There is nothing more beautiful than a horse jumping when the gracefully stretches up and over… it is a stunning moment in time. An Equestrian Jumper show is a great place to see horses jumping. You may be a pro photographer wanting to enter this industry to make your living, or you may be a parent to a competitor, or just a horse lover wanting to get better shots of the fun and exciting sport of Equestrian Jumping.
What is an Equestrian Jumper show?
A jumper show is where horse & rider compete, completing a series of jumps. Jumping classes are commonly seen at horse shows throughout the world, including the Olympics.
There are two main kinds of jumps, the high jump and Hunters over fences or “Hunter/Jumper”. Riders are judged differently for both events. With Hunters over fences (Fences range from 2’9 to 6ft) the horse and rider are judged on overall form, rhythm between fences, and if they touched the jump or not.
Jumping, also known as stadium jumping or equestrian jumping, is a timed event where horses & riders run a course with 10-16 high jumps. They are judged on their jumping ability. The official Fédération Equestre Internationale record for the high jump is 2.47 m(8 ft 1.25 in) by Huaso ex-Faithful, ridden by Capt. Alberto Larraguibel Morales, at Viña del Mar, Santiago, Chile on February 5th, 1949. That amazing record has still never been broken as of today! Points are given and winners are awarded with prizes and trophies or plaques, depending on the show.
A Couple of other equestrian jumping events worth watching would be “Eventing” and “Cross Country”. Eventing is where the horse & rider compete in a tri -competition including dressage, hunters over fences and a cross country course. “Cross Country” is where the horse and rider complete a cross country style course that takes the riders through standing water, jumps over bushes, logs and other obstacles. This is a very fun event to watch and photograph as the conditions are varied and the horses are amazing athletes! It’s less of a controlled environment where several riders are running the course at the same time (time spaced), which also makes it more challenging to shoot.
There are many different levels of equestrian jumper & horse shows ranging from Barn shows where competitors from the jumper barn compete with one another in their own arena or Cross Country course. There are also clubs like 4H club that will have their own shows, then there are breed specific clubs and then the A shows on up to AAA. Then it goes all the way up to world class USSF championship shows and then finally, the Olympics!
A Jumper show will also have an equitation class as part of the overall competition. This is where riders ride around the arena (not jumping) at a walk, then trot, then canter as the judge asks. The riders are judged on their position (called equitation), ability to communicate and control their mount with invisible aids, and the ability to execute the questions posed on course. This is a great event to get some nice cantering or trotting images and a few candids too.
What kinds of horses will be in an equestrian jumper show?
The kinds of horses you will see doing these jumping events are varied. The most common horse we saw doing shows here in the west for the younger, newer jumpers, was the thoroughbred. Though thoroughbred horses were originally bred to race, their tall leggy frame makes them a great and natural jumper. Many rider’s horses we met were what they call “off the track” meaning the horses were rescued from an early end to life. Many race horses meet this fate when they are no longer able to compete in the sport of professional horse racing (very sad but true). When you get up into the higher levels of shows, you will see lots of warmbloods like Hanoverians, and Holsteiners to name just a few. These horses can cost as much or more than your car!
What kind of camera and equipment will I need?
You can use any kind of camera to photograph an equestrian jumper show… but your best results will come from a DSLR (digital single lens reflex camera). True, the settings can be complicated and I will give you a few starter settings for you to begin with a few paragraphs below. For now, let’s start with using a camera that you probably already have- your smartphone. To use your smartphone, you will need to be close, usually that means “arena side”. I would only attempt to do outdoor shots with your smartphone as inside will be too dark, and images will be muddy at best, or worse, completely blurry.
You will want to stand somewhere near the arena, or perhaps on the first row of grandstand seats. When you are standing you should be just above the rails. For an iphone or the like, or a point and shoot camera, your best chance at getting a nice image will be to place yourself so that you can shoot straight into the horizontal plain of the horse jumping. That means you can pre-line up the shot on the jump decor on each side of the oxers (the stand the poles are mounted on) and get a decent shot as the horse goes over. Don’t try to get a frontal shot of the horse & rider zooming over the poles or fences toward you, your point and shoot or phone will not grab it in time. Because of the delay from when you push the shutter release button on your camera and the time it takes an inexpensive cameras processor to process your request to shoot, your subject will be well out of the desired position and you, and especially your rider will not be happy with the shot! Try to anticipate the horse leaping before the jump and go ahead and shoot way before the horse has reached its perfect airborne position! You may get lucky on a few and anticipate the delay just right and get the money shot! Make sure you have lots of room on your memory card, as you are doing a lot of guessing as to when to start your shot.
