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How to take pictures of Horses: 11 tips from a professional

Posted on 19th October 2010 in .  So far there are 13 comments

Want to know how to photograph horses? Read on.

Before we start, I wanted to let you know about something exciting. For some time I have been mentoring photographers and doing one-to-one teaching sessions. Now you can benefit in the same way by learning online. I have started putting my three decades of experience into a series of courses. Some extensive, some very short. All focused on teaching equestrian photography properly.

Many so-called equestrian photography courses are actually only courses in equine portraiture, and no other disciplines. I have courses which cover a multitude of different disciplines, from dressage to reining, eventing to vaulting.

What's more they are sold via a membership. Pay once, get all the courses, forever. Also, at the moment the membership is massively reduced while I publish a few more of my offline courses in online form. Get in while you can!

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What are the best camera settings for taking pictures of horses?

I am regularly asked for tips on how to take pictures of horses, so it's time I got round to answering the question online.

Taking pictures of 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 how to take pictures 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!

Camera settings for horse pictures

I have another post about specific camera settings for horse photography. You may want to read that one too.

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, 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 so if you can.
Also, if you're lucky enough to get some experience shooting for an equine event photographer - and I suggest you do if you can - then absolutely DO NOT shoot in RAW. They may kill you because the files are huge and need converting before they can upload them to their website.

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 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 then we should 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.
Different equine disciplines require different shutter speeds. Dressage and jumping actually allow for a slower shutter speed than perhaps something like polo or horse racing, where the horse is covering the ground much more quickly.
Point the camera at the subject and see what shutter speed appears in the viewfinder. If it drops below 1/500s then adjust the camera's ISO setting upwards until you get a shutter speed somewhere in the region of 1/800s or more.
Most of the time we want to freeze the movement of the horse, but there may be times when you deliberately want 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 taking pictures of 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 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 different 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 spot metering. 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 taking pictures of 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 ("golden hour" portraits, horses in water), 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 a good equestrian photograph, period. 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 there is an etiquette which hopefully I can share.

: when taking pictures of 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:

Andrew Hoy and Rutherglen at Burghley - Horse Pictures
Andrew Hoy and RUTHERGLEN showing the moment of suspension when the timing is right in a medium trot

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. It does demonstrate that horse pictures differ around the world.

Canteringlikewise when taking pictures of 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:

How to take pictures of Horses - Oliver Townend and SAMUEL THOMAS II - Burghley 2015
Oliver Townend and SAMUEL THOMAS II - Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials

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 taking pictures of horses from behind.

Jumping: there is more scope when it comes to taking pictures of 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 very unflattering. 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.

Pictures of horses - Harriet Rimmer - Belvoir Lincolnshire Fun Ride
A typical jumping shot taken just after take off so horse is at an upward angle

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 can look rather impressive.

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 taking pictures of 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.

Move your focussing point

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 take 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.

The one last point I would like to make is that taking pictures of 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 taking good pictures of 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.

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13 comments on “How to take pictures of Horses: 11 tips from a professional”

  1. Thanks, Nico some extremely useful tips here I will refer to it often I am sure.I do try to adhere to most of these already but not putting the camera on continuous shooting is a good tip, if the first shot is wrong all the rest will be too!

  2. Thanks for this! Really good points. I even linked to it in a post on my (zero readership) blog.

    As you guessed, because it's so subjective, I do have some disagreements about the best moment to capture a horse in motion, but then I expect everyone does!

  3. Thanks Nico. Great tips. It's nice when people share their knowledge. If your good enough, you don't have to be afraid of giving others a helping hand.

  4. This is funny, I clicked on this from my page because of the title, my browswer is 1/2 open so I dont see the site leader (name) so I just start reading and admiring the photos, then I get to the hunter over the hedge and say hey, wait, then I go up to see who and where I am, darned if its not Nico Morgan.......for a moment I thought I found someone better than Nico and of course, there isnt, its all Nico !!! I love the photos and the points are awesome.....I think horse photographers have to balance art and what the rider wants: Beautiful shots and LOTS of them............great work !!!!

  5. Thankyou for this blog, recommended by one of my twitter contacts. I like the fact that you don't recommend auto drive, I have often wondered about this and would always choose to have control myself but wasn't sure if I was doing the right thing.
    Weather permitting I will be doing my first horse shoot next week, with my new sister-in-law in her wedding dress! Thanks again - Debbie

  6. A great informative post, thank you. I particularly agree with point 6, and would like to add another good reason not to do it, is the shear boredom of editing loads of very similar images!

  7. Fantastic post and points. Our Ocala newspaper has no clue that a photo of a horse with it's mouth gaping open with the tongue hanging out is WRONG! Makes me crazy. Ocala is known for its Thoroughbreds, Quarter horses, Arabians, Paso Finos, etc. Heaven forbid we publish decent photos of them in the newspaper.

    Thanks for the post, and all you do!

    1. Thank you Susie, I know that problem only too well. The big 4* events here accredit photographers who chop horses in half, lop their legs off, or just generally photograph them when they are looking less than happy!

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About Nico

I am an equine photographer, website designer and hosting provider living in Lincolnshire.

I work with clients who are sole traders and others which are FTSE companies. They are equally important to me.

If you need commercial photographyeditorial photography, event photography, lifestyle, equestrian or wedding photography, then I can help you, with over 30 years experience in these areas.

I also teach photography. I mentor photographers with a range of experience, from beginners to working professionals and run an equine photography course which gives members access to articles about the business of equestrian photography.

I have a varied set of skills, having worked for well known web design, SEO and analytics companies in parallel to my photography.

I design, host and maintain websites for clients as varied as farms, interior designers and equestrian centres, as well as for bloggers and sportspeople, including many riders.

I am the Public Relations Officer for the Midlands Area Point-to-Point Association, a role which utilises my PR and social media skills to promote horse racing both online and in the National press.

If you think that I could be the right person to help you, whatever your project, then please get in touch and we can discuss what you need and the ways in which I can help.

You can find out more about me here.

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