Tips on Photographing Barrel Racing & Pole Bending

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Ahhhhh... what a challeng you have undertaken, yet what a GREAT learnning experience!!!

The sport of Gymkhana consists of timed events on horseback, where riders compete for accuracy/speed while either turning "poles", "Barrels", or focusing on precision with an event such as "Keyhole".

Today, the riders will be competing in 6 different events.  Washington Poles, Quadrangle (Poles), Single Barrel, Precision Barrels, Cloverleav Barrels, and Keyhole (a precision chalk lined key on the ground). They will be competing in the following categories: Novice, A, AA, and AAA, with AAA being the fastest group.

Based upon my own experience, after watching/photographing for many hours/days/months/years of my own daughter competing in gymkhana events, I think I have a few pointers to offer regarding photographing horses & riders.

  • Washington Poles - try standing at either end of the pattern and capturing the rider with the poles in the background or foreground to tell the story.  1/500 sec or slower will work, since the subject is moving towards you.
  • Quadrangle - try capturing the rider just after they have turned the pole and are looking towards the next one. 1/500 sec will work, as they actually have to slow down to turn the pole.
  • Single Barrel - try capturing the horse & rider just after they turn the barrel and head for home, or... try panning and catching the riders as they race for home. 1/500 sec should work as they are slower turning the barrel, and try 1/30 sec for panning. Up your shutter speed to 1/1000 sec and see if you can capture all four legs of the galloping horse off the ground at the same time!
  • Precision Barrels - try to capture the riders as they turn barrel #2 or #3 or head for home. 1/500 sec or even slower should work for turning the barrel, adn going home... 1/30 sec to show motion or 1/1000 sec to stop action.
  • Cloverleaf - my favorite and the most exciting!!! Try to capture them at barrel #2, barrel #3, or racing home. You'll want to catch them after they've turned the barrel and are looking towards the next barrel or home. Most horses turn one right turn then two lefts, so think about that and the position of the sun, and think about where you'll want to be.  With the AAA riders, be ready for flying dirt, stirrups almost touching the ground, and the intent look on the rider's and horse's face.
  • Keyhole - the last, and my least favorite event to photograph, and I've never gotten any exciting photos.  What they are attempting to do is get in & out of the chalked keyhole as quickly as possible without stepping out of bounds.

Where to shoot from - Shooting from the fence (low angle) is usually more flattering to the horse. Shooting from up hight (the stands) will sometimes allow you to get a better background, and get rid of distracting elements.

As for camera settings...

If you're new to action photography, just set your camera on Action mode and have fun!

If you're a bit more adventurous, you'll need to be on Shutter Priority (Tv) mode. Your ISO will be probably need to be set to 200, or maybe higher.

Most importantly, think about the effect that you want. Do you want to "freeze" teh action, or show "motion".  to freeze teh action, a good starting point would be 1/500 second and go faster if needed. To show motion (panning), a good starting point would be 1/30 second. Keep in mind "depth of field" as you make your choices.

Set your camera on "C" Continuous or Multiple Shots - 3 to 6 shots or "S" Single as appropriate for the action.

Keep in mind...

You might want to go to Manual Focus on your camera and pre-focus on a barrel or pole. Sometims autofocus/predictive autofocus has a hard time.

When panning, lock your body into position (that tripod stance), hold the camera close to your body, and rotate from the waist. Track the horse & rider, snap the picture at the right time, and then follow through with your body movement.

Last, but not least, if you're confused or want help... just ASK!!!

Have fun "Shooting Horses"


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