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  • Writer's pictureJo O'Neill

An Interview with Racing Photographer Dominic James

Updated: Jun 11, 2022

Previously, Dominic James was a graphic designer as well as a former owner of a design agency, but he never strayed far from his love of photography. He has travelled the world taking photographs, developing a passion for horses. Nowadays, he is never far from the gallops at Newmarket in sunshine, snow or rain. He takes beautiful images of horses and their riders during their daily exercise – the delicate but powerful stretch

of front legs, snorting nostrils, fogging winter breaths or the flick of sand on the all-weather. Dominic is also qualified as a drone pilot so he can take aerial footage and stills, adding another dimension to his long list of skills.

Dominic, 55, grew up in Plymouth but now lives in Bottisham, near Newmarket. His wife, Anna Kerr, is CEO at the National Stud. He also has an eighteen-year-old son, Dylan. They own Henry, described as a 'very ginger working cocker spaniel'.

When did you start taking an interest in photography?

My Mum and Dad bought me an Olympus OM10 camera for my 18th birthday; I loved it and I haven't stopped taking photographs since!

How did this progress onto taking photos of racehorses?

Whilst I owned a design agency in London for fifteen years, clients started using me to photograph projects for them in 2003. St. Regis Hotels had a program of Polo events that they hosted around the world for the openings of new hotels. I photographed these events. When I sold the agency in 2010 to go full-time with my photography, they asked me to photograph one event each month in different locations worldwide. This project opened my eyes and vision to the beauty of horses.

One client, in particular, Thai Polo, based in Thailand, would invite me back to become their 'house' polo photographer. So, I spent a lot of time documenting the polo season, both on and off the field. I love to photograph the work behind the scenes of sport, so I built a lot of experience getting to know and understand these horses.

I moved to Chichester in West Sussex, next to Goodwood. I had a few meetings with the team and was asked to photograph 'Glorious Goodwood' in 2012, as it was known then (before the Qataris sponsored it). It was my first real taste of the racehorse scene, and I fell in love with it. Racehorses are just magnificent. They are on another level in terms of physique and condition to most polo ponies; well, apart from the high goal polo ponies, which are incredible.

I met my wife Anna through Goodwood; she wrote my photography brief for the first Qatar Goodwood Festival in 2015. She is from a family of bloodstock agents with a long pedigree in the industry: Her uncle was Bertie Kerr, a well-known and respected bloodstock agent, and her father Bert Kerr still runs the agency, which is now over a hundred years old.

It became apparent that I didn't understand half the terminology she used regarding bloodstock and racing, which sparked me into looking, learning, listening, and learning more.

Practising again and again with my photography and analysing what I'd taken to see if it was correct. I studied old books on horses and read about what trainers look for in a horse. I feel confident now that I know what is right; but you never stop learning, and every horse is unique, which just challenges you further.

In January 2020, we moved to Newmarket when Anna took a job with the COO at the National Stud, a good client of mine for a few years. I gained a license from the Jockey Club Estate to go out onto the gallops and document the horses in training. I was contacted by trainers, riders and owners who wanted to purchase photos of their horses. I needed to make these available online, so I created an Instagram account called @horsesintraining. I directed the traffic to a website where I could host the images, and people could view the pictures and buy digital files or prints if they wanted.

Sean Woods' string on Warren Hill

How was your business affected by the coronavirus pandemic?

On 20th March 2020, I arrived in Bangkok for a photoshoot for King Power Racing. When I arrived and turned my phone on, I got a message saying the Thai border was closing that evening due to the pandemic and immediately got a flight back home. I did this, and on Monday the 23rd, the first lockdown was announced. ALL my planned work for the coming season was cancelled in that one day. I'll never forget it! Upon careful reading of the COVID rules, I saw I would be allowed to go out onto the gallops and continue to photograph as I could not do this work from home. Doing this was a lifesaver for me and changed my career direction completely.

I was able to go out almost every day and photograph and learn, practice, practice and practice more, getting my technique right. I experimented using methods I learned in the motorsport industry, such as motion panning, where you use a really slow shutter speed to follow the horse and rider as they pass by, where you want to capture both to appear sharp in the frame but with the background blurred. A challenging technique, but with luck, you will get one in ten frames correct. I learned how to take accurate conformation shots and film horses.

