What are the best camera settings for photographing horses?
I am regularly asked for tips on photographing horses, but up to now I haven’t got round to answering the question online but I’m going to give it a go.
Photographing horses is not a straightforward exercise, but if you understand why then things improve very quickly.
It should be noted that I am writing about images of horses in a competition or working environment and not fine art style equine portraits. Some of these tips will apply to both but with the latter you can get away with breaking the unspoken rules a lot more!
Camera settings for Photographing horses
- Shoot RAW
When you can, shoot in RAW mode. Your camera will store a lot more valuable information about each shot you take and should you make a mistake, or want to restore details in an area of the shot which has low contrast, then having that information available is a godsend. It’s not always possible. You may not have the time or the much greater storage space required to keep the RAW files but do it if you can.
- Make Aperture your priority – but that doesn’t mean using Aperture Priority!
We are interested in the horse and not the background so we set a nice wide aperture to reduce the depth of field. Having said this I rarely shoot with the lens wide open because there is normally a slight drop in quality here which can be avoided by dropping a stop or so. Now that you have your aperture set, switch to manual mode, and set a shutter speed and ISO setting so that you can freeze the action (see below). Check you exposure by taking a shot of the scene before the horse gets there. Adjust if necessary. You are now set up to shoot away and it won’t matter what colour the horse is because you exposure is set. Obviously if the light changes you will have to repeat these stages.
- Make sure you are using a reasonably fast shutter speed.
If we are using Aperture Priority we have to keep an eye on what shutter speeds the camera is selecting for us. If they are too slow then we will see blurring in our images, caused by the slight movement of the horse while the shutter was open. Point the camera at the subject and see what shutter speed appears in the viewfinder. If it is below 1/500s then adjust the camera’s ISO setting upwards until you get a shutter speed somewhere in the region of 1/800s.
Of course you may want that blurring to give the impression of movement. If this is the case then you may prefer to be in Shutter Priority mode and work the other way round. 1/320s is nice for creating the sense of speed in racing photos, 1/125s for polo and so on. You must experiment.
It goes without saying, I hope, that when photographing horses we want the horse’s head and rider to be within the depth of field if possible.
- Use Continuous Autofocus.
The camera needs to be able to focus even as the horse is galloping/trotting/jumping past so we must set the camera to use continuous autofocus. Finding the setting for this varies from camera to camera but on Nikons the setting you want is “C” as opposed to M (Manual) or S (Servo). You’ll notice that this also stops the camera from beeping when it focusses which is a very good thing. When you switch back to normal “servo” mode autofocus for something else consider turning that beep off. You will almost never hear a pro with that sound still switched on (I can think of only one) and if you do they tend to be the subject of some light-hearted banter!
- Check your Metering
All cameras have differing metering so there is no rule which can apply to all. However sometimes it will be appropriate to use centre-weighted metering, sometimes matrix metering and sometimes manual. If you are using centre-weighted or matrix metering bear in mind that the colour of the horse will confuse the camera more than you think. A grey horse will be underexposed. A black horse will be overexposed. When you can see the next competitor coming adjust your exposure compensation to take this into account.
If you are using manual metering (and I have to admit that even with the quality of the metering in my cameras I do shoot mostly in manual) then take some test shots of the place where your competitor will be and adjust your exposure and ISO until you are happy that the histogram on your camera shows a good spread of values from blacks to whites without too much “clipping”, or bunching up, at either end. If you have to clip then clip the highlights slightly as the cameras sensors store more info at the highlight so it may be recoverable. More on the subject of “exposing to the right” can be found on the web elsewhere.
- Don’t use Motordrive/Continuous shooting
In short, make sure it is not on high-speed mode. There are at least three reasons for this.
First, you should be picking the best spot to freeze the action yourself, not hoping that one of your 4-20 frames will get it if you’re lucky. I will write more about this later in the ‘Timing” section.
Second, the sound of a camera in continuous shot mode can be very off-putting to the competitor and distracting to the horse. One pro I know nearly got himself ejected from a big dressage competition because he started machine-gunning in the middle of someone’s test!
The third reason is a very practical one: your camera’s shutter has a limited life and the more you use it the sooner it will need to be replaced at some high cost! Lecture over.
- Consider using back button focussing
What? I hear you cry. Most photographers use the shutter release to start the autofocus system of their camera, but for various reasons, especially when I’m photographing horses, I use a separate button on the back of my camera to manage autofocus before releasing the shutter in the normal way.
Why? Well in some situations I am photographing horses and there are objects between me and the horse and rider which can confuse the cameras autofocus system at just the wrong moment. For example, in most show jumping arenas there is a lot of woodwork, greenery and general decoration around the jumps. If I was positioning my focus point on the horse, pressing the shutter release down half way, and then panning with the horse as it jumps, then there is a chance the focus point will move over something in front of the horse, the top of a jump wing for example, and focus on that at the vital moment.
