I recently completed my third shoot for an outdoor equestrian event, hosted by the AERC. I love doing these rides, as I get to drive around in otherwise restricted areas of amazing land, take pictures of gorgeous horses, and generally get my photo mojo going. This week, I participated in two days of a three-day event, and I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on this specific event, as well as some more general lessons I’m learning.
When I shot previously, I knew quite a bit about landscape photography, but I’d never shot a sporting event, much less one involving horses. Reading up, I realized I wanted to shoot with some automation, and needed to set up my locations in advance. This last time didn’t afford me such a luxury, due to severe timing restrictions and late notice. What I did have was a brief conversation with some of the coordinators and a general feel for the countryside. That got me to a few nice spots, and as a bonus I found I wasn’t quite so worried about shooting a specific time and moving along. When I had too many options, I tried to hit as many as possible.
It turns out that the people interested in buying pictures are not so very interested in seeing a huge variety of backgrounds. What they want is to remember something about themselves being in the location, so it becomes important to find something that defines the location or at least gives a good impression of the overall ride. Since I was shooting in the Valles Grande Caldera preserve, I knew I wanted to get some long-ranging topography and a feel for high desert.
While this wasn’t always possible, I did try to capture at least a few choice, representative spots. I kept in mind that I was shooting for the riders to have some memorable pictures of themselves, not shooting a spread to reveal the landscape in a magazine or gallery. That helped me focus on the event itself, and saved me a lot of grief.
On the first time out, I borrowed someone else’s camera to get ‘better’ resolution (14Mp as opposed to the 6.1Mp in my aging D100). That didn’t work out so well. While some of the images were of much better quality, I was so uncomfortable with the camera that I missed or screwed up lots of potentially great shots. I also found myself switching between bodies and not having the controls embedded in my brain, so there was a lot of delay while I tried to flip back and forth.
I greatly simplified things this time around by choosing just a couple of lenses, sticking largely to one 70-200 tele. While I had a LensBaby, a 14mm Nikkor, and a 70-180 macro zoom, I used these only when I had the luxury of shooting stills. The 70-200 is not razor sharp, but being that I am standing next to running horses out in an open field, I figured it was a reasonable trade-off. The zoom is very quick, but the focus could be faster. What I really needed was the ability to move between close and wide shots without getting in harm’s way. The 14mm would have been excellent for establishing location if I could stand 2-3 feet from the riders, but that’s just not do-able.
My camera was set up in shutter priority with one dial set to exposure compensation, and the auto-focus set to continuous while the focus lock button is depressed. This gave me the flexibility to control shutter speed and exposure with dials, and the option to set focus and recompose or continuously focus while shooting through a moving scene. Normally, I shoot with single autofocus on the shutter release, with manual control over the aperture and shutter speeds. The alternate setup gave me an amazing amount of control and flexibility, and I have no idea why it took so long for me to try it out.
I also tried out a home-made camera sling, based on the BlackRapid design. I made a loop of kevlar cord between the strap lug and a Bogen baseplate, then attached that via bent-gate Black Diamond carabiner to a Dell laptop case strap. The ‘biner was just as wide as the laptop strap, so slid very nicely. And I tied things in such a way that if the tripod baseplate gave out, the strap lug would hold the camera as it was designed to.
Why was the strap useful? For one thing, it’s a lot more comfortable than the traditional camera strap. It also holds the body differently (down at your side) which is great for keeping it out of the way when you are doing other things. For this particular shoot, it also let me drive (with a seat belt on) without getting tangled up. I could simply let the camera sit in my lap, and if I need to stop and shoot from the car, it was ready to go – no binding up or short strap to limit my movements.
Finally, I took a Macbook Pro with me this time, as well as a Wacom Intuos4 tablet. While waiting for riders to come by, I dumped images from my card to my Macbook Pro, and did some basic editing. That meant I was ready to print some 4×6 samples as soon as I got home that evening, and take them back the next day. This had the unintended consequence of making me be very critical in choosing what to print – anything that required more that what is provided in Camera Raw got axed for the first pass.
In the end, I came out with a lot more quality pictures, done in days less time than it usually takes. There was no time to agonize or minor details or spend inordinate hours doing advanced retouching on hundreds of photos. I was very happy with the results, and was able to get prints into my customers’ hands by the end of the 2nd day.
The third time’s a charm, they say. And I’m inclined to believe it!