As people got to know me and who I was on the gallops, I got more and more calls and messages asking for images. This work built up quickly, and within a few months, I had thousands of followers on my Instagram account, with a 'reach' of over 150,000 accounts a week and some good online sales - something I had never done before or expected to happen.

All this work and experience has led to a completely new portfolio of clients. These past couple of years I have been lucky enough to work with most of the top brands in the industry, with studs all over the country and have visited many yards. I even regularly travel to Ireland to photograph the horses in training for agencies, owners and brands.

Which racecourses do you work at?

Goodwood and Royal Ascot, which are dream assignments. Early last summer, Ascot contacted me and asked if I would like to do a partnership and photograph the horses entered at Royal Ascot week. These images were used on both Ascot's marketing and social media channels as well as my own. They even did an eight-page photographer's profile in their race card. For me, this was the icing on the cake for all the hard work I'd put into building this area of work. Working with Ascot was my ideal project, and it told me what I was doing was right.

I'm very humbled by how this work has grown, but I can't hide how chuffed I am! I love every minute I spend in this industry; it's a real passion for me and a privilege to document what goes on behind the scenes of racing.

Which is your favourite racecourse?

That's hard to choose…Goodwood, Ascot, Newmarket’s July Course. Goodwood because of its location and I know it inside out. Ascot because of the status of racing held there and its iconic look. The July Course because the end of the course is perfectly shaped and nestled into the trees; it’s just lovely. I still have many other racecourses yet to visit; I'm looking forward to going to the Arc this year.

If you could take photographs at any racecourse, which one would you choose?

Hmmm, good question; I'd love to go to Kentucky and shoot the Derby – it must be on my bucket list.

Hollie Doyle riding out for Archie Watson

Where else have you photographed racehorses?

Well, as most of my work is for behind the scenes of 'horses in training', I've had the privilege to travel the country and visit almost a hundred different yards and studs around the UK and this past year, I've been working across in Ireland, which is fabulous.

What are the best aspects of taking photographs of racehorses?

The challenge of capturing the perfect moment, which combines the horse's physique and it’s stride, the rider or jockey, the location and light, all coming together in a few seconds to create a wow moment! On the other side of the racehorse industry, working with a stallion and capturing him in all his glory is just a joy to do. Having learned about horses and how they are has enabled me to get some cracking moments.

I like having to think on my feet, when you have only a few seconds to capture a moment. It's not like automotive photography, where you can position a car, tweak it an inch, add lighting, etc. An aspect of racehorse photography most people outside the industry don't realise is how you need to know what a horse will do, when and the exact moment you need to capture your shot.

One of Sir Michael Stoate's on the Line Gallop

And the worst?

The politics!

Why is Newmarket a great place to take photographs?

The short answer is it's the biggest outdoor studio in the world. Over 2,500 horses are based here. Miles and miles of gallops in stunning landscape settings with some of the best horses in the world, I can't ask for more.

What are the best racehorses you have photographed?

There are so many to choose from, but here are a few personal favourites:

Enable: She is just the loveliest horse; I had the privilege of seeing her and photographing her while she was training out on the gallops. She was always hard to find, but when you did, you knew you'd get great shots.

Deirdre: Just wow, the only horse I've photographed that had such a unique calm way of being present. I also got to photograph her first win at Goodwood.

Stradivarius: So much attitude, he just loves to race, and you see it in his eyes and way of being on the gallops. I love that he's still racing and that I still get to see him out on the gallops.

Lady Bowthorpe: Photographing her win at Goodwood last year (pictured below) brought tears to my eyes, such a magnificent horse in every way and a well-deserved win for William Jarvis.

Palace Pier: He was probably the most exciting horse I photographed in the last couple of years; seeing him develop the way he did was amazing.

Annie Mc: Jonjo O'Neill's horse. I got to spend the day with her whilst filming a piece for the EBF. She has so much presence and character; it's such a privilege to work with a horse who knows herself.

Frodon: I got to meet and photograph Frodon down at Paul Nicholls' yard, which was a special day.

Which racing yards have left the biggest impression on you?

That's hard to say. Around Newmarket, I do love photographing Roger Varian's string; they're such a great team. William Haggas' yard is impressive, and his work ethic is impressive. Stuart Williams is a trainer who knows his stuff; I always learn something new from Stuart. George Boughey, such a talent, and what a string of horses he now has.

