3-4th October 2015, Tallinn International Horse Show 2015 – 6 bar competition and final race:
6 bar tie winners – Andis Varna / Lerida (LAT) and Margit Mägi/ Artas (EST), 170cm
Finals:1st place: Alexandr Belekhov / Bivaldi, 2nd Vital Dziundzikau / Carimbo, 3rd Kertu Klettenberg / Ulrike R
How to photograph the jumping horses?
(Kuidas pildistada hüppavat hobust?)
I have been taking photos of the equestrianism as a side hobby to a dance photography over last few years. They complement each other quite nicely as ultimately both need to demonstrate the artist or athlete in the best dynamic way in the middle of the action and capture the kinetic energy of the moment. Also, for a regular stage shooter, sports photography brings much more creative freedom as you are in full control for choosing the best viewpoint for any given moment, rather than being limited to a quite fixed central position which is usually optimal for stage photography. Both disciplines are similar as they require good camera control and also similar technical capabilities from your camera & lenses e.g. good autofocus, fast lenses (f2.8 or better) and good iso tolerance (up to 6400 indoors).
Autofocus and general camera settings
Before getting into creative issues, the camera setup must be spot on for your preferences. While totally out of focus shot might be interesting for some creative purposes, most of the time you want to be sure you have the focus where you want it. A lot of the ringside discussion among the equestrian photographers is about autofocus settings and sometimes also loud cursing can be heard about the camera (or yourself) for totally cocking up the shot you had in mind.
Following examples are based on Canon 1Dx or similar AF systems (5D Mark III) but are also applicable to Canon 7D and Nikon semi-pro/pro camera bodies, which have similar functionality.
The focus is always Servo AF and I like to start off by adjusting the tracking sensitivity towards more “locked-on” setting. This does not affect how quickly initial AF is obtained but it is very important for me to feel that AF is not trying immediately to focus on the obstacles which might appear into viewfinder while tracking the rider.
I prefer to use the Zone AF area setting, this gives me 9 blocks of AF to work with while tracking the subject. The advantage of Zone AF is that once I have locked on to approaching rider towards the obstacle, it gives me a freedom to adjust the framing while zooming in our out and still maintain reliable autofocus. Using 61 point tracking (3D tracking in Nikon) gives better accuracy in initial focus acquisition as you start off with only one AF point but the downside is relying on the AF logic and capability to follow the rider during the approach and jump. At least I feel it to be less reliable due to potential distractions and rider-background contrast, which might throw it off.
I set exposure always as Manual. In the indoors, the light is pretty consistent and small adjustments can be made on the fly. Even when shooting outdoors I prefer to have manual exposure as the automatic exposure can be very quickly thrown off by light backgrounds etc. Either way the exposure compensation is usually needed, but I feel it is less needed less with manual exposure to start with.
Exposure time, ISO & Aperture choices. To capture in focus and sharply rendered photos of the jump, usually exposure times of 1/640 or quicker are quite safe to use. 1/500 is on the borderline and you might quite frequently see the the blur in the rider or horse movement. There are times, when even 1/1000 might result in small motion blur in parts of the picture but that is quite rare and observed at 100% zoom. Second decision is about aperture, which I prefer to have at f2.8 with 70-200mm on a full-frame camera body lens to isolate the rider from background but that also means that at close distances shooting towards the approaching rider it is difficult to make sure both rider and horse’s head both appear in focus. Aperture of f4.0 is safer in terms of increased depth-of-field and due to that it is also more forgiving to Servo AF or your personal mistakes with focus acquisition. The chosen ISO depends on the available light, in outdoors it is not usually an issue but indoors the ISO sometimes needs to be pushed to 6400 in order to get 1/1000 exposure at f2.8. Good thing to remember that it is always easier to deal with the noise in the post production, than throw away motion blurred photos.
I prefer to use manual white-balance to correctly evaluate the exposure, indoors 3500K is good bet, outdoors usually Daylight or Cloudy.
Always shoot RAW! Given today’s cheap storage it is more or less criminal to shoot with anything else than the raw format. For post-production raw is the only option to capture the full image quality what the camera offering and it is the only option to have a proper control on the white-balance and noise reduction settings.
Now when the camera is set up and ready to go we can explore more creative part in show jumping photography.
Creative choices and angles of view
Before actually starting to shoot it is important to understand the landscape of the course and your potential locations for the shots. As the rounds are usually quite short (40-70 seconds) then you don’t have much time to move around during the round and due to placements of obstacles you can probably cover up to three of them if you are lucky enough. Key to a boring shots is to stand where everyone else is taking the photos and not to move around. The choice is up to you.
The easiest and most basic shots to perform are the ones for directly approaching rider. I will start to track the rider on the approach to jump using half-press on the shutter and then fire off few shots before the actual jump is initiated, to capture the riders and horse concentration, second part is where the horse is rising to a back feet and third part of the shots can be taken are ones where both of them are airborne. Sometimes landing shots can be also quite pleasing, especially the moments where the front legs are stretched but not yet touching the ground.
