How To Photograph Race Horses

Horse Racing Action Shots

Jockey Falls During Race
Jockey Falls During Race

Type Of Cameras

There are three main types of camera that can be used to take great horse racing photographs, a compact camera, an amateur DSLR camera (Digital Single Lens Reflex) and a Pro DSLR camera. Any of these will give great photos. Obviously, better equipment gives you better pictures, but don't worry if you haven't got £100s to spend on fancy cameras, our guide will teach you solid techniques to get better photographs with any type of camera. First we'll take a look at the three types of camera you can use and the benefits of each type. Further on in the guide we'll look at techniques to improve your actual photos.

Find the 'Sports' setting on your camera
Find the 'Sports' setting on your camera

Compact Cameras

You can still get amazing shots with a standard digital compact camera. These inexpensive cameras are the ones we all use to take snaps on holiday, what many people don’t know is these little cameras are packed with hidden settings to help you capture amazing photos. Small digital compacts can be purchased for between £70 ~ £150 and can give great results, if you looking to buy one then make sure it has settings which can be overridden buy the user, nearly all compact cameras built in the last five years come with a ‘sport/action’ setting. This is the setting you will need to activate on the camera to get decent action photos. The setting may look like a man running or similar sporty icon. All you need to do is switch to this mode; automatically this will increase the ISO of the camera and the shutter speed, giving sharper pictures. If you don’t use this mode you’ll find that your photos will be blurred.

Amateur DSLR Camera
Amateur DSLR Camera

Amateur DSLR

The amateur DSLR is a smaller light weight version of the cameras you see professional photographers using. These little babies are perfect for taking action photography due to their light weight and large range of customizable settings.

Amateur DSLR cameras usually offer two types of setting, easy mode (like in a compact camera) and partial or full manual control of all settings (ISO, Shutter Speed, Aperture, White Balance etc) As you can see in the picture the camera shown here has a 'sports' setting just like a compact camera, however on a Amateur DSLR all settings can be overridden and fully customized, unlike a compact camera you're not stuck with the factory default settings. The Amateur DSLR will generally produce much better photos than a compact due this ability and the size and quality of the lens, plus the bigger sensors on these cameras capture more detail.

One other major difference between a compact camera and the amateur DLSRs is the ability to change lenses! You can add a telephoto lens to a DLSR which will allow you to zoom right up to the action, don't confused this with the digital zoom on a compact camera, the quality of lens in compacts is very poor compared to a DSLR and zooming with a compact will generally produce very poor quality images.

Amateur DSLR cameras are not nearly as expensive as you'd think, the model shown here is a Nikon D40 which can be purchased second hand on ebay for around £250! I owned a Nikon D40 for many years and was always amazed by the quality, take a look at the example photos I captured using this camera below. If you're serious about taking photos then a cheap DSLR is a great way to get started.

Nikon D40 Photos

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A profession DSLR camera can cost over £5000, but without a detailed knowledge of photographic techniques you'll probably take worse photos with this camera than you would using an Amateur DLSR or a compact! That's because professional DSLRs rarely come with pre programed settings, manufacturers assume that professionals know exactly how to use the camera and wouldn't need these 'dummies settings'.

The main difference between a Pro DSLR and the amateur DLSR is usually the size of the sensor, speed at which the camera can write to the memory card and the number of mega pixels the camera can record. I don't want to get into 'Mega Pixels' in this guide, it's the most confusing, misleading guide of camera quality ever devised. Your compact camera may say 12 million mega pixels on the side of it, and my DSLR may only capture 5 million mega pixels but I guarantee you that my DSLR will produce larger, sharper and more vibrant photos than your compact.

If you're lucky enough to own a Pro DSLR like the Nikon D3x then I don't really need to go into what this type of camera can and can't do. You should already know the basics of getting good photos, you may want to skip to later parts of the guide which detail the best 'techniques' for capturing horse racing photos.

My latest camera is a Nikon D300 which sits in the grey area between Pro and Amateur camera, you can see some of the photos I've taken with it below. The main benefit for me with this camera is the super fast continual high speed shooting mode, which lets you fire off 6 shots per second, this really helps to capture high speed action.

Pro DSLR Photo Examples

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Camera Settings Guide

In this section we advise you on the correct settings for your type of camera.

