Because I’ve got the Horsing around Chicago: Photographing the Tempel Lipizzans event coming up in a few weeks, I thought I’d share a few more tips so that you all will be ready to shoot when you arrive at the event.
Rapid Fire or Decisive Moment?
Some pro horse photogs might tell you that using burst mode is cheating. I’m not one of them. If you have your own horses, and spend time with them for hours at a time, day after day, you probably know your horses’ habits well enough that you don’t need to use burst mode. You have the time and opportunity to shoot in a slower, more measured way. But if you’re not a horse owner, and you have limited opportunities to photograph horses, you need to do everything you can to maximize your opportunity to make the best images so use burst mode.
In burst, it’s tempting to press the shutter down and not let up the whole time you’re shooting. If you do that though, you’re going to end up with a lot of mediocre images and no stand outs. Instead, watch the performance for a few minutes and compose in your head. Then, when you have your composition mentally framed, press the shutter for a short burst. Keep it short, so that your camera doesn’t lock up, and then keep mentally framing and shooting. The more you do this, the easier it will be to predict what’s coming next, and your images will improve.
The two cameras that I primarily use for equine photography are the Canon 5D Mark III and the Canon 7D Mark II. The 5DIII is my low light workhorse and has an FPS (frames per second) of 6. The 7DIII, with an FPS of 10, is my go-to body when I’m shooting faster action. Both of these cameras have both CF and SD card slots. I find that CF cards “write” faster, enabling me to take full advantage of the fast FPS of the 7DII. Typically, I have one 32gb CF card in my camera and one or two in my pocket (along with an extra battery). I leave the SD card slot empty. Your camera might be different but if I have an SD card in that slot, the camera writes data at the speed of that slower card, which I don’t want.
The memory card you use is important because in burst mode you'll be capturing a lot of images very quickly. Even if your camera has a fast FPS, it can lock up when you use a slow memory card. If you've never locked up your camera before, let me tell you, it's a sick feeling. You press on the shutter and nothing happens. The LCD screen goes black or shows fat little ellipses. I think of them as the ellipses of death because while my camera is locked, the at liberty stallion I'm shooting always rips off a levade just for kicks. Buying the fastest card you can for your camera - whether it's SD or CF - is the simplest way to avoid locking up.
Monochrome or Kodachrome?
90% of the time, I process my equine images in black and white. There are exceptions, of course. When I’m at the track, I love the colors of the jockey’s silks, the patterned horse masks and the coordinating cooling blankets. I often leave those images in full color. To me, those vivid colors speak to the pageantry at the track.
Often though, I find color too distracting and I process in black and white (or monochrome) to eliminate distracting elements and enhance my composition. To choose whether an image works better in monochrome or color, I often test it both ways. It’s easy to do in Lightroom.
When you’re in the develop module, press the V key to toggle back and forth from color to black and white. If you’re still not sure after you’ve toggled back and forth a few times, you might want to process your image both ways. To create a virtual copy of your image, press Command ‘ (the apostrophe key). Process one copy in color and one copy in monochrome. There are no hard and fast rules to this, it’s really something you have to feel your way through. Last Summer I made a number of images of a dressage performance at sunset. The golden light was gorgeous and I was sure I’d process in glorious color but ultimately, I found the color too distracting, and processed the series in black and white.
Details, details, details.
There are a few post-processing things that I do to make the right details pop in my images. First, I drop a radial filter over the eyes of the horse. I've created presets in Lightroom for both color and black and white equine images to make this a quick, convenient process. You can see screen shots of my presets below, which will help you experiment and create your own.
Next, I drift over the mane, forelock, jawline and ears using a paintbrush to add sharpening, contrast and clarity. I don't use a preset for that but to create that brush, I usually set the levels for those three things between 10 and 25 each, depending on what the image requires.
After I've teased out depth in key details, I sharpen the entire image. When I sharpen, I always mask pretty heavily to ensure that no sharpening will be applied to the background, or to details that I've intentionally let blur away by using a shallow depth of field. You can see an example of my typical sharpening settings in the screen shot to the right. It's not unusual for me to use a mask setting anywhere from 50 to 85. I usually bump my radius setting a smidge but almost never past 1.3. Same with my detail setting - almost always a smidge but rarely more than 30.
Note: If you haven't tried to use the mask setting in Lightroom, it's easy. When you're in the sharpening panel, click on the teardrop-shaped button on the masking slider and at the same time, hold down your option/alt key. While you are still holding down the option/alt key, move the slider to the right to increase the mask, and to the left to decrease it. The mask is black. Sharpening will be applied only where the image remains white.
I know it seems like you could use some of these clarity, contrast and sharpening adjustments globally across the whole image, but fight that urge. If you're shooting at f2.8 and then crank your clarity up on the entire image, you'll lose all of that soft background blur your expensive f2.8 lens is working so hard to create.
If you've been counting, you've realized that this is tip number six - consider it a bonus! If you've more of a horse person than a photographer, and just really enjoy visiting farms, horse shows and race tracks, all of these tips might seem a little over the top. (Maybe over the tip top?) Even if you're an experienced photography enthusiast, your first time out photographing horses might be a little intimidating. I have a solution: set your camera on auto mode. Yup. That's perfectly fine. Using auto mode means that your camera will do all the work to get the correct exposure. Since you won't have to worry about that part of it, you can practice composing your images. And you can have fun, which is what it's really all about.
If you happen to be free on the morning of Saturday, April 30th, join me at Tempel Farm. We’ll be spending 3 hours on the farm, photographing their beautiful white Lipizzan horses.
You can see all the event details by clicking here.
Here’s a promo code for 25% off the event: EQUINE25.
See you there!