I had the opportunity to shoot the Steeplechase phase of the Oakhurst Three Day Event last weekend and I wanted to capture images that reflected the incredible speeds of the sport (horse and rider easily reach 30 km/hr during the event). I had enough folks ask me how I got the shot in the banner above that prompted this post about my settings and technique.
The shot below left is my usual fare. I'm at 200mm roughly 35 yards from the jump, shooting at 1/1000@f4, giving me a depth of field (DOF) of roughly 20'. I float my ISO, this shot ended up being at 500. I've got my D750 set with back-button focus (BBF) in continuous AF with 9-point dynamic tracking. I'm on a monopod (no head) for stability. Vibration Reduction (VR) is off, given the high shutter speed. I'm riding my BBF aimed at the saddle pad while firing off short bursts around the peak action. Crisp clean image of the subject with the background slightly soft. Perfect. Easy. But this does not give a sense of the speed.
The shot on the right provides the impact of speed I'm looking for. Here I'm panning the camera with a slower shutter speed (SS) while maintaining focus on the rider. After a few test shots, I settled on 1/30@f20. ISO landed on 450. Finding the right SS is key for these shots: too slow and it's real hard tracking the subject while panning, too fast and you miss the effect of motion. I tend to start on the slower side and increase SS until I get the effect I'm looking for. I manually set aperture to get the right exposure, but you could easily run this shot in shutter priority. Also try to minimize objects between you and the subject, I tried a few shots over the jump but the lane marker (white pole in the first shot) ended up blurring to much of the image.
The real secret for this shot, tho, is using turning your VR on (in normal mode). You're now within the SS range to benefit fully from any help to reduce effects of camera motion. Start tracking the subject before you start shooting (riding that BBF) and shoot slightly longer bursts (read rule #6 here for why). Check your battery level as well - anything less than half and it's best to swap in a fresh one (VR starts to lag when the battery gets weaker).
Here's another set of images showing the difference in settings. 1/1000@f4 no VR on left. 1/30@f20 VR (normal) on right. Enjoy.