This is Part II in this series. You can read Part I here.
Sometimes, when you're determined, you end up in the right place at the right time, and magical things happen. My January trip to Arizona was like that. I knew exactly what I wanted to get out of my trip, planned for it and got more than I ever imagined. Primarily, I wanted to experience the Salt River wild horses in their natural habitat, and make images of them doing the things that wild horses do. Boy, did I ever get that! But I also made new friends while I searched for the horses (hello Darlene, Patrick and Rod), I developed a new-to-me shooting technique, and I rediscovered an adventurous sense of self that I'd lost somewhere in the middle of 2015.
Late one afternoon, as I was getting the hang of driving slowly along Bush Highway, scanning the desert for horses - and frequently pulling over to the side of the road to let faster-driving locals pass me - I saw a band of horses near the edge of Coon Bluff. I came to know this area well since Coon Bluff turned out to be wild horse mecca for the 5 days I visited Arizona. I zipped up to the next turnout, adjusted my Tonto Pass clearly in the dash, grabbed my necessities, took one last swig of water and dashed out after the band.
I had a wee moment of panic as I crawled through my first fence. I could no longer see the band of horses. I was alone and headed deeper into this desert than I'd been before and it was probably going to be dark before I headed back to the road. I patted my pockets. Yep, my trusty head lamp was stowed there with my spare batteries and memory cards. I took a deep breath (wishing briefly for the inhaler I'd left in the car) and kept hiking.
And then, there they were. A band of 5 or 6 rusty brown and bay horses I'd already photographed in the morning. I tucked back into the brush, adding my 1.4x Canon extender to my 70-200 lens to get a bit more reach.
Wild horses spend most of their time grazing, and the Salt River horses aren't much different. Most of my images show them heads down and legs splayed, nibbling the patches of green on the sandy desert floor. During this shoot however, I was very lucky.
It should be noted that the stallion* in question did NOT get lucky but it was a fun time watching him court his mare. I'd already shot 20 high-speed frames before my eyes really opened to what I was watching. His courting technique was a subtle transition from grazing to flirting but clearly, he was expressing his interest in mating. She refused him repeatedly with lots of hoof stomping, tail swishing and evasive maneuvers.
My favorite in this series is the lead image, at the top of the post. The mare had been refusing the stallion's advances for a good 5 minutes and I think her exasperated expression says it all. The stallion continued his efforts but finally, receiving absolutely no encouragement from the mare, quit his flirting and settled for some nose-to-nose grazing.
*Ahem. If you're not sure who the stallion is in these images, his left hind leg has a white "sock."
The New-to-Me Shooting Technique:
- In my first morning shoot in Arizona, I made a mistake. I was shooting in Aperture Priority like I almost always do but, in my excitement, I neglected to check my shutter speed. It dropped, sometimes as low as 1/60th of a second.
- Slower moving horses, i.e. grazing horses, can be sharply captured at 1/500th of a second. 1/750th or higher is better, especially if one of the horses starts to kick up her heels. At 1/60th, images are very "soft," and mostly blurry because the shutter speed is too slow to capture the movement.
- Since I was shooting at dawn, there was very little ambient light. As the sun rose, the amount of light increased and my shutter speed increased too but for a good two hours, it was too slow. I needed a way to combat slow shutter speed without having to fiddle with too many settings.
- My solution was to shift from Aperture Priority to Manual, set my shutter speed at 1/750th of a second and - this is the key - set my ISO to Auto.
- Once I hit on this combination of settings, I still only had to manage one setting, my aperture. My Canon 5DIII handles high ISO very well, which is great, since most mornings I was shooting at 12,800, then automatically dropping to 10,000, 8000, 6400 and ending up at 800 by around 9:00AM when I'd break for breakfast.
- This same technique works very well for sunset too. As I gradually lost light each evening, my ISO increased.
- If you don't have a full-frame camera body, or own a camera body that doesn't handle "noise" well, you might be nervous about trying this technique. Don't be! Noisy images are always preferable to blurry ones.