Shooting directly at approaching rider is on the other hand a difficult choice because it can yield a very good portrait of the intensely focused rider before a jump:
…but the rising or jump itself can look bit bland or unappealing from that angle because horse is blocking the rider and the photo does not look particularly dynamic.
By positioning yourself slightly angled towards the obstacle can give a better perspective on the jump, both riders expression can be seen as well as the tension of the horse as the front legs are clearing the bars:
Things to look out – the tracking itself is pretty straightforward as the rider will remain in AF section at all times and nothing is interrupting AF view. The important part is to visualise yourself a trajectory what the horse will be following in the air – they are going to rise above the bars for quite a lot. While tracking, make sure to anticipate that movement and not to cut the head off the riders in your shots. Same principle applies in the dance photography – learn to anticipate what your subject will be doing and frame your shot accordingly. Standing human will only occupy up to a 1×2 meters of space, while a jumping one will use much more.
This perspective is well used in the portrait photography as well as many other subjects, like cars or architecture. If it works for them, then it also has a definite appeal in sports as well. Depending on the how tight the final shot will be set it will give more context to the situation as well as pleasing aesthetics. Below are wide shot of a rider and a following mid-shot, the second one has by far more tension, anticipation and emotion than wider shot, which more or less just establishes the current situation in a fair way.
Things to watch out: tighter framing is more pleasing and tense with emotions but it is by far harder to execute than straight-on shots. You need to start panning the rider on approach and possibly the AF points will cross the parts of the obstacle as you need to take the photos. That is why it is important to turn down the “Tracking Sensitivity” on a camera body in order not to respond to a obstacles during the tracking process as otherwise you would get a perfectly in focus shot of a nearest post of the obstacle, but most probably, not the rider.
Side-view is also very pleasing angle as the details and tension, both the rider and the horse are well exposed. The wider shots where the horse is fully in frame are quite easy to execute bearing in mind to start tracking early and fire off 2-3 shots during the launch, while keeping enough headroom for the tandem to fit into frame.
Closer side-view shots get more complicated as the tighter framing requires you to follow the rider through the jump, while maintaining a well composed and dynamic shot, where parts of the horse (preferably from the back) will be cropped off from the picture. Also, the details of the obstacle will try to mess up the AF but keeping the steady hand and good faith into your abilities usually saves the day and gives you a good shot where both riders and horse’s expressions are well read.
Even more complicated side-view shots are executed through the obstacles, which remain in the foreground and give the picture depth. The execution of the shot requires you to put even more faith into your AF system not to focus on the clutter in the frame as you fire off quick shots of the rider in the air. A lot of times these shots fail, but when some of them succeed the better your mood will be.
Close up, portraits
This is by far the most complicated way to take photos but the results will be very rewarding. The maximum focus, determination and even the slightest details are well exposed and the emotional value is very high, especially if combined with wider shots of the same rider. The execution needs full attention and vision how you would like to fill the frame. Below I chose the strong diagonal and including part of the obstacle to give context. Tracking is hard to initiate, as you might need to take quite uncomfortable positions and you might need to rely on the immediate AF reaction as the rider appears in focus. Just make sure you will move with them as you fire off few shots.
Hopefully at some point you will feel tired of taking all the same pictures all the time, then you can explore some new territories. Below is a long-exposure panning shot to enhance the speed and dynamics. It also helps to get rid of the unpleasant background clutter. The technique is to select suitably low exposure say 1/15-1/40 using Tv mode and then pan bravely as the rider is passing you. I can ensure almost all the shots will fail but sometimes just a few parts of the rider or horse are sharp enough to make it stand out.
Second option to spice things up and get a new perspective on the jumps is to get low with a wide-angle lens. It is very important not to make an eye contact with the horse as it approaches the jump and not to make any sudden moves as you fire away the pictures. If you mess the jump up, it will be an early ticket to home.
Maxim Kryna / Challenger 37 – Tallinn International Horse Show 2014. Canon 7D, 1/1000 sec, email@example.com ISO 8000 using manual focus with a focus ring taped shut and live view, while holding the camera over the barrier.
There are plenty of other interesting angles which one can cover like horse in transition between the obstacles, reaction of the fans, backstage details, etc. but as they are technically not as challenging as full-on action shots, then I choose not to cover them here.
I hope you have enjoyed reading it it as much as I enjoyed in taking the photos and explaining the background how and why they were taken. Equestrianism is an elegant and very dynamic sport, which is offering endless possibilities for a photographer to express their creativity and at the same time promoting public the interest in the sport.
We as a photographers are given the power to determine how the athlete will be perceived by the public. Lets honor their trust and show off only carefully envisioned and executed photographs of them!
Freelance dance photographer and a fan of horses 🙂