Becoming the Offical Horse Show Photographer

So you have decided you want to be a horse show photographer…..are you crazy?? Just kidding!! Being a horse show photographer may seem like a very glamorous job. Let me dispel that myth for you. What it really is, is long days that start at least an hour (usually more) before the horse show starts and end a couple of hours after the show is done for the day. It is everything going wrong at the most inopportune times, when you are sure that everything is working perfectly. It is only getting to scarf down a snack on the run. Bathroom breaks? Good luck. It is even going in the red after you pay your help, but it is also meeting lots of amazing people who love horses as much as you do. It is being privileged to get to shoot some horses that are just down right amazing, and let’s be honest it really is kind of cool to see your images in national magazines.

One of the first things you need to do is to study whatever discipline you decide you want to shoot. You may ask why you need to know anything about it. The reason is so you know when you are shooting the right moves or the wrong moves. It is imperative to make sure you are getting the shots that will sell. Yes, thinking outside of the box is wonderful and you should most certainly include those types of shots for your customers, (they love them) but you need to make sure you are getting the “money” shot, that one with the perfect foot placement or the perfect stop. If you need to practice your timing, that can be accomplished at a smaller show without an official photographer. Another great place to practice is to talk to a local trainer to see if they would mind you taking photos during lessons. You do not need to, nor should you go to a horse show and just start taking pictures. Many horse shows (and most of the larger ones) have an official photographer there that has paid his/her dues at the small shows and has worked their way up-to the “big” show. When you learn to drive a car, you do not go out and immediately drive a high dollar sports car, you learn and practice on an older model car, that may have a few dents and dings in it. Never go to a horse show and think you can shoot because it is a “public” place. Yes, it may be open to the public, but the horse show usually rents the facility and can in-turn dictate who gets to take pictures and who doesn’t. It is imperative that you are respectful to the official photographer at a horse show. The horse show photography world is a small one and you would hate to start your career with a horrible reputation. Not to mention the fact that when you are the official photographer, you would not want someone to shoot over the top of you….don’t do it to someone else because you feel entitled.
You need to learn how to capture the correct shots without shooting in burst mode. If you are using strobes, this is a requirement as strobes do not recycle fast enough to shoot in burst mode. Being able to get the shot in one frame also shows that you know how to use your equipment and know exactly what the competitors are looking for. Again, the key here is practice, practice, practice.

A business plan is something that very few photographers do, and yet it is like a roadmap for your business.  When you take the time to sit down and do a business plan, you are being very thoughtful of how you need to run a sustainable business. You can always adjust your plan, but it will serve as a great road map for being successful.  Another important thing to do is your CODB, and to detriment your COGS, these numbers are critical to your success or failure. You need to know if you are making money, or losing money. (if you need help figuring these out, there is another how-to in regards to these things.) Many photographers who charge really low prices for their images have gone back and done their CODB and have figured out that they are making about $2/hour. How fun is that? Once you have your CODB and COGS numbers determined, then you can decide what prices you need to charge. Do not base your prices off what someone else is charging, their CODB may not be exactly like yours.

I recommend if you sell digitals, that you only sell low resolution images for use on personal websites and personal social media, remember, you are in the business of selling prints. Your most valuable item are your digital “negatives” these are what make you money.  If you sell them for a small amount of money, you are giving away the “farm” so to speak. If you sell your high resolution images for very little money you are devaluing your work and is odd as it sounds, you are also devaluing the work of every other show photographer out there. Ok enough of the rant…

So how do you get to be the one they call the “official” photographer? Typically, horse shows book their contractors (announcers, judges, videographers, photographer and secretary 6-12 months in advance of their shows). Again, we are going to start small, we are going to learn to walk before we run. If there is a small show near you, or a small show you are interested in shooting, contact the show producer or show manager and ask them if they have an official photographer. If they do have one, thank them and let them know if they ever need your services, that they should feel free to contact you. Then follow up with an email, again, thanking them for their time and that you would be available in the future. Be sure to include a few sample images and your contact information!

If they say yes, congratulations! You have just landed your first show! In your conversation they may ask what it will take for you to be the official photographer. Now is your opportunity to let them know what your requirements are (need a booth, an RV spot, power, etc.). It is also the time to ask them things that you need to know like how many arenas will be running at once, indoor, or outdoor, etc. Make sure to find out if there is a dress code. Many rodeos and certain types of horse shows do require a specific dress code, so while you should always look professional in representing your business, you need to make sure that there are no other dress requirements. Take notes while you are talking to them, so that you will remember what all you need to cover in your contract.
Umm…now what? Unfortunately the day of doing business on a hand shake seem to be gone. For every horse show I shoot, I have the show manager sign a contract. Not only does this protect me, it honestly protects them as well. You need to have such things in your contract as:• Will you be supplied a booth space (if you need one – small shows that are one or two days, usually not)?
• Will you be supplied with power? ( you may need for a booth or for strobes)
• Contact information of the show plus a description of the show (usually the name and location)
• Are outside shooter allowed? If so, to what extent? If other shooter show up and shoot what will happen?
• Are they providing you with meals?
• Are you providing them with photos? If so, how many and what are they allowed to do with them?
• Are they going to make you pay a vendor fee? If so, then I would suggest that they do not get photos to use. I typically give my shows photos, and I never pay a vendor fee.
You need to remember that both parties (you and the horse show) need to feel like this is a symbiotic relationship, you both need to get something out of this arrangement.
One you have decided what you want to cover in your contract, I would suggest that you get the help of an attorney to complete your final draft. Employing an attorney is not as scary as it sounds, and again this is for your protection. Remember, you are running a business, this is part of it. This does not need to be done for each show. Once you and your attorney have come up with a working contract, you should be able to adjust it as need for each show you shoot.

As soon as possible, send a copy of your contract to the show producer for their signature and be sure to address any concerns that either of you have. Many of these things will show up in your initial contact with the show producer, so this should just be a follow-up in regards to concerns.

Make sure you list the show date(s) on your calendar. It would be horrible for you to miss your first show!

Before your horse show starts (usually a day or two) make sure all your gear is clean and working properly. Really your gear should be checked long before this, but since mine is used daily, I have a pretty good idea. Make sure you have all of your batteries charged, make sure you have backup gear, and make sure you get everything packed and ready to go. Be sure to include snacks and water, lots of water, and any other personal care items you may need . Lists are your friend! And I promise you will add to that list after each horse show of things you may need or have forgotten.

Your big day has arrived. I usually arrive to an outdoor single/two day horse show about an hour before the scheduled start time. (If it is an in-door show and you need to setup lights, or setup a booth, then you will need to arrive much earlier to make sure you can have everything in place before the show starts.) This gives me time to learn the lay of the land so to speak. I will check in with the show office so they know I am there. I introduce myself to the secretary and pickup any draw sheets or back number lists that I need. I also say hello to the announcer. Remember the announcer can be your biggest sales person!! Give them one of your business cards and ask that they announce your presence and how everyone can find their photos and donuts never hurt. During this time I also go check out the arena to see where I need to shoot from, and learn the course/pattern if there is one.
Make sure you have a backup of anything that may break….camera, lens, lights, transmitters, computers, hard drives, etc.. I personally have had at least one of each of those thing break at a horse shows. (on a single day I had 2 cameras and a lens die….) You need to be able to continue on with your job, remember we are professionals, lets act like it.

Next stop…the arena to start shooting! Remember to breath and enjoy the experience.

© Suzanne Sylvester/S. Sylvester Photography


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1 Response to Becoming the Offical Horse Show Photographer

  1. Ann Mulchay says:

    Great article

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