The most impressive is Sir Mark Prescott’s, his team are so well disciplined, all wearing the team colours, riding in perfectly lined up and spaced groups. His care for his horses and riders' welfare is a pleasure to observe. I've worked with Sir Mark a few times now, and I always come away smiling, knowing I've got what I needed photography wise, along with a few stories.

Around the country, I'd have to say both Jonjo O'Neill's and Paul Nicholls' yards are two of my favourite National Hunt yards to visit and Ed Walker's team in Lambourn is impressive too. I briefly went to Andrew Balding's yard to photograph some horses for GBRI and have an invite to come back; I'm looking forward to that and being out on Watership Down.

What other events do you photograph?

I do quite a bit of motorsport, which I do love. I'm an avid F1 fan at home but haven't photographed this. I was lucky enough to photograph for Ford and the Ford GT in the WEC series at Le Mans for three years, which was special to cover.

What is your favourite photograph you ever have taken?

That's a tough one! Probably the one I took of Sir Mark Prescott's string (below) walking back down the hill on a cold frosty morning; it captures the essence of horses in training in Newmarket.

What is the best season for photography?

Late Spring and early Autumn – being outside, having the lush green of Spring helps for settings, and the horses are starting to look really fit and well, ready for the season ahead. And the Autumn because the horses are in peak physical condition and the colours begin to turn on the gallops. You can get good moments with a good sunrise, partial clouds, and some luck.

Having said that, I do love a cold frosty morning with a good sunrise, which only happens in Winter.

A good old rainy day makes for some lovely textures and light but not happy riders. Shots like this do go to show the dedication of the teams behind the horses, and I love capturing moments that show this.

The wind is the only weather condition that isn't good as it spooks the horses.

What are your other interests?

Anything to do with technology. I've been an Apple user since the early '80s and love where technology is these days! Of course, Formula 1 and I do love sailing. I had my own yacht for a few years and sailed whenever I had the opportunity as I used to live near the coast.

If you could take photographs of one thing or place anywhere in the world, what would it be?

To be honest, I'm already doing this. I love what I do and have been lucky enough to photograph many things. The one thing I'd love to do is learn to ride a racehorse!

Stallion Havana Gold at Tweenhills Stud

What is your best advice for wannabe photographers?

Practice, practice and practice more. You must pick up a camera and take lots of photos to learn your art. Set yourself a project and stick to it. Show others and ask for critical feedback; take this on board and use what you've learned; this is half the job!

The next half is to learn how to develop your images in software (because you photograph in raw to get the best possible picture to work with, rather than jpeg, which is already processed), what we call processing, and develop your 'own' style. For me, finding my style took years; I looked for it but never found the answer, then one day, I was looking at my work and realised I had developed my style without realising it. I'd say less is more when it comes to processing. I always step away from a shoot I've processed before I output it, and when I come back to it, I can see if it's right or needs a tweak.

What is your best advice for photographing racehorses?

Keep your distance, or you'll spook them and not get relaxed shots! Sometimes when I'm on a gallop and can be a couple of hundred meters away, I see the horses spot me well before the riders do. You don't want this to happen if you can help it.

Camera setting-wise, use shutter priority, and if you can, use auto-ISO. To freeze action, you need at least 1/1000th of a second, unless you want to capture motion blur, which is a complex skill to learn on a moving animal, but with practice, you can get down to 1/8th of a second.

Use your body as a tripod and rotate around your hips. Use the fastest frame rate your camera can take and watch the horse's stride, so you time your shots. You are looking for the legs out in front, not going backwards, as this will make the horse look like it's going to fall over. A horse at full gallop will have straight legs and a low head and neck, which makes for a great shot.

For conformation type images, the horse always faces to the left, far side legs slightly closer together, near side front leg, almost straight down, with the horse's weight balanced between both front and back. Ears pricked forward and facing forward.

What does photography mean to you?

It's my creative outlet and using my skills and experience to capture visual moments in time that others can look on and appreciate the moment captured.

Please describe your character:

My wife says: kind, fun-loving and curious! She's probably right.

Favourite holiday destination:

Out at sea on a yacht!

*With thanks to Dominic for kindly supplying all the wonderful photos in this interview. Please look up Dominic's work - it's beautiful.

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