I try to spend time with the horses before and during an event so they become accustom to me and the gear. Horses like people may react negatively to clicking sounds from a strange creature with one big camera lens eye. However even with loads of time there is no guarantee that a horse will ignore me.
This is my wife's horse Miss O and she has spent more time infront of my camera than any other. She sees me at home, in the barn and on the trail. She has even carried my big rear around a time or two so it's safe to say she knows me. However she is also an alpha mare and very aware of her surroundings. So why this reaction when they they arrive at an observation? I'm across a creek on the oposite bank sitting under a tree. At this point we are about the same height so I'm not in a superior position. In fact when all the riders went down into the creek I stopped shooting to avoid evoking a flight reaction. She was clearly not afraid as the next images in the set are normal.
Perhaps this is just a 'tag you're it' or "I see you" look but I don't think so. I'm left with the lingering thought that a horse told me something to the effect "I know who you are, behave yourself because I know where you sleep!" It worked, I did. Pavlov would be amazed.
See y'all on the trail.
The life ride called 2011 is over and it seems appropriate to recount the year at Optical Harmonics. If I had to pick a word it would be “challenging.” Not so much the photography part, although it most certainly had moments of success and failure. The challenge this year was to balance the photography I enjoy with a family, farm, horse and another business during a record drought, high fuel costs and poor economy. To the extent that I succeeded please credit divine intervention and a very understanding wife.
Focusing on the photography part these are the 2011 statistics for Optical Harmonics:
Starting 2012 with:
Why would anyone in their right mind spend every other weekend at trail riding events? Perhaps it’s a love of photography, horses, the great outdoors and my wife who loves to ride. All of those are true but there is something more. I think perhaps it’s the horsemen and women with their can-do attitude. Every day they ride the horse that came out of the trailer, not the one they loaded. Sometimes the horse of the day is well trained and gentle. Other days it’s a wild-eyed bronc that apparently was exchanged overnight by space aliens. With thrown shoes, broken bits, snorty horses; riding through both drought and deluge they persevered. Sometimes they showed the wisdom to know when to quit. Other times the tenacity to get back on the horse that just threw them. I continue to be amazed by these special people.
Thanks to all of you who made this year so enjoyable. And, to the ones I owe an email, image or phone call, hang in there. I’m riding the horse I was given’ and doing my best to catch up.
Best wish for a great 2012
‘Photography is not about the equipment.’ ‘The best camera is the one you use.’ I have read and heard these a hundred times and for the most part I think they are true. Right up to the point they are not. Sometimes, like it or not, the equipment can make the shot. So as I sit here waiting for the last gallery to upload via an ISP that in many places would not be considered broadband, I have time to consider the last ride and, what worked and didn’t work.
I’m normally nervous before an event and having to drive through snow was not much help. By the time Cheryl and I arrived the precipitation had stopped and so had most of my butterflies. After making camp and checking in with Liz and Alanna, a ride management team that truly know how to put on an event, I assessed my shoot plan. As the trails were muddy, creeks were full, judging locations had to change and the roads I wanted to use would eat my two-wheel drive pickup, my plan went into the mythical land of ‘if only it had worked.’ Those butterflies were back.
Check-in photos are rarely compelling but it is a great time to get a feel for the riders, horses and judges. This ride screamed for photos ‘in the bank’ and I needed time to think. So I drag out the gear and settle into photography mode as the sky cleared.
It cleared off Friday night and got down into the 20s. Instant fogging if the gear goes from the warm trailer into the outside air so it had to spend the night in the pickup. Saturday morning was clear and, by that time, so was my mind. Liz Scott had done what good managers do, made up a work-around and found me a seat in the pickup with the horsemanship judge. Remember the gear in the pickup? Dummy left the batteries in the pickup also and it’s amazing how cold temperature will reduce the life of a battery. Time to dig out the extra battery and the battery grip.
The first stop was in the sun and any camera body with good dynamic range should handle the location. (I would have done better if I actually checked the histogram more often.) The riders went down a small hill, up a hard packed rise (click, click) stop at the top (click) and then proceed down the rise (click, just incase.) Easy, except for the bright sky in the background and the dang tree casting shadows on the participants right at the sweet spot for photos. No time to add a ND grad filter, the riders were already arriving. The Grays were going to be okay, the Bays were going to need some quality time with Vivesa in post. The old 70-200mm lens would have light falloff in the corners, the new one looked great.
Location two was down a frame twisting, bumper bending power line road to the intersection of three trails and a creek. Nice shooting in the open and at the break-out of the trails. But there was this ice cold creek down a muddy trail… easy choice, the creek. Luckily there was a pile of dead wood that had fallen and washed up on one side. I could climb out over the water and lean on a cedar branch for stability. As I was breaking some (mostly) dead branches out of the shot line I was reminded I left my work gloves in the pickup at camp. Oh well, the bleeding stopped after a while and it cleaned off the lens and camera body. The mud from the trail ended up on everything except the glass, good thing, the microfiber cloth was over on the bank. VR on the new lens worked well and my wobbly position was of no concern. The new lens design also fixed my tendency to bump it into manual focus. The day finished up with some fill shots at the trail crossings, around camp and in the meeting room.
