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The Backstage Pass: How to Get Behind the Scenes at Major Competitions – and Boost your Business, Too

If you’re a horse lover, the chances are that you’ve watched at least a little bit of top-level competition. Maybe you’ve tuned into Badminton or Burghley’s thrills-and-spills cross-country day; perhaps you’ve ushered in Christmas with Olympia’s showjumping spectacle. It may be that you’re a keen follower of equestrian sport, with a discipline of choice and a working knowledge of its major players and the rules of the game.

Regardless of which camp you fall in, you may have wondered what it takes to be one of the chosen few, bedecked in tabards and allowed to get up-close-and-personal with the action. It might be something you’d like to try for yourself, or maybe you’d even like to make competition photography the main part of your business. The great news? It’s not as tough to get in as you might think.

All the major competitions – the sort that you’d buy tickets for – will require you to attain media accreditation before you start snapping. This means you’ll need to affiliate yourself with a publication – either a magazine or a website – that will publish your photos. The biggest competitions are inundated with applications and tend to be quite picky about who they allow in, while slightly smaller internationals tend to be more lenient.

Don’t have any magazine connections? No problem. First of all, you need to start creating a section of your portfolio dedicated to competition photography. You can do this by accompanying a friend to a show and taking photos of them competing, but if your aspirations are at the top-level, you’d be best served aiming higher.

Many competitions will allow spectators to bring their cameras, although indoor shows tend to be more particular about this. Instead, aim for outside shows – county shows with big showjumping classes, dressage festivals, and 3* and 4* eventing competitions will all afford you plenty of opportunity to take photos, network, and learn more about your sport of choice.

Aim to take a mix of photos – action shots, candids, and the emotional moments before and after a rider’s round. As an unaccredited spectator, you won’t be able to sell these images, but you can post them on social media and in your portfolio. Want inspiration? Check out some of the best in the business: Jon Stroud, Libby Law, and Nico Morgan have all made careers out of editorial equestrian sport photography.

Once you’ve attended a few competitions and started to get your eye in – and a killer portfolio to boot – you can start to target publications. If you have a specific competition in mind, you’ll need to plan well in advance – some accreditations close weeks before the show. This information can generally be found on the show’s website, under the media section.

Now, start to make a list of potential collaborations. Your local area likely has a regional equestrian magazine, and they’ll probably want coverage of a major competition, particularly if it takes place in your local area or if local riders are likely to compete in it. If you have access to an entry list, use this to strengthen your pitch.

Email the editor of your chosen publication in the first instance. This information can usually be found in the front pages, or via Google or LinkedIn. If all else fails, find the magazine or editor on social media and send them a private message, asking for the best email address to send a pitch to.

Your pitch should then be succinct, confident, and to the point. Introduce yourself briefly, outlining your experience and enthusiasm. Then, explain that you’d like to work with the publication and why – it helps to have read an issue or two here, so you can mention what you love about it. Then, explain that you’re aiming to make competition photography a more significant part of your business in 2020, and ask them if they would be interested in adding you to their freelance database.

You might not get the dream job straight away – there’s usually some competition for the Badminton and Burghley gigs. But many publications are surprisingly short of photographers to cover the smaller internationals. In doing so, you’ll gain experience and trust, which will consistently get you closer to the main stage.

One important thing, though: don’t work for free. It’s a surefire way to get yourself a bad reputation with other photographers, whose own rates are driven down by a proliferation of new faces willing to work for nothing. Set yourself a day rate and open it up to negotiation if you want, but make sure you’re getting something out of it. Otherwise, you could lose opportunities before you’ve even started. A publication may promise you the world, but if they can’t offer you payment, they’re feeding you empty promises anyway.

There are other ways to get yourself behind a camera at a competition. If you have a contact who rides at the top level, collaborate with them to produce behind-the-scenes imagery, which offers a fresh new insight into the life of an international rider. Or, contact the official show photographer and ask if they have any spaces open on their team. Most official togs operate a busy fleet of second photographers, especially at events, where multiple fences will need to be covered.

Patience and passion are key when it comes to making a name for yourself in this niche circuit. The hours are long, the weather doesn’t always play ball, and your days will be unpredictable – but it’s also exciting, emotional, and completely addictive. And just like portrait photography, it’s all about creating and capturing relationships.

Have you dabbled in competition photography? Leave us a comment and let us know how it went!