So You Wanna Be a Horse Show Photographer
If you live and breathe horse shows like I do, maybe the thought has crossed your mind that it would be fun to be perched next to the in-gate all day with a camera in your hand. There are a lot of parts of show photography that I love; you get to know and love the competitors, the trainers, the ponies, and the show management more than you ever thought you would. You get to watch every round, soak up the knowledge as you hear the judge explain to the scribe why that round was a winner or could have been improved. You will hear trainers shouting great advice, watch competitors grow and improve, and meet parents and puppies that are the heartbeat of the show grounds. Best of all, though- you get to capture memories that will last a lifetime while perfecting your craft at image-making.
After a year of striking out on my own as official photographer to several different types of disciplines, I've started to compile a list of the things that I will always do, never do again, and the things that I think are absolutely essential for horse show photography. Even if you think you are a "good" or "experienced" photographer, there are lots of things that I found surprising or just not as obvious when photographing an entire show by myself. Hopefully this can help someone else avoid making the same mistakes!
Things to Know Before Going to Photograph a Horse Show
Check with Management!
Before you start packing, check in with the show management and ask if there is already an official photographer. If they have one already, don't just show up with your gear- they don't like that. Official photographers at horse shows are paying to be there. Whether they are paying a vendor fee at a big venue or not, they are still spending their own resources to ensure they have insurance, licenses, equipment, software, a website, paid assistants, and of course the income lost by blocking off a weekend that could otherwise be used to offer portrait sessions. Official photographers are often relying solely on sales from these shows, so it is important to establish yourself with the management to make sure that they want you there and will support you.
If there is already an Official Photographer:
Often, an official photographer might be willing to take you on as an assistant or second shooter if you ask. If you are wanting to get some experience or guidance, don't be afraid to reach out! I'd be happy to help you build your portfolio.
If you do get the OK to come on out, work with the show management as much as you can. They can tell you what kind of entry numbers to expect, what time things will be happening, where you can set up, and all the handy little details. I love to check in with the office as often as possible to get a read on how the day is going to go. I've been fortunate to work with some great groups who keep me fed and watered, make sure people know how to find my website, and just generally treat me like part of the team.
Know Your Equipment
So you're ready to strike off on your own at your first big event! You must be absolutely, 100% confident in your ability to take a sharp, well-timed photos no matter the lighting conditions. I've been using my Canon cameras for years and have spent countless events practicing timing for different events and the best ways to compensate for poor lighting. Indoor shows are especially challenging, especially with slower lenses and camera bodies with less capable sensors. I love my setup with my canon 5div and 70-200 2.8 lens. Some people might say it would be better to go mirrorless, but I say the best equipment is what's working for you now that you KNOW how to use.
For events such as horse shows (and weddings), however, a few things are MUST haves:
- Insurance. Don't even think about passing "Go" without it for your gear and business, ESPECIALLY if you're going to be involved with horses and high-risk activities like horse shows.
- A full frame sensor capable of handling low light
- Dual memory cards. You don't know panic until you've had a card corrupt. I ALWAYS dual record to my SD and CF cards nowadays.
- This means that I burn through quite a few cards at shows, so plan to invest several hundred dollars on fast, reliable memory and a good storage system. File handling is an art in itself- maybe I'll write another blog on that later!
- Battery grips. When you're shooting nonstop for 12 hours, you will burn through battery like you never have before, especially if it's cold. I always use a grip so I have two batteries going at once, and I plant backup batteries on my person and close at hand so I can change out quickly.
This might sound like a cop-out, but there is nothing worse than finding out that the "little local horse show" is going to run for 12 hours, you didn't bring enough memory or batteries, you forgot snacks and sunscreen, and you don't have anyone to go check on your pets at home. I pack my car at least half a day in advance with all my gear including charged batteries, freshly formatted cards, sunscreen, whatever I need for advertising, chairs, rain gear, extra layers, etc etc etc. I have found that I need a monopod or else my arms are screaming from holding my camera after 20 minutes, so I pack a good one and a backup tripod. A hat is essential, and spray sunscreen that can be applied quickly between riders. SNACKS are huge. I pack myself a cooler and bring multiple water bottles per day. Business cards, branded gear, and flyers ride in the passenger seat of my car and get stashed on my person. Comfortable shoes, long sleeves, and long pants are your friend when it comes to long days in the sun. Ibuprofen/tylenol/aleve live in my bag, because you will get SORE hunched over a camera all day.
I have a massive camera bag that holds most of my essentials, but I also like to either wear something with a lot of good pockets or wear a fanny pack to keep memory cards, batteries, snacks, and chapstick handy. Basically, treat it like you're going camping. You will likely not get many bathroom breaks, not have time to run out to your car, and almost definitely won't be able to leave for lunch if management isn't providing you with food, assuming they're trying to keep the show moving. Plan for a long day on your feet, and get emotionally as well as physically prepared to stay focused, ready, and organized.
The work has just begun!