Sunday was a different weather day. Not so cold but gray skies and a drizzle that seemed to percolate into everything. (Why did I leave my Gore-tex boots at home?) A really nasty photo day but as luck would have it I had help. Kim Winterrowd managed to trade or evade her event secretary duties and wanted to help shoot for a while. It’s always good to have help and Kim has a good eye, so I put the camera gear in Op/Tech bags and we climbed into the pickup and headed for an open field that intersected two trails and yes, a couple of creeks. Kim took the P&Rs and I headed for the first judging, naturally at a creek crossing. Unlike the sunny day before this day was grey and wet. Shadows would not be much of a problem but there was another issue. Depth of field was down to about 3 feet so a head-on shot was going to be difficult. After crossing the creek (and Becky going back across the creek in her waterproof boots to get some more of my gear) I found a couple of rocks I could stand on and be out in the water. I was shooting at ISO 1600, f/2.8, 320/second at about 150mm on wobbly rocks in a creek, in a light rain. Perhaps sanity eluded me momentarily but with a little luck the participants would be so focused on the log in the creek and the muddy bank ahead that I would be hiding in plain sight.
Next stop was in some trees at the end of the field. I was betting that after a P&R and a judged obstacle the riders would want to regain some momentum and hurry down the trail. I needed a bit more than 200mm so a TC14 1.4 teleconverter was added to the lens. 300mm at f/4 was not bad and in the open I could bump up to around f/8. I only had one autofocus issue in the entire set and that was near the end so it was probably my fault not the lens.
Kim worked the P&Rs with a D200 body and a 18-200mm zoom. Once the clouds thinned a bit she was shooting at ISO 800, f/7.1 at 200/second. Well within the working range of that equipment.
So, how did the gear hold up? There are lots of sites that can show you the details on equipment, I can only tell you if it worked for me. I’m not ready to crown the new 70-200 king of the zoom but Nikon fixed the issues that most annoyed me. Still it seems to lack a bit of mojo the old lens had. However it is a great lens that worked well in poor conditions. The D700 body did what it always does, work from ISO 200 to 6400 and never bother me with AF or noise problems. The trusty D200 is an Energizer Bunny and worked well for Kim.
On the other hand I forgot my Gore-Tex, left the batteries outside in the cold and sure could have used another layer of clothing Sunday. My shoot plan failed in oh, 30 minutes. And by the end of a day shooting I was mentally tired and a bit cold resulting in dang near zero desire to search for a better event shot. None of those problems can be blamed on the equipment.
My wife Cheryl and her horse Ojala finished the ride in time and in sound condition. I guess I can say I did the same. In my case, nothing spectacular but a workman like shoot. After some events I pump my fist in the air and scream YES! This one I shuffle off knowing I could have done better. That may be what learning is all about but still it stinks.
I’m done with event shooting for a few weeks and there is a young filly that needs some TLC to make up for all the weekends I have been behind a camera and computer. See y’all on the trail next year.
The first competitive trail ride I photographed yielded far more snap shots than photos, a rather discouraging reality. At that time it seemed reasonable to conclude that the best way to improve was by experience so, by taking a great deal of images I would, by brute force if nothing else, become proficient. I naively decided that I would be proficient after 25,000 images. As I approach the second anniversary of my first “official” ride it is appropriate to review and reflect. Fortunately the digital asset management program I use, Aperture, is a pack rat when it comes to images. As it does not easily throw any of the originals away it is possible to come to some numerical values describing two years of photography.
Images are assigned a zero star rating on import. They may be assigned a rating from one to five or given the ‘big X’ and hidden for future discard. For my purposes a one star rating goes into the online photo gallery for the participants and a five star rating would be something “as good as it gets.” So here are the numbers after two years:
The first surprise for me is the low number of discarded photos. These are typically out of focus shots that can not be fixed in the digital darkroom. The quantity of these has gone down dramatically after upgrading my primary camera body to a Nikon D700. The new camera has much better low light and auto focus technology and is a better fit with the photographically difficult places I like to work.
Out of 28,494 images, 6,398 were something better than a ho-hum snap shot. Portrait sessions and cantering images tend to result in the most number of wasted shots. Early morning motion blur images have a very poor success rate but are also lots of fun. On average it took 4.5 shots to make one image for the gallery.
However over time my standards of what makes a good shot has also improved. As the result must be better than before I still seem to take a lot of zero star shots. Perhaps it is an endless chain of increasing expectations requiring more images that result in an increased expectation.
What does it all mean? Heck I don’t know I’m new at this. I know horses are difficult yet strangely satisfying to photograph. I know competitive trail rides and horse events are what I want to do for now. And, I know I need a lot more practice. I’m thankful to have that opportunity afforded to me by the riders and ride managers who have so patiently helped me improve over the last two years. With the support of my wife and the grace of God I will continue this journey. Perhaps after another 25,000 images I will, at last, become proficient at this … but really, I’m beginning to think it’s a circle.
I am repeatedly amazed at the tenacity and good ‘ol gumption of CTR riders. Sunday is typically an early start. In this case most everybody was up and going by 5 AM to be ready for this pre-dawn vet check. Then on the trail just after sunrise. 20 to 25 miles and back to camp so they can cleanup and get ready for awards and pull-out. For photographers, if we have worked well on Saturday, Sunday is play day.
Time to let the creative juices flow. Explore and create. Intercept the riders in new spots and look for the special moment or background. We started the day with a beautiful sunrise in camp. Later Deborah Keene-Starr was taking photos from a tree to get a lake background and I was playing with a low angle shot after the horse come up a small hill. All in all, great fun.
The final ride also brought news that one of our Region IV riders will win the NATRC Presidents Cup. Congratulations to Jonni Jewell and Hank. You can read about the run for the cup on her blog here. Jonni is a darn good photographer who has help me out on many occasions. Thankfully she prefers to photograph concerts and participates in rides. If it was the other way around I would have far less shoots. Her photo gallery is here.
It has been a great NATRC season. Thanks to all the riders and staff who put up with me trying new things and accepting my failures with a good heart. Truly this is the great group of instructors of trail photography. Great riders and, a lot of fun to be with on the trail.