Instead I look at the jump first, focus on the point I know is the same distance from me as the rider will be mid-jump, then release the shutter as usual, knowing that the camera is not focussing on the wrong thing.
Back button focussing was something I turned to in some situations, but now is the default set up for my camera. How you program your camera to use a back button and not the shutter release will vary between models, so you will need to refer to your camera’s manual.
Technique for photographing horses
- Check your Position
Positioning yourself can make all the difference between a good shot and a poor one. As a general rule you should shoot with the sun behind you, especially if it is a sunny day. There are many who would argue that this is not a strict rule, and I would agree that there are some great opportunities to be had with backlit subjects, but to ensure that you can see details in the shadow areas it is more reliable to keep the sun over your shoulder.
For dressage or other flat ground shots then somewhere between head on and sideways on is ideal. Sideways is better for showing the whole horse (more of this a little further down the page) but some great head on shots can be had too. Similarly for jumping I would take most shots from somewhere around 45 degrees from the axis of the fence but would also take them from closer to side on and sometimes head on.
There is almost never a reason to take your shot from behind the rider. It’s not flattering to horse or rider.
Timing makes an equestrian photograph, of that there is little doubt. There are certain stages in a horse’s movement which are good to capture because they show off the horse’s musculature and scope well and others which are unflattering in the extreme. Some will argue that some of these are very subjective but please comment if you have other suggestions but there is an unspoken etiquette which hopefully I can share.
Trotting:when photographing horses at the trot there is only one moment to capture and that is when the foreleg nearest you is fully extended. This should result in the legs forming an “M” shape:
In the UK we would never offer an image of a trotting horse for sale if it was not in this position. In the US they are more flexible and seem to often take the exact opposite image, where the nearest legs are together in the middle and the furthest legs are fully extended. The important thing is that they are not somewhere between the two positions!
Cantering: likewise when photographing horses in a canter you must be on the same side of the horse as the leading foreleg, which means being on the opposite side of an arena or show ring to the horse. Again this leg should be extended when you press the shutter:
Both of these examples were taken side-on but it’s perfectly acceptable to shoot from slightly further in front of the movement. You should avoid photographing horses from behind.
Jumping: there is more scope when it comes to photographing horses jumping and everybody has their own personal taste. I feel that there are two really good points at which to press the shutter. The first is just before the horse reaches the high point of the jump – back legs should be fully extended and forelegs neatly tucked in. We don’t want the back legs on the ground and bent, nor do we want to delay it too long and let the forelegs separate from the body too much. The point in the jump when both fore and hind legs are half bent is what I call the “clothes hanger” and is rarely flattering. The second point at which to click is just before the horse touches ground again. The front legs are fully extended and the back legs stretched out behind.
There is another point to choose if you are lucky enough to be photographing good quality show jumping. Because of the great heights they jump there is a wonderful point in mid jump when all four legs are pressed hard against the horse’s body to keep them out of the way of the poles. If you can catch this moment it looks rather impressive too.
Caveat:If you browse my galleries you will see that I break my own rules quite regularly, particularly when it comes to taking more than one image “on the way down”. I also tend to keep the ones where I got the timing slightly wrong because it is a question of taste and if a rider likes it then that is good enough for me.
One of the biggest mistakes photographers make with any (fast) moving object is not panning. We want the subject of our shots to be the focal point of our image and to achieve this we must move the camera lens as the horse passes, keeping it where we want it in the frame even after we have pressed the shutter. The other benefit of panning is that the horse is moving more slowly relatively to the camera and it more likely to be sharp as a result. If you are photographing horses with a slowish shutter speed (indoors for example) then this is very important. A nice effect can be achieved by deliberately using a reasonably slow shutter speed and panning with the horse so that parts of it blur to give the impression of movement while other parts which have remained still relative to the moving camera, appear quite sharp.
Most modern cameras allow you to move the point on which the camera focusses and this is very important as the eye of the viewer will be drawn to the sharpest area of the image. It is easy in a studio or with a stationary object to focus on the most important area, hold the shutter button half down while you re-compose and then tae the shot. You can’t do this with a moving subject, especially as we are in continuous focus mode! Instead we have to think about where the subject of the shot will be in the finished image and choosing a focus point, if possible, in that area of the viewfinder. In the upright shot below I moved the focus point up to be where I wanted the rider’s face in the final image so even as she jumped towards me the camera was continuing to focus on her face.The one last point I would like to make is that photographing horses is about the horse first and the rider second. As a photographer at The Horse of the Year Show one year, I overheard competitors in the ring telling the official photographer “Not me, the horse!” which I think sums this up.
The key to photographing horses is this: if the horse is not looking good then the image is not successful. You should never deliberately amputate a horse’s limb at the capturing or cropping stages (I wish some major picture agencies would take note of this), nor should you keep an image if the horse looks uncomfortable or unhappy.
I hope this is useful to some but please comment below if you disagree. I would welcome a discussion.