Another way to go if you have just a smartphone or point & shoot is to do video. Video on these devices is fun and easy to do, just carefully follow the horse & rider around the arena, getting each jump. You can capture from all angles and with a little practice get great results that can help a rider improve their form when later viewing the video. An ipad or other tablet also works well for video. If you are a pro and are covering the show, HDR video capability is an option in most semi pro and pro DSLRs, and can render fantastic results. Riders often like to purchase both a video and stills if you have a show shooting partner or hired photographer contractor and can get both. The biggest caution is to shoot on the side of the arena that is not facing into the sun. Shooting into the sun will wreak havoc on your DSLR, smartphone or tablet with glare that will ruin your whole video. Keep that sun behind you!
The DSLR is by far the best camera for any action or portraits because of the creative control. I use the Nikon D750: Nikon D750 body only and chose it over the D810 because of the faster fps rate (frame per second). For Canon users the comparable is the Canon 5 D Mark3: Canon 5D Mark 3 For the horse jumping or equitation events, you want to choose a fast shutter speed and a high aperture for the most depth of field. A nice medium ISO like 320-400 (on a sunny day) will give you the options to use settings such as 1/800th (or higher) of a sec at F11. As you get better, you can be more creative, but to start, give yourself the best chance possible of getting a technically perfect shot in exposure, focus and most importantly, horse/rider position over the jump, ie. “The Money Shot”.
What else will I need when doing equestrian show photography…
Besides a good DSLR camera, a good portable camera bag is essential for shows. I like the backpack version that is heavily padded so that I can quickly zip and throw over my shoulders and move to another arena on foot or by bike. this one holds two camera bodies, your 70-200 and a short zoom and a few other goodies you may need. Lowe Pro backpack style bag- great for horse shows! The show jumping action is way too fast for a tripod, and some horses don’t react well to flash. Best to leave those two pieces of equipment in the booth! Remember you can make friends with the riders when you get great images and they will spread the word fast, and your sales will go up! But If you do something to cause a horse to miss step or spook, you can quickly make enemies and your sales can plummet! So I would say skip the flash, you may only get two flashes off before your unit needs to recycle with the flash to subject distances you will be shooting. Find where the sun is and try to place your shooting position- keeping the sun behind you. This will get the body of the horse lit, and make for the most stunning images, better than you could ever get with a flash.
The one other must have tool will be a fast lens. In my opinion, the 70-200mm VR lens (nikon link here) Nikon 70-200mm 2.8 VR, newest, (cannon link here) Canon’s 70-200mm 2.8 is the horse show lens of choice, great for fast action, low light, and beautiful for portraits to boot! In your camera bag (backpack style link here) you should also have one wide angle lens, (I love my 24-120mm short zoom) (link here) for those winner shots (small groupings of horse, rider and sponsors/trainer) that the show will ask you to get. Make sure you have a squeaky toy or similar to get those winner horses ears up! You should also have plenty of memory cards- the fastest ones you can buy (link here), lens wipes, a leak proof water bottle and lots of business cards with your phone number, website and email listed. If you don’t have a website, build it yourself- it’s not that hard to make a clean simple site (see our wordpress tutorial here). You will not have any credibility without a website! The other best horse show tool you can add to your gearbag is a Golf Cart.
What? Did you say golf cart?
Yes. Have you ever been to the Colorado horse park? How about Galloway downs? These event facilities are huge! Horse shows run on a schedule and your riders will be doing multiple events. Many times you will need to cover arenas that are over ½ mile apart, especially when you are photographing Eventing! You need a quick and easy way to get around with your gear, park anywhere, jump out and get your shots, back in and over to the next arena. A golf cart is an invaluable tool for the horse show and you will see show competitors and their trainers using it as well!
You can pick up a used one for around $2000 and if that is out of your budget (as it was for us for many years) you can use the “Poor man’s golf cart” AKA…a mountain bike! I have used my mountain bike to do horse shows for years! It’s fast, quiet, and you can park it anywhere. The only downside is that it adds to the exhaustion at the end of the long, long horse show days. But if you can’t spend a couple thousand on a used electric cart right away, you can use a bike or two. My favorite mountain bike is by Trek which I still use today. You can of course use any mountain bike that fits you. Try to get one with some good suspension as you will often ride over grass or bumpy dirt roads. You can get an idea of bikes online, but you really should go into a bike shop and get fitted so you get one that is comfortable and fun to ride.
The big shows rent golf carts for the day or show week right there on the premises. We often rented extra golf carts for larger shows when we hired contract photogs to help cover. This way we didn’t have to give up ours! A few shows we used golf carts and bikes to cover it all! IF you want the fanciest cart check these out here: they are slightly lifted and will go over any terrain you may encounter at a show! For a simple show cart, you can’t go wrong with this standard golf cart.
