DSLR Guide for Shooting Sports II: Horse Racing

How to set up autofocus and other DSLR settings

By beholder3 in Articles and Tips on Sep 11, 2017

Horse Racing

In our second article on how to shoot sports type subjects with Pentax gear we will again try to showcase one way to approach a certain type of subject scenario. The previous article can be found here: Guide to Camera and Autofocus Settings for Shooting Sports.

Again this is intended to get interested users going quicker and to provide an easy reference for you, regardless if you use a Pentax, Canon, or Nikon DSLR. Most of the tips in this article should help you out with shooting sports, perhaps after converting some Pentax-specific terms.

Remember, many ways lead to Rome and there is no "right" or "best" way to do things. There are only personal preferences. It is perfectly possible that you use different settings and achieve better results than I do. If that is the case: Please share both results and settings used with the community.

Scenario: Horse Racing

So, horse racing now, what is defining this scenario?

  • The subject is moving along a defined track, in this case even along a straight line track
  • but is not alone on this track and easily lost behind other competing subjects
  • the "fun" is concentrated into 5-10 seconds, with the core lasting only a few seconds
  • Thirdly the subjects are moving at fast speeds (up to 70 km/h)

The following article will try to address all these aspects.

Similar events which should follow the same logic described here:

  • human track & field sprints
  • bicycle races
  • car / motorcycle races (to a lesser degree because subjects are more spread)


Cropping to focus on details can be nice

Equipment Used and Suggested

I currently use the Pentax K-1 full-frame DSLR which is fulfilling the job well enough and provides the maximum dynamic range which is very helpful in post processing images of dark horses and their textured skin. I would not want to shoot this scenario with cameras prior to the K-5 II generation as the speed of AF processing would be too limiting. The K-1, K-3 II, and K-P would be my choice to get the most recent AF algorithms and hardware. My tips will generally also apply to recent full-frame (FF) bodies from other brands.

The lens selection here is already a tough one. The simple part is the type selection: you do not want to limit yourself to a fixed focal length lens, so zooms are the way to go.

Pentax now has a number of lenses which are totally up to the job from the speed of their autofocus drives (either ring DC or ring SDM):

  1. The longest is the nice HD Pentax-D FA 150-450mm F4.5-5.6 ED DC AW lens, a fantastic Pentax original
  2. Then there is the HD Pentax-D FA* 70-200mm F2.8 ED DC AW lens, even more a Pentax gem
  3. And on the short end we have the HD Pentax-D FA 24-70mm F2.8 ED SDM WR lens, the reworked Tamron lens
  4. For APS-C or users with a limited budget I suggest the incredibly sharp, light, small and particularly fast-focusing HD Pentax-DA 55-300mm F4.5-6.3 ED PLM WR RE

My personal preference/recommendation these days would go to the HD Pentax-D FA* 70-200mm F2.8 ED DC AW. Don't use screw-drive lenses or known snails, such as the DA* 50-135mm.

And here is the tough part: lens choice solely depends on your personal focal length preferences which is basically the question: at which angle of view do you want to shoot the jockey and horse?

Distant shooting from the front

The way it works— and you'll find this out quickly— is that none of the lenses can be used for a really broad range of angles, so at least for one race you are stuck with one choice, which clearly constrains your shooting.


Close by you can get nice shots from the side

The longer the lens the more you'll will be shooting the pairs from up front. Short focal lengths give you the option to shoot from the side.  I suggest going with the middle 70-200mm range first.

If you choose a heavy lens, bring a monopod!

Choosing the Right Place to Shoot From

I only know the three horse racing courses close to where I live and from these I can share the following tips:

  1. Get as close to the track as possible to have the option to shoot horses from up front
  2. Stay on the ground, don't go where the normal spectators sit; a lower perspective is much better
  3. Don't worry about the position of the goal if you are there for photos. If you can get a better position far away from the finish line that is fine. Use the full length of the straight part of the track that is accessible to you.
  4. Move to a place where pain-in-the-eye colorful perimeter advertisement boards will less likely be in the background of the horses in the angle you want to shoot

Once you found your spot: prepare! You will not have time to change anything once you are shooting.

