Steeplechase: Shooting a Nashville Tradition

Photo Credit: Carissa Ramsdell

It’s All About the Story

It’s fast horses, fancy hats, and a lush, grassy track marked with fences for jumping. That’s right, we’re talking about the Iroquois Steeplechase; one of Nashville’s most prestigious and beloved traditions since World War II. This year, Steeplechase fans gathered from far and wide to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the great race. The weather was perfect. The backdrop, stunning. It was a photographer’s dream, from budding enthusiasts to seasoned pros alike. But getting great shots, like the ones featured here [courtesy of the Iroquois Steeplechase], requires more than perfect weather. So how do you photograph an event like this to successfully convey the all of the rich action, color, and emotion?

Increasing Your Photographic Skill Set

The answer is simple. There’s no question that many benefit from an innate natural talent, or “eye”, for photography. Still, as most of you know by now, there is a learning curve associated with shooting a DSLR camera. The same is true for working with digital photo editing software. But that’s the good news! Virtually anyone can go from absolute beginner, to the ability to create terrific-looking images. All you need is a little know-how, and a lot of practice. Or, if you prefer, a lot of know-how! Trust us, we understand how addictive increasing your photographic skill set can be. It’s incredibly satisfying to create uniquely beautiful, artistic images that tell a one-of-a-kind story, from your point of view.

Photo Credit: Iroquois Steeplechase

3 Tips for Action Photography

Shooting an event like the Steeplechase is all about action and interaction, movement, emotion, and color. I’ve written about these things in different contexts before, but how does it apply here? What are some methods for achieving the best results? Check out these 3 tips for action photography:

1) Deciding How to Portray the Movement

Do you want to freeze the action or introduce a sense of movement in the shot? If getting that “frozen moment in time” feeling is important, you’ll want to shoot with a higher shutter speed to freeze the action. Sometimes this requires raising the ISO to get your shutter where it needs to be and still get a good exposure. Professional sports photographers commonly shoot at a shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second or higher in continuous mode - in order to prevent “the one that got away”.

2) Shoot in Raw or Lower Resolution

In order to speed up and extend the amount of time your camera fires shots, you can choose to shoot in a low resolution JPG, like medium fine JPG instead of large fine JPG. Of course there is a max burst rate for your camera, which you can find in your manual (3-10 frames per sec (fps) depending on your camera model). But if you know you’ll be doing a lot of editing after the fact, you might want to stick with raw files.

3) The Active Space Rule

Another common technique employed in sports or action photography is something called the Active Space Rule. Simply put, the rule states that moving objects should always be photographed with an additional space allowance surrounding the subject - with a larger space allowance in front than behind - to suggest the feeling of active motion, and to allow room for creative or corrective cropping later.

Photo Credit: Carissa Ramsdell

Sun-Drenching Skills

What’s another key skill for any photographer’s toolbox? An awareness of light direction and intensity; ie: whether it’s morning or evening, midday, overcast or sunny. For instance, a less skilled photographer may find their photos completely overwhelmed and washed out when shooting in bright or midday light conditions. But a skilled photographer can successfully shoot in glaring sunlight. All you need is knowledge of core photography principles, such as exposure, TTL spot metering, and the use of fill light. Of course, dealing effectively with highlights and the dynamic range in your shots can be further dealt with in your editing applications after the shoot.

Details Matter

This detail of horse and saddle is a terrific example of a skilled photographer taking advantage of bright sunlight to create an interesting image. And remember the part about storytelling? It’s details like this that create a captivating narrative to beautifully inform and add inspiration to the stories told at events like the Iroquois Steeplechase. After all, it’s the details of the story that bring it to life; allowing us to step inside and experience it for ourselves!

Quick Rules of Thumb

The Sunny 16 Rule, in which an aperture of F/16 is used in conjunction with a shutter speed that is the inverse of the chosen ISO speed, can provide a handy shortcut to light metering for proper exposure. (For example, F/16, 1/800th sec, 800 ISO) This would provide a great depth of field, ensuring good focus, as well as a fast shutter for freezing action. You could also choose to go with 1/100th sec, 100 ISO for stationary subjects or panning shots of fast action, such as the rapidly moving horses in the race.

Photo Credit: Brenda Black

Sharp, Unmistakeable Subject

This photo of a young jockey carrying a saddle and blanket across the lawn is a prime example of a well-focused subject. What’s one of the best ways to ensure your primary subject is sharp and clear? Instead of allowing your camera to throw a handful of darts with the standard autofocus setting, nail your target by switching to single point autofocus. Upon further inspection, it’s not hard to see how the use of a large aperture, such as f/2.8-f/5.6, also ensures that the background does not confuse or distract the focus from the subject. It will automatically cause the foreground to be sharp and clear, as the background recedes with a blurred focus. Thanks to these useful techniques, the form of the jockey is neatly delineated. Finally you’ll notice that the subject is filling the frame. Our jockey literally pops forward as the unmistakeable subject of the photo; not something around him.

Photo Credit: Carissa Ramsdell

Fun With Fashion

In addition to the powerful Thoroughbreds and majestic vistas, Steeplechase always delivers when it comes to fun and fantastic fashion. As one of the premier social events of the year, devotees live to continue the tradition of “dressing” for the race. For any novice shutterbug with a passion for fashion photography, it’s a prime opportunity to develop your photographic muscle shooting all the details, details, and more details!

5 Tips to Remember

  • In summary, the next time you’re out shooting a lively Nashville event like the Iroquois Steeplechase, remember the following:

1. What Is the Story?

Challenge yourself to capture the essence of the event.

2. How Are You Dealing With the Action?

Use fast or slow shutter to introduce motion or freeze the action

3. What About Shooting in Bright Sunlight?

Think about spot metering, fill flash, and watch for neat highlights or rim lighting that can enhance the subject! Using the Sunny 16 rule can also be very helpful with your exposure

4. Isolate the Subject(s)

Use a low f-stop like f2.8, f4, etc. to blur out the areas other than the subject.

5. Details, Details, Details!

Keep an eye out for unique interactions or physical details that tell the “meat” of the story and give it character and flavor!


Have you been thinking about taking the next step in understanding how to use your DSLR camera effectively and creatively? At Silver Hill Photography Instruction, we offer a full range of digital photography and digital editing classes for any level; from absolute beginner to advanced professional. We also offer private one-on-one lessons, as well as business consultation, team building, tours and other special events. Most classes are held in the Cool Springs area of Franklin, Tennessee. For more information, click HERE to check out our website, or email us at or And don't forget to stop by and say hi on Facebook!

Thanks for stopping by. We look forward to hearing from you!


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