Jon Stroud, Equestrian Photographer

Posted on by Jason

My next photographer interview moves us in to the world of equestrian photography courtesy of Gloucestershire based Jon Stroud, a friend of mine from our mutual past as motorcycle racing and track day enthusiasts. Fittingly, my first exposure to Jon’s photography was through his coverage of WSBK and IOM TT motorcycle racing, but latterly Jon has moved away from this arena and concentrated on equestrianism.

He has kindly agreed to allow me to showcase some of his equestrian work, along with a description in Jon’s words of how the shots came together. It’s always nice to hear from the photographer how an image was planned and achieved, so hopefully you’ll find this educational in addition to enjoying the photography.

I asked Jon a couple of questions as a brief intro, although I think many of the questions and answer warrant a longer discussion so I may revisit them at a later time.

Hi Jon, you’ve had a fairly diverse career as writer, editor and photographer. How do you currently divide your time?
It’s really a case of working with the diary and filling up the days. Whether photographing or writing, different projects work with different lead times. The equestrian competition diary is set fairly well in advance and I have a good awareness of what will need covering and what will sell so I can put together a pretty accurate calendar quite well in advance. With that in mind, those projects with longer lead times such as the writing of books can be fitted in and around the competitions. Feature shoots for magazines tend to be the odd day or half day here and there (generally one or two per week) so they can slot in the gaps if I’m available. Fortunately most of the people I photograph for features are likely to be competing at the same competitions I would be working at so their available time tends to coincide with my own.

Motorcycle Racing to Equestrianism – that’s quite a marked change in direction, how did it come about?
On a personal level I have a foot in both camps. I have always followed motorcycle racing and, as you know, have done more than a few laps of the county’s greatest circuits on two wheels of my own but my wife and I also own horses (she manages a private yard as her full-time job) and equestrianism is a great passion of mine. Just as things were becoming ever more difficult to make a crust in covering bike-sport an opportunity arose to shoot some equestrian competitions until, with time, horse-sport took over from horse-power.

Most fields of photography are currently affected by the ‘unpaid professional’, who will work for free or very cheaply for personal recognition, to supplement a full time salary or to pay for more photographic kit. Has this impacted the fields you work in and do you see it as a direct threat?
Without a doubt it has had an impact and yes it has made the equestrian world a very difficult place in which to make a living out of photography but personally I see these people as an annoyance rather than a threat. I have no interest in working for people who aren’t willing to pay for images – a credit in a magazine is worth nothing when you’re putting diesel in the car or paying for your groceries at Tesco. I do wish, however, that more event organisers would get their act together and make it harder to gain accreditation because what I do object to is jostling shoulder to shoulder with weekend warriors for position at prize presentations and having to suffer interminably slow upload speeds in media centres as the part timers race to get their oh-so-important images onto Facebook while I struggle to get my work out to agencies across the world who are waiting for them for the morning papers.

Jon Stroud Media

Approaching Storm – Andrew Nicholson at Pau
In the world of eventing, there are just a handful of four-star events held across the globe each year. These include the likes of Badminton, Burghley, Kentucky, Lühmuhlen and, in this case, Pau – the gateway to the French Pyrenees.

I had hoped for great weather heading so far south for this November event and, indeed, on the day I flew in it was gorgeous and about 25 degrees. Conditions, however, quickly spiralled downhill along with the temperatures. By the Sunday the showers were becoming quite regular and shortly after this image was taken I found myself trapped in the arena on the receiving end of the most torrential downpour I have ever experienced in my entire life. But, in my opinion, it’s that incoming stormy weather that makes this shot so great!

Normally when setting up remotes for jumping shots such as this we hope for a lovely deep blue sky with perhaps the odd fluffy white cloud – a featureless, grey and overcast background just looks bland and never works. In this case it is the textures of that approaching band of blackness that makes everything work. The predominantly white jump and the grey horse are a stunning contrast to the darkening skies while the eerie light on the tree in the background help perfectly frame the subject.

Jon Stroud Media

Stockdale wins the King George V Gold Cup
I like this shot because it captures a moment – the precise second when Tim Stockdale and Kalico Bay cleared the last fence in the jump-off to take victory in the 2010 Longines King George V Cup at the Royal International Horse Show, Hickstead.

