I’m asked time and time again how to take a good photo of a horse especially in motion so what better to be the subject of my first Behind The Magic article. There are no simple answers but here are 10 tips to help achieve a good photo wherever possible. They are far from an exhaustive list but they should start you on your way.
1. Lighting – It can be your best friend and your worst enemy and should be one of your first considerations when looking to take a photo. Essentially where is the sun? You ideally will want the sun behind you or to your side in the direction the horse is travelling. Contrary to popular belief it can actually be beneficial for it to be cloudy or photographing in shaded areas, as you then have more diffused (balanced) light which will prevent harsh shadows. On a separate note photographing indoors can be challenging and without a quality DSLR camera it will be near impossible to take a clean clear shot. Indoor shows are when it is best to leave it to the professionals, as this is when they several thousand £s of camera will come to the fore above and beyond!
2. Background – look for clean uncluttered backgrounds. If at a competition avoid a row of portaloos in the back of shot for example. If at home look for trees or hedges not cluttered jump stores or electric fencing posts!
3. Know your camera – do you have control of shutter speed? If you do great and you want to have it at a minimum of 1/500 of a second really. If not do you have a sport mode? If yes enable it. If you are using a phone or basic camera you will need to practicing your panning which I will explain below. Also you will need to learn what delay your camera has between pressing the button and a photo being taken. On a top DSLR it will be a micro split second, on a phone it could be a long delay. Focusing is also important. On a bridge or DSLR you should be able to use continual focusing following your subject. This will allow the camera to keep the horse in focus even if it moves towards or away from you.
4. Panning – this is an excellent skill whatever your camera. Essentially you move the camera with the horse remaining in your viewfinder at all times. It’s almost like pretending you are videoing the horse but you are just taking photographs here and there. Panning allows you to get better results at lower shutter speeds (especially helpful when your camera doesn’t allow you to or you are relying on a sport mode) and increases the chance the horse will be in the right place and in focus. If you have your camera still and wait for the horse to come into the frame you will most likely have a in focus jump and background but a blur instead of a horse. The other way round is infinitely more preferable!
5. Burst/multiple shot modes – on anything other than a phone I best advise to turn this function off at first. Your aim when taking a photo of a horse is just that to take A photo, not five/ten/twenty. Learn when that optimum moment is in a stride/jump and aim to get that one shot. If you rely on burst mode you will most likely miss the moment altogether finding it between frames. I would only recommend its use on a phone as the delay between pressing the button and the photo been taken can make it impossible to capture the moment however good a photographer you are and the burst mode may give you the result if you’re lucky rather than not at all! Once you have learnt your timings (see point 6) then burst modes can sometimes be useful such as when capturing a dramatic event or to create an action sequence but at that point you can happily rely without it and just use it when needed.
6. Timing – as mentioned timing is key. The best part of each pace in my opinion is as follows.
Walk (the hardest pace!) you want to take the photo just as the near fore has come forward but not met the ground otherwise the horse will either look on the forehand or you will only see three legs.
Trot, ideal is when all four legs are extending showing off the diagonal pairs with the near fore in front. If an extended trot this will lead to a moment of suspension with all 4 feet off the ground.
Canter/gallop- for me there are two shots that work, the first when the inside hind leg is stepping under (the hind in the diagonal pair) and the weight of the horse is on the outside hind with the shoulders lifted. If you wait until the inside hind hits the ground the front will also meaning the horse will be on the forehand no matter how balanced it is in reality. It is never a good photo!
The second is the moment of suspension. This is easiest to catch in the gallop as it lasts fractionally longer due to the longer stride. I like to call this the ‘flying llama’ shot especially when captured from head on, as the horse’s frame is at its most compact in the stride, with the neck and head a lot higher than when at full stretch.
Jumping – this can be a matter of preference and a couple parts of the jumping effort ‘can’ work. The most reliably good moment though is the take off, when the back feet have just left the ground as the horse’s front legs should be tucked up and the back forming a nice arc. This generally works best when the fence is at least 90cm high and the bigger the better. Once you are looking at bigger fences the apex of the jump parabola and also the start of the descent as the horse stretches down (but before the front legs reach the ground) can also work. The descent shot works particularly well for drop fences. Position wise you should be somewhere between side on or 45 degrees ish to the fence. Head on can work but you have to be careful where you are standing so not to be distracting to horse and/or rider.
7. Composition – I will go into more detail in a future article but there are some compositional basics to help you get started. Fill the frame, unless you intentionally want the horse to be a speck in the distance in an arty landscape shot make sure the horse takes pride of place in the shot. Either centre the horse in the frame or ensure there is more room in front of the horse than behind to make it look like the horse is moving through the frame. Choose a flattering angle! Generally don’t take ‘bum’ shots, instead side on or at 45 degrees works best. Avoid wings/trees/objects obscuring the horse or rider’s heads, or alternatively growing out of their heads!!
8. Choosing a jump – at a competition many people will run to the biggest/scariest jump but this is often not the best fence from a photographic perspective. You should consider where is the sun, what’s in the background and how the horse will jump the fence. You want to avoid fences horses will jump awkwardly and instead look for fences that encourage a good shape over the fence. You should also look at the back of the fence, does it look nice/impressive? the front of the fence may look amazing but you will be photographing the landing side which may not look particularly special.
9. Colour awareness – this is more to do with taking photos away from competition. If you have a grey horse don’t wear a black outfit, on the same vein if you have a black horse don’t wear white! Try and balance your clothing colour choices including any matchy matchy if that’s your cup of tea to achieve a more balanced photo
10. Safety – this isn’t so much affecting your final photo but more so protecting yourself and other people and the horses involved. Don’t put yourself in a position too close to a fence where a spooking/out of control horse could run in to you. Nor somewhere where you could spook a horse especially in competition. Hiding in bushes/hedges etc will make you the scary monster and will not make you popular with riders. Away from competition be wary of taking ridden photos without tack and or hats or other safety equipment. It may seem boring but undertake a risk assessment. Is the area controlled, is the horse reliable, is the rider balanced, could there be outside uncontrollable factors? If in doubt keep the safety equipment.