This article about camera settings for horse photography is by Nico Morgan. Nico is one of the UK's top equestrian photographers. He has worked with top riders from show jumping, eventing and showing as well as working on the official photography teams at events such as Royal Windsor Horse Show, Dublin Horse Show, The Horse of the Year Show and many others.
Updated: March 2023
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Without doubt, the question I am asked most.
My answer, almost always, is, "it depends!"
Here is my take on the settings to use when photographing horses, and why.
I will cover:
At the start of each section I will give you my setting choice in case you are in a hurry.
If you join some groups on social media you could be forgiven for thinking that horse photography is equine portraiture alone. The truth, though, is that equine photography, or whatever you choose to call it, is a very very broad and varied subject.
In this article I will describe how some of the different equine disciplines require different tools and techniques, but in no way will I pretend to cover them all. Many of the principles will transfer, some will not!
QUICK VERSION: Any modern DSLR or Mirrorless camera (see notes below)
Within reason, any camera should be fine for photographing horses.
I say within reason, because it needs to be able to either autofocus reasonably quickly or allow the user to manually focus. It also needs to be able to carry (or have built-in) a lens of 70mm or more.
Most people I work with use conventional digital SLR cameras, where the image seen through the viewfinder is the one recorded by the sensor. This is achieved through the use of a mirror which moves out of the way when the image is taken.
Mirrorless is a fast-moving technology and we now have some game-changing bodies on the market from Nikon (Z9), Canon (R3) and Sony which have great battery life and reasonable focussing in dark situations - problem they all suffered from previously. An added advantage of these is that the new autofocusing mechanisms with great eye-detection systems improve their usefulness for video too, and in these times of social media obsession with video, this can be very useful.
One word of warning though. Don't be too obsessed with pixel count. You don't need 45-60 megapixel cameras for your equine photography, and by choosing one of these you are reducing the cameras performance in some situations.
For example in low light, where it pays to have fewer megapixels so that the camera is able to process out the noise. Another downfall of high-pixel cameras in their slow frame rate. We don't need 20 frames per second or more, but it is nice to have 10 or more for some disciplines, and high megapixel cameras tend to be more in the 5-10 category.
QUICK VERSION: Perfect: prime lens with focal length greater than 70mm. Good: a zoom lens like a 70-200mm or 70-300mm
The key reason for using SLR cameras, mirrorless or otherwise, is because they have interchangeable lenses. We can choose the right tool for each job, dependent on the situation.
If you have to choose a single lens, then the 70-200mm F2.8 is my go-to lens for nearly all equestrian photography. It lives on my main camera body.
If you are only photographing one fence or situation and don't intend to move very far then you might get away with a prime lens, which is great; fabulous quality. However, in the vast majority of situations you will want to experiment with different horizontal and vertical shooting angles, or indeed fences (e.g. showjumping) and may be taking each shot from a different distance, so a good quality zoom is perfect.
Equestrian disciplines which require the photographer to be further away from the horse may need longer lenses. I'm afraid a 70-200mm won't be much good to you when photographing polo, for example. Likewise, there will be times when an artistic wide angle could make for a good shot, like with the featured image for this article. You will acquire lenses over time.
QUICK VERSION: RAW, unless you have to print on site, in which case JPG.
If I am shooting for editorial, commercial or private client purposes then I will always shoot RAW, to give me the most information to work with when editing the file. This can make a big difference with high contrast situations, where deep shadow and/or highlights might need attention.
If I am shooting at shows for event photographers then they need to be able to take my card and send the images straight to the viewing screens without editing so JPEG is the only option. This also reduces file sizes which is important with modern camera sensor resolutions.
QUICK VERSION: Shoot in Manual. Shoot in Manual and use Auto-ISO if you don't want to worry about exposure.
Leave the P and Auto (green box) setting well alone. Clever as modern cameras are they will get confused by most of the situations we face as equine photographers.
Not to panic though, there are several ways to use the camera's technology help if you are not completely comfortable using Manual mode.
If you are happy for your camera to choose your aperture for you then you can choose Shutter Priority mode, where you set the shutter speed you want and let the camera do the rest.
So what shutter speed for horse photography?
if the horse you are photographing is stationary then you can go lower but In general we will want to set your shutter speed at 1/800s or bigger.
Set your ISO at a suitable level which takes into account the lighting conditions but also doesn't go higher than it needs to be. If you are lucky enough to use a modern DSLR with good low noise levels at high ISO settings then you could go as high as 4000/6400 or higher and still get a usable result.
Pros: less to think about so you can concentrate on panning and framing your shot. You can be confident your subject will be sharp.
