Polo photography

Polo photography; tips for photographers


One question I often get asked about is Polo Photography, and how to get better images. I certainly don’t know the answer to that one as my idea of better images maybe completely different to yours, but I’m happy to share with you how I do things.

If you’re reading this I’m assuming you have some idea of the game and the enormity of the polo field, and that no lens is going to be able to cover all the action at any one time. The pitch size is 160 yds by 300 yds, about 4 times the size of a football pitch.

Polo field
Polo field at Manor Farm, Ambersham, West Sussex

Polo photography is a waiting game, and the moment you decide all the action is happening somewhere else on the field and you move, there’s every chance the action will move to where you were originally. So choose a good spot and stay put and wait; where’s a good spot? Totally up to you, but if you want the drama of two players trying to ride each other off the line of the ball, you better be down by either of the goals. I like to sit to one side of the goal and on the same line as the goal judge.

Two polo players battle for possession of the ball as with ponies hooves all off the ground
Polo ponies with all hooves off the ground
Polo action at the Cowdray Gold Cup

I should add at this point if you intend on being anywhere other than where general spectators are allowed, you need to have permission from the club, and preferably relevant insurance. Remember if you cause an accident and a horse gets injured, its going to be potentially very expensive! Being down on the goal line is dangerous and can be a little scary, but whatever you do don’t move if you have a player coming at you at full gallop. There is a far better chance for both you and the player if you remain where you are and the player will see you and try and avoid a collision, but there’s no guarantees, so be warned.

Polo spectators pose for a picture at half time of the Cowdray Gold Cup
Polo spectators pose for a picture at half time of the Cowdray Gold Cup

Don’t forget Polo Photography is not just about the action, there’s also lots of sideline action too, and for some clients this can be just as important as the action shots. I prefer to get close rather than long lenses but you do have to choose your timing, and be aware a loosing team may not be in the mood to have their picture taken.

Polo ponies standing in the pony lines before play commences.
Polo ponies waiting in the pony lines

Equipment I shoot with Nikon mirrorless cameras mostly because my first camera was a Nikon and I’ve stuck with them ever since. If I’m honest, I just don’t like the feel of anything else I’ve ever picked up, “horses for courses” I guess, pun intended. I shoot handheld, and for all my action shots I now use a pair of Nikon Z9’s and mostly fast aperture prime lenses too. The Nikon Z9 is unbelievably accurate and the fastest focussing camera I’ve ever used, and certainly the most ergonomic and intuitive camera to date. It does come with a considerable price tag though, but worth it if you do this professionally. When I first went to photograph a polo match at my local club, I had a full frame body (Nikon D700) with a 70-200mm f2.8 lens. It didn’t take me long to realise this lens was not long enough, so I picked up a second hand, a pretty knackered 300mm f2.8 and I used that combined with 1.4 convertor, so giving me 420mm but the convertor meant I lost 1 stop making it an f4. I really liked this combination, but as the lens had a quirky habit of deciding not to focus at very inopportune moments, it had to go. I felt the loss of the extra stop did make a difference too, especially when shooting in very dull light and before shooting at high ISO was good. So when it came to getting a new lens I got the Nikon 400mm f2.8 and paired that with a Nikon D5. I used that combination until 2020 when I briefly switched to Sony but just couldn’t get on with it. I particularly didn’t like the colour quality of the files, they’re just not as good as the Nikon, in my opinion. I could go on at some length about the crazy Sony menu system and the poor ergonomics of the bodies, they’re just plain horrible. I struggle to believe that they were designed by anyone who’s ever actually had to use a camera professionally. Anyway, I digress, unusually for polo photographers, and often to everyones else’s horror, I don’t use a monopod. I sit on the ground, or a very low stool, and hand hold. I feel it gives me far greater movement to be able to react quickly to what’s gong on around me and to be able to recompose the shot without the monopod getting in the way. I have tried many times with the monopod, but I just didn’t get on with it, and yes, my arms do ache!

Spectators watching polo action at Cowdray Park Polo Club with the famous Cowdray ruin in the background.
Spectators watching polo action at Cowdray Park Polo Club
Polo ponies lined up with their rugs on waiting in the ponies lines before the game starts.
Polo ponies in the pony lines with the hills in the distance.

Shooting technique Turn everything on to auto and “SPRAY ’N’ PRAY”!!….no?……oh ok, but seriously with a modern camera that could be a way forward and chances are you’d get some great shots, but if you’re shooting professionally and need to be able to deliver images consistently and not down to chance, you’ll need a different approach, and this is mine.

I shoot always wide open, so f2.8 in my case and in aperture priority, whilst making sure my shutter speed doesn’t drop below 1600th sec. If you’re shooting from the side of the field and the players are moving across your line, you may want a faster shutter speed. Why AP mode?…… why not?, it’s an amazing piece of technology you have in your hands, why not let it do its job? The important thing to know is how and when that bit of technology, might fail or more likely, be fooled. The most likely problem you will have is that the light meter will not be able to read the situation correctly. I’ve set a custom setting on my camera bodies that allow me to use the rear wheel to quickly, and more importantly without taking my eye off the action, dial in exposure compensation. I’m not going to go into how and when you’d use this, as I’m assuming you’re already a competent photographer, and somebody else has probably already done a far better job of explaining it than me anyway. 

Polo action at the Cowdray Gold Cup
Players in action at the Cowdray Gold Cup
Polo action as players battle for possession of the ball
Polo action at Cowdray Park Polo Club

I shoot in AFC (Continuous focus mode) with one focus point selected, which I’m continually moving as necessary. I also have it set so it doesn’t re-adjust focus when something momentarily moves into frame (like a groom deciding to warm up a horse in front of you, (ARGHH! why do they do that??!!) One thing I don’t use is back button focus, it’s utterly pointless for my style of shooting. If you continually focus and recompose or just like pressing two buttons instead of one, then it will suit you perfectly. I also don’t shoot with a high burst frame rate, simply because it makes editing so much harder, it’s far better and easier in my opinion to time your shots so you don’t have to shoot so many frames.It’s worth mentioning that you can often get some great sideline images too, and indeed some clients will want this as a priority over the action shots. So for this I have a second body with either a 24-70mm f2.8 or sometimes if I have a little more leeway, I’ll put on my favourite lens the 85mm prime.

Flying ponies in action at Cowdray Park Polo Club

Processing This bit is a real quicky, but unlike a lot of other sports, no one wants the images so quickly that they need to be done pitch side with a laptop. So I always shoot raw files, when I get home I download to Capture One Pro and put the images into the correct folder, and then just whiz through the shots and “pick” the ones I want to keep. These then get put then into a separate folder, which I just go through editing as necessary, this is usually just a crop and straighten, (sloping horizons, my absolute pet hate). Once that’s done I export at the required size for the client and upload to either my gallery or their server, which generally means the images are up and done before the end of the day, albeit around midnight! Oh, and one more thing, back up, actually I mean two more things, back up, and back up again somewhere else; ideally you should back up to an onsite device and then have another copy offsite for extra security.

A groom walks a pony down the sidelines during the Cowdray Gold Cup

You can see more of my polo images here


Oh, and always be alert, you never know what can happen!!……

20170723 Mbp 5527