Normally I would try to capture a jumping shot a little earlier with the horse making more of a shape but this one had to be different – this was about clearing the fence and taking the win.

I had been a little worried about hard shadows as earlier during the competition the sunshine had been very intense but fortunately, as the jump-off started, a co-operative band of hazy cloud drifted across the sky softening everything just enough to keep things balanced.

Jon Stroud Media

Passing Rider – Tweseldown
This was one of those occasions when you see the potential for a great shot and then have to quickly work out how to achieve the best results before the opportunity passes by

Tweseldown racecourse has a foot underpass underneath the track. On this day the competition was eventing and not racing and as competitors headed back from the cross country course to the lorry park they had to pass by the top of the steps.

I spotted this as I was about to walk up out of the gloom and thought it looked wonderful. I clicked off a test shot without a horse to see how things looked but it was a gloomy February day with precious little definition in the cloud and no light at all on the front edges of the steps or the brick side walls.

I grabbed two Speedlights from my bag, fitted snap-on diffusers and popped them either side at about waist level on a couple of posts. I bit of power juggling on manual settings and it seemed to look alright. I then got my wife who was working with me for the day to stand at the top of the steps to act as a spotter and to stop anybody walking down at the critical moment.

I shot about three riders from this location but it was this one the seemed to be the perfect distance from the steps to make the image complete.

Jon Stroud Media

A Leap of Faith – Caroline Powell and Lenamore at Badminton
New Zealand eventer Caroline Powell making it look oh, so easy as Lenamore leaps into the water at Badminton.

Water can make for great shots in equestrian photography but often the temptation is to try to capture the horse as it lands and makes a splash. Sometimes this works but I find that, more often than not, the results can be quite dull and disappointing. Only when the rider makes an unplanned parting of company with the horse do those sort of shots pay off (and by “pay off” I mean both artistically and financially).

Here it’s the shape of Lenamore’s cat-leap that makes the shot combined with the tight framing and lack of skyline.

Jon Stroud Media

Endurance Rider at Dawn
Endurance rides, especially at the higher levels of competition, offer a surprising number of opportunities for great photography.

If you take the time to scout out the route you will invariably find some wonderful landscapes among which to frame the riders. For me, however, photographing endurance is also about capturing the technical aspects.

To keep horse and rider going for as much as 160km in a single event there is a need for regular feeding, watering and cooling down. These actions generally take place at designated feeding stations and checkpoints so can be easily predicted.

This image, shot at about 6am on a 160km World Cup event captures one of the riders “sloshing” down their horse on the move. I’d already spotted the location and reckoned that, at that early hour, the sun would be creeping above the tree-line.

To my mind the shot worked out really well combining, as it does the frozen droplets of water, the horse in silhouette and the clearly defined rider.

Jon Stroud Media

Driving with Karen Bassett
Karen Bassett is is one of Britain’s top carriage drivers and has competed as part of the British team at the last eight World Four-in-Hand Carriage Driving Championships.

I was introduced to her when doing some work for TeamGBR and Impulsion Magazine by team mentor and founder of the Unicorn Trust, Sydney Smith.

Sydney was aware that I wanted to shoot driving in a different way to the norm – most shots of the discipline struggle to show the speed and dynamics involved – so we looked at creating some more unusual angles with overhead, underneath and on-board camera angles.

I considered shooting the on-board images with a remote but realised that it would be just too inflexible and I wanted to experiment with different angles and exposures. There was only one thing for it – to get on board and shoot freestyle!

I was really pleased with the results – the slow shutter speed in this image created just the right amount of movement in the driver, the carriage and the background. Any less and the feeling of excitement would have been lost, any more and the detail and quality would have suffered.

Jon Stroud Media

The “Real” Robert Smith
I was commissioned to photograph top British show jumper Robert Smith for a magazine feature. When we got chatting he told me that he got a bit bored with doing photos as all of the equestrian photographers seemed to just go after the same thing – standing with the horses, leading the horses, sitting at the kitchen table etc.

When I had arrived at Robert’s house I noticed this fantastic Clint Eastwood / Dirty Harry poster in the hallway which seemed totally at odds with the rest of the traditional decor. He told me it was his favourite – he loved the poster and he loved the film. For me that was the perfect cue to create this unusual equestrian portrait. I asked Robert if he had a jacket he could wear that would fit the image and he produced this fantastic shiny thing from one of his sponsors, Animo. I said it looked very “Ford GT40” and once again hit the nail on the head – it’s one of Robert’s dream cars!

