Photographing Horse Shows – Part 1

Over the last 3 years, I have had the opportunity to photograph horses and their riders competing in shows at the Prince George’s Equestrian Center in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. Much of that experience has been in the covered outdoor arena that is pictured above. Photographing fast horses, in a shaded environment, with a bright background, is not an easy task.

I have learned a lot about photography through this experience and I wanted to share some of what I have learned with others. I  decided to start a multi part series about this subject. Each post will present a different technique or lesson that I have learned at these shows.

The Problem

As I mentioned, trying to photograph a horse in shade with a brightly lit background is a challenge for a camera. If you let the camera try to meter the picture, you are likely to get a picture like this:

Under Exposed Rider
Nikon D750, f/7.1, 1/800s, ISO 1250

In photography terminology, this is an issue of dynamic range. Although your eye can see the trees and grass in the distance as well as the horse and rider in the foreground without any problem, the camera has a hard time seeing the very broad range of light differences and when it tries to meter, it meters for the brighter light that fills the majority of the picture. This end up leaving the rider and horse in darkness.

Meter The Ground

One technique that I have used to help in this situation is to meter the ground just in front of the place where you expect the rider to be. Let’s say that you want to get a picture of the horse jumping over a fence. Here is what you do:

  1. Frame up your picture with the jump fence filling the frame as you need. With a zoom lens, this means getting your zoom set to frame the picture as you need.
  2. Tilt your camera down towards the ground. Try to fill the center of your camera with the ground in front of the jump. By doing this, you are taking the bright background out of the frame so that the camera can focus on the lighting that is around the jump. Your frame will look something like the following:
    Meter Ground Near Fence
    Nikon D750, f/4, 1/800s, ISO 2200


  3. While the camera is pointed at the ground, use your Exposure Lock button to lock the exposure settings into your camera. On my Nikon D750, I simply press the AE-L button on the back of my camera. Check out your camera’s manual for information about how to set this with your camera.
  4. With the exposure settings now locked into the camera, reframe your shot and wait for the moment that the horse jumps over the fence. Shoot the best picture ever!

    Proper Exposed Rider
    Nikon D750, f/4, 1/800s, ISO 2500
  5. Add a little post production and you get…

Learn More About Exposure Lock

Want to learn more about how exposure lock works on a camera? There is a great article on Photography Life’s web site titled Nikon AE-L / AF-L Button.

Leave a Reply