Equine Photography Tips III – Timing Under Saddle
No matter what kind of camera you have or what it’s set to, arguably the most important aspect of equine photography is timing. Perfect exposure and clarity doesn’t mean anything if you catch the horse looking like a donkey when they are really a 10 mover… and that does happen! Timing is everything.
Those of you with DSLR cameras are going to have an easier time with this one. That’s because the lag between when you click the button to take the photo and when the camera shutter actually goes off is virtually nothing. Also, the nicer the DSLR the less this lag will be.
Point and shoot people, there is still hope… but it’s going to be harder. My main advice to you is take a lot of photos to practice and learn how long your shutter takes to fire. When you get that feel, just take your picture slightly early and you’ll be able to get the excellent timing too.
Regardless of what kind of camera you have, there are a few points in the stride that are considered ideal. This also varies by breed and discipline, but since that gets so diverse I’m going to stick on what you like to see for hunter/jumper, eventing and dressage.
You”ll see this advice a lot, but the goal of shooting any sporthorse horse on the flat is to make them look as uphill and attractive as possible. When I shoot the walk, I like to follow the front leg closest to you (often the outside front) and click the button on the uplift of the leg but before the horse starts placing its hoof down for the step. You can also focus on the leg further away from you and get just as pretty as a picture – it’s really photographer preference at the walk.
If you take the shot too early, as the horse is just lifting it’s front leg up, they will look like they have a lot of knee action in their gaits. If you take the shot too late, as the horse is stepping fully on that front hoof, they will look downhill.
With the trot, there is a very specific stride we want. It’s slightly different for dressage and hunters though, with hunters being a bit more forgiving.
The Hunter Trot
Follow the front leg closest to you. Focus on that leg. that leg is your friend. You want to take the shot when the close front leg is alllllllmost fully extended. Look for the toe flick. Know the toe flick? When a cute moving horse will pop his little toe out for each stride… click your camera right as that toe pops. That’s your ideal hunter stride.
Why the leg closest to you? If you shoot this leg when it’s almost fully extended, you’ll catch the rider sitting lightly in the saddle so long as they’re posting. “Up” post pictures aren’t attractive of the rider, and neither are super down ones (when riders are sitting strongly they tend to compress a bit). Hit this spot, and both horse and rider will be picture perfect.
The Dressage Trot
I do not claim to be an expert on dressage, so this is coming from the equine photography industry group I used to be a part of. For dressage, you want the horse’s back hoof to be planted on the ground when you take the shot. This will ensure you get the most step up underneath the horse as well as front extension… that being said, it’s hard to do. I’m not great at it, and I suggest practice more than anything.
The canter is a gait that doesn’t really have a set standard as far as I’m concerned, but I like to shoot it in one of two ways. 1) The front leg closest to you is almost fully extended but not yet moving down and 2) The front leg closest to you is moving forward. You have to be careful with 1, because if you shoot too late it looks like the horse is super down hill. With 2, if you shoot too early the horse will look like it has a lot of knee action in its gait.
Usually I like the “struck out” photo for hunters, and the uphil “I’m a happy cantering horse” for jumpers/eventing/dressage. It also depends on the horse!
Next time, I will go over timing for jumping when taking photos.
12 thoughts on “Equine Photography Tips III – Timing Under Saddle”
I’m totally sending this to my mom (aka my photographer)! While her main trouble is her older point and shoot camera with crazy slow shutter speed, your tips about which legs to follow will be super helpful for her only slightly-horsey self. Thanks!
Thanks for the advice!
Actually four feet off the ground is usually considered ideal for dressage in the lower levels- but you’re right, not so much for the extended. You want your horse to have lots of suspension, so the four feet off shows that? Not that Wiz ever has that..! But you’re right about the extended trot timing- the trots in the photos are just annoying because they’re fake- not your fault at all though 😉 Technically the two diagonal legs are still suppose to be parallel- but you see this thing now where the horses pick up their back feet and jut out their front feet- but they have a hollow back and show resistance (hence, the ponies in the photos). Reasons why I’m not a fan of dressage right now. 🙁 But again, not your fault, haha. It’s just sad that out of all of these photos, the three dressage photos make me cringe – not because of the photographer ability, just the unhappy expressions on the horses 🙁 and I’m suppose to be part of that sport in a way… so, yeah. But the hunters all look very happy 🙂
But I love your photo tip posts!!! Timing is SO hard with horses- it really does take a lot of practice. I appreciated the little tricks to help with the timing- I never know what to focus on!
I just went back and looked at the expressions of the dressage horses after reading your comment. Holy crap! Intense athletes that look discontent or pissed off. I’ve always thought that dressage was supposed to be one of the peaks of demonstrative communication, but it seems like those messages are all wrong.
It IS suppose to be that! But modern dressage has gotten way out of hand! It’s not as bad in eventing, because we don’t perform as many higher level movements, but in the FEI dressage world judges are awarding horses with fake movement (um, makes me think of the saddlebred/walker industry…) instead of horses performing correctly! There’s a lot of anger about it and a lot of push to get judges to judge on the classical principles- but of course… what the spectators want, wins, and spectators like to see horses with “big movement,” even if that movement is tortured and fake :\ If you look up “classical dressage,” you’ll find some lovely photographs of horses in true harmony! Unfortunately, those are more and more rare to find in the show ring 🙁
Okay… rant done… back to taking pretty pictures and ooing over lovely hunter ponies! 🙂
Great post! I think I’m still at the “spray and pray” phase with my horse photography. I should make my husband read this series, so he can take better photos of me. 🙂
Great information here Lauren! I am too busy teaching on the rail to take pictures (and I never go to horse shows just for fun – its never as “fun” when it is your job 🙁 ), but I do love a good photograph. Some of our locals photographers need to take your notes on all three of your Photography Tips, as it was VERY well explained (especially #2, as camera settings are confusing).
Also, I agree with Lindsey and Beka – those poor dressage horses look very unhappy! Too tight flashes or drop nosebands to keep the horse’s mouth closed are not a fix but a reflection of lack of training in my opinion.
Hm, I just went back and looked and yes, all of the hunters have no flashes and look lovely and relaxed! Why in the world are eventers and dressage folk obsessed with the flash? I event now but I still don’t get it… I have them on my bridle just because I couldn’t afford one without, but they are so loose he can still open his whole mouth if he wants (which he does from time to time when I’m screwing things up! :)) In fact when I saw he was gaping his mouth in his pictures, I was horrified, and everyone’s answer was “TIGHTEN UP THAT FLASH!” Uh… try down-grading to a rubber bit and acupuncture, yeah, that seemed to do the trick. Glad everyone’s priorities are right 🙁
Great Tips! Of course my husband has just decided to “cheat” and shoots all of my horse pictures with an action lens that grabs three shots right in a row. Take enough pictures and you’ll at least get one or two good ones. Of course it also means I end up deleting a ton of crap pictures too.
And I agree, it is so hard to find dressage photos that I like. Always, it seems the horses mouths are gaping, even against a way too tight flash.
Excellent post! I’m sharing!
Excellent post! This is the reason why I wish I could ride and take photos at the same time! It’s so hard to explain timing to someone not used to shooting horses.
Something that helps with making horses look up hill (especially at a stretchy walk) is to crop the photo in photoshop so that you level the horse’s feet.
For example, the first photo you shared would look better with a slight rotation:
It’s such a small change, but it’s so important, especially when putting together sale photos!
Ummm com practice on Henry and me 🙂