Cons: If the light levels drop then you can end up underexposing your shot
If you are happy for your camera to choose your shutter speed for you then set your aperture at f4, f5 or f5.6 and set your ISO at a suitable level which takes into account the lighting conditions but also doesn't go higher than it needs to be. If you are lucky enough to use a modern DSLR with good low noise levels at high ISO settings then you could go as high as 4000/6400 or higher and still get a usable result.
I often get asked why I don't take advantage of the wider apertures that my lenses offer. Why don't I shoot at f2.8 or wider?
Two reasons. First, at their widest apertures lenses do not perform at their best. I won't go into the details but in a nutshell lenses are generally much sharper when they are a stop or two away from their widest aperture, hence my choice of f4-f5.6. Secondly, we have to worry about depth of field. A horses is not a flat object and in order to get the whole horse (or at least the most important bits, the head or horse and rider) in focus we need a depth of field of a 2-3 feet. A wide aperture will only give you that sort of depth of field when the subject is a very long way away.
Example: at 200mm and f4 I get about 3ft of depth of field when the subject is 40 feet from the camera, and roughly the same at 100mm and f4 when the subject is closer, say 20ft.
Pros: less to think about so you can concentrate on panning and framing your shot. Control of the amount of depth of field to blur backgrounds if necessary.
Cons: If light levels increase you might reach the maximum possible shutter speed for your camera and overexpose your shot. If light levels drop you might end up using a low shutter speed and find it difficult to keep the horse sharp and blur-free.
Manual mode scares a lot of users and understandably so. With practice and experience, though, it has many benefits over the automatic and semi-automatic modes.
Cameras want to average out all the images they take to a middle grey. Take a picture in an automatic mode of a white board and it will come out grey. Do the same with a black board and it will come out grey. With horses this presents a problem, as they are rarely the same colour. Horse arenas often have white boards, white tents, white fence wings and lots of other lighter shades around them. As a results a camera in any automatic mode will rarely "guess" the exposure correctly. Also, lighting doesn't tend to change very fast, giving manual users a chance to adapt and alter their settings if a cloud comes over. Almost every professional I know shoots in manual.
A few tips for shooting in manual:
Lush green grass has a pretty close luminance level to middle grey. In the UK during the Summer months it is 1/3 of a stop or 2/3 stop lighter than middle grey.
Now you have a pretty good starting point you can adjust slightly when the first horse appears. The great thing is that whatever colour the horse is you know your image is going to correctly exposed.
Pros: you are in complete control of your camera.
Cons: you are in complete control and if the light changes you are responsible for adjusting.
If manual mode scares you too much switch on Auto-ISO on your camera while in manual.
Pros: you will now have the control over the shutter speed (to make sure there is no motion blur) and aperture (to keep enough of the horse in focus but no more) and the camera can adapt by using the ISO scale. With Nikon models (I can't speak for Canon) the increments with which the camera changes the ISO are smaller than the usual 1/3 stop, so the results have the potential to be very accurate.
Cons: If you shoot a very dark horse or a very light horse the camera will still get the exposure wrong.
QUICK VERSION: Continuous AF/Servo
One of the most important camera settings for horse photography is the autofocus setting. I sometimes stand next to pro photographers who have a camera which is beeping when they focus.
This tells me two things. First, that it isn't the first thing they switch off on a new camera, like it is for me, and second, that they are shooting in one-shot/single AF mode. This is no problem with a static target but if your equine subject is moving, the focus (boom) of this article, then by the time you finish pressing the shutter, the horse will have moved and your focal point might not be where you want it anymore.
Set you autofocus mode to AF-C or Servo so it continually focuses and even predicts focus when the shutter release is pressed.
As an aside, I always shoot using back button focusing which will be the subject of another blog. Google it for more information .
QUICK VERSION: Single point or small "smart" point group
Before I start, if you are using a reasonable aperture of f5.6/f6.3 then leaving your cameras autofocus target in the default position in the centre of the frame will be fine. Your depth of field will cover the horse and rider. If you need to shoot wider then being able to choose your focus target is vital.
Move your focus point to where the required target is going to be in the frame before the horse arrives. Mentally picture where the rider or horse's head will be and move the focus point in the viewfinder to that position. Then, as the horse and rider approach, position the focus point on the target and start focusing as you pan through the scene.
In terms of AF point modes, I use single point or what Nikon call D9. This stands for nine-point dynamic mode. If I waver with my focus point as I am planning, the camera will move to the focus point next to the one I chose in order to stay in the subject which the middle.point was originally on. Useful in high speed situations.
I hope this has been useful. Please comment or suggest amendments below.