How to Operate a Successful Horse Show Photography Business

There are 3 basic ways to operate a Horse Show Photography business. Media based (CD’s on the spot), Print Sales by mail or on the spot and Web sales, shoot & upload to a sales site, collect orders over time.  River Raft, Skiing photos, even Water Park and Disneyland photo operations are not so different. It is called concession photography and it’s fast paced and volume based.  This article will give you the information you need know  for the methods, equipment, and types of photo output options you have to help you operate a successful horse show photography business!

Media Based Setup, Shoot and Sell in Person!

This method is likely the most profitable , and requires the most setup and equipment and often multiple shooters. First you will need a 10×10 street fair type tent. You can pay as little as $49 at Walmart up to a couple of thousand for a commercial grade tent with all the bells and whistles. I do not recommend the $40 tent, or even the $100 tent as they are way too fragile to stand up to the kind of abuse they are likely to take at a horse event. A light breeze will blow it into next week, a gentle rain will soak it through and you’ll be frantically trying to keep your computers dry when you should be editing. The frames on the cheap tents are very fragile and a good bump will bend them. I use a commercial grade tent from EZ Up. It’s been through hell over the last 10 years and I’m still using it today. The great thing with EZ Up is if you bend or break a leg on the frame, or tear a side panel, you can call them up and just buy that piece without having to buy a whole new tent. Tent frame, canopy and walls… about $329, it won’t break the bank. See links below for more info on EZ Up tents.

Get your 10×10 Booth Tent here!

EZup 10×10 in White

You will need 3-4 of these walls

Next you’ll need a 6 foot folding table, 2 folding chairs, a folding stool, laptop, cd burner and monitor. For more information on the recommended items you’ll need for your horse show setup, check out our Resource Pages: The Ultimate Booth Tent Setup… read it here!

Ok, here we go! You and your partner arrive at the horse show at least an hour and a half early to get set up. You check in with the show promoter and get your tent set up at the pre-designated area that you and the promoter agreed on before the show. Your tent is up, computers and monitors plugged in, and ready to go.

Let’s say that this is an English, Dressage event with just one arena and about 70 riders. Keep in mind that it doesn’t really matter whether it’s a Western or English event or how many riders or arenas there are.  You just need to scale the number of people you have shooting/editing for you to the number of events at the show you plan on covering. You can pick up a show schedule with the promoter a few days before the show (very helpful). The below example is for two people covering the show- Media style. 

The Show Begins!

The first rider enters the arena. You drew straws and your partner, we’ll call her Jane, is going to shoot the first run of riders. Don’t let her forget to shoot the rider numbers and take a ground photo between each new rider entering the arena! You don’t have anything to do right now, so you are going to walk around and chat it up with the riders as they wait to be called to the arena. Don’t be shy! Walk right up, introduce yourself, compliment their horse or horses and let them know who you are and that you are the official photographer for the show. Tell them where they can see their pictures later and that they must come to the booth to see them! This is VERY important! Most riders, at least out here in the west still expect that you are going to put your photos up online for them. Make it clear that you will burn a CD of their images right here at the show. I hand out little flyers with this information on it as well. I also make sure the show announcers mention this fact when they give us their “shout outs” over the mic & loudspeaker throughout the show.

Download and Edit!

The first 20 riders have completed their runs and they are now grooming the arena (the show is on a 15-20 min break). Jane has about 200-275 photos in her camera and she sends you a text that she’s ready to download and edit. You grab your camera and head to the arena to photograph the next run of riders. Jane heads back to the tent, downloads her photos, does her editing and sorting into the individual rider folders, matching them according to the corresponding rider numbers. You will need to edit fast! Don’t fuss around too much, do your level best to get clean shots in the camera that need little editing! You will have about 30-45 minutes to edit 200+ photos.

Looks like they’re taking a 1hr break for lunch. Your turn to get back to the tent to download, edit and sort. Meanwhile,  Jane heads out to roam the show grounds to chat it up with the riders and hand out some more flyers.

Riders will come to the tent throughout the day wanting a peak at their pictures. If you’re in the middle of editing, then you’ll need to ask them to come back later. If you start letting everyone eat up your editing time during the show you will have nothing ready to sell at the end! If you do have some down time, then yes, by all means show some pictures. This can get a good buzz going with the riders who will drive their show  friends and more people to your booth.

Wash, rinse, repeat. You will continue to trade off shooting and editing with Jane until the end of the show. You will be shooting the same riders performing in multiple events and sometimes on multiple horses throughout the day. You will miss some people, and you will not get award winning photos of every rider every time. Don’t worry about it, that’s just life in this business. By the end of this show you will have roughly 1,100 photos shot, edited, organized by rider number, and ready to sell!

