Four Winds Photography's Blog

Equine Photography Equipment Part 1

The next 3 blogs will be about the equipment you need to photograph horses and horse shows.  Or as my wife likes to refer to subject, bankruptcy.   I am dividing this subject into three blogs because there is so much to cover:

1. Cameras
2. Lenses
3. Lighting

I will talk about cameras in this first session or actually camera bodies.  By necessity much of this is going to be tediously basic for some of you.  For others of you starting out I hope you find this is helpful

Also by necessity, when discussing this topic, I will refer to Canon models.  This is because I only know Canon.  I don’t know comparable Nikon model numbers.   Let me very clear in my beliefs about a commonly debated subject.  It makes absolutely no difference whether you shoot Canon or Nikon (or Sony or Pentax or whatever). Any one of these makes of camera will take awesome photos.  Beyond that leave the argument of which brand to use to the forums.  The horse you are photographing will not care what camera brand you are using.  I promise.

There are four different categories of cameras that can be used for equine photography:

1. Point and Shoot. (P&S)  Contrary to popular belief a P&S can take a respectable image.  With the sophistication of the Digic 4 software and 15 megapixel sensor the Canon G10 is one impressive camera.  I heard of more than a few pro photographers on forums that don’t want to lug  the same equipment around on vacation they have been lugging around all week for work.  They took something like a G10 on vacation.  If you are reading this blog and can’t afford a DSLR yet, follow along.  All the basics we will talk about will apply.  The two disadvantages, and they are big ones, to using a P&S are: non-interchangeable lenses and the long shutter button delay. (More about this below).
2. Film SLR. (SLR)      I still love the look and “feel” of film images.   The important concept to keep in mind is when we talk about “full frame” sensors this is referring to the 35 mm film dimensions which is 24 mm high by 36 mm wide.  What does Single Lens Reflex mean?
3. Digital SLR (DSLR)  Suffice it to say with the ability to immediately review your image, the digital SLR has largely replaced film SLR.   All of our conversations from here forward will be limited to DSLR’s.
4. Medium Format.  Where a 35 mm is “full frame” a medium format is even larger, 2 1/4 inches square (about 60 mm)  Actually, if you are think about getting into equine photography I definitely think you should get a medium format such as a Hassleblad.  You can pick up one here at Adorama.   Now if you are over the shock we will continue the discussion about DSLR’s!  (But now if you are talking with photographer friends you can impress them and say, “Yeah, I’m thinking about going medium format.  I’m looking a Hassey.” (That’s the cool way to say Hasselblad))

Overwhelmingly, photographers today shoot with a Digital SLR.  There are still choices to be made.  Digital SLR’s can be further subdivided into 3 groups.  Which camera body you use will by necessity, as always, be determined by budget.  But, as we will see, there are other factors to consider when choosing a body, not the least of which is what other shooting you do besides horse shows.

Let me again be very clear about a personal opinion that I have.  That is, which camera body you choose is the least important decision you will make in selecting your gear. Lenses are far more important, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The three subdivisions of DSLR’s are, very loosely:  (Again I am using Canon model name/numbers)

1. Amateur camera’s. This group is made up entirely “cropped” sensor bodies which we will talk about below.  Among the Canon line this will be the Rebel series.  The cameras are smaller,  and, in fact, are too small according to some.  They do not have weather (and dust) sealing and have a lot of plastic.   The “flagship” Rebel is probably the T1i.  It lists for $650.  (All prices I am listing here are approximate as of this writing from B&H’s website and body only).
2. Semi-pro cameras (or the marketing term is “Prosumer”).  Again, these are all “cropped” sensor bodies and are made up of two digits followed by a “D”., i.e., 50D.   The 50D was the flagship until the arrival of the 7D.  The 50D lists for $930.  The 7D was recently released primarily to confuse those of us that had the Canon numbering system figured out.  It is a cropped sensor but has so many pro features such as weather sealing and fast frame rate it blurs the line between prosumer and pro camera.  It sells for $1700.
3. Pro cameras which are mostly full frame.  There are many features that make a pro camera a pro camera and obscenely expensive.  These include weather sealing, long shutter life-expectancy, high frame rate, all magnesium alloy body and long lasting battery.  The new 5D MkII is 21 MP full frame camera.  It also blurs the line in that it lacks some of the features of the other cameras in this category such as weather sealing.   It sells for $2500.  Next up is the new 1D MkIV.  This is not a true full frame but in between cropped sensor and full frame.  Every Canon using sports photographer in the world that doesn’t have one is drooling over this camera.  That includes yours truly.  10 FPS.  16 MP.  ISO 50-102,400. $5,000.  Lastly, is the ultimate portrait/fashion/product camera, the 1DsMkIII. 21 MP full frame goodness at $6,000.

