Conquering the Sport of Kings
Arguably known as the oldest team sport in the world dating back to 247BC, the Persian army used polo to train the elite cavalry before conquering through the many kingdoms in the Middle East.
Word of mounted armies quickly spread across the eastern hemisphere, soon adopting this training method as the most noble of pastimes by kings and emperors, thus giving it the nickname “The Sport of Kings.”
Coming from an extreme sports background, I had no idea what I was getting into when I found an opportunity to make pictures of an equine sport that I knew little of, other than the cool silhouette on my cologne bottle.
After years of hanging around a polo club on Sundays, learning the sport, making pictures, failing on pictures, and sharing the best, I am now into my third season as the official club photographer at Sarasota Polo Club located in the Tampa Bay area of Florida.
Equestrian sports can be tricky dealing with two completely different species of athletes working together as one unit; but rewarding if you know the basic guidelines on how to make a great horse action picture. These five tips might come off as Polo specific, but many things can be applied to other sports or genres of photography.
Start The Day Following Action Outside Of Your Viewfinder
Get a feel for the pace of the game and you’ll start seeing things happen consistently, which is where you can hone in on making a particular image. The overall atmosphere will dictate how fast the game is played with important details like player proficiency handicap, crowd size, weather, and time of day all to be considered. Understanding these factors will help when planning on your vantage point to make a stellar image.
Be Aware Of Your Surroundings
Horse grooms are usually found on a corner of an end-zone, anticipating mallet changes and ready for athletes to come storming in and switch horses. This can make a unique horse switch image. Know if you are in a prime zone for hit flying balls coming your way.
Wind can play a crucial factor in how far back these world-class athletes will hit the ball, sometimes soaring more than 60 yards before making it through the goal posts. Be cautious of the side boards and the safety zones, which are meant for athletes to slow and turn horses before returning to play.
The end zones make for great images but is the most dangerous place to be as you usually have multiple horses nudging and racing in at speeds of 30mph battling for possession all the way to the goal line.
Tell The Story
Move and make different images. Standing in one place will really get you the same types of action, but moving to a different part of the field can have huge benefits. The regulation polo field is the size of nearly five football fields combined, measuring in as the largest field in organized sport. That’s a lot of space where neck shots, back shots, blocks, chase-downs, and breakaways can occur.
Use the space to tell the story and take advantage of the action when it comes closest to you. Also, be on the lookout for the classic tea party hats, mallets, horse-grooms, bright colors, and champagne to make interesting images of the atmosphere of the day.
Go to USPA and learn about the game. The goal direction for each team switches after each goal is made. This is to give each team equal conditions for fair play in regard to weather and sunlight.
There are six chukkers (similar to periods) in a regulation game. Each chukker is 7 minutes and 30-second-long, with breaks in between each to allow riders to switch horses, mallets, adjust strategy, and grab a drink of water.
There is usually a halftime between the third and fourth chukker where fans walk out on the playing field and help the staff stomp down divots that the horses make when they turn and/or kick up hard. There are lots of opportunity to make different types of images.
I suggest reaching out to the club to see if they have a photographer that would be willing to go over basic club rules. Remember these clubs are all private that hold a public event on a Sunday or Friday, so the club has the final say on what is permitted and where you can photograph from.
Research horse imagery. Look at the leg/hoof placement, facial expressions of both horses and people, tack details, polo mallet, and ball location. Think about slowing the shutter way down and getting a nice motion pan.
Share Your Work
Polo clubs and players especially love to see images of themselves defining gravity and chasing a 3-1/2” diameter ball down a massive field. Don’t be afraid to tag the club or athlete when you make a great image. Who knows, it could lead to the horse owner reaching out and wanting to purchase a specific print for their barn or as an advertisement image to rent/sell polo ponies.
When I’m not shooting polo, I can be found on the sidelines of major sporting events as a Getty Images photographer, or photographing interior and exterior views of beautiful architecture. I also like to keep a flow of portraiture work to continue learning light and experimenting looks with new athletes.
Along with being a freelance photographer, I have been Dave Black’s first assistant and producer for the past six years, Scott Kelby’s photo assistant for over three years, Photoshop World staff and lighting producer for five years, and workshop staff with Summit Workshops since 2016.
Thank you Scott and Brad for the opportunity to voice my opinion on a sport I hold so dear to my heart. The action keeps me sharp and in-tune but the connections with the horses is what continues to bring me back.
The 2020 Sarasota Polo Season runs through April 12, 2020, with public matches held every Sunday and the last Friday of March.
Where You Can Learn With Me
Find me helping Scott at his May Hands-on Flash Workshop in Florida or at one of the upcoming Summit Workshops including Lighting and Sports where we can work on understanding light, photography tips, assistant knowledge, or general career questions. I’m always willing to sit down and help.
You can see more of Julio’s work at JulioAguilar.com, and keep up with him on Instagram and Facebook.