Camera settings for horse photography

Nico Equestrian Photography, Sports Photography, Technique 20 Comments

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.

What are the best settings for taking photos of horses? Without doubt, this is the question I am asked most.

Here is my take on the settings to use when photographing horses, and why.

I will cover:

  • camera choice
  • lens choice
  • file type
  • exposure modes
  • autofocus mode
  • autofocus point selection
  • At the start of each section I will give you my setting choice in case you are in a hurry.

Camera Choice

Any modern DSLR (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.

I have tried mirrorless bodies from Fujifilm and Panasonic (Lumix) but neither were able to focus fast enough and reliably enough for a show jumping test and devoured batteries at a fiendish rate.

I realise this is fast moving technology. As I type Nikon are about to release their first mirrorless body so I might update this to reflect that in due course. UPDATE – No change to my usual Nikon DSLR kit at this stage!

Lens Choice

Perfect: prime lens with focal length greater than 70mm. Good: a zoom lens like a 70-200mm or 70-300mm

The quick answer is that my 70-200mm is my go-to lens for equestrian photography. It is always 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 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.

robert walker and view point hunter champions at hoys 2017 - Camera settings for horse photography
Good quality glass is useful in tricky low light situations

File type

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.

Exposure Modes

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.

Shutter Priority Mode (S on a Nikon, Tv on a Canon)

If you are happy for your camera to choose your aperture for you then set your shutter speed at 1/800s (preferably higher/smaller) 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.

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

fabio lavinia playing at rutland polo club assam cup - Camera settings for horse photography
High shutter press are vital for freezing high speed equestrian sport action.

Aperture Priority Mode (A on a Nikon, Av on a Canon)

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 are not 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 (M)

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.

  1. Take a photograph of a nice even patch of green grass at the same angle from you as the horse.
  2. Adjust the exposure until the big peak in the histogram on your camera is 1/3 or 2/3 above the middle point on the graph.
  3. Now re-frame your photograph around where the horse will be. Take another and make sure there are no blown highlights or too many blacks.

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.

ISO Sliding mode (™)

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 get the exposure wrong.

Autofocus mode

Continuous AF/Servo

I still 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 .

Autofocus point selection

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.

camera settings for horse photography - Camera settings for horse photography
Best Camera Settings for horse photography

Comments 20

  1. Hi Nico,

    Your thinking about Mirrorless is a little out of date. For the past year or so, they offer lock-on and tracking capabilities surpassing all but and equalling the very top DSLRs …. just an observation.

    I was looking at your site to get some pointers before going to a Trials event (for first time), predominantly what lens length is likely to be best. I was interested to see you suggested 70-200 for most situations, which I’m sure is valid for many ‘straight shots’. However, one of the shot types I was thinking of is similar to your top picture (if I can get into a suitable position, which may not be possible without a wireless release) … but – please tell me if I’m wrong, but I suspect that breaks most of your suggestions – it looks like a far wider angle than 70mm and I suspect it was taken with everything (ISO, speed, aperture and focus) set to manual with a pre-focus point, to avoid over exposure of horse and as I suspect continuous AF/tracking isn’t really beneficial here … for this specific type of shot … I appreciate no one setting/lens fits all cases – it’s all ‘horses for courses’ …
    but as I say, this is one specific view I am hoping to get so am keen to get any pointers before I go.

    Thanks for posting your suggestions and guidance.

    1. Post

      Yes, you might be right re focus speed, especially as it changes by the week these days. Having said that mirrorless technology offers me no advantages at this point in time, and battery use would still be an issue in most cases. Many of my colleagues continue to experiment with the latest mirrorless bodies and not really see any point in converting, as yet.

      You’re right in thinking the top shot was remote and therefore an extra “bonus” to the usual shots. I would set those up with the Technical Delegate’s approval in advance of the first horse into the ring and then have to leave it where it was throughout the class. I fire these at the same time as a more normal longer lens shot via a radio release on the hot shoe. I usually use a 24mm for this, pre-focus on the point in which I want to capture horse and rider, switch off AF and use a high enough shutter speed to negate the need for panning (sometimes this is touch and go). With today’s SLRs my approach would be to set shutter and aperture in manual and use Auto-ISO, with appropriate compensation, to allow for changes in light levels.

      The most important thing with all remote camera situations is to make sure the TD or fence judges are happy with where the camera is, that it is invisible to horse and rider and not in the way of the arena party.

      Good luck!

        1. Post

          Hi Josh.
          I use Pocket Wizard Plus IIIs for this. The camera is covered in a clear bag if necessary but if it is wet I tend not to bother with remotes. They are a bonus after all. You can get covers designed for flash guns which work for PWs too.

  2. Hi Nico, some interesting points you’ve written in this article. I’m very much a hobbyist photographer but keen to learn more techniques with my recently upgraded Canon 5D mk4. I’m covering a showjumping clinic this weekend organised by a local Riding Club but hosted in an indoor school where the lighting is poor – it’s sodium lights giving off a very orangery glow.
    The action shots of ridden horses going over fences won’t be too much of a problem with a fast shutter speed of 1/800 and a higher ISO. But after each hourly lesson the 4 riders in each class/group will want a photo of themselves on their horse with the instructor standing by the shoulder of the horse. Albeit static subject shots, I’m not sure which aperture setting to use because of the potentially 3 focal planes (the horse’s head/face, the instructor’s face and the riders face) at differing distances from the camera. The foreground will be the school surface and the background will be the external wall/boards of the school – both of which can be out of focus. Should I use an aperture of f/8 to get the subjects in sharp focus? Any higher then the shutter speed will slow down risking blur – its not easy asking a horse to stop moving its ears! Many thanks in advance.