How to Deliver Horse Show Photos
There are lots of different options out there for photographers shooting large volumes of photos per day. If you're a DIY-er without a team, plan to spend several late nights and early mornings following the show uploading photos off of all your memory cards, BACKING UP said photos (I use multiple external hard drives and keep my working set of photos on a fast external solid state drive), and then culling and organizing before you can even think about getting them online. At some of the bigger local hunter/jumper shows that ran with two concurrent rings two days in a row, I think I've had upwards of 60,000 photos to go through afterwards before culling. You might think this is overkill, but when you're focusing on getting at least 4 "good" jumps per round, shooting two riders at once, and you're shooting in continuous mode to capture both the peak of the jump and the landing, and you are also snapping away to get candids, shots on the flat, and every little tiny child giggling as they pop over their first ever crossrail at a show... you get up there pretty fast. There is software out there to help speed the sorting process, like Bridge, PhotoMechanic, or Imagen, but I still default to loading the whole weekend into Lightroom Classic, applying one "auto" light/color correction on import, and then dedicating hours and hours to mark "keep" or delete so that I know I've put my eyes on every photo that is going out into the world. Fortunately, Lightroom Classic has keyboard shortcuts that make life easier- I turn on Caps Lock and use "X/U" to quickly pass through the whole album with just my keyboard. As I go, I might "rate" a particularly good photo by hitting 5 (assigns 5 stars) or add a color label to mark a change in rider group or division. I make subfolders for each class (or for smaller shows, entry number) and add photos to each folder as I go. I don't delete anything until I'm done! Once I've finished marking what to keep and what to delete, I sort by "pick", select all rejected photos, and delete them from the album folder (but not the catalog- not yet). The "Sort by" feature in Lightroom Classic is a lifesaver. I use it as much as I can!
Now, the fun part- get those photos out into the world! If you're already an established photographer, you likely have a website host that you use to deliver galleries to clients and you might be able to skip this paragraph. I use Pixieset, which has its pros and cons. I like a lot of the store and back-end studio management functions, and it is great for delivering small galleries to individuals. It has an option for me to fulfill orders manually at a printer I choose and ship prints to clients myself, or I can select a lab to work with and have prints drop-shipped directly from the lab to the customer. For my event galleries I work with a fantastic local lab that I trust, but I have orders set to be manually fulfilled so that I can edit and crop before sending to them to then drop-ship to the customer. You can also have your store deliver photos automatically if everything is fully edited already. I do wish Pixieset was a little bit better equipped for large volumes, though. The menu and navigation just aren't quite as nice as I would like, and some people find it confusing to navigate. However, I love that Pixieset offers back-end studio management tools like booking links, automated quotes and contracts, and all kinds of other nifty little tools. I love that Pixieset is always trying to improve their platform for photographers, which is one of the many reasons I chose them. They keep getting better and better! (PS: if you'd like to build your own free pixieset site, here is my referral link)
Other photographers have good things to say about ShootProof and Zenfolio, although each have their tradeoffs like limited website or poor store options. If you're just wanting a way to deliver show and event photos, I would personally suggest looking at Shootproof but can't give any personal experience on it- I've just liked using it when ordering through other horse show photographers!
For myself and other Pixieset users, one great function that I love to use is the Lightroom Classic plugin. Every gallery on my website syncs to my Lightroom program, so I can create a show album, set up my folders how I want them, then load my photos directly to my website through Lightroom's publish function. This is great if you are showing proofs and need to go back in later to edit purchased photos, because your client's favorites lists and orders will list the file name as it appears in Lightroom and you can republish changes to a photo as soon as it's ready. I use the search function all the time to locate photos from an order, add them to a "Purchased" folder, edit, and then re-upload or replace them as part of a self-fulfilled order. I also use Dropbox to store purchased photos as well as several backup programs including Backblaze and Amazon photo service. Having those photos in a cloud sure makes life easier!
Of course, this does require significant investment. I spend easily over $1,000 on my website, file storage, and software subscriptions per year. Fortunately I was able to design my own website, so I did not have to pay for a designer to make it for me. Of course, this means I rely on my website to make sales for me to recoup these costs, so it needs to be functioning well! If you are not an experienced web designer and can't afford to hire one, I would still spend the money on user friendly software and hosting that can help you through the process. Having a platform built specifically for delivering images will pay for itself.
Last But Not Least: VALUE YOUR WORK.
This is a big one. Huge. It is the number one complaint of established photographers. Do not, under any circumstances, undervalue your work, yourself, or your effort! Not only does it harm you, it lessens the value of every other photographer in your area that you're undercutting by undervaluing your photos. If you spent 12 hours on your feet at a horse show, you deserve to be compensated fairly. This means to price yourself accordingly. Before you ever get into running a business, you should know how much it will cost to operate and how much you need to make in order to make it worth doing. I do photography part time as supplemental income, but that also means that the hours I have available to dedicate to it are few. I made the same mistake that everyone else does and undervalued myself early. I gave away free photos or spent 12 hours for $50. Don't do this to yourself, you WILL burn out. Spend some time to learn how to price your work fairly so that you can continue to do it. For me, this meant finding a way to keep photos accessible by offering low resolution options for less and high resolution photos priced within reason that could still help pay to keep my website online. Granted, you are still relying on sales, so spend some time researching competitive, fair rates.
Don't forget, though, that to sell your photos, they need to be good! If your photos are OK but you know they can be better, take that into account and plan to do the work to improve so that you can raise prices later. Your photos are worth what people are willing to pay for them, but that doesn't mean you have to undercut your time and energy.
If you are worried that your photos aren't ready to sell, this is where I would suggest waiting to dive right in and spending money on a website and hosting and everything else. Instead, go find a way to gain experience working for other photographers as a second shooter where less risk is involved! I'd always love to have a second out with me and would be happy to share my knowledge. If you're thinking about going this route, send me an email!