This is Part II of this series. You can read Part I here.
After we finished photographing the stallions in the stable, the handler lead the stallions out one by one, and we photographed them at liberty. Photographing horses outside, at liberty, is a very different technique than the posed shots we'd been making. It was almost like having two shoots in one day.
The sunlight was low once we started the at liberty portion of the shoot, and the horses looked stunning bathed in its golden glow. The Selman Hotel grounds are beautiful too.
The first thing I did was decide how to approach this shoot from a technical standpoint. I knew my vision would come to me once I started to shoot. Here's the thought process I went through while making those technical decisions. Note that I'm choosing these options pretty intuitively. My camera is set up and ready to go in about 15 seconds.
- The paddock wasn't a very big one which means the horses would never be too far from me. I chose my full frame Canon 5D Mark III combined with my Canon 70-200 f2.8L lens, which has plenty of reach.
- I know that with a smaller paddock, I'll occasionally need to shoot while the horse is pretty close to me, and I want to stay at a minimum focal length of 85mm-100mm to avoid distortion. If I chose a crop sensor camera body and/or an extender, I might miss shots when the horses come in too close.
- The light was also fading quickly so using my Canon 5D Mark III gave me more ISO flexibility than my Canon 7D Mark II. The 7D Mark II focuses and shoots crazy fast but is not as strong of a performer in low light.
- At liberty horse photography means that the horses will be moving fast and changing direction often so I enabled auto-focus, burst mode and what Canon calls AI Servo, or focus tracking.
- I also set my focus point up as the expanded point that looks like a little cross, rather than the single point. Doing this gives my camera more opportunity to grab focus where I'm aiming.
- While I used f2.8 and f4 apertures during our shoot in the stable, for at liberty work I've started to use f6.3, f7.1, f8 and f9. The horses are moving so quickly that they can gallop out of that shallow 2.8 depth of field before I capture the image. At a distance, I still get a nice blurred background with a smaller aperture but my depth of field is bigger, giving me a better chance of nailing focus. Thanks to Tony Stromberg who taught me that tip.
- With fading light I started at ISO 800 and reminded myself to keep an eye on my shutter speed, which for at liberty horses I prefer to be at least 1/500th and preferably 1/750 or 1/1000, to freeze motion.
- I also reminded myself to keep an eye on the highlights. The occasionally blown out highlight at sunset doesn't bother me at all but I wanted to make sure I didn't lose detail in key areas like sunlit manes and tails.
Tip on developing vision for your equine photography
When you're set up to shoot well technically, even if your vision never kicks in during the shoot, you'll have plenty of excellent raw materials to work with as you post-process. You can develop your vision while you review and edit your captures. Plus, if you keep running through this sort of mental check list process with each shoot, eventually you'll find that your creative brain starts to take over and think about vision.
While the Selman grounds are beautiful, there were many distractions to avoid - other photographers, handlers, hotel guests, trees, running fountains and distant buildings. My method for handling the distractions was to assess carefully where to position myself for the best background. Two corners of the paddock were wooded with trees. With the white and grey stallions, I knew those areas could be strong backgrounds - almost as though my fairytale horse was emerging out of a dark, scary wood.... The dark chestnut and bay stallions didn't work as well in these areas since there just wasn't enough contrast but the white and grey horses attracted me more anyway, so I was fine with sacrificing the images of the darker horses when I chose where to stand.
I know Steve McCurry has taken a huge hit lately for editing out people and distractions but I did do a bit of that with these images. You probably know I'm not a huge fan of over-processing but I had very specific reasons for editing out some of those elements. The words in my head that I was using to mold my vision were: pastoral, sunlit, golden, fairytale, mysetrious. A photographer shooting on the other side of the fence wouldn't be very mysterious, eh?
I'll often continue to noodle over an image, adjusting the shadows, shifting the white balance and reviewing any additional areas that might be too distracting before I print it. I often go back into my .dng archives to review and reselect the "best" images. As my vision develops, different images appeal to me. The final series that I print and produce might not look exactly like what I'm sharing here. As I develop, my work develops and seeing that development in my work when I hang a new series is incredibly gratifying.