Is the professional horse show photographer an endangered species?

Here's an example of a proof from a horse show photographer. This one is used with permission of both the parent of the rider and the photographer. However, today I received an email about a horse for sale that showed three proof photos!

It seems like the easy access to high quality digital cameras, FaceBook and what you could call the iTunes mentality are conspiring to make the professional horse show photographer a thing of the past.

It used to be that when you went to a horse show or event, a few days later you’d receive an envelope full of photographic proofs. I can remember eagerly awaiting those envelopes and sending off my check for prints. No one else ever took pictures of me and I appreciated those pictures.

It’s different today. To begin with, the images are digital. Photographers generally post the photos on their site and hope that riders purchase prints. But they are competing with any number of amateurs who are armed with Digital SLRs who are willing to give away the photos that they take.

In addition to competing with friends and family, professional photographers are now competing for sales with themselves. See, the problem is that you can now copy photographs off of a website with just a few clicks. Sure, a photographer can prominently display proof across their photographs and disable the download function, but it’s dead easy to copy the image. In fact, it’s increasingly common to see photographs with “Proof” across them on people’s Facebook pages, on ads and referenced in Internet forums. For many uses the low resolution proof is “good enough” quality for these applications and many riders feel no obligation to purchase the images. I mean really, look at the photo above, why would anyone feel justified in publishing an image that says Proof all over it?

Unfortunately, just because you are in a photograph it doesn’t mean you own it. In fact, you don’t. The copyright holder for the image is the photographer. You can purchase the rights to use a specific copy of the image but unless you negotiate it with the photographer, those rights are limited. You cannot, for example, take an image, scan it, and use it in an ad. See Equine Photography: Who owns that photograph of your horse?

To address image theft (because that is what it is), some photographers are now charging to view on-line galleries or are suggesting to riders that they view images at the event where they can be seen at no cost. After all, once someone gains access to an online gallery, they can copy that photo.

The backlash against this practice has been loud and widespread. Some people don’t want to pay to look at proofs (since there may not be a photo they like), some people think photographers should suck it up because it’s part of the cost of doing business, some think that photographers should move toward the iTunes model with inexpensive downloads of low resolution images.

Here’s a sampling of the comments I read on the Chronicle of the Horse forum:

I would NOT pay to see proofs, since I would be unhappy to waste the money if none of the shots from that show happened to be good, for whatever reason.

I don’t know the solution, but I imagine this could make photographers lose lots of business from people who feel the same way I do.

Paying to view proofs would get a laugh out of me. I think that’s ridiculous.

Sounds like a good way to put yourself out of business. I have bought pics several times while perusing online galleries. I would never have done that if there was a charge for the viewing!

Add the outrageous cost for even just a 5 x 7 print, running around $20 from our local photog, they are definitely putting themselves out of business. I can get just a good a picture by handing my nice camera off to someone with good timing.

I’ve sold some of my own photography in the past, so I KNOW that professional prints shouldn’t cost that much, even if you aren’t printing in house. Most good horse show .raw pictures don’t require that much tinkering, so there shouldn’t be that much time involved. I could see $10 for a 5 x 7.

Anyway. I think the whole thing is price gouging.

No surprise that the last poster doesn’t make their living taking pictures! She is, actually, an attorney. Unfortunately, pro photographers can’t make a living selling individual low res shots at a buck or two a piece. Or even a 5×7 for $10. They simply can’t afford to show up and shoot for those prices Unlike music, they aren’t going to get thousands of people downloading a single file — they are lucky to get just one. The costs for being a horse show photographer are higher than the average person might think: a pro camera with a variety of lenses will cost between $3k-5K, they often have to pay the show for the opportunity of taking photographs (HITS charges vendors more than $1K/week) and they spend a long day taking photos on spec.

And while it’s annoying to pay to look proofs and discover you don’t like any of the pictures, a small fee to ensure that a photographer is on site doesn’t seem out of line. It’s not much more than a competitor paid for lunch and certainly is less than a competitor might have paid to have a horse’s mane professionally braided. Much of the time the problem doesn’t lie with the photographer. Rather, the rider or the horse doesn’t look picture perfect.

What raised my hackles about the thread I read on the Chronicle of the Horse Forum was the assumption that there is little skill involved with being a professional photographer

See, I don’t think I agree that horse show photography is a professional skill like writing copy, or lawyering (my trade) for that matter. I say horse show photography in general, because while snapping pics over a jump takes practice, eye, and timing, it isn’t really art. Some are, but I would say most aren’t As a matter of fact, I would argue that most of the pictures taken by the “professionals” are NOT as good as those taken by amateurs focusing on just one friend from their barn. With a nice DSLR + lens and good timing, and a good eye for photoshop, I see no difference. Maybe I am just lucky to have very good photographers surrounding me

Maybe I don’t believe that a photographer’s time is worth $20 per 5 x 7. I get about 3-4 photos taken of my 3 minute trip, so if I bought just one that would be $20 for 3 minutes. If each person on a 3 minute trip bought 1 photo, that would mean the photog made approximately $400 per hour.