The Right Moment

My preferred timing is to catch the horses with all four hooves in the air. This is totally a matter of taste, but I bet you'll find out that running horses offer lots of funny and interesting captures with regards to where their legs are at a given split fraction of a second frozen on your photo. And you will not like them all.

All four hooves in the air

Selection of Subject and Sticking to It

The one big pain of this type of sports event is that you only have a handful of seconds to capture your shots and during this time you might find that your chosen subject (pair of horse and jockey) is concealed 70-100% of the time by another horse/jockey which you did not choose. Sadly there is no option for x-ray photography, so you just have to live with it. Pairs will in all races slowly move into front of others, hiding them from your view.

Don't:

  • Stubbornly stick to your initial choice if it seems to be blocked from your view

Do:

  • Once the group of horses comes around the curve to the finishing straight pick one of the horses closer to you or one that leads by a good margin. Sometimes it's not even bad to choose the one trailing clearly behind.
  • Stick with your choice only if it makes sense. You need to make quick decisions here. Usually you have the option to switch once to another horse but be prepared that this might confuse the AF system at least for a short while.

Crowded situations are dangerous for keeping focus on the right target

Exposure Mode and Settings

Assuming you use the HD Pentax-D FA* 70-200mm F2.8 ED DC AW  I suggest you go for TAv mode. This is because you both want to define shutter speed and the aperture.

Using the 70-200mm at F2.8 aperture can be fun, but since a horse is a large ("deep") animal, I often prefer to choose an aperture of F4 here, to have a better depth of field. At F2.8 and 200 mm FF it can happen that either the face of the rider or the face of the horse are out of focus, which is not too nice.

For shutter speed I tend to go for 1/250 to 1/1000 of a second. No need to go faster and make do with higher ISO/noise. Similar to motor sports where it is undesirable to freeze the motion so much that you stop the wheels completely (creating images that look boring as the cars seem to stand still), I personally want some motion blur around the hooves of the horses.

I always set ISO to Auto-ISO and give it the maximum flexibility (ISO limits at 100 to 204,800). When not using TAv mode I suggest using the slow curve (in TAv the curve is not relevant).

I do use center-weighed metering here because I want to meter the horses. Many horses are very dark and require some pushing of shadows until you see some texture. So I would rather risk some  burnt highlights. I also keep exposure compensation at 0 or maximum +1/3 EV as center-weighted with dark subjects tends to raise exposure anyway.

The Inevitable Pixel Peeper's Partial Motion Blur Thing

And yes, since horses run on hooves, not wheels, they do bounce up and down a little while running. The whole animal moves in all directions. Be prepared to see areas of blur around the horse which you can not really explain, especially when pixel peeping the skin of the horse. It will be there sometimes, possibly only covering parts of the subject. You will see this even at extremely fast shutter speeds. I see this both with Canon and Pentax gear. Don't worry. Take another shot or accept the image as it is.

Drive Mode and File Format, Image Style

I tend to shoot long bursts of 5-15 images in continuous shooting (high) mode to capture the horse speeding by. If I use a longer lens usually I do two or three bursts at different stages.

Due to the many very dark horses I would not want to shoot JPG here, but prefer the RAW / DNG option to be able to pull shadows up substantially in post-processing. Since bursts are rather short buffer size is not an issue here.

Generally I suggest switching off absolutely everything that might use up processing power in the camera as I fear this might slow down AF calculations. So deactivate all JPG processing options, even highlight protection and noise reduction. Remember that the camera always embeds a fully developed JPG into the raw files, even if that is strongly compressed and maybe lower resolution.  But the camera always has to develop a JPG file even if you do shoot "raw only".

