I shoot a LOT of horse photos and have covered numerous events. So…. I get asked a lot of questions on what works best if people wanted to step up their game.
Photography is all about tradeoffs – nothing is ever the perfect scenario. A lot of the below just scratches the surface of what runs through my head when sizing up what to do. Making informed decisions on the Sun, Settings, and where to Stand will go a long way to setting up the conditions for a good image.
Almost all the photos on the page are clickable for a larger view.
It all starts with where the light is, or isn’t. In general, you want the sun at your back when you are lining up a shooting position. Pay attention to the shadows. Horse events run all day long. As a consequence, the lighting conditions will change during the day. Getting the light position correct is huge for having photos that will look good with color and contrast. You don’t control mother nature but you can use her good side.
What if it is overcast? Look to see if there are any soft and diffused shadows on the ground – they will tell you the location of the sun.
You want a lot of light on the subject so you can shoot with a high shutter speed. A fast 1/1000+ sec shutter is a necessity to freeze the motion of the horse and rider. Going any slower than that and you risk have motion blur in the image
The goal of the camera settings is to get a well exposed picture, with darks and lights, that doesn’t have any motion blur or camera shake blur in the image. I tend to like a brightly exposed image. Bright, but not blown out in the highlights that matter.
If you shoot with the out the box settings on your camera, you will have a rough time getting sporadically good results. I’d go as far as saying you’ll have an impossible time getting consistently good results. That means you, Mr./Mrs. green “P” shooter.
At a minimum, venture into the “AV” or Aperture Priority mode. In this mode, the camera will use a fixed aperture, a fixed (or floating) ISO, and vary the shutter speed to get a good exposure. Make sure you set your ISO high enough so that shutter speed will never fall below 1/1000 if you are shooting a fast moving horse.
Personally, I shoot in “M” manual mode 99.9% of the time. I find that I screw up the exposure settings for an image a whole lot less than the letting the camera’s computer/logic figure out what to do. I know a lot of folks that shoot AV mode all day and are happy with it . For how I shoot I can’t get it to be a reliable performer. It’s become easier for me to adjust manual settings on the fly to compensate for any changing light.
A word about shutter speed rules of thumb. For normal people movement like walking and talking, you are looking a 1/250 to keep them from showing motion blur in the image. Another rule of thumb is to use double your lens focal length as the minimum speed to inhibit any camera shake blurring on a photograph. If you are using a 200mm lens, 1/400 would be the minimum. A 400mm lens would shoot for 1/800 on the shutter speed. Then we have my oft mentioned 1/1000 personal minimum for shooting horse photos. The 1/1000 or higher will trump the previous rules of thumb when the horse is on the move. The *only* time I will drop my shutter slower lower than 1/1000 is if a horse is doing a slow dressage movement.
You want photos that are crisp. Correct shutter speeds help with that and so does the correct focus mode.
The normal camera focus setting doesn’t track a moving subject and keep it in focus. For this you need to enable AI Servo (Canon) or AF-C (Nikon) mode. This sets the camera up to focus on moving subjects. It’s a straightforward setting and the camera is always focusing on the subject. I use a single center point focus. I don’t let the camera pick focus points for me – I tell it what one I want to use.
If you don’t have a continuous focus mode, you can pre-focus on a selected landmark/area and then snap the shot when the horse enters the zone.
I’m usually not a machine gun shooter who hammers off a three second burst of 8 images/second for every sequence. It is all institutional. I will take anywhere from one shot, to a machine gun, depending what is going on.
This really goes hand in hand with the location of the light. In this instance you are trying to stand (or sit) in the spot that will give you the best photos. You’ve really got four rough areas to look at.
In the image to the right, you see we’ve positioned the Sun behind the back for most of the camera locations. Camera 1 would grab a “going away” shot. In this case you won’t see the rider’s face and that takes a lot away from the image. These tend to not sing very well. It’s not a primary shoot position for me. It’s more of a secondary shot.
Camera 2′s position is a good one that I will often use. It allows you to catch the horse lengthening out and jumping. Something to be aware of is where the rider will be looking. The diagram shows the horse jumping, then turning to the right. In this instance, the rider would be looking right, towards the camera, allowing you to catch their eyes/expression. Same thing if the rider was going straight ahead. If the rider was turning left, you’d lose that photographic impact. Nobody likes the shot with the back of a head in it…it’s dead emotionally.
Camera 3′s position gives you two options. First, it allows you to capture different angle than #2. It also allows you to capture a “running” image after the horse lands and they canter/gallop to the next jump. Two shots for the price of one.
Camera 4 is a favorite and I try to include it in any sequence if it’s possible. It’s head on to the jumper. For this one I’m using the lens at max range – I don’t want to be anywhere close to a horse/jumper straight on in close. This shot is usually a 3/4 image sequence that shows nicely tucked feet, the horse and riders focus, and the landing sequence. Good stuff.
You can change the jumps between an Oxer, a Trakehner, a log, or a simple set of crossed poles. Whatever they are jumping these are the generic positions to look for. In general priority order, I’d pick location 3 first, followed by 2, 4, and 1 last.
If you can get a clean background, make it happen! By clean backgrounds I’m talking about things that are distractions and are visible in the image that would detract from what the rider and horse are doing. Light poles, fences, people, etc. An option in cleaning up a background is dropping to the ground and getting an upward angle that includes more sky. You’ll see me sitting on the ground a lot doing just that. Clean backgrounds add a lot to the impact of an image. One of my best selling stock photos has a completely clean background with only the sky visible and a horse jumping (waaaaay over jumping) a log.
Time for some examples.
These are a typical camera 1 shot. This is usually a single shot. It doesn’t usually work for me but there are times when it will deliver a good image. There can be some nice possibilities on the cross country course, especially if the background is clean. It helps when there is some energy in the shot. In this photo, the dirt flying gives it that little extra energy. Still…without the rider or horse’s face in the photo it falls a little flat. I never like taking this as a primary shot, only a secondary jump.
Camera 2 – the horse can really stretch it out. Usually a single shot, sometimes 2-4, depending upon how much action you want to capture. This is also a good position for a down or up bank shot on cross country. Heck, it’s a good position to capture a lot of things. This can make for a real pretty photo. Danger here is if the riders head is turned away from the camera…know the course they are jumping.
Camera 3 – This position moves you off at about a 45 degree angle, allowing you two options to get shots. For the jumping shot, you can usually get a real good view of the riders face from this angle. It’s also a good option to get in close on the rider. Normally, you’d like to leave a ground line visible so the photo can explain how high the jump is. Without seeing the bottom of the jump, where the grass or dirt is, it is hard to visualize the height of the jump. If you zoom in close on the rider you get some great shot that shows facial detail of the rider and horse….but you loose the ground line. A trade off you need to decide on.
This position also gives you a second shot opportunity – the shot of the horse as it is running by. On the cross country course, the running shots can look very nice. They are usually jamming at full speed and give a nice look. As the jumping levels go up and the horse’s air time increases, this can catch some wicked air action.
Camera 4 – almost always 3-4 shots. A slight danger here is the horsess head may block the rider’s face depending on body location.
I still dig this angle and always try to work it into any sequence.
The one is usually good for getting the top, over the fence shot, the landing, and the turnout. This angle limits your immediate chance to get a running shot, but it can be worth it.
I usually don’t mash the shutter button and machine gun the photographs. I tend to break that rule when water is involved. Fast moving horses blasting through the water make for some epic shots. I will fill the camera image buffer on those alllll the time. I like the way the water shows the energy of everything going on. It’s a winner every time from every angle.
I should probably talk about dressage too. That’s for another day…