So which camera and what features do you need?  Clearly as you move up the feature food chain the cost increases.   The easy answer is to get the best camera you can afford.    But even if you are a trust-fund baby there are decisions that have to be made depending on what you shoot or intend to shoot:

The Cropped Sensor or Full Frame Sensor Dilemma. The first decision to make is full frame or cropped.  As stated above a full frame sensor is the same size as a 35 mm film negative which is 24 mm x 36 mm.  There is an excellent discussion and explanation of this subject at Cambridge Colour.   An oversimplification is that a cropped sensor camera, by nature of its smaller sensor, uses a smaller area of a lens.  Because of this your angle of view on a cropped sensor is less.  Hence the conversion factor that you constantly hear about.  A cropped sensor camera has a conversion factor of 1.6 (Nikon 1.5).  As an example a 100 mm on a cropped sensor acts like a 160 mm lens on a full frame.

A full frame body is not necessarily better than a cropped one.  It’s different tools for different jobs.

Advantages of the full frame sensor:

1. Image Quality. There is little argument here that if you want the absolute best image quality (IQ) than go with full frame.  Because of the larger size you are also able to crop far more with a full frame.
2. Decreased Depth of Field. I will not go into the explanation of this here.  Again, the why of this is explained very well at Cambidge Colour. For horse or human portraits the full frame camera will give you the shallow depth of field (blurred backgrounds) so desirable.  To me, this is the most important aspect of a full frame camera.
3. Better low light capability. Bigger sensor = bigger megapixels = more light gathering capability = more signal to noise ratio (S/N) = better image

Advantages of Cropped Sensor:

1. I wrote earlier about the conversion factor.  A 100 mm lens on a cropped sensor camera acts like a 160mm lens on a full frame.  A 135 acts like a 216, etc.  For those situations where you need more “reach” a cropped sensor camera may be more advantageous.  If you anticipate a lot of telephoto work in addition to equine work this may be the way to go.  Wildlife shooting would be an example.

How many megapixels do you really need? Some are saying the MP race has finally ended.  Certainly, the marketing hysteria hasn’t. For most of us most of the time any modern day camera will have enough megapixels.  The most megapixels of any one of my cameras is 12.  That serves me just fine, thank you.  If you anticipate a lot of cropping more megapixels will serve you.

Low Light ISO. If you anticipate shooting in low such as indoor arenas then how well a camera behaves at high ISO is a critical decision for you.  We will get into ISO in more detail when we talk about low light shooting.  Suffice it to say that different cameras handle low light differently.  Better ones handled without introducing  a lot of noise in your image.

Frame Rate. For me the most overrated spec of a camera is frame rate.  My best camera shoots at 10 frames per second and I never use this.  I find by firing at 10 FPS I catch just before and just after the critical moment that I want!. I find it much better to anticipate whether the shot is going occur and prefocus.  However, if you shoot other events where this may be useful then this may be important.

Auto-focus speed. This is critically important if you are following a fast moving horse such as in cutting.  Some cameras such as my 5D is notoriously bad for AF speed.  In fact, it is down right sucky.  My 1DMkII has an incredibly fast and accurate AF.

Shutter button delay. The most often ignored characteristic of a sports camera is the shutter button delay.  This is the time lag between when you push the shutter button and the shutter actually opens.  If all you are shooting is portraits it doesn’t matter.  If you are tracking a roping horse and the rope just wrapped around the calf’s neck it better be fast.  My 1DMkII has a delay of 55 ms.  Most other cameras are in excess of 80 ms.

To Grip or Not to Grip? The possible final decision to make is do I grip my camera or no.  A grip is a two battery holder that attaches to the bottom of the camera body.  The obvious advantage is that it provides double the battery life.  Shooting at a horse show I can typically go almost all day, and sometimes do, gripped.  The other advantage is that when you turn the camera sideways for portrait shooting there are additional controls for the shutter and exposure adjustment at the top.  It also seems to balance out a heavy lens.      The obvious disadvantages are expense and additional weight.  The decision is purely preference.  All of my camera’s are gripped (except my 1DMkII which has the battery compartment/grip as part of the camera body).

So what do I use?   Not that what I use is necessarily right.

From left to right.  I use a 1DMkII (1.3 crop factor) for fast moving stuff such as cutting or roping.  I use a 5D (Full frame) for portrait type stuff where ultimate IQ is important.  I use a 40D (1.6 crop factor) when I need that extra telephoto reach but really it is for back up for the previous two.  And I have a 10D (1.6 crop factor) for knocking around when I don’t want to risk using a “business” camera such as a family get together.

That’s what I use.  What should you use?  This post is getting really lengthy.  I have added a special page to possibly help you decide.  I have gone through sort of a flow chart based on your shooting.  Make the jump here and you’ll go there.

Next up: Lenses for equine photography.

1 Comment »

  1. Hi! I found your blog via a question answered years ago on a Yahoo advice forum. I have been a horse-girl for years, mostly polo although some western sports and horse showing along the way. I am obsessed with equine photography and have been leaning more and more into the world of professional equine photography. Right now, I am still operating with my Canon Rebel T2i and a 55-250 lens. I am so overwhelmed at looking where to upgrade next. I want a lens that will capture high speed shots (like polo). I also would like to do more portrait sessions, but I have no clue where to look for the lens for that type of activity. My photos aren’t bad now, but I know with a little more technology on my side, I could really sharpen things up. Is it worth it to save for a new camera? Or can I get sharp results with a new lens for my rebel? Glad I found your blog! You are so kind to share your wisdom. 🙂

    Comment by Jenny — September 3, 2013 @ 5:48 PM


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