Neil, tell us a bit about yourself.
After school, I served in the Royal Marine Commandos for 12 years. My father had been in the Air Force and I wanted to make him proud, by being in the military. When I left, I was looking to do something that piqued my adrenaline equally. I found it in photography, an art form that I had always been passionate about. I was given the chance to work with a great sports photographer, so I jumped at the opportunity. The rest is history.
What made you specialise in polo photography?
My first experience of polo was several years ago. It was mid-week in July. I was driving through Midhurst, Sussex, and saw a sign saying ‘Polo Today’. For a reason that I cannot explain — perhaps it was just instinct — that sign was like a ‘red rag to a bull’. I was immediately attracted by what I would ‘potentially’ see. I pulled up at the edge of Lawns 1 at Cowdry Park polo ground and they were playing a game in the Gold Cup, the British Open. I was transfixed with the speed and skill of the horses and players. The game had me hooked.
One of the aspects that add appeal to your pictures are the horses. What is it about these majestic animals that draw you to them?
I have always had a love of horses. They are such noble animals. I admire, respect and value them. It is a well-known saying, but never has a truer word been said, that ‘When you look into a horse’s eyes you are looking into their soul’. Treat horses well and they will open their hearts to you.
A polo field is so big. How do you ensure catching the most dramatic action and not missing it?
I tend to position myself behind one of the goals, usually with the sun behind me. That way, I will (hopefully) get some of the action, unless it is all being played down the other end. If that is the case, I will move and adapt the settings on my camera accordingly. Have I missed out on the drama? Of course, many times. But it is such a fast-moving sport that invariably something will happen close to you within a couple of minutes, so I stay focused on what I am shooting, not what I am missing.
How do you choose your spot while a game is on?
I always get to the ground early, while the ponies are getting prepped in the pony lines. For me, ‘behind the scenes’ photos almost always offer the opportunity for artistic shots.I like to work with the sun behind me when the action is on. Light lifts the definition of the ponies and gets under the players’ helmets, so you can see their faces.
During chukka change-overs, I tend to photograph in the pony lines or capture players jumping from pony to pony. One of my favourite types of image is capturing ponies getting showered down with the sun behind them. That way you get all the water drops shining in the light.
Is it not dangerous to be so close to the horses galloping towards you?
Yes, it’s a very dangerous sport! You must never get in the way. I work about 20 metres back from the goal line, but horses still come charging by. The key is not to move. A horse and player do not want to charge into you - they will do everything they can to ride past. That said, I have had a few ‘hairy’ moments, when they have come a bit too close for comfort …. within inches!
Do you shoot with a monopod or prefer shooting with a hand-held camera?
For the action, I use a heavy-duty monopod as my lens and a camera (400mm 2.8 lens with a 1.4 converter and a pro Canon) that weighs 11 kg, so I cannot hand-hold it. I have a second camera with a shorter zoom for working around the pony lines. I also use two other pro Canon cameras, plus a selection of other lens: 16-35mm, 28-80mm, 50mm and 70-200mm.
What is your regular camera setting like?
For the action on the field, I set the shutter speed around 1500th of a second and aperture 5.6.
Some do's and don'ts for enthusiasts who want to start off?
My strategy for shooting polo is to work hard at it: understand the game; go to the exercise tracks in the morning light; get to know as many people as possible, be it players, grooms, etc, even if it’s just a nod or a wave. Most polo people are very welcoming and will bend over backwards to help you, if you ask.
Don’t get in the way or interfere! Working around one, let alone numerous horses, that cost a small fortune, can be risky to life and limb, whether on the field or in the pony lines. As with every sport, a polo photographer must never be a nuisance and always appreciate that a polo pony is a finely tuned athlete, who has one goal, and it is not to perform for a photographer.
Could you share some of your experiences of shooting around the world.
I have had some wonderful times and adventures with polo around the world, including 3 years photographing this amazing sport on the frozen lake at Saint Moritz, Switzerland. I got invited to take images at Ellerston, the private grounds of Jamie Packer in Australia. Dubai was wonderful and the facilities are superb, but the most thrilling moment was being asked by HRH The Prince of Wales to take the first polo images of the two young princes, HRH Prince William and HRH Prince Harry in their first polo games.