Maybe that is a weird formula, but I have never met any horse show photographer anywhere that was worth $400 an hour just for time. The time + proofs for my wedding pics was only $1500 for the 8 hour day!!

I don’t think this person “gets” it. Sure, photographers would be rich if each person bought a photo but it doesn’t work that way. I don’t know what the percentages are, but I doubt that they are in the double digits. It’s completely different to hire a photographer for an event such as a wedding because they are guaranteed a set fee.

I suppose the bottom line is that the market has changed irrevocably. The standard of quality has shifted downward (both among purchasers and, perhaps, among some photographers) so that people are willing to accept photos of lesser quality so long as it’s free. Perhaps it’s because the economy has made people scrutinize every extra purchase or maybe it’s just that some people feel entitled.

To the pros: I am not very interested in purchasing actual print photos, nor are most people anymore. What people want is digital images. That’s why they steal proofs- they want to stick something up on FB, email it to everyone; they don’t want a physical picture that can’t easily be shown off. If they can’t buy digital images from the pros, and can’t convince their friends to shoot some at the event, they steal proofs.

My prediction is that it won’t be long before people have to rely on their friends and family bringing their digital cameras to the show. And that’s when they’ll bemoan the fact that they no longer have the choice to buy professional images. However, the pros will have moved on to serve an audience that values what they offer . . . and is willing to pay for it.

Show YOUR support for horse show photographers — join the FaceBook Group “Support Horse Show Photographers: Take the pledge not to post proofs!”

17 thoughts on “Is the professional horse show photographer an endangered species?

  1. That commenter is ridiculous and obviously hasn’t actually tried to take photos at a show. There’s more to taking a decent photograph than just getting the timing right (which is hard enough).

  2. hey, that’s our group! yay!

    Oh how I remember that thread. I do fear your final assumption is correct – a disappearance of the trade, possibly along with professional videography at shows. Maddening to me. I’m hoping this recent wave of motivation brings forth some solid ideas to work from.

    1. I’m sure the “A” shows will have pro photographers but for the rest of us, I’m thinking it’s going to be amateur hour.

  3. Thanks for posting this Amber.. I suppose I’ve said all I can say in the past year about it, and alas, the idiots prevail..

  4. Liz, I wouldn’t be so sure. The 6 ring circuses that run for 5 days are the huge money drain – 7 people on staff (6 togs, 1 manning the trailer), hotel and food for all, 6-8 camera set ups at about 3K-5K a pop, frustrating tendency to charge a “vendor” fee by the bigwig managers, truck/trailer viewing station, the list goes on. Those are the shows that are hard to “make ends meet” with by selling some $40 shots. The local circuits – 2-3 days, 2 rings, maybe no viewing station, may be the only profitable model left.

    1. Interesting — I would have thought that the folks at the A shows would be more likely to buy but (like most people) had not taken into consideration all of the photographer’s costs for being at the show. That’s a lot of money to lay out on spec.

  5. Thanks Liz for helping to make people aware of what is happening out here. Thanks too to Amber for her efforts. I would love to see this article picked up by some of the equestrian print media.

    As to some of the quotes from that thread, I think one point that one of the posters, and many and other people miss, when figuring what a show photo should cost is the following: that camera that they bought and took to the show was something they bought for their own fun and fulfillment. Something they will take on vacation, to parties, etc. It’s something they wanted and bought.

    For a photographer, it’s an expense. I can think of plenty of things I’d like to buy for fun with the money we spend for just one set up. Add to that the fact that someone who relies on photography for a living can not have just one set up of consumer grade gear. When I go to a show, by myself, I have a minimum of 3 bodies, and 3 pro level lenses with me. I can’t sell what I don’t shoot, and cannot afford to miss riders because of equipment failure. This plus the maintenance, and replacement costs, insurance, etc. go into the cost of each photo.

  6. Wow. Seriously? Price gouging? This from a lawyer? S/he really does not have a clue. I wonder what s/he charges per hour? If it’s more than $20, I feel bad for his/her clients. I’m sure no education went into his/her profession. S/he probably doesn’t have an office space or staff to pay for. Plus, when I want a lawyer, I just really don’t want to pay for it, so I think they should do it for free. If they don’t want to, I’m sure my friend can do just as good of a job. In fact better – my friend knows me, likes me, and will do it for the glory of doing so.


    I almost NEVER shoot shows anymore. 🙂

  7. “Stealing” proofs is actually a violation of copyrights. If the photographer were to pursue it, they could get a LOT of money from people who steal proofs and post them without permission. What people don’t realize they are paying for is the time and effort of the photographer and possble staff to print and mount the picture for the client. I have no problem paying for photos and appreciate the efforts of the photographers. Getting a professional photo of my horse is a treat.

  8. As a professional horse show photographer I say continue to steal images! I for one am working closely with an attorney and have been documenting as many of these image thefts along with vital information of the individual committing the thefts for future legal action. I plan to sue the pants off as many people as I can and will settle out of court for a prearranged charge even if it ties of the civil court system forever!!

