When most people think about a sporting event, the sport of Eventing is the furthest thing from anyone’s mind. In fact a good number of people may have never even heard of it. Eventing is a grueling test designed to assess the training, ability and strength of a horse, together with the bond and trust shared between horse and rider. The roots of Eventing began as a means of testing military horses that had to possess highly disciplined traits. The events are divided into three categories. The first, Dressage, is an equestrian art form likened to ballet. Dressage requires great physical control and grace as horse and rider move,as one through a series of fluid moves in a ring. Next is Cross-Country, a course run over several miles in length and a demanding test of endurance, bravery and reliance between horse and rider—all meant to simulate battlefield conditions that might be encountered by a cavalry horse. The last of the trials is Show Jumping, vaulting over a series of hurdles of varying heights and breadths within a confined arena. The Event at Rebecca Farms has been held annually in July just outside of Kalispell, Montana, since its inaugural year in 2002. It is one of the world’s premier eventing competitions.
My goal at The Event is to capture the spirit of comp- etition—to record not just the action but the charm, charisma, beauty and emotional aspects. I look for scenes and subjects such as the surprise on a competitor’s face at the apex of a jump, a smile of admiration, a far-off nostalgic look, an expression of joy for an accomplishment, empathy from disappointment, or simply the beauty of what I observe.
For me, the most exhilarating aspect of Eventing is the Cross-Country segment. With a course that’s almost three miles long there are unlimited opportunities to make a great variety of exciting images. Unlike other sporting events, in Cross-Country there are few limits to where spectators can wander—the main rule is to stay out of the way and not get run over by a horse.
I work with two camera bodies and have used a variety of lenses over the years. I’ve come to rely on a two- lens zoom system—one a wide angle and the other a telephoto. I use a Canon 5D Mark II with a Tamron 17-35mm wide angle and a Canon 1D Mark II with Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 telephoto. I also carry a Canon 550EX flash, Hoya Pro1 Digital Circular Polarizer filters for each lens, extra batteries and C-Cards. On bright sunny days I use a Lowepro Field and Street Belt to carry water and accessories.
If there’s even a hint of rain, I make sure I have a breathable rain jacket and use the Lowepro Compu- Trekker AW Backpack to keep my gear dry, and an AquaTech Sport Cover for camera/lens protection. I’ll also bring along a golf umbrella, which is good to hunker under for an extra layer of cover.
Start with some pre-planning. Think about how you will be shooting—up close, from a distance, or both? What’s the weather forecast? I take my time to scout things out early. A little patience helps, there’s no particular rush—things get under way mid-week and continue through the weekend with the higher classifications competing on Friday thru Sunday. I like to survey the dressage and jumping arenas, part of the cross-country course and the paddock and stabling areas. Each jump or hazard is unique in character and it’s important to know where everything is located, in addition to the schedule of events.
I endeavor to visualize exactly what I want to accomplish, understand the constraints (if any) and how best to achieve my goal. I note where the sun’s coming from, the background and the rider’s direction, and where the best vantage point is. By taking my time, I logically think about the methodology for each shot/ scene to get the look I’m after —so when the actual time comes to push the shutter I can concentrate on taking the picture without a lot of other distractions to worry about or decisions to make.
Exposure and Shutter Speed
When covering outdoor events where ambient light can vary due to rapidly changing weather conditions or cloud cover, I’ll work with an automatic camera mode—either shutter or aperture priority. I make a conscious decision of how I want the scene to be rendered. This may require experimentation to see what works best in each particular case. I find it best to use evaluative (aka matrix) metering on these occasions. When setting up at each new location, or when ambient lighting changes significantly, I’ll take a few test shots to check exposure, reviewing the histogram each time. If my histogram is off, I’ll change exposure compensation and/or ISO setting to produce the desired shutter speed, f/stop combination that I find acceptable.
