A Beginner’s Guide to Great Equine Photography

By Lauren Aubert

In the last decade or so, there has been an exponential growth in the number of equine photographers present on social media, online, and shooting on the show circuits. From experienced professionals whose work and photo quality I aspire to emulate, to talented junior photographers with aesthetically pleasing social media accounts and impressive portfolios, their work inspires me to find new ways to better my photography skills.

I have been obsessed with photography ever since I was introduced to it when I was young. From my little pink point-and-shoot camera to my first digital SLR, photography has been in my life for almost ten years. Upon deciding to shoot for my personal portfolio at horse shows, I knew I had found my creative niche, my perfect “happy place.” I love having the ability to capture a splendid moment between horse and rider, especially when their close-knit bond is evident after a great trip in the arena. I also enjoy having a collection of memories from the horse shows I attend to hold on to forever. Along my journey, I have acquired a few tips to help people starting out achieve interesting compositions, understand how a camera works, and to have fun documenting the equestrian sport, all what equine photography is all about!

The first step is to experiment with exposure, determined by shutter speed, ISO, and aperture. The shutter speed of a camera decides how long the camera shutter should remain open for. A “fast” shutter speed, such as 1/6000 of a second, will quickly capture a fleeting moment of action, utilized for photographing fast-moving horses over jumps and on the flat. Since the shutter is not open for very long for the duration of the shot, your camera’s aperture and ISO can be adjusted accordingly to compensate for the lack of light that is brought in.

An action shot taken at 1/1250 of a second to capture to quick moment of mid-air suspension with the aperture set at f/2.8 to blur out the background of horse and rider. Photo courtesy of Full Gallop Photography.

A “slow” shutter speed, like 1/100 of a second, will do the opposite of the fast shutter for obvious reasons. The shutter will capture the image very slowly, “soaking up” all the light from the area of the photograph being recorded. This is helpful when there is not a lot of light to begin with, however, if capturing movement, the photo will turn out blurred from the movement. The exposure will not need to be set high to ensure there is no excess light let into the camera. A lower shutter speed is beneficial for taking still shots, especially those taken on a tripod in a dimly lit environment. A good amount of light will be let in during the amount of time the shutter is open, for precisely 1/100 of a second.

Even though 1/500 and 1/2500 of second may appear similar, they have two completely different results when photographing horses in action. It seems like a short time, but in photography, time is everything!  Quickly figuring out which shutter speed to use while your subject thunders towards their next obstacle will become second nature after a little practice.

This photo was taken at 1/800 of a second to make up for scarce light and an ISO of 1000 to set up the camera’s sensor for maximum light sensitivity. Photo courtesy of Full Gallop Photography.

Have you ever looked through your lens and noticed a hole behind the glass, and that if you have a zoom lens, it expands and contracts depending on what focal length the lens is set to? This is known as the aperture, the hole that controls the amount of light let into your camera. Measured in f-stops, the numbers can range from around f/1.2 to roughly f/22. A low f-stop (about f/2.8 and below) is made possible by the model of your lens, and means your camera will be able to take in a large amount of light in a single capture, useful for shooting late night classes where you cannot allow your shutter speed to lower a significantly because your photos could turn out blurry. The lower the f-stop, the more blurred and out-of-focus the background of a photo will appear. When shopping for lenses, one with a low f-stop (example: f/2.8) will be more expensive than its higher f-stop counterpart, (f/4) and sometimes can1 be much heavier.

In this photo, the shutter speed was set to 1/800 of a second, just enough to photograph a quick moving horse, an aperture of f/2.8 was used to put only the subject in focus. Photo courtesy of Full Gallop Photography.

The ISO controls a camera’s image sensor light sensitivity. Ranging from 100 to about 12000 on a consumer camera, higher on a professional camera, understanding ISO and how it affects the outcome of a picture can be the hardest part of getting to know the functions of your camera. The higher the ISO is set to, the easier it is for your camera to freeze action in darker situations because your camera will react more sensitively to the small amount of light present than it would with a lower ISO. This way, your shutter speed can be set higher if needed because your aperture does not have to be set low to make up for the lack of light. This is beneficial when photographing the evening show classes where light fades quickly. However, taking pictures with a high ISO means they will appear grainier than ones shot with a lower ISO, especially on a less expensive camera. Shooting on the low end of the ISO spectrum ensures your photos will come out clear. However, the ideal situations required to use a low ISO are ones where light is abundant (think midday).

Because this photo was taken of a still subject, the shutter speed used was only 1/500 of a second. An aperture of f/4 was needed to ensure the middle braids were all in focus, and so the photo would not turn out overexposed because of the lengthened shutter time. Photo courtesy of Full Gallop Photography.

In addition to playing with the different settings cameras have to offer, experimentation is key to improving the overall outcome of your pictures. Try out different locations, angles, disciplines of riding to shoot, whether you prefer photographing the slow and beautiful hunters, graceful equitation, or quick, agile jumpers. Shooting the same jump from a different angle can completely change the aesthetic of a picture, and can make it appear interesting to the eye. Perhaps you do not want to photograph action, but would like to specialize in horse and rider photoshoots. In the wide world of equestrian photography, there is a place for everyone! I often photograph horse and rider in technical classes like the USHJA Hunter Derbies and Grand Prix classes because I enjoy documenting the performance at the top levels of our sport. Do not be afraid to photograph at multiple spots outside the ring, as the lighting can drastically change from one place to another. There are many ways to play with the light to fit the mood of a shot. For example, shooting with the sun directly behind your subjects creates a halo of light around their silhouettes, particularly flattering when the sunlight appears golden right before sunset.

Finally, consulting additional resources to help you learn hacks, tips, and tricks about your camera and composition can help expand your knowledge and improve your photographic repertoire. On YouTube, there are many great photographers who specialize in equine photography, whose videos can help you with anything from a black background tutorial to how to get a horse’s ears up for a photoshoot. Read photography blogs like Capture Guide, purchase books, even skim your camera’s manual to help you understand what you are trying to accomplish. Many camera stores offer classes available for all levels of photographers, which can also be helpful in understanding your camera. Talking to the other photographers about how they got started and about any tips they have might inspire you to try new techniques, settings, and compositions. Some of the greatest things available to us in the hunter jumper world are photographs documenting the memories we create, and I am grateful for the show photographers who make the memories last forever. I like to remember that every noteworthy moment captured is precious, whether it is someone’s first leadline class or a score of 92 in an equitation final. Witnessing a person react to a great photograph taken of them during a priceless moment never fails to make me smile.