  9. Wow, great article. I shoot cutting horse shows. I got into it quite by accident two years ago. I shot for my trainer husband at home, then a friend volunteered me to shoot a big show. The great thing about cuttings is that they are all indoors, usually bad lighting, and very fast-paced action. I don’t care what kind of DSLR and lens you have, you will NOT get a decent shot without a full set-up of strobes placed around the arena. I’ve had lots of people with their DSLR’s come ask if they could stand next to me & shoot, then ask why their shots wouldn’t turn out. I have to explain it’s the speed & lighting. So my business is fairly secure because most people aren’t walking around with 3K in lighting equipment in their trailer.

    But as far as over-priced, HA!! I carry no less than 10K in equipment to every show I shoot. Many of our shows run 18+ hours per day for 2-5 days, and I’m the only shooter, my daughter runs my viewing computers, but I do all the editing/printing. My last show of the season, at an arena I shoot monthly, I put in 28 hours shooting over two days, $500 in expenses, and sold a whopping grand total of $70 in prints. Now bigger shows, I will sell around $2500, but I am usually shooting 22 hours per day. I’d like to see any lawyer work those hours for that money. I have lots of people that think I should just sell them a DVD of all their shots for around $10, since there’s no print costs involved. Yeah, because that’s fair to me for all the time I put into the shots, and also fair to my other clients who pay full price for 10 or more prints per show??

    To my knowledge, I haven’t seen any proofs stolen of mine, other than something I put on Facebook & tag, with the knowledge it will likely be stolen. My website is pretty secure as far as right-click protected and such, but I know it’s a problem.

  10. Seems the advent of Rebel cameras has everyone thinking they can do the same thing as a person that has invested in not only equipment but also their skill set and continuing evolution….not just horse photographers but every sport and event…

  11. The abundance of amateur photographers has actually benefited my business. When exhibitors get to see top quality pro shots, that make their horses look great, they are more than willing to buy. I hear complaints all the time from competitors who are desperate to get good show photos. However, the amateurs have pushed so many pros out, that good show photogs are harder to find. That has led to people bringing their own cameras, or friends with cameras to shoot them at shows, creating very average images.

    In addition, many of my shows are held indoors, which gives me the lighting advantage and my pro equipment can handle it.

  12. Ron McKibban
    I agree, many amateur photographers and some Pros photos are so poor that when I show them photos that are sharp (both rider and horse), they are willing to pay a reasonable price for the photo. The economy has definitely made a difference but horse people are no different, they expect quality at reasonable prices. We spend many hours at the show including setting up usually a day ahead of the show and the last ones to leave. I charge what I feel is fair and there may be some theft but if they want it so bad with the big X and company name, I can’t imagine wanting to show anyone they know they stole the photo.
    So many shows are indoors now and that is a big advantage to me because of the lighting.

  13. Did anyone ever hear the phrase; “Iron Bars Do Not A Prison Make.”, Well, in the same respect, “A DSLR Do Not A Horse Show Photographer Make.” I just find it hard to believe some of the comments made online about us Professional Horse Show Photographer’s. Some are downright appalling!

    As for me, I’ve invested My entire Life into doing Horse Photography. Now, how can anyone put a price on that? Not too many year’s ago, I’d have to buy a lot of rolls of Medium Format (2 1/4) or 35mm Pro-Film to take 1,000 or more Photos, plus the Developing, and Proof-Printing too, just to see what I got, at a Show. It’s an investment of time and money, and, to not make a decent profit on it, is just not fair, is it? Keep in mind, that once Film was exposed, you can’t “delete” and overwrite it. A broken film-latch = disaster.

    With my DSLR, I can see right away, that I got the Shots I needed to get. How I longed for a Camera like this when I started photographing Horses over 35 Year’s ago.

    However, the technology that has come to help me greatly, is also hurting me, and a great deal of other Professional Horse Show Photographers, just like me.
    With the advent of the DSLR, it has also brought out more “horse show photo-junkologists”. These are some of the same, and newer people, you’ve seen standing along the rail at Horse Show’s, who used to use Film, and took “junk” photos before, and now that they’re using Digital, they’re still taking “junk” photos, but, only far more of them! They must have thought that by using a Digital Camera, it would make them better, and take better photos, when all along, it wasn’t the type of Camera that was the problem.

    Does driving a racing car make anyone a better driver? Of course Not! Sure, anyone can ‘blast’ away at +5fps, and fill up memory card after memory card, but, do they even know what they’re shooting? Do they store the Images securely, for Years? I doubt it. No money in it for’em. They just delete them all. Where do most of their photos end up? Mostly on Facebook, what some call the new ‘landfill’ for photo waste of all kinds, as it was not originally designed or intended to be a showcase for professional artistry. After all,” We are Skilled, We are Dedicated, We are Professional.” We are Official Horse Show Photographers!

    P.S. I don’t know of that many people, that would stand for Hours on-end (or Days) at a Horse Show, in an indoor Arena, or, in an outdoor Show-Ring, in the hot sun, or, in the rain, and in the mud that’s mixed with “road apples”, to get “The” Photos of your Horse, and that upon seeing them, you say; “Those Are Great Shots!”. Then, in the end, only to have you then say, that you probably won’t even buy a $40. 8×10 Print, of any of them, anyway. How Awful! ( I hope You’ll buy mine!!)

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