Compact Cameras

Compact cameras come in many shapes, models and size. Compacts range in quality from excellent to the rubbish! Don't fret, however good or bad your camera is, with just a few adjustments we can get you taking outstanding photos with your camera.

Quick guide to setting up your camera

  1. Find your cameras 'Sports' setting ~ This is the most important setting to get right with a compact camera! The sports setting will be in the menu system or on a dial usually on the back or top of the camera. Look for a 'running man' icon (or refer to camera manual)
  2. Make sure your flash is turned off ~ If it's a dull day some cameras will try to brighten the scene with a flash burst. (it won't help, it could also spook the horses and will drain your battery ~ so turn it off)
  3. Make sure your camera is full charged ~ missing a shot because your camera doesn't have enough battery is a killer.
  4. Compact cameras often allow you to turn up the size and quality of photos you take, make sure yours is set to the highest allowed (normally this if jpeg super fine or fine and large or ex large sized photos) poke around in the menus to find this setting. Adjusting this may reduce the number of photos you can take. Personally I'd rather two great photos than a hundred average ones. You can always buy another memory card if this is a problem.
  5. Make sure the memory card is in the camera! It's happened to me before, shooting away all day only to realise the memory card was in a draw back home.
  6. Avoid zooming in too much, many compacts have zoom lenses, often these are digital zooms that actually reduce the quality of the photos and exaggerate tiny movements in your hands, which result in poor quality photos. It's better to take the photo without zoom and then crop (enlarge) the photo later on.
  7. Experiment with turning off 'anti shake' systems, if your camera has 'anti shake' then you might want to try turning it off. As crazy as it sounds these systems can sometimes introduce more blur into a photo.

Amateur DSLR Settings

The great thing about even a basic DSLR is the range of settings you can adjust, you'll have control over shutter speed, aperture, ISO and even white balance, you will also be able to shoot more frames per second than a compact. Most importantly you can swap the camera lens for a telephoto/zoom lens which will greatly improve your photos.

Quick Guide To Setting Up Your Amateur DSLR camera For Horse Racing

  1. Set the camera up for the largest size images it can take, this will allow you to crop and enlarge without losing quality
  2. Decide if you want to shoot in RAW or JPG, shooting in RAW mode will give you more control in post production but might reduce your frame per second shooting rate. I always opt for JPG as I'd rather have the extra speed.
  3. Don't rely on your cameras pre-set 'Sports' mode too much, I often find these pre set sports mode set the shutter speed too low for horse racing photos. Some cameras also have a nasty habit of ramping up the ISO above 1600, this adds 'digital noise' to the photos which makes them look awful.
  4. It's best to use the pre set 'sports' mode as a base setting for your photos, take a few shots in 'sports' mode, note the ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed. Then use this to dial in the settings manually, you can then adjust each setting individual. If the photos are a little blurred increase the shutter speed, if they are too dark adjust the aperture or increase the ISO.
  5. Spot metering or selective metering can be very hit and miss in action photos, depending on your camera you are probably best leaving the camera in 'matrix' metering (the camera will work out metering based on the whole frame)
  6. If you're using a telephoto/zoom lens then turn off 'anti shake'. Some lenses and cameras can get confused with 'anti shake' if your photos are slightly blurred or ghostly then try turning this setting off.
  7. Horses move pretty fast so getting the shutter speed right is essential to capturing the action. I normally only work in 'manual mode' or 'shutter priority' mode when taking racing photos. You will need a shutter speed of at least 1/800 to freeze the action, depending on how close you're standing to the horses then you might need to increase that up to 1/2000.
  8. Set your ISO at the lowest setting you can get away with, (to reduce digital noise) I find that anything over 800 ISO on my Nikon D300 creates noticeable digital noise. Start with ISO 400 and adjust if needed, on a dull cloudy day the only option might be upping the ISO above 800.
  9. The aperture is one setting I'm happy to sacrifice, if I can get anywhere near f/7 it's good enough for sharp photos, f/9 or above and you'll be doing great. Largely this will be determined by how sunny the day is. Even f/5 will give good photos, but you'll need to focus the camera more carefully at f/5 than f/9.
  10. Fitting a telephoto lens is going to help you get closer to the action, however it can be much harder to get good clear photos using a telephoto/zoom lens. It's tempting to zoom in too much and you can easily miss great photos, try panning out and crop the photos in image editing software like photoshop afterwards.
  11. Check your memory cards and battery levels, my Nikon D300 occasionally gives a false reading on the battery life, displaying full when it's nearly empty! Recharge often or carry a spare.

