Low light equestrian photography

Nico Equestrian Photography, Show Jumping, Technique Leave a Comment

…or, how to shoot jumping horses in a very, very dark venue.

This post is in response to two requests I had for more information after I posted a photo from this event on my Facebook page. One of the questions came from someone who was there among the spectators and had tried in vain to get their own images.

A few years ago I was asked by one of the then Masters of the Quorn Hunt if I would attend their gate jumping competition at a local equestrian centre. I enthusiastically agreed, as I had heard a little about it and knew a few people who were taking part.

I also thought I knew the venue, as I had photographed there (during the day) several times before. What I hadn’t realised was that the timing of the event meant that it would start while there was a small amount of daylight coming through the skylights in the roof of the arena, and very soon revert to the indoor lighting alone.

At this point some readers may immediately say, “use flash”. In the UK we just don’t use flash with horses, unless perhaps they are stationary, perhaps at a prize giving or at a private yard shoot. It would never be used in competition of any sort as, even if the flash didn’t cause a distraction to any one horse at any one time, it might to others and that means it isn’t a level playing field.

Not only are the lights inside this arena low intensity and scarce in number, they also cycle through a series of different colours, many times a second. It is impossible to detect this with the naked eye – I imagine the brain filters it out in some way – but if you take a series of images in burst mode you will see clear differences in the colour of the light in different frames. A photographer colleague of mine illustrated this effect brilliantly, by using his phone to video a few seconds under similar lights. He then used software to slow the frame rate right down and the result was not unlike a dance floor, with flashes of different colours cycling several times a second. You can view his video here.

So, we have very little light, and what we have changes colour. How do we approach this? The honest answer is that it isn’t easy.

My personal technique was as follows:

  1. Check out both sides of the main jump, and work out which has the better ambient light. Riders can jump the gate in either direction so this has to be taken into account as well.
  2. Set your ISO to the highest you dare use. Shooting with a Nikon D4S or similar is a huge advantage here, I can go to 12,800 before the grain gets unmanageable.
  3. Use a prime lens with a wide aperture. I’m afraid we don’t have the luxury of a decent depth of field here, so focus accuracy is paramount.
  4. Lower your shutter speed as low as you dare.

The result, in my case was that I was shooting at 1/400s at f/2.5 or f/2.8 and 12,800ISO.

With this shutter speed, panning is vital. You have to move your focus point in the viewfinder so that it is in the same area of the viewfinder as the subject matter – in this case the rider, so I chose the highest focus point in the middle of the frame. Having done that, wait for your rider to approach the fence. Line up the focus point with the rider and start focusing – either by pressing the shutter release down half way, or by pressing the back of camera AF-ON button – moving the camera with the rider as they approach the jump. Keep moving smoothly with the rider, so that the relative movement of the horse and rider in the frame is kept to a minimum, and release the shutter at your chosen point in the jump.

Here is an image of the winner, clearing 5’6″, before and after some work in Lightroom!

quorn hunt gate jumping 2015 - Low light equestrian photography

1/400s, f/2.5 at ISO12,800. This shows what the light is like.

quorn hunt gate jumping vale view 2015 - Low light equestrian photography

Ben Cornwall winning the Quorn Hunt gate jumping competition

I’ve applied some noise reduction in Lightroom but not so much that it begins to look artificially smooth and fake. I quite like a little grain, perhaps because I worked with film for years before turning digital. I’ve also used Lightroom’s adjustment brush to lower the saturation of the unwanted colour casts from the cycling lights. This was a bigger problem in some frames than others. Until technology moves on again the results are never going to be great, but we do what we can!

You can view all the images here: Quorn Hunt Gate Jumping Competition 2015.

I know that you will have your own techniques for situations like this so please feel free to share in the comments below.

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