The first time I photographed a horse show as a show photographer, I came quite close to having a mental breakdown. I was not unfamiliar with horse shows, not at all. I spent many years covering shows for magazines and horse sport websites, which meant that I could cherry pick when, where, and what to photograph. That was a kind of creative freedom I never fully grasped until I was tasked to photograph every single ride over one short section of a cross country course from 8 am through to 6 pm. The same three fences, all day long. Naturally, it was raining.

Being a competition photographer requires a special kind of mental zen that does not come naturally. And why would it? Who bears witness to the very first round of the day, through to the very last with no option to skip a round? The judge, the jump crew, and the photographer.

I see you, private hunter/jumper show photographers, and I know you work incredibly hard too. This post isn’t about you, although I’m sure you can relate. This is about the mental zen required to be a horse show photographer, whether you are shooting a civilized three-day-event with ride times (truly the best thing about this discipline), or are in it for the long haul of photographing a hunter arena that goes for 12+ hours in a single day.

These are the ways I find (and keep) my mental zen during a shooting day.  

Be A Horse Person

Aside from the fact that it’s with very rare exception that anyone other than a horse person will willingly take photos of horses all day, it just helps to be a rider when you are photographing riders all day. Whether you are photographing a five-year-old’s first lead line class, or the final of a championship, if you put yourself in their shoes, and treat every round as if it is that rider’s Olympics (you never know, to them, it might be) to shoot for the photograph that you would want to purchase and print if you were the one riding out there, you will capture the emotion of that moment.

I am an amateur rider which means that I understand the special sense of accomplishment of jumping a 2’6” fence. I understand the nervous energy of a flat class. I know the feeling of seeing the proof of what you just accomplished with your horse in a fantastic image. Feel the experience of the rider you are photographing, and shoot to find the exceptional moments of their ride.

Challenge Yourself Constantly

There are a whole lot of mediocre photos out there, taken by bored photographers who just pressed a button. Continuing with the theme of treating every round from leadline on up with equal importance, when the repetition of show photography threatens to get to me, I challenge myself to be a better shooter. I check for mistakes in my existing shots and work to fix them in the next round. I look for a slightly different angle to shoot from on cross country. I track how many rounds that hunter rider has done and I shoot each round differently. I constantly check my card and keep mental track of what I’ve shot and ask myself if I can do better. This tracks well with my next point:

Shoot for Your Future Self

Anyone who works for me has heard me say this over, and over, and over. I shoot for my future self; the one who is tired at the end of a big day of being outside shooting, and wants nothing more than to get the images online and kick back with a glass of wine or a cheap beer with salt, depending on the time of year.

So why, oh why, would I doom myself to hours of editing through a card that is full of throwaway photos in between the keepers? Shooting a clean card takes more skill than actually pressing the shutter button, but when you master it, your life changes. A clean card means that every shot is a keeper, there are no off stride or missed shots to delete, and you can simply upload and relax. Your sales then happen quicker, and you are overall less tired and burnt out. It’s a win-win.

Be Accurate AF

Of course, shooting a clean card means that while shooting, you must challenge yourself to shoot with accuracy. I have spent many hours straightening hundreds of the same jumpshot in post editing that could have been shot straight to begin with, or cropping out a porta potty that could have just not been shot if I’d been watching my background with a more accurate eye. My actual mental zen while shooting is a balance of staying creative, planning my shot from angle to background, to light and focus, and then following through with accuracy for every single round on the schedule. Sound hard? It is, but I’m never bored (see point 2).

Take Care of Yourself (And Your Team)

It seems simple, but if you starve yourself and don’t bring water with you, you might actually pass out mid-day and then where will we be? I have turned into everyone’s mom when I’m leading a photo team, but it’s worth it. If you’re not wearing your hat, eating snacks and staying hydrated, your photos will suffer and you’ll have no one to blame but yourself. This means that not only do I make sure I take care of myself, I pack lunches and snacks for my whole team. I ask my shooters how they are doing with their shots, and how they are feeling mid-day. Feeding your people is worth the extra expense and I’m shocked whenever I hear of a photographer who doesn’t do this. Treat your team well, not only so that they don’t pass out from heat exhaustion, but so they enjoy their day and feel respected and cared for. More on that point to come.

Ph. ©Chris Mullen for EG Photos