JON STROUD - EQUESTRIAN PHOTOGRAPHER
Published 13th Dec 2017
Jon Stroud’s name is synonymous with superlative equestrian photography, including eventing, show jumping, dressage and the more esoteric disciplines like vaulting
Jon Stroud's name is synonymous with superlative equestrian photography, including eventing, show jumping, dressage and the more esoteric disciplines like vaulting. He works 'almost purely' for the equine industry, right across the board from competitions at the highest level to editorial features, commercial and advertising.
Jon describes himself as 'a specialist at working with horses – how best to photograph them, work around them and get the best out of the riders', and his background in publishing, journalism and commercial photography, as well as his personal interest in horses and riding, brings a unique quality to his shoots. A Nikon photographer virtually all his working life, he spoke to us just before setting off for Las Vegas for the World Cup, to explain how his Nikon gear – including the D4S and D810 – contributes to his signature style.
I started out back in the 1980s, working for a large commercial and advertising studio in my home town of Maidenhead. I was doing my A levels and Friday was timetabled with no lessons – supposedly a study day. I knew I wouldn't spend it studying, and I was really interested in photography, so the school said I could do work experience if I could find a studio to take me… I started off as an assistant to an assistant, then I assisted a photographer.
After my A levels the studio offered me a job. It actually turned out to be of the bigger commercial photography companies, working with everything from 35mm to 10x8, so it was the perfect foundation in how to do things properly – it was all about attention to detail, and such a good grounding. A lot of photographers nowadays don't get this sort of apprenticeship. It's certainly helped with the quality of my photography.
I went from assisting, to junior photographer to photographer. Then I took some time out of photography and worked in publishing as a buyer. This set up the commercial side of my psyche – I got to understand finances and developed good negotiation skills, but I still had my love of photography. Through my publishing contacts I started doing a bit of writing, and people began asking me why I was using other photographers' work to illustrate the articles when I could be doing it myself. That was my light-bulb moment – I started taking more and more pictures and doing less and less writing.
I've been riding since my teens, and I've been photographing equestrian since around 2005, but it was late 2007, when I was already photographing the World Championships, that I switched solely to equestrian. I went out there all guns blazing, and made myself known. If you're providing the right quality and something different to other people, you can get yourself noticed quite quickly. I went from submissions to commissions seven days a week. It's all down to providing what clients want, having an understanding of the subject, and good people skills, which I'd learned from my commercial work, where it's as much about working with people as it is about firing the shutter.
The worst thing is having meetings with the picture desk when they insist they only want action shots with the horizontals horizontal and the verticals vertical. Yet there are so many other ways of doing it, and changing angles can add a whole new dynamic – otherwise all the pictures end up looking the same. I think it's very important that you photograph in your own way – I don't think you should be bullied away from that by picture desks or clients.
I still ride for leisure, and at home in Herefordshire we have four and a half horses (the half is a miniature!), who are a great inspiration and very useful when I'm asked for something that's not in stock. Our horses feature constantly in lots of magazines. My personal interest has also opened lots of doors in terms of knowing people, and it means I know what to photograph in the training features – it helps me interpret what they want to get over in the text. It's an holistic approach – everything helps everything else in some way. I think it's definitely one of the reasons I get used a lot.
I started off with a fully manual kit SLR, a Christmas present from my parents. Then, when I was studying in the early 80s, I bought a twin lens reflex. In the studio I started using better equipment, and when they were updating their kit they asked if I'd like to buy an old Nikon FE very cheap. That was in 1988, so I've been a Nikon man 27 years now. I've used different formats but, as far as 35mm goes, it's been Nikon all the way. I've never really had the desire to change.
I find using a different make of camera a foreign world – I'm lost the second I pick one up. With Nikon, the ergonomics have stayed pretty much the same over the years, so you have that basic ability to pick up a Nikon body in the dark and know where everything is. I never feel I have to read the entire manual before using a new Nikon; I can shoot pretty much out of the box. It's clever how even across quite different models this continuity is maintained.
I've got a D4S and D4, and I use my old D3 as a remote in competitions – it's certainly seeing out its days. It's great underneath jumps; I fire it with a Pocket Wizard so I can capture the horse going over the top of the jump. I also have the D800, which I got originally for editorial but I now use more and more for shooting the competitive side of things, and the D810 takes this one step further. The rendition of the detail is quite mind-blowing.
My lenses include the 400mm f/2.8, the 70-200mm f/2.8, the 24-70mm f/2.8 – a great all-rounder – and the 14mm f/2.8, which has beautiful perspective. I use it a lot for my remote shots under jumps. I do love the 16mm fisheye too, which I've used on loan a few times. I borrow the 200mm f/2 quite regularly – it's at the top of my lens shopping list – and I'm also very keen to buy the 300mm f/4. Through NPS's Rob MacNeice I've been able to open the toy cupboard – Nikon has been really supportive, lending me lots of stuff to play with.
So I have a lot of kit, and one of my challenges is flying with it all. A 400mm f/2.8 on a plane can be a bit of an effort! When I'm in Europe for two or three weeks at a time, covering several big competitions one after another, I prefer to drive, but obviously for events further afield I have to fly. I've had many an argument about hand luggage – sometimes I book an extra seat for my equipment!
