Horse Polo is normally played on a field that is nine times the size of an American Football field, making it a very challenging sport to photograph. A smaller version of the game, Arena Polo, is played on a field that is slightly smaller than a Football field. For purposes of this article, I will mostly discuss the large field version of Polo.
Each Polo team consists of four players, plus there are two officials on the field (Arena Polo teams are only three players each). The ball used in Polo is small, not much larger than a baseball, and is made of a hard plastic. When hit, the ball can travel at speeds in excess of 60 mph, so getting hit with one hurts. If shooting Polo, be prepared to move out of the way, and to make sure the ball does not hit your camera.
Due to the size of the field, it is impossible to completely cover it with one camera, and as such I have seen various approaches used:
- Shoot from one end of the field
- Move around the field during the match, to vary your shooting position
- Shoot from mid-field (my personal choice, as that is the preferred seat for a fan)
Whichever way you shoot this sport, you will need a lens with reach. My preferred lens is the Nikon 80-400. When I first starting shooting I used a D90 with a 70-300, and then got a D3X and the old version of the 80-400, which I used until I literally wore it out. If I can ever get my hands on a Tamron 150-600, you can bet I will use it for shooting Polo. I have seen people shooting it with fixed lenses (400mm or longer), and with the 200-400 lens, among others. Occasionally the players can be right in your face, so I typically carry a secondary camera with either a 35 or 50mm fixed lens, or the Nikon 24-120 zoom. You should also use high-capacity memory cards.
Cameras with a large buffer are best, but if you are prepared to shoot in short bursts, you can get away with a smaller buffer (like the D7000 or D600 series). I like the large buffer in the D810, and have yet to max it out. Shoot in NEF instead of JPG, as the changing light conditions are best handled with raw files.
The sides of a regulation Polo field have boards, to help keep the ball on the field, but the end zones do not. A Polo match is six chukkers (periods) long. If the score is tied at the end of regulation, then a sudden death chukker will be played. Each chukker is seven and one-half minutes long, with a running clock, unless stopped by a penalty (or injury).
Injuries usually happen in one of two ways; either falling off of a horse, or getting hit with the ball. All players wear helmets, and some players have face guards added to their helmets for additional safely. I have seen (and photographed) someone getting hit in the face with a polo ball, which is not a pretty sight.
The action starts at mid-field, with the players lined up on opposite sides, and the official throws in the ball. The players try to take control of the ball, so they can take it down field and score. There is no net, just two tall goal posts at each end. The posts are padded and loosely attached to the ground via pegs, so that they will fall when (not if) hit by a player and/or horse.
Action sequences are very easy to get in this sport, but perhaps the most interesting ones are when someone falls off (which is also referred to as an “unscheduled dismount”). In most cases the injuries are minor (more bruised ego then physical damage), while in other cases the injuries can be severe (one of the first ones I photographed the player broke his hip).
The shaft of a Polo mallet is made of bamboo, and therefore is flexible. Mallets are used for both hitting the ball, and for blocking the opposing players mallet (a maneuver called hooking). Despite their flexibility, mallets do break, normally having the head break off, but the shaft can also splinter. A player will continue to use a broken mallet until a break in the action, as there is no “time out” in Polo.
Polo is similar to hockey, in that the opposing players try to keep each other from the ball. This is usually done by “riding the other player off” or “bumping” (the Polo version of checking). A player will ride up next to another one, and use his horse to try and “bump” the other player away from the ball.
When shooting Polo, follow the ball (or player with the ball), but keep your second eye open. As mentioned above, there are “unscheduled dismounts”, and these do not always occur around the player controlling the ball. Be prepared to quickly switch subjects, or you may miss the shot. I use AF-C, single point focus, and focus on the horse instead of the player (bigger target).
I have found sideline shots easy in this sport. Watch the crowd during any break in the action, and snap a few candid shots. For candid ones of the players, either arrive early and spend some time down at the trailers, or shoot them after the game. Most players will bring at least six to eight horses to a Polo match. They typically change horses at the end of each chukker, and sometime during a chukker, so a spare horse or two is not uncommon. The trailers are all parked together at one end of the field, and at most Polo venues fans are allowed to visit. During the halftime break (at the end of the third chukker), is also a good time to get some candid shots of the crowd.
As with all sports, Polo should be shot with a high shutter speed. I try to never go below 1/1,000th of a second, and prefer to use 1/1,600th or faster when I can. As Polo is played outside, you are subject to the weather, so Auto ISO is your best choice. I use a different folder for each chukker, (101, 102, etc), and if there is more than one match, will then start with 201 for the next match. This makes it easy for me to sort my photos later. Another factor can be rain. Action will continue unless there is lightning, so be prepared to either seek shelter, or use a camera+lens combo that can handle the weather.
In some of the northern states Polo is played in the snow, and in some southern areas they will sometimes play on the beach. I have neither seen or shot either of those, so I will not make any suggestions for shooting them. Polo is played in levels (4 Goal, 6 Goal, etc., up to 40 Goal). The higher the Goal level, the better the quality of the players. Each Polo player is rated as to strength, with 10 being the highest rating (there are only about a dozen players in the world with a 10 rating). The rating of the players of each team are added up to determine the Goal level (or quality) of the match. I hope someday to see a 40 Goal match, but those are rare.
Both men and women play polo, and it is not uncommon for teams to consist of both genders, though some tournaments are restricted to just one gender. In addition, Polo is played by people from their teens to their seventies.
So check around in your area, get out the long lens, then go and shoot some Polo. You will find that it is a very entertaining and exciting sport, plus you never know when you will capture an unusual shot.
Article and all images are Copyright William Jones. All rights reserved. No use, reproduction or duplication including electronic is allowed without written consent.