Distortion corrections are the mosty costly, so these must be switched off when performing any sort of high-speed shooting.

panningPanning can be fun

The Zooming-Trap

You will be using a zoom lens. And for a reason. You only have these 4-5 seconds during which the horse probably will grow extremely quickly visually due to coming closer at high speed. You will feel the urge to zoom out to shorter focal lengths to follow this with your framing. Now what you should not forget is that you will be doing all this with the autofocus system engaged and probably already pressing the shutter button. The autofocus system can only work well here if it predicts the subjects velocity well. And here it relies on repeatedly measuring and extrapolating the results. Your zooming can get in the way here if the change of framing suddenly moves the AF points over different parts of the subject or even other horses. So you suddenly let the AF system measure data points which totally do not fit the previous trend curve and it now has to start all over again.

The worst you can do is make rapid zoom adjustments a couple of times during one sequence. This will throw off the focus plane most likely each time. You'll loose shots here.

Either turn the zoom ring continuously with near to constant speed or only make one quick adjustment while keeping the chosen AF point over the exact same subject area.

Autofocus Settings

Switch your AF mode switch to "AF" and set AF mode via the button to "AF.C" for continuous focusing.

I suggest using the rear "AF" button to trigger autofocus even before you half press the shutter button. The longer the camera can focus on the subject the easier it can predict the focus plane. Using a long and heavy lens such as the D FA 150-450mm F4.5-5.6 I actually activate focus using the buttons on the lens barrel. However, I would change the camera AF button customization to something different, since it doesn't hurt to have both the AF button and the shutter button activate AF (i.e. keep the default menu setting of AF1).

For the AF active area I suggest to use a single AF point in select mode when using lenses longer than 70mm and where I will be shooting horses from the front. This will usually initially provide only a very small target area, so using Expanded Area AF is no option here as it covers too many thing which I do not want to focus on.

If you shoot with a short lens when the horses are fairly close and when you see them from the side, I suggest going with Expanded Area AF (S), which is displayed as "SEL 9".

Definitely do not use one of the Auto modes.

It is very important that the photographer keeps the AF area over the jockey's torso. This is probably the biggest "skill" part here, where a beginner suffers more mis-focused shots that someone with good targeting skills. In this scenario it really is 90% of why you get good results or bad results. Practice. Practice.

With regards to the priority settings I chose "Auto" for both the 1st Frame action in AF.C and Action in AF.C Cont. The camera seems to balance things very well when I activate the AF calculation early enough via the AF buttons.

If using the HD Pentax-D FA* 70-200mm F2.8 ED DC AW lens which has an maximum aperture of F2.8 I always restrict myself to using the center three AF points which actually benefit from a F2.8 lens precision wise. This does not make anything faster/quicker but the precision might be better.  Since a rider sits high on his horse, I always choose the topmost of the three F2.8 points.

An important AF setting for horse racing is the "Hold AF status" setting which governs the reaction of the camera to things blocking sight onto the subject briefly or to situations where the user tracks the subject poorly and doesn't hold all AF points in use over the rider, but over a competitor, the head of another horse or some distant background. Technically in this case the focus system by default should refocus quickly on the background or the item blocking sight, but I as photographer explicitly do not want this to happen. I want the camera to ignore both my small errors and irrelevant stuff blocking the subject for a split second.

I set this to "low" or "medium". Remember, this setting does not slow down AF adjustment and prediction on the subject itself. It just gives a waiting time before reacting to major abrupt/sudden focus distance changes. "Why not high?" you might ask. Well, as described above there is a good chance that you want to switch subjects or you simply fail to keep the AF point where it should and the system looses focus. In this situation then the "AF hold" setting is also extending the waiting time until it will start to refocus correctly, so you will loose precious time. So there is some balancing to be made.

CompetingDirect competition can be a good subject

Stabilization / Shake Reduction

Since horse racing mostly does only encompass a fast horizontal movement and the most recent Pentaxes (K-1, KP) can recognize straight line panning you can keep the SR on if you wish. I am somewhat undecided here, as sometimes I think it help a little other times I think it is no good. Feel free to experiment yourself. For beginners I suggest turning SR off to not have another difficult parameter when analyzing results.

I hope these explanations help any of you who want to shoot the same or a similar scenario. If you are more successful with different techniques or settings please go and share them in the comments section with links to your resulting images.

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