One of the biggest aspects is the confidence the cameras give you to do great photography, which takes out the worry and messing about, and it's particularly valuable with the low-light abilities. As an example, I was at the World Equestrian Games in Normandy as an official photographer for the FEI [International Federation for Equestrian Sports] last year – it was a very big deal. I teamed up with a couple of other well known photographers to pool images and sell them as a package, simply because of the sheer scale of the multi-venue competition.
I got to cover the vaulting – where a horse is being 'longed' [put on a long rope held by a 'longueur' in the centre of the ring, so the horse canters in circles], while gymnasts perform a routine on its back, on their own, in pairs or teams – up to three people on a horse at one time. It was in an indoor 'bowl' venue, usually used for music concerts, with white light onto the arena and nothing on the background, so technically it was very difficult, and it was my first time shooting it. Photographers all around me were sweating profusely and panicking due to the lack of light. Luckily, I'd chatted to Rob in NPS beforehand and he'd lent me a couple of D4S bodies, along with the 200mm f/2 VR and the 85mm f/1.4. I set both cameras to ISO 8000 and just got on with the job while all the others were moaning about the lack of light and fighting the conditions, rather than making use of them.
I ended up staying at the vaulting for four days because I loved the way the D4S was handling it; I was blown away by what it was capable of. It could focus in such little light, producing punchy, contrasty, exciting images. I wasn't just 'making do' – the ability Nikons have in low light gives you so much confidence, you don't have to worry about the camera keeping up with you – it's more 'how can I keep up with the camera?' It was one of those situations that reaffirms your commitment to a photographic brand. Other brands weren't capable of the same results, or they were difficult to use to attain the types of results I was getting.
I got some really tight shots using the 400mm f/2.8 VR, where people were struggling to use 70mm, and got pin-sharp images on a moving target even when it was so dark.And for the night-time opening ceremonies, there was no real difference to how I would use the camera in daylight. Not so long ago indoor competitions were constantly a game of struggling with keeping the ISO as low as possible – what could you get away with? Now this is something I don't have to worry about. I can concentrate on framing the image and focusing.
I love Badminton because it's so very British. You look at the spectators, the whole demeanour of the event, and it couldn't be anywhere else in the world. It's always nice to be there with your feet firmly on the ground. But it is a difficult event to capture well, and one of the bigger challenges is trying to do something everyone else isn't, so careful lens selection and positioning are key. With eventing you have dressage, cross country and jumping. For the dressage they arrange specific photo 'pockets' for us to get the standard side-on shots. But I look at the photographers' huddle and I think what can I shoot that's different from what's over there? Instead, I'll go up into the restricted seating in the stands and shoot with a nice long lens like the 400mm to get the angle I want. Often I'm the only photographer in the position I'm in. And then there are angles. I'm one of the few equestrian photographers who travels around with ladders so I can get a different angle; it's a trick I learned in my commercial studio days.
With cross country you have to carry everything with you. I'll usually have four cameras, the 400mm on a monopod, both zooms on bodies slung over my shoulders, and the 14mm attached to the D3 on an Overexposed ground plate. Between competitors I can run in and set up the D3 on the ground very quickly, so when the next horse comes round I can get the shot I want, so I end up with lots of different types of shots. If you were to set up the camera and leave it remote-shooting all day in the same position you'd probably only get one shot published, as all your shots would look the same. The way I do it, I can move it between lots of different obstacles and jumps.
I'll walk the course at least twice before the competition starts so I can get a really good plan of what I'm going to do. Sometimes this involves negotiating with the officials – but if you can work it out properly beforehand and assess the risks and approach them with a clear plan, they'll move mountains to help you get the shots you want. Planning and negotiation are so important. Nothing should be too much of a surprise for you when you're out there
In the winter months I spend more time in the UK on editorial and commercial work. April/May is when the competition season starts so that's when I'll be abroad two to three weeks at a time covering several competitions. Then I'll be fitting in the UK competitions and UK editorial features, for which I have to coordinate carefully with the commissioning magazines – we have to plan the shoots around my free time. Working days at competitions are very long. You start in the press room around 7.30am, then you're out shooting, and then back in the press room until 1am. At the World Championships last year we were doing even longer days – it's a challenge to say the least!
Just as an idea of how summer is shaping up, in August I'm at Hickstead for the Nations Cup, then straight after I'm off to Malmo in Sweden for the European Pony Championships, then to Aachen in Germany for the Senior European Championships. Then it's back to the UK on September 24th and one weekend at home before the Burghley Horse Trials, then straight to Blair Castle in Scotland for the European Eventing Championship, then on to Deauville in France for the Dressage Championship. So that's eight weeks more or less working straight through. I drive over 30,000 miles a year to competitions, and in 2013 I spent 128 days working outside the country – I've not had time to work out my total for 2014, but 128 days is a fairly typical figure!
Photograph for yourself first and foremost, and for others secondarily – if you do that and do it well, people will want to use your photography because it's yours – rather than you become a clone of someone else. It's more about being confident in doing things how you want to; that then makes people want to work with you. It's a huge compliment when people recognise my work even when it's unaccredited. It's important that you have something unique to offer….