When my main concern is control of action, Shutter Priority Mode is preferred. It’s all about the subject, scene, type of action and how you wish to portray it—fast to catch a specific instant or slow to achieve a blurred effect suggesting motion. I’ll use a shutter speed of 1/1000 sec. or faster when I need to freeze the action. I like to set Auto Focus for AI Servo (For Nikon use Continuous Focus). That way the lens will continuously acquire focus as the subject moves towards or away from me. I also change my “AE Lock” button to function as “Focus Lock” (Nikon cameras generally have a dedicated “AE-L/AF-L” button that defaults to both AE and AF lock). This gives me the flexibility to pre-frame the scene and maintain initial focus on a desired location. Here’s an example of how I put this to use to capture a horse as it moves through completing a jump and accelerating towards the next obstacle:
• Set up at a location and decide where the most desirable location is in the scene for the horse and rider.
• Pre-frame the composition choosing an appropriate zoom lens focal length.
• Pre-focus on the desired sweet spot by pushing the shutter release halfway to focus, while maintaining the selected focal length.
• Push the Focus Lock button in, and then recompose for the desired view while still holding the shutter release halfway. Once everything is framed for the right composition, focus doesn’t wander, it will be locked for the intended subject (in this example it will be locked on the equestrian team for the instant they soar over the jump).
• When the subject fills the viewfinder, push the shutter release all the way down, and at the same time release the Focus Lock button, following the horse. This method insures that not only the initial frame is focused and composed, as intended, but all subsequent shots will also be sharply focused as long as the shutter button is held down—you can even change focal length as you pan while shooting in continuous mode. Although this sounds a little complicated, and is somewhat awkward at first try, once done a few times it’ll become second nature, and you’ll end up with more high quality images.
If I’m looking to create a more artistic effect, I’ll select a slow shutter speed, typically from 1/10th to 1/60th second—the slower the shutter speed the more blur in the photograph. With slower shutter speeds, the trick is to pan with the subject while holding the shutter release down—even with a very slow a shutter speed such as 1/10th second, this technique will still maintain a degree of recognition to the horse/ rider. I shoot with varied slow shutter speeds so that I have a range of blurred effects from which to select during editing.
Depth of Field
There may be situations where control of depth-of- field is more desirable, particularly as a means of keeping background distractions in check. For this I use aperture priority. How the background is rendered plays an important part to the success of any image. At outdoor venues where spectators can roam almost at will, control of background disturbance can pose an additional challenge.
To diminish troubling background elements, I normally shoot wide- open minimizing depth-of-field, or I’ll change my perspective or angle of view to eliminate distractions entirely—often all it takes is to move just a few feet one way or the other. On this assignment, part of my task was to include images of spectators making them a part of The Event. So I intentionally included them in the background whenever possible—how to do this, enhance the scene and not detract from the grace and beauty of equestrian activity? Pre-planning and pre-visualizing the overall composition is the way to accomplish it.
I also sometimes reversed the main subject, concentrating on spectators and using the equestrians as back- ground. This was contrary to the normal way of looking at things but it opened the door for a lot of experimentation on my part. I’d also alter aperture settings to yield images with a varying depth-of-field range. When control of depth-of-field is not of critical importance, I strive for a mid-range f/stop for the best image quality—generally f/8 or f/11 depend- ing on the particular lens.
Filters and Lighting
On sunny days, you can’t beat a circular polarizer for enriching color, knocking out glare and adding oomph to clouds. Another tool I use regularly is flash. It’s especially useful to fill in shadows and for adding catchlight when photographing riders up close—particularly to catch expres- sions after completion of a ride. I work hand-held when covering outdoor action events, and don’t generally use on a tripod or monopod. It’s been said over and over again but is always worth repeating—the best light is early morning and late in the day. There’s no exception here—that’s when you’ll get your best images.
Eventing is definitely about equine action. But, there is also much more to be seen and documented. Photography is all about taking advantage of opportunities that present themselves and they are only limited by a photographer’s imagination.
Try your hand at photographing an equestrian competition—you’ll find prospects for great photos no matter what your interest—all you need to do is be there, have an open mind, take lots of photographs and remember to have fun.
Editor’s note: The Event at Rebecca Farm takes place this year July 25-28; to learn more about the sport of Eventing or to attend The Event at Rebecca Farm visit rebeccafarm.org.