Grand National photography is a mixture of hard work and thrilling sport at a truly global event. In 2018, 2019 & 2023 I covered all three days of the festival.
Getting to Aintree at around 9.30am to avoid traffic and get your thoughts together for the day ahead is a good idea. The photographers marquee is large and well organised by the Aintree staff. The wifi connectivity is good, you get a desk seat with a power outlet and a packed lunch. The Marquee is also very close to The Chair fence for the big race.
Photographers are given bibs according to their racing specialisation or their expertise/ interest - top horse racing photographers get beige bibs, those only wanting to take pictures of the crowd and the social goings-on get orange bibs, and the majority of us general sports photographers get black bibs which gives us marvellous access to all areas of the course. There is a photographers briefing at noon each day giving us directions as to what is happening on the day.
I took three camera bodies (Canon 1DX2, 1DX and 5D4) plus four lenses, the 200-400mm f4 or long distance work, 70-200mm f2.8 for closer up work and crowd shots, 16-35mm for using in combination with a remote trigger at the bottom of fences and a 24-105mm for general use.
Horse racing provides a multitude of possible shots. If you are a particularly creative photographer looking for new angles on things it is a super event as there is plenty of scope for trying new things and thinking differently. It pays to keep an eye out for what is happening throughout the day on the course and what some of the traditions are. I missed the fact that Gabrielle, one of my favourite singers was performing in one of the venue spots at the end of racing on day 2. I also didn't realise that before the big race the jockeys parade out of the weighing room with the trophy and line up on the podium for a combined photo opportunity. However, with so much going on you simply cannot be everywhere.
You have to have a game plan for the morning before the racing starts as well as where you want to position yourself for each race. You really must move around and try different viewpoints at each race otherwise you will end up with quite boring pictures of the same scene. Try some slow shutter speed panning work, some views from the grandstands, some different fences out on the course - the Canal Turn is a great spot. It is also a good idea to take a remote control set so you can position it close to the bottom of a fence whilst taking pictures with a handheld camera a few yards away. You must also work out which of the three tracks the race will be run on - there is a hurdle track, a steeple chase track and of course the Grand National track - only one race per day is run on the latter.
I used the first day as a warm up, just to get a feel for the venue, how things worked and also how far various possible viewpoints are from each other - you will do a lot of walking over three days ! It is also an idea to spend some time around the VIP entrance to the course as this is where any celebrities will come through. I found that it was best to get most of your people/social side of things pictures before the racing starts. Once the racing begins then everything starts to get very busy, there doesn't seem much time between races when you are having to wire out pictures to your agency in the interval.
Day 2 is Ladies Day which has a very different atmosphere to it - absolutely marvellous. The Ladies turn up in all sorts of fabulous dresses and love having their photos taken. Its not my usual genre of photography but it was great fun as everyone was in such a good, happy, positive mood. My sense of the affair is that when the racing starts it was best not to go back into the Grandstands as the alcohol effect kicks in and behaviour starts to change. We had been warned to respect the racegoers - meaning don't take pictures of them in a bad state doing naughty things !
Day 3 is the Big Grand National event and the atmosphere ratchets up a notch towards the main race. I had decided my game plan would be to have all three camera bodies on the go. The 1DX with the wide angle lens on the remote at the water jump. Once the horses had past this fence I could then go onto the course and retrieve it whilst running across to the Grandstand side to get pictures of the winning line with the 200-400mm. After the race the winning horses parade back to the winners enclosure for the presentations for which the photographer has to fight through the crowd to get in position. Here is where the 70-200mm comes in handy. The presentation pictures are as important as the race pictures and are not to be missed.
Photographers who have been to Aintree many times know the score but as a first timer you really do need to think about what you want to achieve and plan out each of the days as far as possible to get the best of the event and hence its best to go to all three days so that you can use the first to get your bearings and plan better for the next two.