One of my shoots in Morocco was at UNESCO World Heritage site Ksar of Ait Ben-Haddou. Beyond just loving to travel for travel's sake, being able to have a shoot at a site like this is inspiring. Despite the tourists and vendors hawking cheap rugs and trinkets, the weight of the past history is a palpable feeling as you walk through the ksar. This is an ancient place.
I always want to capitalize on historic places when I have a chance to shoot in them but much like this shoot in Essaouira, that was easier visualized than realized.
We walked all the way through the ksar and down to the river's edge where our equine shoot was planned. It was April so a relatively cool month in the Moroccan desert. The locals all wore jeans and lightweight jackets. I was dressed in jeans, my beloved Ariat boots that have traveled the world with me and a linen tee but, "cool" being a relative term, I thought I might succumb to sunstroke and/or heat exhaustion after a few minutes of shooting in the blazing sunshine. Everyone kept quoting the temp in celsius (which is a meaningless measure to most Americans, me included) so I did a quick check once I returned home and the temperature on this afternoon would have been in the upper 80s. Let me remind you...the locals had on jackets!
The horses - two Arabian/Barb mixes, I believe - were gorgeous. They were thin and muscular, which is a physique that photographs really well, especially with short, summer coats and a sheen of sweat. The two riders were pretty incredible because the horses - especially the dark one - were high-strung. As they'd race by, with us shooting like mad, the riders were absolutely glued on. It was only later, during a quick back-of-camera review of my images that I saw their stirrups dangling uselessly next to their feet. Suffice to say, if I lost a stirrup, I would not be glued on as my squirrely horse raced along a river bed, jostling his fellow stallion along the way...
One of the shots we decided to try and get was of the horses starting in this shadowed archway and walking down this earthen ramp. The light was working against us, since it was still too bright. You can see that it was almost there but not quite. The horses were also nervous about their footing as they walked up and down this ramp and eventually the chestnut stallion had just had enough. He incited a bit of a rebellion and both stallions reared up. My heart stopped for a moment as I waited for the stallions to lose their footing and tumble backwards down the ramp but both riders - who still managed to stick like glue - had them back under control in a jiffy.
As always, we tried a bit of at liberty work during this shoot but since we were in a public, unfenced area, the handlers didn't remove the horse's tack. The dust was certainly in our favor at this point and so were the shadows.
Ultimately I fell back on shooting with the intent to convert to black and white. Converting to monochrome helps eliminate distractions - like a brightly-colored backpack - and also takes advantage of subtle rim highlights, which help emphasize shape and detail.
I especially love this candid moment of the horse, rider and handler taking a break. Moments like this really illustrate the beauty of the horse/human relationship. Horses at liberty are lovely to shoot but scenes like this speak more to me about horsemanship, passion and that connection so many of us feel to horses.
A few tips on shooting horses in historic places:
It's an amazing opportunity. Embrace it wholeheartedly but don't set yourself up to fail by having unrealistic expectations. I thought I'd walk away with oodles of images but between the curious tourists (and their iPhones), the too harsh light which lasted most of the way through our shoot, unpredictable horses, language barriers and the physical limitations of the site, I felt lucky to come away with just one or two solid images.
Details matter. Both of our models/riders wore athletic shoes on this shoot. I'm considering paying a retoucher to clone them out in the lead image - my favorite - before I print it but a simpler solution would be to ask the riders to dress in a specific way before the shoot.
Tell the story. There are many ways to do this but my preference is to shoot wide and then gradually shoot tighter and tighter. I want to give my viewer a sense of place with the wide shots and gradually shift focus to tighter shots of the horses.
Is that perspective distortion? Crooked horizons and converging vertical lines are distracting but in a location like Ksar Ait Ben-Haddou, straight lines and symmetry aren't always the norm. When you're shooting wide, really assess your scene and look for the strongest vertical or horizontal detail that will orient your viewer.
Bring water. We didn't have more than a few sips with us and were lucky to have someone available to run and buy more. On a long hot shoot, more water than you think you'll need, and perhaps a salty snack, will go a long way in keeping you on your feet and shooting.
Cover your head. It's hard to shoot with a ball cap since the brim gets in the way of your camera. I had another hat with me with a better brim but it broke when it was squished one too many times and I resorted to wrapping my scarf around my head which helped immediately. I was cooler and protected. Always have a scarf or hat handy on a long, outdoor, afternoon shoot.
If the images suck, it's OK. Don't convince yourself that sub-par images are portfolio-worthy just because you shot them in a once-in-a-lifetime location. The lead image in this post (once I clone out the athletic shoes) is the only image that really, truly fulfilled my vision. You'll always have the experience of the shoot and that's really what it's about. (I'm assuming you're not shooting for a client here. If you are, it's definitely not OK if your images suck!)