Once the riders have competed in their final event, they will start coming to your booth tent so be ready!

Our dogs man the booth here at a horse show in Colorado!

Showing the Photos!

Jane may still be shooting the last of the riders so you’ll be on your own for a bit. A rider will come to the booth to see here images and you will ask her for her rider number. You will simply scroll down in ACDSee (The best and only program to use…see below link) until you find her folder. Open it up and run a slideshow. The rider will inevitably want to start looking at each photo to choose which ones she wants. This would really slow things down, and people waiting behind her would start to get impatient! You tell her,  “We don’t sell individual photos, we include all of the riders pictures in the price and put them on a CD”. No choosing, no exceptions, it’s all or none. We generally priced our CD’s competitive to what the higher end show photographers were selling just one photo for.  Our customers would get 10-20 photos rather than one photo on a flimsy 8×10 show print. The riders LOVED this and we became very popular at our regular shows.

It’s a fast pace at the end of the show and you want to get as many riders in your tent as possible before they pack up and go home.  As soon as Jane gets back from photographing the last riders, she will do her editing and then start going around the show grounds letting people know their pictures are ready to view, while you stay and keep selling!

Show is over!

Once the show is over and the last rider has left your tent, make sure you throw together a CD of highlights for the show promoter and thank them for a great show. All that’s left is to count your money, pack it up and get a cold beer in your hands as quickly as possible!

Media Method as a One Person Operation

Basically, as a one person operation you will need to do everything listed above… by yourself. This is totally doable, but you’ll need to skip some events to give yourself time to edit during the show. If you’re going solo, I recommend sticking with smaller single arena shows of 30-40 riders max. Most riders will ride in 3-4 events in a show. Your goal should be to try to get each rider in at least 2 of them. So shoot an event, skip the next event so you can edit, and repeat having two fully edited events by the end of the show.  Try to time it out so that you skip the last event so you have time to edit before the riders start showing up at your booth, shooting the first and third events out of the four.

Also, if you can find 2 day events, that also works. Shoot all the events the first day, edit everything overnight, then sell on day 2. I made $4000 shooting the Colorado Cowboy Mounted Shooting State Championships one year. My wife was in Montana working a ranch outfit and I was on my own with over 100 riders. You WILL be exhausted, but you can do it!

TIP – Shooting Big Shows

There is really no limit to how big a show you can handle. Just take the process I’ve outlined above and scale up! My wife River and I have set up multiple computers to handle multiple riders coming to view their images simultaneously. It’s really not hard to set up. I just looked on the internet for instructions on how to set up a network, bought some cable and connected all three computers together. We edited on one computer and then just uploaded the files to the other two. If you have a strong internet connection, you can upload to Dropbox, then set the other computers to auto update and life gets even easier! Also, whether you’re working a small or big show, hiring a full time photo editor will definitely help. You’ll need to train them on what to edit, but once you’ve got your editor smooth, it will free you up to leave the tent and  schmooze with riders and get more sales!

What Resolution Should I Shoot At?

I want to get this out of the way right from the start. You will be shooting and editing a LOT of photos, so do not shoot in RAW. Let me repeat that in all caps in case you thought it might be a typo or something. DO NOT SHOOT IN RAW!!! Ok,  just one more time in all caps and bold,  just to be sure you heard me;  DO NOT SHOOT IN RAW!!!!!

We are specifically talking about concession show photography here- a private photo-session would be different. Shoot RAW all you want for those clients. But at the show,  you will be shooting thousands of images per day, depending on how many riders are participating. Shoot in RAW and you will start missing shots when your camera stops firing as it frantically try’s to process the hordes of colossal images assaulting it’s hard drive. Second, you will need to need to drag a suitcase into the arena filled with all the SD cards you’ll need to accommodate the space 3000 RAW images would require. Third, It will take a week to download said bloated images onto your hard drive and finally, RAW images at that scale, will drag your computer’s processor to it’s knees when you attempt to edit them and probably ask you to put it out of it’s misery.

3 to 5 megabytes is as big a file as I recommend when doing this kind of photography. A 3mb file is big enough to do some cropping and still get a nice clean 8×10 print from it. Without cropping, you can get a 16×20. Most people buying show photos will never print bigger that 8×10.

How to Organize Your Photos

You will be shooting thousands of photos at each show, with hundreds of riders sometimes riding multiple horses in several events. No matter what type of horse event you are shooting or how you are planning to deliver the photos to them, you must be able to separate the riders into an easily and quickly viewable format. Without a strong, efficient and disciplined organizational system you will not be successful!

In Dressage events, rider number is often on the horses bridal.

