Photographing horses in motion can be a fun challenge
Horses are magnificent animals which, when in motion, can be an enjoyable or frustrating challenge to photograph properly. Equine photography can take place in a variety of situations, some organized, some impromptu. Competition events include show jumping, dressage and racing and each has its own criteria and methods for successful photography. Action photography is easier when you’re working your own shoot at a private location without the drama of competition. You have greater options when you can coordinate the horse’s movements with a trainer and can get in closer than you can at a competition.
Longer lenses come in handy for event photography since you’ll seldom be able to get very close to the animals. Generally a telephoto zoom in the 70 to 200 or 70 to 300 mm range will do the job. While it’s nice to have a camera with a high-speed shooting capability, it’s not vital for this kind of photography. As with many types of action photography, it’s better to work on precise timing when shooting horses in motion than adopting a "spray and pray" approach.
One big advantage in photographing moving horses is predictability. Generally, you’re going to be able to see the route they’re going to be traveling whether it be show jumping, dressage or racing. This predictability is a big advantage for you and can do much to compensate for less than stellar auto focus.
Let’s take a look at each event and some suggested approaches for photographing moving horses.
Show jumping is the classic photo opportunity. A photo of a horse in mid jump headed directly towards the camera is one of the classic equestrian images and is easier to get than you might think. One of the first things you should do is scout out the course as early as possible and find out what route the animals will be traveling. Often it’s possible to find a shooting location where you can capture two, or even three, jumps depending on the range of your lens.
If your camera/lens combination is capable of fast continuous auto focus, then you can plan on following a horse though each jump and grabbing shots through one. If your camera doesn’t auto focus particularly quickly, then pick the closest jump to your position and use one of the following techniques.
- Pre-focus (auto focus on): focus the lens on the end of the jump obstacle and wait until the horse begins its leap and then trip the shutter.
- Pre-focus (auto focus off): turn off the camera’ s auto focus and manually focus on the obstacle. By turning off the auto focus you’ll reduce the shutter lag, the delay between pushing the shutter button and the camera firing, that’s often a problem when shooting action.
To learn more about pre-focusing, read Pre-Focusing: A Pro Tip for Better Action Photos.
Make sure you know what you want in focus: the horse or the rider. There will be enough distance between the horse’s head and the rider’s that you probably won’t have enough depth of field to get both in focus. Base your pre-focus point on where you think your target will be when you trip the shutter. If you’re shooting at a competition you can probably get enough practice to get the hang of it fairly quickly.
Plan on a shutter speed of about 1/500th and take advantage of whatever depth of field you can get. Work on your timing so you can catch the horse as it’s rising up through the jump. You’re better off with an image of the horse rising or level going over the obstacle. Shots that depict the horse descending generally aren’t as popular.
While head on shots create the most impressive images, you can plan on getting some shots showing the horse and rider from the side too. It’s best though if you can catch the rider looking towards the camera at the time.
Dressage is probably the trickiest equestrian sport to photograph because there’s so much emphasis on showing the horse’s form as it compares to classic movements. If you know something about dressage you’ll probably have some idea of what to look for. If you don’t, enlist the help of someone who is knowledgeable.
Prepare ahead of time by doing some research either in dressage related magazines or visiting appropriate websites so you can study examples of the typical images. Also see if you can find someone who’ll agree to check your images during the shoot and let you know if you’re on target or not.
For dressage plan on both head on shots and images made from the side of the animal with the side shots being a higher priority.
Photographing racing horses offers the most predictable challenge, get good shots when the horses are moving quickly, whether it be a full gallop for races or the slower pace of the trotters. While fast auto focus is helpful, keep in mind, photographers were getting great shots of moving horses back before auto focus ever existed.
Plan on using fast shutter speeds and pre-focusing on the spot you consider the best location for a good image (which depends on the range of your lens and distance from the track). This is another time when pre-focusing with auto focus turned off may be your best approach to getting sharp images if you don’t have a camera with fast auto focus. It will call for good timing on your part, but since turning off auto focus will reduce shutter lag, it will be a bit easier for you to time the shot.
Keep these tips in mind when photographing moving horses and you’ll have great photos of these wonderful animals in no time.