Horse show photography: When spectators decide to break out a camera

A hunter clears a fence at the Lexington Spring Encore “AA”  Horse Show at the Virginia Horse Center.

Technology has allowed most of us to carry fairly decent cameras just about everywhere with us. The cellphones in our pockets take nicer photos than any camera most of our parents ever took to special events. Falling prices and easier-to-use digital equipment have also allowed some of us tocarry cameras that were once reserved only for professionals. This has put official horse show photographers in a bit of a pickle, and it seems that things are getting testy.

As I often do on weekends, I drove to a large local horse venue recently to take in a few hours of a horse show. I grew up showing horses and I slept, ate and breathed horses. But just as it has for many, attending shows as an exhibitor has become more difficult financially. So although I have a lovely horse at home that could certainly be in the arena herself, these past few years I’ve filled the void by attending horse shows as a spectator. I don’t even know anyone there most of the time. I just want to be a part of it in any way possible. It’s my happy place.

Last fall, I realized as I was sitting in the stands that perhaps I should put my professional training as a journalist (I have a journalism degree and work for a newspaper as a designer) to good use if I’m going to sit around watching horse shows most weekends. And that’s how RoanokeEquestrian.com was born. I go to shows for the fun of it. I take photos and sometimes videos.

Recently, my happy place along the rail of an AA-rated hunter competition quickly turned sour. As I was snapping photos of the horses coming over a jump, someone from behind said, “Are you shooting for the newspaper?” I actually am part of the newspaper staff, but no, I was not shooting for work. I turned and smiled at an older lady who was munching on some Cheetos and politely answered that I was shooting for RoanokeEquestrian.com. She demanded, “Who are you?”

During the course of a conversation I tried to keep friendly and she was determined to keep adversarial, I was called a “poacher” and “unethical” despite assuring her several times that I was not selling or marketing the photos. Poof. Happy place ruined, at least for that day.

To her I was obviously doing something very offensive by taking photos. I do not agree. While I sympathize with official photographers’ plight, I was breaking no rules. I was selling no photos. I was like any other spectator. I just happened to be holding a nice camera.

There’s a lot of discussion on forums about this topic. Is it OK to shoot photos if there is already an official photographer? The answer, in my opinion at least and also legally, is YES. Unless there are signs telling you that you cannot take photos (because a show venue is private property) and the event is open to the public, then you can take photos whether there is an official photographer or not. You may not, however, start advertising or selling your photos. That’s where I do believe you cross the ethical (and sometimes the legal) line.

Some shows, just like any event, do restrict photography. The prize book for the Bonnie Blue National contains a fairly lengthy section restricting cameras anywhere near any arena. “Cameras with detachable lenses or lenses of more than two inches are prohibited. Any lenses greater than two inches is considered professional equipment and is not permitted in the arena buildings or into the competition arenas to include seating areas.”  I would presume this rule buried in the prize book was accompanied by signs. If I had a horse in this show, I would be pretty unhappy about this policy. While I realize the official photographers are struggling, so are many exhibitors. I for one could rarely afford a professional photo of my horse at the show. I would have loved one, of course, but all my money had gone into my horse. I guess I’m lucky that those cell phone cameras really are pretty good.

Some people say you should introduce yourself (including the photographer I ran into) and tell the official photographer what you are doing. I’m on the fence on this one. If they are somewhere close by and it doesn’t seem like you will disrupt their work and you want to say hello, by all means. But as a spectator, having a camera does not mean that you have to go clear it with them, anymore than you have to clear it with the food vendors if you bring your own peanut butter and jelly sandwich. And by the way she treated me, it does not seem she would have exactly welcomed me anyway.

I have the utmost respect for professional photographers and their work and I wish I had such talent. But having a contract to be the official photographer does not suddenly give you the right to walk up to spectators and demand to know who they are and treat them rudely. Horse show photographers are struggling, but so are horse associations in general. Treating people unkindly is no way to attract more competitors or potential clients. I’ve been in the horse world my whole life and I was put off by the rudeness thrown at me. Imagine how folks that are completely new to that world would feel to be greeted that way.

By the way, when alerted to the treatment I received, the team at the venue where this incident occurred apologized for what happened and said they will be working to make sure it never happens again.

There are other perspectives on this topic on the Internet, usually from an official horse show photographer and occasionally from someone that has just been scolded. Check out some of the ones I have run into below:

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