Sorting English Events

At English events the riders all have numbers on either themselves or on their horse’s tack. This makes life infinitely easier for you from an organizational standpoint. You may find your own more efficient method, but below is how my wife and I do it.

When the rider first enters the arena, try to get a shot of their number. Sometimes it isn’t always possible to catch it in the first shot, but definitely get it as soon as possible. Photograph their run in the event, and when the rider leaves the arena,  take one shot of the ground. This is really helpful when you are going through your photos later to separate the riders, as they are sometimes are often wearing very similar clothing and riding similar colored horses. Sometimes even the riders themselves have trouble identifying themselves in photos. Especially in English events like Dressage and Hunter/Jumpers where they wear uniforms and there horses are often Chestnut or Bay in color.

Sorting Western Events

Western events are really tough to organize. Competitors rarely have numbers, so you’ll have to sort them by horse color or clothing color. The good news is that Western riders often dress flamboyantly for shows, and their horses come in every color in the rainbow. Still… there will be a lot of Sorrels and Bays out there. Pay attention to horse socks and blazes, mane thickness, any detail can help make the sorting easier! Photographing Western events is pretty much the same as English events, except for the lack of number.   Get a  good full length photo of the horse and rider before he/she starts moving as your I.D. photo. After the rider completes their event you still take a ground shot to separate that rider from the next one coming out.

Editing in the Camera…

When you’re out there shooting, there is always a few minutes of downtime between riders leaving and entering the arena and there are also 20 to 30 minute breaks to groom the arena. I use this time to quickly review photos in my camera and delete anything that is obviously trash. Soft shots, bad exposures, horses in undesirable positions, etc. This really helps keep the number of photos you have to go through and edit later down to a reasonable level. Remember if you shoot 10 photos of each rider at an event with 100 competitors, each one competing in at least 3 events you will have 3000 photos in your camera by the end of the day to sort and edit! That is a LOT of photos to go through! My wife and I once shot 8,000 photos at a 2 day Dressage show in Tucson, AZ. Do yourself a favor, don’t get trigger happy with the shutter release button! I recommend shooting no more than 10-15 photos of each rider per event and culling those images down to 5-10 final edited images. The average rider will ride 3-5 times in a show so you should have approximately 15-30 images of each rider.

Software

There is a plethora of photo editing softwares out there, including the big ones being Adobe’s Photoshop and Lightroom. I am a 20+ year veteran of Adobe products and I use them both extensively,  in my non-concession photography work. But they are way too slow and inefficient for the ultra fast paced editing & showing you’ll need to do for your show photos. We use a lesser known software that’s been around forever called ACDSee. ACDSee started as a presentation tool that evolved into a very efficient and powerful photo editing tool. The great thing is that it still has it original presentation functions so you can download, edit, batch edit, organize and show photos to your clients all in one place. I have searched the world over for another software that can do everything ACDSee can as  fast and efficiently, and I have not found it. I can literally edit 500 images an hour using ACDSee. There’s no way you could do that in Lightroom or Photoshop. If you have any experience with Photoshop at all you’ll pick up ACDSee no problem. If you’re new to photo editing software you can check out my tutorial on “How to Edit your Horse Show in ACDSee”-COMING SOON!.

I find it has the perfect tool set for this kind of fast editing and organization without the steep learning curve.

If you decide to go the ACDSee route go to https://www.acdsee.com/en/products to get more information. I recommend the ACDSee Ultimate Photo-Studio or ADC Systems Mac pack as they include the video editing software. You will find it really useful if you end up shooting video with your camera at some events and when you start getting breeders that want video for their horse sales. 

Download, Edit and Organize

Once you’ve downloaded your photos you will be looking at a seemingly endless sea of images. Your heart will probably begin to race and you may break out in a cold sweat thinking “Sweet Christmas, what have I gotten myself into!” Fear not my friend, it’s going to be ok… I promise. Now,  go pour yourself strong adult beverage to calm your nerves. Empty, pour and repeat as necessary.

I like to start at the beginning of my photos and just start scrolling through the whole mess, deleting all the “NO” images first. That way I’m not wasting time editing images I’m just going to delete later. Do not delete the rider number photos or ground photos that separate the riders runs yet! Also do not rename any files. This will keep them in the order of when they rode.

Next, scroll back to the top and start your crop/rotate color and exposure edits. Make sure your horizon lines are straight, make any color and exposure adjustments as necessary. This will take a bit of time, but you can batch edit a lot of these corrections in ACDsee cutting your editing time down by 50% – 60%.

Once you’ve got everything looking good it’s time to organize. I typically create a boatload of folders (like 100). There’s no need to name them, just go with the default numbered file names as you create them. Then, start at the beginning and move each riders photos into each corresponding numbered folder leaving the ground photo out. 

