, but for general equestrian photos all you need is a simple point and shoot camera to capture the day! I use a Canon 60D DSLR with a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 IS lens, which works for me.
When photographing an event you need to plan ahead so that you can capture the very best images you can. Ask:
Who is running the event?
Some events may have restrictions on who is allowed to photograph the event – especially if you are planning to sell your images. Many photographers gain exclusive rights to photograph a show, and if you try and sell images from that show without checking with the event organisers you may end up with a bad reputation and not be invited back! Always check with the organisers of the event if you plan to sell ANY images from the event. Even if you aren’t planning to sell images, some events may be run on private property in which case you will need to contact the organizer to obtain the right to photograph on their land. If in doubt – ask!
What type of event is it? Dressage? Showjumping? Eventing? Western?
When photographing an event, the aim is to capture images which show horses and riders at their best. As each sport has its’ own set of guidelines as to what makes a “good” round or test, it is important to know what to look for when capturing your images. What to the non-horsesy photographer may seem to be a technically perfect image, may actually be capturing a terrible mistake on the riders’ part or the horse not looking as good as they usually do, and owners do not want to see those images!
Where do I need to stand?
Though this is not always possible, aim to find a clean background free of distractions. Angles with trees in the background generally result in better shots than if there is a huge truck in the background! You also want the sun behind you so you get the rich, shiny coats which show a healthy horse.
So what makes a “good” equestrian image?
As mentioned before, that depends on the event. Each sport is very different!
For all events, you need a basic knowledge of the paces so that you know when to take the photo.
Horses have four main paces (with the exception of some breeds which have additional paces). The walk, trot, canter and gallop. I’m not going to go into too much detail here as that would make this post a lot longer than it needs to be, but the basics are:
Walk – A four-beat gait where each leg is moved individually with three hooves on the ground at any time. This is the slowest pace. This can be very difficult to photograph, but generally you want to take the photo as either of the front legs is fully outstretched.
Trot – A two-beat gait where the legs move in diagonal pairs – left rear with right front, then left from with right rear. When photographing a trotting horse you want to capture the moment when the front leg is as outstretched as it gets for that horse. Some horses will be more collected (taking shorter strides) or more extended (longer strides) depending on the individual horse or event so that is a matter of taking your time to watch the horse and finding that moment. In many events the rider will do rising trot (where they rise out of the saddle on one beat then sit in the next). When a rider is doing this, try and capture them when they are sitting.
Canter – A three-beat gait where one front leg will lead and the others will follow through with a moment of suspension in between. Ideally you want to capture this pace as the front leg is as outstretched as that particular horse gets (again, dependent on the horse and event) or during the moment of suspension as long as the front legs are more elevated than the hind legs.
Gallop – Similar to a canter except it is a four-beat gait and is faster. This is the pace that Thoroughbred racehorses do. When photographing galloping horses you want to capture when they are fully stretched out, or when they have one leg fully outstretched and more elevated than their rear legs.
A galloping horse – ideally this image would have been captured a split second later when Opie’s front legs were higher off the ground.
For higher-level dressage you want to capture images where the head of the horse has a vertical line from their poll (top of their head) to their nose. Lower level competitors may not be at this stage yet, so just watch the horse and photograph them when their head is the closest to this as possible. If the horse is pulling at the bit or is throwing their head, do not photograph this. Owners don’t want images like this!
Other things to remember – the idea of dressage is to make difficult movements appear effortless. If your image doesn’t show that, don’t post it.
A very collected high-level dressage horse.
For jumping images you generally want to capture the horse at the top of their jump. Their knees should be up (though how much will depend on the level of the horse) and the rider shouldn’t be pulling on the horses’ mouth.
Many photographers find it difficult to get the timing of the image right – I find it helpful to count as the rider is going into the jump (just as many riders count to find their distance to a fence). From about five strides out I will start counting the strides aloud – this helps me to know when the horse will take off and when to hit the button. Burst mode can be very useful for jumping shots to get the whole sequence of the jump – from take off to landing.
Getting the focus right can be another challenge for equestrian photographers. Many photographers find it easiest to pre-focus on the spot where a horse and rider will be at the top of their jump, but I generally focus on the horse and rider on their approach – holding down the back-button focusing button on my camera (generally only found on DSLR cameras). This allows the camera to re-focus as the rider approaches and almost always results in a sharp image.
The angle you shoot from is another thing to consider for jumping shots. I try and stand either directly in line with or slightly in front of the jump for horizontal shots as this is most flattering for horse and rider. If I want to do a vertical shot with the horse landing on the other side of the jump, I will stand about 20-30 metres away in front of the jump (but well out of the way of where the horse and rider will be going next, and not somewhere distracting for the horse!).
A horse in full-flight out on the cross country course.
For other events, make sure you do your research before hand – google the type of event, find out the basic rules and what judges are looking for in the horse. Then do your best to capture exactly that!
Important things to keep in mind when photographing at equestrian events:
- Horses will always have right of way. If you are photographing, stay out of the way of all horses. This includes competitors and those warming up. Do not risk getting run over or ruining a riders’ run for the sake of a shot!! Be aware of your surroundings and be courteous.
- Do not distract the horse. If the horse is spooking (getting a fright) at something or playing up, STOP SHOOTING and stand still (but get out of the way if needed!). It may be you or your camera that is scaring them, and again, it’s not worth ruining a riders’ test for the sake of a shot. In jumping events, stand somewhere where the camera won’t be directly in the line of sight for the horse and spook them.
- Common courtesy is to delete any bad shots of riders that you get. If you get an image of someone falling off, a horse getting injured, a horse playing up or anything that shows the horse or rider in a bad light, DO NOT POST IT ONLINE. If you get a shot of something that shows the horse or rider in a bad light and really want to show it off online – get the riders’ permission first. You wouldn’t want someone posting a photo of you face planting into the ground, don’t post photos of other people like that!
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