How to take better equestrian photographs

As an event photographer I get to attend quite a lot of horse shows, especially in Shropshire and Staffordshire which I think must have more horse owners than any other county in England! I see a lot of people with their own cameras and they often come to have a chat and a look at what I’ve taken (we run a trade stand at shows so have a number of monitors for viewing as well as on site printing). A lot of the time people say that they wish they could take photos of the same quality so if I have time I’ll always pass on a few tips although it’s probably quite a lot to take in (especially when I get going) so I thought I’d write this blog post to pass some of the fundamental building blocks on.
Before we start, It’s not all about the kit – although it does help because from a professional perspective reliability and speed is paramount. So when I get asked about what camera/lens I’m using I do try to point out that you can get great photos from any camera and proved this by taking someone’s Nikon with a kit zoom and demonstrated with shots that comfortably stood alongside photos taken with my 1dx and 200mm f2L to the extent that the customer bought one of the photos taken with the Nikon. So yes I’ll get shots faster with more choice at 10 frames a second but all you need with basic kit is a little more time and some technique and you’ll be taking great photos in no time!
So I’ve jotted down some pointers below. 1 to 3 are basic points that will improve your shots regardless of the kit you’re using, 3 to 6 should help you look at what’s in your bag and make a better decision on what to use, or even what to buy/hire for your next shoot. Read on!
  1. Now – horses have four legs. But time and again I see front on photos where they only have three (sometimes less!). So position yourself carefully to get a slight angle and time the shot so the horse is extending, that way the legs should be more visible. Take a look at your photos and check that you’re getting all four legs because once you notice that one isn’t visible you’ll keep on noticing it! Side on this isn’t so much of a problem of course.
  2. Cars & horse boxes. I even see these in professionally taken photos in the background and they’re very distracting to say the least, so be aware of what’s behind your subject and in the frame. Brightly coloured cars really do detract from an otherwise good photo so again position yourself to either remove them completely or keep them to a minimum. These can be even more distracting if attention hasn’t been paid to setting the right aperture for the shot (see 5).
  3. Ears & hats. This is a difficult one – ideally you want ears pricked up alongside a nice big smile on the rider or handlers face. It’s not always possible but be aware of it. You can get the horse’s attention – just be quick and keep your eye on the viewfinder because the time between creating something to prick the ears up and taking the shot can be very short (horses do actually play games!).

    Keeping a wide aperture can help to prevent a busy background from being too distracting. Canon 1DX, 200mm F2.0
  4. Understand your shutter speed. If the horse is moving you need a shutter speed of at least 1/250 or faster. Any slower and it will be blurred. If you’re photographing jumping and the horse is side on, increase it to 1/1000. If it’s head on or at a slight angle, start with 1/500 but you can go a bit slower if the horse is approaching.
  5. Understand your aperture. Those photos with a nicely blurred background where the subject really”pops” are shot with a wide aperture where the area which is in focus is very narrow. So if you have a kit lens, set it for the smallest number f stop (often f4 or f5.6). Using an auto mode on the camera will mean the camera will select the aperture for you and it will often mean that your photos have a lot in focus which is distracting to the viewer. One word of caution here, you need to use a higher f stop (say f5.6) if you’re shooting head on with a longer lens because you want the area of focus to cover from the horse’s nose to the rider’s face (at least) and the depth of field becomes shallower the longer the lens.

    From the side you can open the aperture quite a lot and retain the focus on your key subject. Canon 1DX, 200mm F2.0.
  6. Use a longer focal length. A horse is a big, well defined subject – anything below 100mm will distort it to the extent that it will begin to look unnatural the shorter your focal length so get your longest lens out. If you’re getting serious about equestrian photography then consider a prime lens – 200mm or 300mm are a good length.
  7. Finally – if you’re fortunate enough to go in the ring, respect the riders, judges and horses. Don’t distract them and make sure you don’t endanger them or yourself trying to get a particular angle for a shot.
Just a bit of info about what I use for any equestrian events:
Camera: Canon 1DX
Lenses: 200mm F2.0L, 400mm F2.8 ISii  & 70-200mm F2.8L when my arms start to feel like they’re going to drop off! I do shoot the 400 2.8 hand held at shows but not for long. For portrait work (like the photo below) I keep it on a Gitzo tripod mounted on a gimbal head.
I do occasionally use flash for fill (if the rider is ok with it – always ask first) if I’m in the showing ring and a 6’x4’ California Sunbounce scrim for portraits outside the ring.
Shooting with a super telephoto gets a pleasing background which can really make the subject stand out. Canon 1DX, 400mm 2.8l @ f2.8