Once you’ve got all the riders in their folders you can start RE-naming them. In the case of English shows,  just use the riders numbers, i.e. 100, 101, 102, etc. That way when a rider asks to see their pictures you just have to ask “What was your number?” and then you just go to that folder in ACDSee and run a slideshow of just their pictures for them. If riders are riding multiple horses they will have more than one number and more that one folder.

In the case of Western events without rider numbers,  you might want to put your riders in subfolders labeled by event or time of day. We usually named the individual rider folders first with the horse color and then a secondary identifying feature. For example Paint_Black Hat or Bay_Purple Shirt. Sometimes it can take a little more searching to find a riders photos, but it’s the best system we’ve  come up with, and it works pretty well.

The 3 Ways to Sell Your Photos 

Media Based- Example above!

Honestly, in my opinion, this is the only way to go. I’d like for my wife River and I to take credit for inventing this system and here in the west, and as far as we know we did. We have never encountered another Show Horse photographer who has used our same method, and when we started using this method the horse competitors were thrilled with the instant gratification we provided.  I have heard from a few  horse competitors from the east coast that there are show photographers out there, doing their shows using a similar media based system.

The media based system works best if you have a partner, don’t worry about splitting the profits, you’ll make twice as much money at the show and when the show is over, you’re done! There’s no more work to do, except to start following up with all the private portrait clients you acquired during the show!

Print Based

This is the oldest, easiest, most expensive and least desirable to the customer in my opinion. The print system is what everyone had to do pre-digital photography, when everyone had a whole lot more patience than they do now. Basically, you would photograph an entire show on film, while keeping track of which riders you shot on which rolls of film via notepad. You would collect the competitors phone numbers and addresses, send your film in to the lab and wait 7 days for the proof sheets to come back. Proof sheets looked like a strip of film slides that you would cut,  then mail to the competitors stapled to an order form. The riders would then fill out their order form with the photos they wanted and mail it back to you with their film strip. You would then order their photos for them, a month later the prints would arrive back at your house. Then you sorted, packaged and mailed the prints out to your clients. Whew!

Thankfully, we now have digital photography! To run a print based concession photography business now you can simply buy a printer, charge for individual photos and print them on the spot. The problems with a print based system in the 21st century is if you’re selling photos at the show,  you live in dust and dirt, which is very hard to keep off of your prints and out of your printer. Secondly, you have a fair amount of cost in photo paper and ink. Lastly, any printer you would want to let get covered in dirt at a horse show probably isn’t going to output very good quality prints and if your customers aren’t happy with your product they won’t come to your booth at the next show. Worse yet, you could start getting a bad reputation for a shoddy product and lose a lot business in your show circuit.

 Web Based

This is the easiest and most common method for selling photos at a horse show and you need very little equipment to do it! The photographer collects emails from riders, hands out flyers and/or has links to their website on the show promoters site announcing when and where photos can be seen and purchased. No booth, chairs or field computers necessary!

The photographer shoots the show, takes all the photos home does their edits and sorting, uploads everything to a website and waits for the sales. You’ll need to make 2 sizes of images, one small with large watermarks for viewing  and one large with a small corner signature watermark for purchase. You may get a few print orders this way, but most of your sales will be downloads. There are a couple of con’s to this method. One is that even if you heavily watermark your images for proofing,  there are people that will just steal them off of your website and use your photos for free, even with your company name written across the image.  I’ve even seen ads on Craigslist for people looking for a Photoshop guru to remove the watermarks from the images… no lie.

 With this method, you will never make the kind of immediate sales that you will make at the show, “in the moment”.   If you are going to do it this way, financially plan on your sales trickling in over time. You may be getting orders over the span of a year for each show. If you have lots of shows up online, you will begin to have steady income coming in every month from different shows.  Having a well organized and snappy website will be a big help. We started out doing shows this way and used SmugMug as our website and sales portal. Their tools are even better than they were back then. Check them out if you prefer this Web-based show sales method. 

Get SmugMug Here!

Choosing the Right Sales Method for YOU!

Maybe you are just starting out and can’t afford a tent and computers etc. You can get on the phone today and find a smaller horse show that needs a photographer and get a SmugMug website up and running in a few days, order some business cards with your website and phone and you are off to the races!

The print or media based methods both require booth tents, tables and computer equipment. Maybe you start out as web-based and work your way up into a booth setup when you have a few shows under your belt and you are confident in your work and your sales reflect a nice horse show business future! It’s never a bad idea to start slowly and work your way up!

Whatever method you choose, horse show photography is a fun and exciting business to have! If you love horses and photography, I can’t think of a better career out there!

Best of luck!

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