Several times recently I have found myself referring to “the golden rules of equestrian photography”.
Quite rightly, someone asked me what they were!
These rules I was referring to are not written down anywhere, instead I have learned them through discussion with riders, owners and other photographers; photographers with many more years of experience than I. They are the result of personal feedback, and as such are subjective – please feel free to add your own/disagree in the comments section!
- Make sure you are allowed to shoot.
It goes without saying that before you start photographing horses which belong to other people you should check that it is permitted. Most equine events take place on private, not “public” land, so do check the terms and conditions of entry to make sure that you are allowed to photograph the event before you start firing away. A lot of event organisers have appointed an official photographer and taken a significant fee from them, so it is unfair and unprofessional to invade their territory.
- It’s all about the horse!
The most important rule of all, in my personal opinion, is that the image you are taking is more about the horse than the rider. The horse should be flattered in your photograph and a lot of the commandments which follow this are related to this. If the horse is pulling an anguished face or throwing its head it is unlikely to looks its best. If its ears are pinned to the back of its head it will rarely look happy. If it’s not a nice pic of the horse, don’t publish it.
- Don’t chop bits off.
What? I hear you say. I mean that too often part of the horse or rider gets cut out of the shot by some over-zealous cropping. We don’t want a horse with an ear missing or half a hind leg. If you are working for a news agency or your brief is to get the best close up of the rider then a very close crop is better than a half crop. Ideally we would like the whole picture because, after all, it’s all about the horse, right? See point 2 above.
- Capture the horse on the “correct” leg.
One of the first things an event photographer is taught is which pictures sell and which don’t. If you get this wrong your time as an event photographer is severely limited!
One of the things we hear from riders again and again is, “we don’t want it on the wrong leg.” By this they mean they want the nearside foreleg to be the one which is furthest forward in the image. when trotting you take a shot every other stride when this leg is fully extended. On the canter you take your shot when the lead leg is the one closest to the camera and either fully extended or just as the nearest hind leg is about to touch the ground.
It’s all about seeing the conformation of the horses shoulder, I’m told.
- Include the bottom of a jump
If you are taking a jumping picture, whether it be over a fence, hedge or showjump, you should always include the whole jump, or none of it at all. As mentioned in point 3, above, there are times when we need the best close up image of a rider possible for editorial purposes, but in an ideal world both the rider and the casual observer prefer to see the horse and the size of the jump. If we only include the top part of a fence on a 4* cross country course the viewer has no idea how enormous the fence was.
- Don’t shoot from behind
95% of the time we don’t want “arse pics”, for fairly obvious reasons. The rider wants to see the horse’s (and perhaps their) face, and not their bottoms. There are very rare occasions when, because the background or situation, you might get away with it for an editorial shot but generally I advise people to imagine a clock-face. The horse is moving from 6 o’clock to 12 o’clock. Our ideal angles to shoot are between 9 and 3, or perhaps 8.30 to 3.30 at a push.
- Perfect your timing (that doesn’t mean “use your motordrive”!)
Learn the positions in which riders want to be photographed and stick to them. I generally find that getting”arty” doesn’t wash with my equestrian friends when it comes to what is flattering and what isn’t. Jumping shots should be taken AFTER take-off (i.e. nothing still on the ground), at the highest point, and when the front legs are fully extended, ready to touch down (but still in the air). The galloping shots which I have learned sell best are the full stretched shot when the distance between leading fore leg and trailing hind leg is greatest. Some like the “flea” position, others hate it. Dressage classics include the medium/extended trot full suspension moment (see point 4 above) and the half-pass from head on.
- Use the right shutter speed
I deliberately didn’t say, “use a fast shutter speed”, but that generally applies. If I’m freelancing for one of the various event photography companies I work for I wouldn’t let my shutter speed drop below 1/800s, unless I was shooting indoors. The reason I didn’t imply you should always use a fast shutter speed is that there are times when adding some movement to the background can be preferable. Shooting a racehorse at 1/320s, for example, slightly blurs the background and gives a sense of speed. Shooting polo at 1/125s can create a lovely blurred legs effect if you good enough at panning (see below).
Panning is particularly important if you are forced to use slowish shutter speeds for a fast moving discipline. The secret is to lock on to the subject before the point of the release being pressed and move the camera at the speed of the horse and rider as they move. The releasing of the shutter is a totally separate action, done as the camera moves at the speed of the horse. In this way the movement of the horse relative to the camera is very small and this compensates for a shutter speed which might have cause motion blur otherwise.
- Choose your focus point
This is an easy one to forget but all the DSLRs I have used have allowed me to choose the point of focus position in the viewfinder. This means I can work out where the horse’s or rider’s head will be in the final shot and position my focus point at that point in the empty viewfinder. Then, when (see point 9 above) I lock onto the subject, ready to pan through the shot zone, the focus point is focusing where I want it throughout the pan.
- BONUS POINT – Choose your background
When my event photography boss leaves me on which ever part of whichever course they want me to shoot, the first decision I am making is based on angle of shot to flatter horse and rider as much as possible combined with what is in the background. Yes, I have been forced to shoot a whole day of cross country knowing every shot had a fence judge’s car in the background but sometimes you don’t have a choice. Normally, you do. Portaloos, fish and chips vans, cranes are all to be avoided at all cost. I will always remember a missive from the venerable Horse & Hound picture desk on the subject of backgrounds, “please try to avoid bored-looking people in the background.”