How To: Photograph Horses in Action (Part One)

Want to learn how to take photos like this one?

Is your daughter moaning about your blurry pictures? Struggling to make your horse look as good as you know he is? Let's face it, photographing horses isn't easy. There's so many factors that go in to making a good equestrian photo, and trying to get it right can take a lot of practice.

I'm so excited to let you know all about my series of 'How To' blog posts, and give away some of my secrets that I have acquired over thousands upon thousands of hours photographing horses. In Part One, I will be going over some of the basics to help you perfect your jumping and flatwork photos. If you are completely new to using a camera in manual mode, then I would highly recommend playing around with the manual settings first and learning how to use your camera by looking up some of the fantastic guides you can find on the internet.

1. Let's Talk Settings

Before you even think about snapping away, it's so important to consider the settings on your camera. There's a few things to cover in this section, so I've split it up into bite-sized pieces. Please note these settings are what I would tend to use at an outdoor horse show photographing moving horses in cloudy to bright lighting conditions. If you're indoors or photographing in the dark, these settings might not be suitable.

  • Mode - My camera is always switched to the Manual setting, because this gives me complete control over my images. The Auto mode will be no good for photographing moving subjects as it will be selecting an exposure suitable for the current lighting conditions, and not for how fast your subject is moving.

This image was taken at 1/1600th, f4.8, ISO 320.

  • Shutter Speed - The next setting I turn to is the Shutter Speed. This controls how long your shutter is open for, letting light into the sensor. If your shutter speed is too slow, you will pick up movement in your image, which creates motion blur. For horses, I always start at around 1/1000th of a second and work from there. If it's a bright summers day, then I may go up as high at 1/2000th. But if it's dark, I will never drop below 1/800th as you'll start picking up movement from around 1/640th and below.

  • Aperture - There's no right or wrong answer to how wide you have your aperture. Personally I like to have my aperture around f.4/f.5.6 as it will give me enough depth of field to ensure the horse and rider is sharp, but keep the background soft.

  • ISO - This is the setting I tend to leave to figure out the exposure for itself. On my Nikon I can set the Auto ISO Sensitivity Control to ON, with a Maximum Sensitivity of 2500 (though I like to keep an eye on it so I can have it as low as possible). Photographing in a fast-paced environment leaves you with very little time to fiddle around with exposure when you're spinning around from one fence to the next, so Auto ISO is an excellent way to hit (almost) a decent exposure every time. If you are finding your images too bright or too dark, you can change the Exposure Compensation until you're happy.

If you're not sure where any of these settings are on your camera, I would highly recommend looking through the user manual or checking out some of the excellent tutorials that you can find on the internet. If I could recommend learning just one thing about photography, it would be how shutter speed, aperture and ISO all work together to create your exposure.

Ears forward, legs tucked up, and both horse and rider engaged - a perfect shot!

2. Make 'Em Look Good (Jumping)

Phew, now that's boring camera stuff out the way, let's get over to the fun part! Photographing horses comes down to timing, and knowing how to make them look good!

Take showjumping for example. Any equestrian will know there is four phases to a jump: the approach, the take-off, the flight, and the landing. When it comes to taking an image, the flight is (usually) the only part I am interested in. It's the most exciting part about a jump for a rider, and it just looks incredible when they're high up in the air.

Top tip: put your camera down and watch a horse jumping over fences (or watch a few rounds of the Grand Prix at Olympia on YouTube!) Now really concentrate on the movement. When the horse has taken off and is entering the Flight stage, think 'click'. Get into a routine of picking up on that moment, and you'll get it every time!

3. Don't be tempted by Continuous High (Burst Mode)!

Alright, it's rant time now, because one of my biggest pet hates someone constantly holding down the burst mode on every single fence. What's the point? OK, you're guaranteed to get at least one decent image out of each burst, but you're racking up the shutter actuations and killing your camera unnecessarily. You're also taking up valuable space on your computer storage (or your precious time if you're painstakingly deleting all the rejects). The loud noise of the shutter firing away at high speed can also be quite scary for some horses, and if you distract a competitor you may be asked to leave. Practice, practice, practice getting it right in one shot, and your camera will love you for it. Plus, you'll become a far more talented equine photographer!

Capture some beautiful shapes!

4. Up Hill and M's! (Flatwork)

If dressage and showing is more your thing then I have some tips for you too! When it comes to flat-work photography, its all about getting those fabulous shapes.

In the trot, the most attractive part is when the horse's legs form an 'M' shape (as above). Try to catch this when the outside legs are meeting together in the middle (trust me on this one). If you catch the inside legs together, the muscle tone on the horse will be bunched up rather than defined and outstretched, which can make the world of difference! Photographing the trot can be quite difficult to get the hang of at first, but after some practice you will soon get it first time, every time!

If you're an equestrian you will probably know that making your horse appear more 'uphill' in it's conformation is very desirable. For those that do not understand what I am talking about, take a look at the lovely dressage horse in the image above. When we want a horse to be more 'uphill' we effectively ask it to take more weight into the hindquarters. From a visual aspect, the horse will appear to have more lift from the front end. Capturing these moments will take your equestrian photography from good to excellent!

"Let's go!"

I find the canter one of the easier gaits to photograph. In the photograph to the right, the knee of the horse's leading leg (in this case, his left one) is at it's highest point, making him look forward and uphill. Concentrate on that knee as your signal for when to press the shutter. Alternatively, if you're getting confused over legs, watch the horse's head. When he canters, the head will bob up and down slightly; when the head is at the highest point, press the shutter and I guarantee you'll get the perfect shot every time.

5. Blurry Photos?

One of the most difficult parts when you're starting out in equestrian photography is keeping the horse in focus. Horses are FAST, especially in competitive showjumping, and it's easy for your camera to focus on the background if you're not prepared enough. Here's my top tips for keeping your images in focus.

Looking forward to the next fence.

Tip one: Make sure your camera is on Continuous Focusing mode (Al Servo AF for Canon users, or AF-C for Nikon users) and on a Single Point Focus. This means your camera will always focus on the place where the focus point is. Keep that focus point always on the horse.

Tip two: Most blurry images happen whilst photographing jumping. Half press your shutter button and lock your focus on the horse and follow it into the jump at least a few strides out. By doing this, you can count down the strides into the fence and you'll be ready to press the shutter.

For me, the best part about photographing equestrian sports is that no two photographs are ever the same. Every horse and rider has a different style, and trying to make them look as good as possible is what drives me to keep experimenting and enjoy every moment.

To learn more about photographing horses, subscribe to my blog and you'll receive updates on future posts.

So what are you waiting for? Pick up your camera and get practicing!

A special thanks to ESP-Photographic for letting me use images I took whilst freelancing for them.