    1. Post

      Hi Chris. Thanks for commenting.
      Indoor jumping events are always a challenge, and will test the high-ISO performance of your new toy. 1/800 might be more than you need, though. If your panning skills are good, you might get away with 1/500s or even 1/400s which would facilitate a narrower aperture and greater depth of field during the lessons.
      Your static shot question hits the nail on the head and raises one of the classic dilemmas. Remember the subjects should be pretty static so dropping your shutter speed down to anything you can hand hold should be workable. Working out the depth of field you have based on your lens and camera choice and distance from the subject enables you to use hyperfocal distance to include all of those focal planes. The background isn’t going to be pretty, so I think f/8 might be excessive. Remember you could use a flash for these static shots too, many event photographers do in this situation. Try to balance the flash colour with a suitable gel to match the sodium lighting if you can though, or the daylight-balanced flash will be very cold compared to the ambient lighting.
      Hope that helps.

    1. Post

      Hi William. Good question and, to some extent, the answer is “it depends”.
      If the lighting is consistent then I would use Manual. I would set my aperture at something like f5, then choose an ISO which allowed me a shutter speed of 1/800s or shorter.
      If the lighting is less consistent, e.g. the sun is in and out of clouds, then personally I would choose one of two options: aperture priority (something like f4 or f5 with ISO set so shutter speed doesn’t drop below 1/800s when the sun goes it) or Manual with Auto-ISO (set aperture and shutter speed and leave camera to change the ISO). Many will argue that shutter-priority is a more obvious choice, but I want a shallow depth of field and don’t want the camera changing the aperture to something like f11 when the lighting is bright!
      In a nutshell, all of these will work. Try them out and see what suits you best.
      The quick and easy method, if you prefer, is to use the sport mode setting. This should keep shutter speeds fast. Don’t forget to practise your panning.

  3. Hi Nico

    Your advice is greatly appreciated and very helpful. I always use manual mode and more often set camera to f5.6 unless shooting upwards and only sky as backdrop then use f8. I use a Nikon D4s and traded my D4 in for D500, I regularly use auto ISO unless it’s a clear sunny day. I always ask permission from event organisers to attend, any events I attend I make a point of introducing myself to the official event photographer and let him/her know I have permission to attend and agreed with the organisers not to sell my images. I find he or she appreciate that and always willing to have friendly conversation, as an amateur photographer you must respect and understand they pay a considerable sum to be there. Do you ever find there is a time and place to use your camera in silent mode and would you use it?

    1. Post

      Hi John

      I very much appreciate your comment and your attitude in general. Great to hear.

      I have only used it on a very small number of occasions, normally for dressage indoors. Even then there was a general background murmur from people and tradestands so it was probably pointless! When using remote cameras in showjumping rings it is sometimes necessary to silence the shutter noise to satisfy the Technical Delegate, but in these situations a proper blimp is probably a better option.

    1. Hello again Nico, I am still interested in purchasing your book!! Any assistance will be greatly appreciated!!

      1. Post

        Hi Roger. Haven’t finished my book yet. Tou may be seeing a Pinterest image which looks like a book cover. Will let you know when I have completed it.

  4. Nico, thank you for these ‘down to earth’ tutorials. Probably the best I have read to date. One question, which metering mode do you use? I follow a lot of local pony club days with my dslr. Having a jet black horse in the ring followed by a light gray can get me asking, should I use spot, centre weight, matrix?. It doesn’t help when the rider is wearing a dark jacket and has a background of dark trees. I guess the dark background is where an apeture giving a shallow dof will help.

    1. Post

      Hi Arthur

      To be honest my usual metering setting is matrix, occasionally moving to centre-weighted in circumstances where the surroundings are much lighter or darker than the subject, and where lighting conditions are changing rapidly.

      My camera is in full manual mode 80% of the time, manual + Auto ISO the rest. The reason for the latter is that Auto ISO on my Nikons allows variations of 1/6 of a stop rather than a third of a stop, as in the other modes.

      When I am in full manual mode the light is fairly consistent or at least predictable, and I use predictable targets like green grass to meter from. Most of the time I place grass just to the right of the middle of the histogram and leave the exposure there, knowing it will be “correct” for horses of any colour.

      Hope that helps!

  5. Nico, could you get away with metering on the green grass, then locking the exposure via AE-L? I have BBF so have exposure lock assigned to a Fn button. I use a D7500. Thank you.

    1. Post

      You could work that way, yes, but you would want to have 1/3 overexposure dialled it, depending on the colour of the grass. I sometimes set AE-L to be activated on shutter half-press when using BBF (always) but a Fn button works just as well.

  6. Nico,

    I am shooting indoors at Aintree Equestrian, using a Nikon d7200, i am finding above iso 4000 i get to much grain. I am using a Nikon 18/200 lens. I am finding the pictures are not as sharp as i would like, based on everything i have read I need at 70-200, but wonder if that will work any better indoors and its more my skill levels need to improve, as i have only just started with indoor equestrian.

    I have a 70-300 but that’s even slower, so have not tried that.

    1. Post

      You won’t want to hear this but I shoot indoors up to ISO12800 sometimes, and have been known to drop to 1/400s (which really tests your panning skills) and this would be probably at f3.5 or f4 because I don’t like shooting wide open even with professional lenses.

      In a nutshell, yes, a f2.8 70-200 would be a godsend, but you might still find grain a problem until you can get yourself an D4S or better. If you don’t shoot indoors too often then it probably isn’t worth the investment. To make you feel a little better, when I first started shooting as part of the official team at HOYS it took us quite a while to settle on the best combinations of cameras and lenses.

      Best wishes

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