If you’ve ever been to a horse show at almost any level, there’s a good chance that you’ve experienced an equine photographer. They come with all different levels of equipment, professionalism and skill. The good ones are a rare mix of photography skills, equestrian sport knowledge and an artistic eye. The business of equine photography seems to be in a strange and dangerous place right now. Photographers complain about rising costs, stolen photos, and fewer orders while show goers complain about expensive photos, bad or missed photos.
While I don’t consider myself an upper level equine photographer by any means, I have shot a number of horse shows professionally. I see both sides of the professional and athlete argument with photos taken at horse shows, and I hope to engage in some discussion through a series of two blog posts on the subject. Today I want to tell you a little bit about my experience shooting professionally.
I’ll be the first to admit that I came into equine photography with nothing more than a low level DSLR and a lot of will to learn. For me, photography was a part time job to do for fun during college. If I ever had to try and support myself off of the money I made, I would have quit immediately.
After a lot of research and work with the Equine Photographer’s Network, I upgraded some equipment and got ready to promote myself at shows. An estimate of costs going into my first show (keep in mind this gear is a lot cheaper than what I carry now, and most definitely less expensive than what the average equine photog has):
- Canon Digital Rebel XT w/kit lens – $800 (at the time, cheaper now)
- Second Canon Digital Rebel XT body – $400
- Sigma 70-200 f2.8 lens – $900
- Professional SmugMug Account to sell proofs – $300/year
- Business cards & promo materials – $50
- Total: $2,450
And that total was before I made a single penny. Since I was new to the business and self-admittedly doing this as a hobby/part time job, I stuck to local schooling and unrated shows which had no official photographer. To book these shows, I created a professional website outlining my work and portfolio (if I couldn’t make this myself, that would be another cost) and contacted show managers asking if they would be interested in an official photographer. If they chose me, I got to set up a booth at the horse show and stand in the ring with the judge to take photos. I was never paid for coming to the horse show.
On a good weekend, I made $200-$300 in a one day show. I shot maybe 1-2 horse shows a month… you can do the math on this and quickly guess it wasn’t a stellar business model. But I told myself I enjoyed the work and it was fun getting paid to do something I enjoyed.
And it was fun, but there were problems.
This was about eight years ago, but even then many parents had their own camera just as nice as mine or nicer. Though my timing and settings were better in showcasing the horse and rider, people often just cared that they had some photo that existed of their kid’s show. Quality wasn’t important, and they certainly weren’t often willing to pay for it.
For some, quality was important… but they didn’t feel the need to pay for photos then either. At one show, I actually had a horse owner step into the ring with me and ask me to move aside so they could take photos of their yearlings during a halter class. I was appalled, and later spoke to the show manager who backed me up and asked this woman to move. Sure it was an isolated incident, but it tells you something about how much people respect the official photographer.
Of course every show photographer has to deal with poaching. You know, the person who’s sure they can do better than the OP (official photographer) who will run around and pass out their business card to anyone who’s horse they take a picture from. Their prices are always lower than the professional photographer, because they don’t usually have near the time and money invested and can come and go as they please.
One show circuit I shot even took photos all day long of their competitors and put them on the website. Were they cheap snaps taken from a judge’s stand? Yes. Might they have swayed someone from buying one of my photos? Potentially.
Plus there is no proof in the world that will stop someone who wants to put stolen photo proofs on Facebook. “Stolen from Uptonia Photography” deters no one, and neither do threats to not be shot in the future. Many people don’t care, and they just take whatever is posted of them online as their property.
The clientele was hard to deal with too. I had mothers ream me out multiple times. Here are a few of my favorite examples:
- I was shooting an over fences class in the corner of the ring outside the rail. A mother stormed up to me and told me to move because my camera was spooking her son’s horse. Then she said, “He’s a bad boy and I’m not going to buy him any photos anyway. Don’t waste your time.”
- Someone went on a lengthy tirade about how my prices were unfair because I wouldn’t offer a CD of photos (back then I just sold individual digital downloads and then various print sizes). She wanted photos of her daughter riding for digital scrap booking, but would never pay my individual digital download costs.
- After shooting a two ring, very busy show I came home to an angry email as soon as the proofs went up. I had taken photos of the leadline class, moved over to the jumping for a little bit, and then caught the beginner W/T/C flat divisions. Since I had missed the walk/trot division, I “didn’t care about the future riders” and only thought “big jumping classes” were important. Obviously I had my priorities wrong as a photographer.
With all this, it shouldn’t be a huge surprise to y’all why I decided not to pursue shooting professional when we moved to Texas four years ago. I enjoy it much more now, and am a lot less frustrated. I can see why so many photographers are refusing to shoot horse shows or display proofs online.
Not sure of any of this “behind the lens” information is shocking to you, but it definitely is one side of the story. Next time I’ll discuss some of my problems with equine photographers as a competitor.
Have any of y’all tried to shoot professionally or witnessed people being very unfair to pro equine photographers?