It’s great when you hit it off with a subject for a shoot as these things can so often seem quite staged and rigid.

Jon Stroud Media

A Clean Set of Heels – Ireland’s Shane Breen and Carmina Z at Hickstead
The parallel lines, the lovely blues and dark reds and the abstract rainbow effect from the big screen in the background all work together to give this image a unique look. Again it was one of those seen and caught shots – I was actually concentrating on shooting the action over another fence with the 400mm but then spotted this view was they jumped away over the next. More often than not, jumping away shots rarely work as the back-end of a horse (and often the back end of a jockey) are not the most attractive things to look at. Here, the angle of the shot and the shape of the horse’s tail and legs seen to make everything just about right.

Jon Stroud Media

Matt Frost, Grand Prix Dressage Rider, and The Usual Suspect
This was shot as a commission for a magazine cover. Originally I had planned to do the shoot the previous day but, after spending much of the day photographing the other activities at Matt’s yard, the weather deteriorated rapidly during the afternoon and we had to abandon.

I returned the following afternoon still unsure what the weather would bring driving through alternating bands of brilliant sunshine and pounding rain all the way. When I reached the yard it was still touch and go so I knew I had to work fast.

I had already decided on the location for the shot the day before so that, to a point, made things a little easier. Matt headed off to sort things out with the Ralph (The Usual Suspect’s stable name) while I set up a 90cm softbox on a stand and got the camera on a tripod

The weather was once again starting to look questionable so Matt quickly got into position while a makeshift photographer’s assistant (one of the stable staff) started to angle in a 120cm silver pop-up reflector from the front.

One key aspect in doing a cover shot like this is getting the horses ears to prick forward. I have a number of tricks in my trusty toolbox to help make this happen but on this occasion they were simply not needed.

“Just have everyone cheer like he’s won a competition” said Matt.

We all did and it was like asking him to say cheese!

Jon Stroud Media

Going for Gold
This was shot pre-Beijing 2008 at a TeamGBR press day. Funnily enough this image seems to be becoming rather popular again for some reason.

Although straightforward enough in theory, this wasn’t was easy an image to capture as you might first imagine

In these days of does-it-all-digital so much skill has been taken out of the art of photography. One of the most common areas I notice this is the haphazard way that photographers handle depth of field. Too many people shoot constantly with their lens wide open at 2.8 with the mistaken impression that having only half a face in focus is arty or on-trend. No – it’s just lazy. Others seem determined to stop down as far as they can, leaving little or no definition between subject and background.

This shot was all about managing depth of field accurately – not an easy thing to do with a 200mm lens shooting at close range. Too much depth of field and the image would lose its impact and artistic point of focus, too little and some part of the flag, the rings or its surround would be left soft and lacking definition.

Even the most apparently simple shots take real thinking though if they’re to be completely successful.

Royal Windsor Horse Show 2009

The Water Splash – Dick Lane at Windsor
The water element at the Royal Windsor Horse Show’s driving marathon is a magnet for spectators and photographers alike. Due to the shadows from the trees it can often be quite a difficult place to work – a situation not helped by the fact that HRH Prince Phillip judges the obstacle and is located, with his attendant security, just out of shot to the right.

It’s possible to shoot from the banks on the left (something most photographers usually do) but, in my opinion, to get the best angle on the teams as they come through there is only one real option – to get wet with them!

This was shot with the help of my trusty Dunlop Wildlife wellington boots standing in the middle of the stream.

Blenheim Palace International Horse Trials 2009

Charging across the Causeway – Lucy Wiegersma & Granntevka Prince at Blenheim
This was one of those occasions when it really helps to know the course and how it’s affected by light at different times of the day.

I knew that to shoot a rider on the causeway I would have to be at the top of the hill opposite for mid afternoon – too early and the light would be behind, too late and shadows from nearby trees would start to have their own say in proceedings. This worked out really well as the sun was low enough to prevent the rider’s face dropping into shadow.

Jon Stroud Media

Totally Totilas – Edward Gal and Moorlands Totilas at the 2009 European Dressage Championships
The stunning combination of Dutch rider Edward Gal and the incredible Moorlands Totilas.

