This place is amazing. I know that word is over-used and almost meaningless now but as far as stables go, this was one of the most spectacular ones I have ever seen. The stable is part of the Hotel Selman in Marrakech, a lush five star hotel property and where my spendy little self plans to stay the next time I visit Morocco.
The interior walls of the stable are painted a deep, dining-room-wall red. The doors and and trim are dark wood. The ceiling is a series of barrel vaults. The floor is inlaid stonework. The lighting is decorative sconces and pierced metalwork chandeliers. And the stars of this lavish home have airy, well-lit box stalls that would put most Manhattan apartments to shame.
The pure-bred Arabian stallions at Selman are more or less live decorations for the hotel guests to enjoy. They are treated like princes, wear slim, jeweled halters, stand around looking pretty all day, are never ridden and yes. They are brats. Very, very beautiful brats. As we photographed one stallion, the one in the stall adjacent to where we were standing bashed his hooves into the wall repeatedly, demanding attention. While we were making images of the horses at liberty, in the paddocks, one of the stallions bullied an unwary photographer friend of mine. She was just checking the settings on her camera but while she was looking down, he approached, bit her, tossed his head, snorted and galloped away. A moment later, I raised my head from shifting my own settings, and there he was, in my face, staring me down. I took a giant, ungraceful step backwards, almost tripping myself in the process, but the beautiful brat didn't get a piece of me, thank goodness.
Because I loved shooting here so much, and have so many images to share, today's post is going to be all about the images I made inside the stable. My next post will be all about the images from the paddock, and at liberty.
Because the interior of this stable is dark, with deep shadows, we opened a door in the middle of the stable to create a light source. We were shooting in the late afternoon so a still relatively strong amount of sunlight poured through the open door. If I were a novice photographer, shooting in auto, or learning how to control my camera, I think this type of lighting might have made me break down and sob. I would have known that it was special light but I wouldn't have understood how to make special images with it yet. What I know now is that the light is what it is and the choices that I make are what they are. If I want to make more documentary images and capture every detail, I can do that. If I want to make dreamy overexposed images, I know how to create those too. And if I want to make deeply shadowed underexposed images, I can do that instead.
A handful of years ago - back when I thought I was going to be a landscape photographer, which is pretty funny - I was photographing these gorgeous crystal blue ice caves in Iceland. I was taught that the only way to properly capture the full dynamic range of the ice was with HDR. And that's true. To capture the full dynamic range, you need to bracket and combine or blend multiple exposures. The part that took me a long time to understand was that method wasn't the only way to make images of the ice caves.
When I reviewed those images, I found myself drawn to the deeper, shadowy tones of the bracket images underexposed by two stops. I so wanted to process those as final images but I wasn't ready to give myself the permission to break any rules yet. I learned HDR and I processed HDR. I didn't hear what hadn't been said which was that I could make images of the ice caves any way I wanted. Of all the things I've learned about making art, that might have been the hardest one. I'm the maker. I'm in charge of deciding how my images will look.
Here at Selman I looked at the gloomy, dark interior and thought of the ice caves. To properly expose for every detail of those beautiful red walls, I'd need to bracket. But y'all know that horses won't stand still while a camera counts off multiple exposures. I could have bracketed images of the stables without any horses, and then blended in the exposures of the horses later but I can hardly stop laughing even while I type this sentence so you know I'd never do that. I thought back to those dark ice cave exposures and then I gave myself permission to underexpose the images in this stable. Every single image in the post has clipped blacks with histograms stacked up on the left like the shadows can't run away from the light fast enough.
I also saw these images in monochrome right from the start. Shooting in monochrome isn't much of a surprise for me but the red stable walls are gorgeous and I did weeble for a millisecond before shutting down the idea of color images. I wanted the shape and form of the horses to be the driving force behind this images, not the red walls.
The red walls also created a funny color cast on the white and dapple grey horses. I know I can fix that with layers in Photoshop but that type of processing rarely suits me. I convert to monochrome in Lightroom, sharpen, adjust contrast, make a few selective adjustments with radial and graduated filters, darken up the shadows, make sure no highlights are blown unless I want them to be blown and pretty much call it a day. I do take images into Photoshop to clean up tack or lead lines that I find distracting (and remove piles of horses poop).
Sometimes when there's so much opportunity with a shoot, it's hard to for me to focus on exactly what images I want to capture. To help ensure I get the images I want, I always think about shooting in a series. At the Selman, with each horse, I tried to shoot a wider angle version that included the surroundings. I made progressively tighter images, ultimately focusing on smaller details and creating almost abstracted patterns.
In the past when I haven't given myself a task or specific focus, I've walked away with 200 images that all look the same. Or I see an image after the fact and it reminds me of an image I wanted to shoot, but didn't. By having a plan to shoot from wide to narrow, I kept my brain active and thinking through this whole shoot, and captured far more keeper images too.
Next up: Part II of this post.
And because I love to make lists, here's a few technical tips on shooting in this sort of situation.
- For this shoot, my aperture varied from f2.8 to f8.
- My ISO was set between 1600 and 2500.
- My shutter speed never dropped below 1/500 and was often faster.
- I used my exposure compensation dial to underexpose by 1-2 stops.
- I checked my histogram frequently while shooting to make sure that I was exposing "correctly" only for the brightest parts of my images.
- I made all of the decisions listed above based on my vision of the images I wanted from this shoot.
- You didn't think I could write an entire post and not sure the word vision, did you?