Again another high demand post. At least one, possibly two people have asked how to get started when photographing friends or family on horseback. I will break this down into a couple of posts to make it a bit more digestible than the sleeping aid guide I could easily write. First off, let's focus on....
Composition and placing
Obviously horses are big and fast and unpredictable to varying degrees and may occasionally lose their pilot. Only stand where you have a quick escape route or are shielded from a runaway animal. Make sure you can be easily seen but try not to do anything that will spook the big hairy mammal or the horse carrying it.
Let's first outline how to think about the composition of the photo and how we stand in relation to the rider and horse. I prefer to see this from the jockeys perspective - most jumps and obstacles will use the same general scheme, a straight in approach and exit with barriers either side of the jump. Standing face onto the jump puts you at 12 o'clock. A full side profile will place you at 3 or 9. Keep the image below in your mind as we discuss in more detail below.
Most jumps and opportunities will give you a range of options where to place yourself. In a showjumping arena a good spot will let you frame several jumps so you can change up your composition as a rider moves through the course.
Areas to avoid (Four o'clock to eight o'clock)
Not worth pressing the shutter - you don't get to see the riders/horses face. The only exception to this rule would be a very bright or compelling background where you can get the rider silhouetted.
PS - Most people don't want to see photos of their backside lifted out of the saddle.
The all purpose (One o'clock to two o'clock, ten o'clock to eleven o'clock)
This position lets you get a unobstructed view of the riders face and their position relative to the horse as they jump. Generally riders move up and forward into a show jump (print 1 above) and straight up or sat back when jumping a hedge or ditch in open country (print 3). This angle lets you capture that dynamism. You also get to see the horse reach out as it jumps or stretch its feet for landing
The open space visible behind and below the horses front legs generally lets you show the separation between the horse and whatever they are clearing (print 4) and lets you show the viewer how big the jump is (print 2 is a good example) to make your subject look good!
There are generally no significant downsides to composing from here.
Side on (Three and nine o'clock)
A side view gives you the best opportunity for multiple photos of a single jockey that you may want to keep. The horse and rider go through a complex sequence of powerful moves and you can capture most of this. Side views are particularly useful at making smaller (or uglier) jumps have less visual impact in the final photo as the viewers eye will be drawn to the horse. This angle also typically shows off outstretched feet and billowing manes, tails and coats - capes are generally frowned upon. I will also explain in a later post why this view works particularly well for cameras with poor or no auto focus capabilities.
There are two major downsides to these positions. Firstly, it is really easy to misjudge the framing of the photo and a horse that exceeds your vertical expectations can leave photographic evidence of a headless jockey as they sail out of your frame. Secondly, it only really creates a lasting image if there is a clean or non distracting background behind the jump. A clean background is easily achieved in a showjumping arena if you can get low and use the sky but difficult to do in open country as jumps are usually pressed up against a hedge.
Head on - proceed with caution. (12 o'clock)
The head on vantage point gives maximum impact if you want to see a jockeys reaction when cresting a jump or dropping over a ditch and can add context to a photo with multiple riders at different points in their run.
It is the most technically demanding composition to pull off and results in the fewest keepers per shot taken (apart from the derrière view.....) because the time window for a photo is painfully small. This places an emphasis on having a good camera with a fast shutter speed or on you having perfect timing. The horse and jockey are also moving straight for you which is the hardest thing for a camera/lens auto-focus to track. Finally, in groups it is very easy for a jockey who has cleared the jump to block your view of the next two or three riders.
The important thing to remember is to keep shooting and try lots of different vantages before starting to focus too much on technique or equipment.
In the next installment I will review some tips related to focusing, timing and camera settings. Leave a comment or and questions you have below.
I hope the two of you found it useful.