Example With Camera Settings Below

ISO800 : Apature f/10 : Shutter Speed 1/1250 : Focal lengh 116.0mm
ISO800 : Apature f/10 : Shutter Speed 1/1250 : Focal lengh 116.0mm

Pro DSLR Camera Setting

I'm not gonna tell you how to suck eggs, if you spent £5000 on a camera then you should already know how to use it ~ if you don't then use the 'Amateur Setting Guide' above for detailed instructions on setting up for a horse racing photos.

Below we take a look at some handy tips from taking great racing photos.

The UK has 61 Race Courses
The UK has 61 Race Courses

Where To Take Photos?

The art of getting great racing photos is finding good places to take them! Some of us are lucky enough to live near race courses, others may have to travel further to get the picture. Virtually every day in the United Kingdom is a race day somewhere! National hunt racing is more often seen in the winter months and the flat season seems to be all year round these days.

In the United Kingdom there are 61 race courses fairly evenly disturbed across the country. I prefer the National Hunt racing, which is like the Grand National or the racing you see during the Cheltenham Festival in other words it's over the jumps. That's not to say that you can't get great photos at the flat races, it's just a personal choice.

Once you've selected a racecourse to visit make sure the races are actually on (bad weather can force some to be abandoned), check the daily newspaper or race course website for the latest info.

Normally weekday races aren't that busy, so turning up on the day without a ticket is no problem. You don't need expensive tickets for the stands or enclosures (unless you want parade ring photos). The open course tickets give you the best odds for great photos. Open course tickets are always the cheapest option, but they get you closest to the action at most race courses.

Poor photo due to the position of the sun
Poor photo due to the position of the sun
Good photo, sun lights up the horses.
Good photo, sun lights up the horses.

Positioning Tips

Positioning yourself in the right place on the race course is probably the best way to guarantee a great photo. Ideally you need to be close to the action, without any spectators in front of you and have the sun on your back.

On a very sunny day then you will need to make sure the sun is behind you, otherwise you'll be shooting into the sun, and your photos will look more like silhouettes (see the example).

Just by moving to a different position you can really improve the quality of your photos, remember this little tip and you're 50% of the way to creating better photos.

Most courses welcome photographers, but you can make yourself even more welcome by following any safety instructions from course staff, don't just wander across the course! Don't lean out over the rails to get a better photo! and NEVER fire off your flash! it could spook the horses and lead to a serious accident.

Unless you're an accredited photographer you will not be allowed in certain areas of the course, normally this means the actual track and sometimes the inner centre of the course. Just because you see other photographer there doesn't mean you'll be welcome! they are professionals and have public liability insurance!

Top Five Places To Capture The Action

Once you're on the course you need to find the best positioning to get great shots, I normally stand in one of five places.

  1. By a Fence: Obviously you'll get great photos standing near the fences as the horses jump them, strangely most falls happen on the small hurdles rather than the bigger steeplechase fences. Figure out which fence is the last on a race, focus on this fence, the horses will be very tired as they reach it and more likely to make a mistake and fall.
  2. The Finishing Post: It can normally be busy with punters down at the finishing post, but if you can squeeze yourself a good spot then exciting finishes make for great photos.
  3. On The Bends: The corners of the race course can add drama to a photo, horses via for position on the bends and that make for a good photo, plus you get nice perspective and lead in lines from the rails.
  4. The Starting Stalls: At a flat race the starting stalls can be a good place to focus on, as the horse come out you normally get one horse that slips or rears up. If you focus on the Jockeys faces you can also get some good facial expressions too.
  5. In The Crowd: Races aren't just about the horses, try turning the camera towards the crowd every now and then, you'll get some great reaction shots, especially at the end of the race.

Race Day Video

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Comments 3 comments

tommyboy9810 profile image

tommyboy9810 6 years ago

So very well written and well shown article. I love horses.

tkshah 4 years ago

on account of clarity and simplicity, it makes for good reading

Horse Photos 3 years ago

Wow! those shots wear amazing. I was really inspired with all the shots you took Best regards! :)

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