Where would I find an equestrian jumper show?
You can find equestrian sporting jumper shows in horse facilities and event facilities alike. Look for them at fairgrounds and private barns. There are lots of private jumper barns that have their own Cross Country course set up as well as jumper and dressage arenas. There are many areas of the country that are sort of a horse jumpers mecca, and you will find no shortage of shows to attend, photograph or participate in! The warmer climes are much more popular for winter jumping events such as Arizona & California also some parts of New Mexico. The East is full of jumper shows and you will find many double and triple A shows there, more so than here in the west. Florida is classic Equestrian Horse Jumping mecca!
Will the show be indoors or outside?
When the weather feels good to us, 60’s & 70’s low 80’s shows will most likely be outside. IF it is below 60 or above 80 shows will most likely be indoors (in our experience). Outdoor shooting is a breeze compared to the challenges of shooting a 1000 pound animal flying through the air in a dimly lit tent or worse! Shooting inside definitely has its challenges. The thing to remember is the riders still want those competitions photographed. We will talk about those tough indoor settings here in a minute. If you can show good horse/rider position and get the money shots, the riders won’t care if the event facility is dark and ugly, just as long as they are well lit, in focus and in good position.
Technical info for getting the inside shots:
To get good indoor shots (stills) you must have a decent DSLR. Your camera must have the ability to adjust the ISO (tells your camera how sensitive to light to be) to a setting of 3200 or higher in order to capture the action in low light conditions. So, depending on how much light is in the room and whether or not the stronger light source is artificial or natural ( from windows) will also determine your settings. The below sample was a large tent indoor arena in Colorado with very little natural light, and overcast weather outside to boot. The light source was mostly artificial with large lights hanging from the ceiling. I would choose an ISO of 3200 to allow a shutter speed of 1/320th at 7.1 (this is approximate and all depends on the available light) just enough depth of field and just fast enough to have no motion in the legs of the horse. Newer better cameras like my Nikon D750 will allow you to shoot at an ISO of 5500 or higher with a small amount of noise. That higher ISO will buy you another couple of stops and a faster shutter speed for sure- but do your test and make sure there isn’t too much noise! Each camera will be different and it’s super important to test your equipment and settings before the official show begins. Usually riders arrive a day or two early to warm up and get their horses used to the arenas. You will want to do your test shots during the same hours that the show will be. In this particular arena, there was one large plastic tent window in which the outdoor light came in and brightened up the jumps in that corner of the arena. The images looked much nicer with the mixed lighting (outdoor and artificial show lights). We planned most of our morning jumps on that side of the arena which gave a nice result, though never as pretty as outdoors. Later in the afternoon with the sun higher, we opted to shoot the jumps on the other side due to hot spots on the arena floor from the morning’s light window. Again, i can’t stress enough to test test test BEFORE the show begins! The best shooting spots will change within the course of a day!
What kind of pictures should I take?
If you are a parent of the participant or a friend, you can get a lot of great shots when the riders are warming up, this is often called “schooling”. There is often a warm up arena where you can get some fun candids of the participants practicing their jumps and equitation. Also you may see them walking their horses to or from the barn stalls. Maybe get some shot of the rider grooming their horse or putting on their show boots. These are images the show photographer does not have time to get (usually) and you will not be in their way. You can usually get away with standing near the warm up arena and getting some closer shots of the horses & riders than you could get during the actual competition.
Sometimes there’s a Schooling show a day or two before the real competition starts. This is a great place to practice your skills, try some different settings and find your best backgrounds & your cleanest jumps. There may be many riders schooling at the same time. Lots of great opportunities to practice there!
What kind of pictures do riders buy? Also see the “money shot” article here: Show me the Money shots!
If you are a photographer officially covering the show, you are going to want to get certain shots that the riders will want to buy. I will warn you here, if you are thinking of doing all kinds of creative shots of the horses jumping and running with motion blur, cool dreamy soft focus and creating romantic horse images… you will go home with no sales! The riders will have very specific shots they want to buy and if you can get those shots, you will make sales because usually Mom or friend competitor does not’ have the equipment or skills you need to nail those money shots over and over again! I will also warn you that if you are a creative photographer, show photography can be a bit rigid as there are only a few shots/angles the riders want.
After shooting a 7 day or longer horse show, you may feel a bit robotic, capturing the same shot over and over and OVER again! To battle this creative stifling, sometimes I would do some creative shots just for myself on a rider I already had plenty of shots of. I would do this just for my own sanity and I wouldn’t even show those to the rider. I would just put them away for my own creative portfolio. I will say that the newer riders, the beginner classes are sometimes open to the more creative shots and may like a few candids as well. If you have time to do a little extra shooting for those newer riders it may result in a few more sales. But when it comes to the more advanced competitors, forget the creative, and stick to the money shots!
