7 Keys to horse racing photography

Author: Alex Cairns Photo: Alex Cairns

Racing’s drama and colour have been celebrated for centuries, with artists and photographers having long endeavoured to capture the majesty of the galloping thoroughbred and the vibrancy of race meetings in their frames.

Thankfully, no single artist or image can encapsulate all that is great about racing and the sport still offers deep veins of inspiration for the creatively inclined.

Now, with camera phones in most pockets and quality photographic equipment having become more accessible, increasing numbers of enthusiasts are turning their hands to horse racing photography.

Racing and its settings are often almost objectively beautiful, but there is much more to taking successful and original racing images than simply engaging auto mode and pressing the shutter button.

Having been shooting the sport for many years now, I have pinpointed some important principles that can be applied no matter one’s technical proficiency, access, or hardware.

Here are 7 of them:

Do your homework

As I regularly work at meetings big and small across the world, there are times when it takes effort to get to grips with the day’s participants. We might be inclined to think that racing is the same everywhere and we can just turn up and shoot, but this approach will often lead us to miss many of the day’s most interesting headlines and subplots. Read up on recent racing news, study the card, find out who the big names are, check for interesting pedigrees and connections. This knowledge will be indispensable in creating impactful images, even at lesser meetings.

Warm up

Most European cards will have 6-9 races, with international meetings sometimes offering up to 15. Feature races usually take place towards the end of the day, so it might seem tempting to have a chat, enjoy a drink, or just watch the racing during the undercard. This is a mistake. Any athlete knows that warming up enhances performance and any serious photographer should know the same. Arrive early if you can, take some colour shots, find interesting vantage points, and get your creative energy kick-started.

Predict the future

I landed the above image, my most popular shot ever on Instagram, at my home track of Down Royal in Northern Ireland. It was a grey winter’s day of low-key action and the next race was a hunter chase. Not exactly the Cheltenham Gold Cup. The going was heavy and a rail had been put in place to send runners onto a strip of fresh ground on the bend past the stands. Spying that this had created a sharp dogleg and knowing that most of the riders were amateurs, my instincts told me that this was an opportunity. So I took out my wide-angle lens, perched precariously on a plant pot for a bit of height, and waited. A short time later the runners got very tight right in front of me, resulting in some emergency manoeuvres and this striking shot. If you can predict the future, then you will always be in the right spot.’

Be mobile

Some photographers, both professional and enthusiast, will spend entire meetings camped in one position. Reviewing their images at the end of the day must result in a sense of déjà vu, with shot after shot of horses galloping past a single area. Yes, it will take more effort to get from paddock, to chute, to race position, to chute, to paddock, to stables, and back again, but great racing photography doesn’t happen by itself and this mobility will add invaluable richness and variety to your portfolio.

Don’t shoot the winning post

It has been said that photography is about capturing ‘the decisive moment’, but don’t be fooled into thinking the decisive moment of a race is at the winning line. Yes, a shot of a celebrating jockey or close finish can be dramatic, but 100 other people probably have the same image at a big meeting and the story of a race is often expressed most powerfully at some distance from the line. I often position myself a furlong or more from the finish, which generally results in more original images with greater narrative content. Even if I occasionally miss some last-ditch drama, chances are I will have bagged something that no one else will have thought to record. Exclusivity = value.

Background

Big screens generally don’t make good backdrops. Nor do advertising hoardings. A great deal of photography is being aware of one’s surroundings and envisioning a striking image where subject, background, and narrative combine. Even if you’re shooting the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe or Hong Kong Cup, an unfortunately positioned steward, marquee, or fellow photographer can dash an exceptional image. As part of your warm-up you should be scouting out interesting backgrounds to help your subject shine.

Develop your own style

I’ve shared some of the basic principles that inform my racing photography. Some of them you might take on board, others you might leave behind. As I have developed my skills, I have studied and taken inspiration from other photographers as part of an on-going process of learning and reflection allowing me to become a little better with every shot I take. Though I admire other photographers’ output, I have never sought to mimic or replicate other creative work. Having your own style and sharing your own vision of the sport will help you stand out. It will also make any success you might have all the sweeter, knowing that it was all your own work.

Follow me on Instagram (@the_winning_post) for regular racing photos.

Happy shooting!

This story was published in Gallop Magazine, Spring 2017.

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