Top 3 Tips for Wannabe Horse Show Photographers
On a daily basis, I receive messages or see posts in photography groups from my fellow equine photographers wanting to make the leap to show photography. Some think it’s a great way to make a quick buck, and others know it is a fabulous marketing tactic to get in front of their ideal client. Regardless of their motivations, though, the questions are always the same:
What kind of lighting do you use? How do you set it up?
Do I need a full frame camera, or is my crop sensor okay?
What does your booth set up look like?
Do I need to offer on-site printing? In person sales? Will I be okay using online only sales?
While these technical aspects are important, many individuals miss the foundations of a successful show photography business. These core values don’t cost a dime, and remain the same no matter what discipline you’re photographing.
Its okay to start small
So many photographers believe that in order to be a profitable show photographer, they have to shoot large, multi-day, rated shows.
Fun fact: we all need to start somewhere.
I always recommend that new photographers start at smaller shows to “work out the kinks.” By taking it slow, you’ll be able to establish a solid work flow and avoid burnout. Take it from me: my first year as a full time photographer, I had a hard time saying “no” to every job that came along, despite being pregnant. I ended up in the hospital after every show, and one time during a show, because I didn’t take care of myself.
Take every show one step at a time. Don’t overbook yourself until you are confident you can handle it. Be sure you leave time after each event to take a step back, evaluate how things went, and make improvements for next time. Everyone has their own journey- you don’t need to be shooting a top 20 APHA show or booking private clients in Wellington right out of the gate to be successful.
Surround yourself with the right people
The people you keep in your corner will make or break your photography career. No one can do this alone. I’m fortunate that I have a partner that believes in and supports my business and my dreams, but Dustin and I could not have made Norfleet a success on our own. I cannot stress how important it is to surround yourself with individuals who can see your vision- including mentors, second shooters, salespeople, show managers, and friends.
I credit so much of my success in the early days of my business to a photographer who could have told me to get lost. Another photographer had the patience to teach me about lighting for indoor arenas- something I’ve now based my business and style on.
We’ve taken our chance on second shooters that were still in the early days of their businesses. These ladies (I’m lookin’ at you, Bre, Tess, and Jess) have not only become incredible assets to our business, but irreplaceable friends. In fact, my main second shooter, Breanna Yingling of BGY Photography, is my direct competition. Her and I photograph many of the same exhibitors throughout the year at APHA shows in the midwest. We could have chosen to undercut each other, but instead, we support each other- and something amazing happened. Exhibitors at shows we’re both at have noticed. Rather than “choosing sides,” our exhibitors excitedly support both Bre and myself, citing how GREAT it is that “both of their photographers are friends.”
Outside of other photographers, having booth staff that are just as excited about your business as you are can make or break you. My booth staff currently is the ultimate dream team. It’s made up of my best friend from college, a long time horse show friend, and Dustin’s best friend who, despite not being a horse person, has proven to be an essential part of our team. These people want to see Norfleet succeed- not because of a paycheck or their own notoriety, but because they believe in our vision.
Possibly most important, is show management. A knowledgeable show manager, a personable announcer, and great judges are all factors that can lead to an amazing show. I’ve had smaller shows end up significantly more profitable than larger shows simply because the announcer was engaging, show management supported my crazy ideas, and the judges respected that I’m just trying to make the exhibitors happy.
Make yourself the expert
There is no guidebook to success as a horse show photographer, but there are so, so many resources out there to educate yourself. Be a sponge for information. Directly copying another person’s business likely won’t lead to success, but analyzing what others do and applying those tactics to your own business will help you to build a solid foundation. No two businesses will look alike- and that is fantastic. If all of our businesses were identical, how boring would that be?
Learning what the ideal look for each class you’re photographing is essential- fortunately, every association has a rule book that outlines their ideals. It also helps to study the work of the photographers that shoot at the high levels. While copying their work is frowned upon, look for similarities. What is the horse’s leg position in the photos that seem to plaster sale ads for high dollar horses? What angles seem to be the most desirable? What are major faults for that discipline?
Studying photos can’t hold a candle to the experience you’ll get being on the other side of the camera, though. If you can, get out and show. Volunteer with show management. Learn to scribe trail. Ring steward a full weekend show. Announce. Get involved. Not only will you learn more about how a horse show runs, but you’ll be able to gain insight from exhibitors and judges that you wouldn’t gain anywhere else. An added bonus: you’ve already started networking with individuals who will be essential to you getting hired as an official photographer.
If you ask 10 horse show photographers to answer a question about lighting, equipment, sales, or contracts, you’ll get 12 answers. Depending on you, your business, your experience level, the discipline you’re photographing, the arena you’re working in, and about a thousand other factors, technical aspects of a show photographer’s business may differ. Despite this, a few foundations remain the same. In order to be a successful show photographer, you must be prepared, educated, and surrounded by the right people. Once you have those things, the rest will fall into place.