Below and left are a few examples of desired jumper shots detailed, what is acceptable and desired for the rider to purchase. Equine Photography how to: Jumping shots detailed
Stills vs Video
In recent years, improvement to video functions in cameras, phones and tablets has allowed for a sort of revival in the desire for movies/videos. Riders can learn a ton from watching a video of their course run. We did sign ups for videos at some shows and got a lot of takers. However, now most parents come equipped with an smartphone or tablet and usually take video. They usually cannot capture stills successfully and video is easier for them to do. You can always walk around before the show and chat with the riders asking who might be interested in video and make them pre-sign up so you aren’t’ wasting your time!
Not the official show photographer? Here are some do’s and don’ts
Unless you are the official show photographer, you will not be allowed in the arena. You will need to find a spot on the rails or in the stands to get your jumping shots. Please be mindful that these large powerful animals can be flighty and spook easy, possibly injuring themselves or their rider. IF you are going to be on the rails of the arena, try to position yourself where you will be as unobtrusive as possible. You may want to ask a show judge or show helper if you are ok where you are. If it’s windy, don’t wear a hat that can blow off into the arena during competition (this goes for PROs too!). You can ruin a riders performance costing them points and maybe the prize. Don’t stand right in the line of a jump with a red jacket flapping in the wind. You must learn a little horse etique if you are going to be photographing close to the competition. It’s always polite to ask the show photographer if you are in their line of shots or in an area they may want to use. It is their job to get every rider and it’s not an easy gig, so be respectful as they have a really big job to do!
When you are the official show photographer…
IF you are the official show photographer, you will need that fast dslr with a 70-200mm VR or equivalent. That is the lens of choice for equine sports photography. A lower shooting position is best for jumping. Sitting or Kneeling works well and helps your back supporting this long heavy lens that gains weight throughout the show!
As the show photographer, you will most likely be allowed in the arena (you will have signed a few waivers!). Often you can get better angels, and closer shots of the competitors, those are some of the pros. Cons, you are putting yourself at risk of being run over! Depending on the size of the facility, often outside the arena there are just as many good angles and positions for you to shoot from, and is much safer for you and the horse/riders. I have done it both ways and sometimes the better shooting opportunity is outside the arena. However, the nice thing about being inside is no other photographers will be permitted, so nobody will be in your way, and you will have the primo pick of best spots. I usually just decide at each show where I want to be.
When you are the show photographer, you will be expected to get every rider. You will need a system to keep all of your images of the riders organized as these shows can last for days and weeks! Often the riders will be in many different events and will not come and look at their images until the end of the show. A booth with your company banner and phone number is a must. You will want to organize by show number and event. For the how to particulars on the organizational aspects of show photography, read this: Link coming soon! The three different ways to Organize and Sell your Horse Show Photos and for a complete list of all you need to photograph a horse show go to our resource page here: Resource pages, all you need to do this equine photography biz! full of useful and helpful info for the equine photographer!
The show promoter will usually want you to photograph the winner of each class or division. This usually means a nice shot in the arena with the horse/rider winner and their trainer and or
sponsors with a nice flower wreath or trophy of some kind. This is when you will need that short zoom so you are close enough to direct them to look at you and smile (don’t forget to get that horses ears up!) Often the prize will be a beautiful horse blanket from the show that the horse will be wearing. You will be expected to take control of this shot, set it up in a matter of seconds and get out! Next event is starting- don’t get run over!!!
There is usually an exchange with the show promoters and you will be expected to capture those winner shots and get them back to the show promoter after the show is over, in a timely manner. Those images are often posted on the show’s websites and in their magazines (sometimes very slick and high end). They always give you as the official photog credit and it’s a nice way to promote yourself and land other shows. Don’t expect to charge the show for these images, but you will get back lots of referrals and other business from your work. It’s part of the exchange!
Putting it all together
So now you know a few things about photographing horses at a jumper show. IF you are the official show photographer or even the designated show photographer, you will have opportunity for great shots of these amazing animals jumping over high jumps and gracefully running over a course of fences. Shows can be lucrative if you are organized, professional and you get the money shots the riders want. If you are successful and the riders rave about you, the promoter will invite you to shoot other shows or refer you. Often you will get to know the same riders and they will like your work and buy from you over and over at each show. With your brand and reputation you will build customer loyalty!
IF you are a parent or friend of a competitor, you now know a few things about what camera to use, if you should shoot video or stills and where to stand during the show as well as a few do’s and don’ts. For more show photography articles check out: Horse show photographers Resource guide here: Resource Guide