The Photogenic Equestrian

I've mentioned before that I have an obsession with the website Judge My Ride, where people submit photos and videos for judging. It never ceases to amaze me the photos that people submit and expect proper judging. Photos taken in poor lighting, from too far away, from angles that obscure crucial judging places like the heels, or the horses hocks. The videos aren't any better, with people submitting videos so shaky that a few moments in I already feel like I have sea sickness. I admit that the riders are not the ones to blame when it comes to action shots and videos, since they have no control of what the person on the other side of the camera is doing. However they do have full control over what they submit to the site.

When I was in high school my journalism class went to a NSPA (National High School Journalism Convention) in Atlanta, GA. Since I was the sports editor of our paper at the time, I made a point of attending several sports photography seminars. Three, two-hour sessions later, I was surprised at how many great looking photos were actually deemed boring or unimaginative by my instructors.

Cut to 7 years later and a BA in Film, I'm finally starting to gain a firmer grasp on what makes a good photo.

Some people get lucky and can point their lens in any direction and end up with a great shot, but some people is not most people. It doesn't matter if you're taking a picture of a friend holding up the Torre di Pisa or going down the bank at Spruce Meadows, when it comes to picking up a camera there are going to be some rules.

1. Consider your environment to set up your shot: Is it sunny? Is it cloudy? Is there a busy background? Are you in a covered arena? Does the covered arena have areas of shade and sun? Are you close enough to the subject? Is there anything obstructing your view?

It is so disappointing to capture a great jumping shot only to see later that a lamp post behind your friend's head looks like it's literally growing out of her head. Or that the great shot you took of the Olympian doing a clinic at your barn, was taken from so far away that you can't tell if it's a famous rider or your dad in breeches.

The best thing about jumping classes is that you have several test subjects. It's great practice to take pictures of riders before your subject is on course. Figure out what fence offers the best shot. Ideally it is close enough to you to provide some good detail, yet far enough away to capture the horse and fence in its entirety. Make sure the sun is over your back to prevent shadows. Cloudy days or the end of the day are the ideal times for photos since they offer the best lighting.

Too far away, leg obstructed

Much better

 *This is me jumping on the bay for IHSA. I had the advantage of two photographers for these shots.

Angle 1. Far away, black jump is in foreground. 
**You can actually see the other photographer
 on the other side of the arena

Angle 2: Much closer providing more detail

2. Know your camera: How to turn on and off the flash. Know how to manually focus if the automatic focus isn't working for you. How to set the shutter speed for equitation on the flat vs. jump-offs. What is the ideal F-stop for what you want to take a picture of. Do you even know what F-stop means??

Most camera companies offer an online PDF of camera manuals. Simply type in the make and model of your camera and you're sure to find what you need. Not knowing if your camera has shutter lag can result in photos being taken too early or too late. Turning off auto focus helps to prevent shutter lag. Using a small aperture gives you larger depth of field, meaning more of your picture will be in focus. If your shutter speed is too slow then your pictures will turn out blurry. Ideally you should be using a shutter speed over 1/1000th to freeze your subject mid-air.

Photo is blurry

Photo is taken too early

Photo is taken too late

Nice clear action shot! 

3. What are you taking a picture of: Are you trying to sell your horse? Are you trying to get a good picture for a friend to submit to JMR? Are you trying to take a portrait of your best equine friend?

Whenever I take a picture I think of three things:

A. What is my subject doing that makes them photo worthy? If my horse is grazing in a field, that may be interesting to me but to other people that have seen thousands of pictures of horses grazing in fields, my subject isn't very interesting. Lets say my horse is grazing in a field and there are incredible snow capped mountains behind him and aura borealis is happening in the sky, that would be a damn cool picture. I'm not saying that the Northern Lights have to be in your picture to make it an interesting one, but if you want your photo to stand out, you have to start by thinking outside the box.

This photographer uses convenient lighting to make 
this picture of a horse standing in the barn more interesteing 

Literally googled "Horse aura borealis" 

B. What is the purpose of my photo? I understand that this seems similar to the title of "what are you taking a picture of" but think of this as having a more specific answer. The purpose of my photo is ___?
If you are trying to sell your 12 year-old thoroughbred equitation horse, you probably don't want to post a picture of your horse wearing a blanket and lying down in the mud. You want to use a photo of him looking his best. Mane braided, tail braided, coat shiny, and markings so white they look like they've been bleached. Just make sure that if you use a flat class photo, that your horse is singled out and preforming its best. I guarantee that will draw potential buyers to your horse.

If the purpose of your photo is to get some feedback on your horse's conformation on JMR, then I suggest taking that picture like you are a judge on JMR. The most common comment I see from Carol Dean Porter is "Please remove leg wraps and stand him up facing forward, with head held in normal position and legs separated by about 6 inches. Take the picture directly from the side and about even with his shoulder." Yet no matter how many times she comments with this answer, people still submit photos with legs cut off, horses in full tack, and horses standing in a field about 100 yards away from the camera. She doesn't say this for her health. Her advice is free, don't take advantage of her time too.

Good example of singling out a rider

Good example of a conformation photo

C. Is this the only angle/the only lighting/the only framing/ the only distance that I can get on this photo? Some photos are once in a life time opportunities. However, for the most part a horse show presents many opportunities to get similar shots. Jump-offs often include fences from the original course. One class may use the same jump for another. Therefore I always suggest playing with angles/lighting/lens length ect. in order to achieve the perfect photo.

Using a tilt-shift lens 

Low angles

Using colors for composition

The best advice for advancing your photography is to take pictures as often as you can. Learn from your mistakes and study up on professionals. Would love to see your photos if you have them. 


L.Williams said...

B. Example 1 is a Hunter rider in a classic or derby, Major no-no to wear a shadbelly in an equitation class.

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