Equine Photography Tips II – Settings

Equine Photography Tips II – Settings

Last week in part one, choosing a camera, my photography advice was pretty limited to those who were willing to shell out big bucks for a semi-pro or pro camera and lens. Don’t worry, I realize that not everyone wants to throw a few thousand dollars at a set-up. Today I will be going over general settings information that anyone with a camera can benefit from (at least I hope so)!

ISO (International Standards Organization) Settings

Confession – I had to look up what ISO stood for and I still don’t know how that relates to what the setting does.  For shooting digital, ISO will brighten or darken up your photos.

Each camera has a different ISO range that it can accommodate.  It’s pretty standard to see 200-1600, although some higher end ones will go up very high.  Mine goes up to 3200, and I know some more expensive/newer Canons will reach 64,000.  The higher the number, the brighter your photo is.

1600 ISO
1600 ISO

Ah-ha, you say!  When I’m shooting in dark and awful indoor arenas, all I have to do is put my camera to the highest ISO setting it will go to!  Brilliant!

Not quite.  See, all camera settings have a catch.  With ISO, the higher your setting the brighter the picture is… but it will also have more grain.  What is grain?  It’s gross bumps and flecks in your photo.

3200 ISO... Looks okay now
3200 ISO… Looks okay now
But look at all the noise!
But look at all the noise!

Now, if you’re only worried about web quality images – by all means bump the ISO up as high as you want.  For anything you want to print though, I would only go up to around 50% of your maximum settings.  So I don’t like to go above 1600 ISO.  It should also be noted that the higher quality your camera body is, the less noise you will have overall.

Aperture (F-Stop)

Aperture is important in equine photography for two main reasons – portraits and lighting.  I’m not sure about point and shoots, but on DSLR cameras you see this setting displayed as the f-stop.  Your f-stop capabilities are determined by your lens, not your camera.  Every lens will come with a range or a fixed f-stop.  On most starter lenses, the range if f3.5 – f5.6.  On my big telephoto lens, it’s f2.8 which means that is the minimum f-stop setting but it can go up from there.

Aperture determines both the depth of field for your shot and the amount of light your lens allows into the camera.  A lower f-stop gives you a higher depth of field, therefore the lens only focuses on a narrow area.  Your typical “blurry background” (aka bokeh) shots are taken with a low f-stop setting. A low f-stop will also allow more light into the camera.

f1.8 - Notice only his eyes are in focus
f1.8 – Notice only his eyes are in focus

A high f-stop gives a shallow depth of field.  If you want everything in the picture to be 100% sharp focus, you take it with a high f-stop.  The higher the f-stop, the less light can come into the camera.

f8 - Everything is nice and sharp
f8 – Everything is nice and sharp

Ah-ha, you say.  If I want to get bright pictures in those dark and gloomy arenas then I just need to bump my ISO up as high as it will go aaaaaaaaand set my f-stop as low as it will go on my camera!  Well, the lower your f-stop the lower your camera would like the shutter speed to be.  If you just set the f-stop low for indoor photos, and ignore the shutter speed… you will have blurry photos.  What do you mean shutter speed, you ask.  That’s the last setting we’ll go over today!

Shutter Speed

The most important setting in equine photography, in my opinion, is shutter speed.  The higher this setting is, the faster you are telling your camera to open and shut to take the photo.  See, every time the camera shutter opens to take a photo it records everything that happened during that time… but instead of compiling it like a video it compresses it into a photo.  If the shutter is open too long and the object is moving, it will show a blur from the movement.

Shutter speed is 250 here.  See, blurry feet!  Too low.
Shutter speed is 250 here. See, blurry feet! Too low.

A good rule of thumb that I follow for horses is never ever shoot with the shutter speed under 250.  I prefer a solid 500 for anything that includes cantering, and if there’s jumping involved I go closer to 500-800.

Shutter Speed is 500 - crystal clear!
Shutter Speed is 500 – crystal clear!

Ah-ha, you say. So to get non-blurry arena photos I just need to put my camera on 500 shutter speed!  Well, the faster the shutter opens and closes the less light it allows into your picture.  If you only choose the fast shutter setting in indoor photos, you will have clear but very dark photos.

Sharp dark Friesian is sharp and dark.
Sharp dark Friesian is sharp and dark.

So how do I @#$$#%$# take horse photos in indoor arenas already?

The exact answer is going to depend on your camera, but you’re mostly likely going to need to shoot in Manual Mode and follow this formula…


With my 60D and f2.8 70-200mm lens, it looks like this:  800-1600 ISO + f2.8 + 500.  With my Digital Rebel and not so fancy zoom lens, it was more: 1600 ISO + f5.6 + 250-500 + a really steady hand and lots of hope.

A nicer camera has settings that will help you with these photos, but knowing what the settings means is well over half the battle in taking good pictures!

11 thoughts on “Equine Photography Tips II – Settings

  1. Oh wow that was a really good tutorial! I have an old rebel 35mm camera with a really nice zoom lens… this makes me want to get it back out and play with it. It won’t be crystal clear digital photos, but, oh well. Until I can afford them!

    And the see sawing… oops! I wasn’t proud of it though, and while I still get mad and get too into my horse’s face, I immediately feel bad. And I don’t get on my horse every day thinking “today I’m just going to yank his face into his chest”- I try to very much do the opposite lol. I liked the illustration you gave, though, about the pressure on the hands!

  2. Seriously awesome post! I’ve bookmarked for future reference. Thank you very much for taking the time to write this very easy to understand language! 🙂

  3. Great post! I don’t shoot horses in indoor settings, but this knowledge can be applied to humans, so its very helpful. ( : I’ve read so much information on manual settings, but it always helps to read about it in plain English!!

  4. Okay, this is funny because my husband has a very nice camera and I’ve toyed at looking through some of his tutorial books, etc, but always thought, “nah, it’s too complicated.” But, lo and behold you put horses in the tutorial and all of the sudden it’s very interesting. Hahaha! Great tutorial, thanks.

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