Simple but effective; I love this as a competition shot of Tottie – even with tight framing you can still imagine the power and the concentration of this horse in action.

Jon Stroud Media

Adelinde’s Victory – The 2011 FEI World Cup Final, Leipzig
Podium shots, whatever the sport, tend to be a bit of a let-down. All of the pro photographers covering the event are inevitably crammed into the same small area where they knock lenses and shoulders as they jostle for position. There then follows a series of set shots of the top three competitors (individuals before receiving prize, individuals after, national anthem, top three together etc). Only if you are known to the competitor or can shout particularly loud in their native language can you hope to get some direct eye contact.

With this shot of Dutch dressage rider Adelinde Cornelissen, taken in Leipzig at the 2011 FEI World Cup Finals, I had already bagged the standard selection of shots and, being one of the regular “faces” (and also having a loud voice) I also had my eye-contact image.

But, just as most of the other photographers were starting to get bored and distracted and were chimping*, I spotted Adelinde not playing to the crowd but savouring a special moment for herself. This, in my mind, is what winning is all about.

*chimping is the act of reviewing what you’ve taken on the camera LCD screen and going “ooh, ooh, ooh” at every frame!

Jon Stroud Media

Playing the Odds – Zara Takes a Dunking
This series of shots is included not so much for artistic merit but more as a lesson in planning and playing the odds.

They were taken during the cross country phase of the 2010 Boekelo Military near Enschede in the Netherlands.

During the morning I had spent some time working at the water complex. Early on, several of the GBR competitors in particular had literally fallen fowl of the obstacle when their horses became bogged down after jumping down onto the soft sandy underwater surface.

Zara Phillips always generates a certain amount of interest when she competes. For the main I try to ignore it as there are always lots of cameras pointing at her and following her every move. Here in Holland, however, it was a different story – despite the large British contingent of competitors I was the only UK based photographer. I needed to move around the course to get the expected variety of shots and angles but decided that, whatever else happened, I had to get back to the water for Zara’s round later in the afternoon.

The reasons were straightforward –
A shot of Zara just competing has little commercial value
A shot of Zara falling has reasonable commercial value
A shot of Zara falling in the water has great commercial value
An EXCLUSIVE shot of Zara falling in the water is gold dust.

I jogged back to the complex in the nick of time and got into position with my wife (who often works with me) covering the first part of the complex and me covering the more challenging second element. The sequence of images tells the rest of the story. I wouldn’t have wished it on her for one moment but by playing the odds I got the shots the papers would want.

It made a wonderful full page in The Sun with the brilliant headline “Zaraaaaah!” and also featured well in several other national papers and celebrity magazines. Even to this day I still get a good monthly payment from one of my agencies for the series’ continued use in countries across the world.

Yes it’s true that some photographs are the result of being in the right place at the right time but there’s no harm in increasing your chances by working out where that right place might just be!

Jon Stroud Media

Ben Patriotic – Ben Maher at the European Championships
The 2009 European Jumping & Dressage Championships took place in the grounds of Windsor Castle.

Over the course of the week I had experimented with many different ways of incorporating the riders with the seemingly impressive backdrop of the Castle; however, to my mind things hadn’t really worked out as well as I would have liked with good sight lines being hard to find and the castle itself often looking rather insignificant in the background or obscured by grandstands and lighting.

I knew that the best approach would be to rely on the compression of a medium telephoto lens and look for a creative tight crop. I tried a few variations with headshots but none were that satisfactory. I then spotted top British rider ben Maher entering the arena and the idea of pairing the Union Flag with the castle ramparts sprung to mind. I quickly moved position to a jump where I knew I could get a good side-on view and watched his round. As he approached I locked my focus onto the embroidered flag and tracked him in whilst concentrating, as best as I could, on what was going on in the background.

The timing was later than I had anticipated as the horse was already over the poles and preparing to land but it was important to keep some space and clarity between the rider and the castle tower. As things turned out, it all worked in my favour as the angle of the horse made for a better shape while Ben’s flying coat tails and an extra dynamic and some movement to the whole composition.

Find Jon on the internet through his website Jon Stroud Media or you can follow Jon Stroud Media on Facebook and on Twitter @JonStroud

I know I say it every time, but please remember, these images are copyright Jon Stroud and must not be used without his explicit permission!