On my last full day in Mesa, my camera was a divining rod for the horses. I took beautiful images of them in the morning at Coon Bluff and in the middle of the day, when I had planned to drive around and see more of the area, I found them grazing along Bush Highway, north of the turn off for Butcher Jones.
I was in Arizona literally just to see horses and I remember the afternoon of my arrival, I had this knot of anxiety in my stomach. What would I do if I didn't see them? It would be like going to Iceland in the winter and not seeing the aurora - a distinct possibility and very disappointing. Literally moments after having that thought I saw a lone stallion grazing at the side of the road. My little knot of anxiety dissipated. If I saw no others, at least I had seen him.
The morning of my last full day, back in the ever-more-familiar Coon Bluff area, I feasted my eyes, my heart filled, and my camera captured the memories.
I hadn't planned on making images in the mid-day sun, since the light can be too harsh but the small band was so photogenic, I couldn't help myself. I pulled off the road, scrambled up the rocky shoulder and happily began to shoot.
This is when I realized that my sunrise/sunset settings of manual mode, 1/750th and auto ISO didn't work in full sun. The sun was just too bright at 1/750th. Even with the lowest possible ISO, I was overexposing every image with a huge amount of clipping on the right side of the histogram. I switched to aperture priority, set my ISO at 100 and let my camera manage the shutter speed. I normally shoot almost wide open for horses, to help isolate them from the background, and at F4 my shutter speed hovered around 1/2000th. Another benefit of aperture priority is exposure compensation, which I found myself adjusting constantly in the bright sunlight, especially since as the horses moved, I was occasionally shooting into the sun.
Because mid-day sun is so contrasty, with none of the gentle blue or golden nuances inherent to shooting at dawn or dusk, I visualized the images I was making in black and white. It's easy to convert images to monochrome in Lightroom or Photoshop and that's what I've done here with a few adjustments to increase the contrast and reveal some of the more shadowed details.
Planning on photographing wild horses soon?
Here's a bit of advice about gear:
- Your lens choice is probably the most important decision you're going to make. Most professional equine photographers will recommend a 70-200.
- An f2.8 version will give you great bokeh (creamy, blurred background) but tends to be heavier and more expensive than an f4 version. If you know you'll be hiking a lot, or if you don't have a lot of muscle strength in your hands, arms and shoulders, the f4 might be a better lens choice.
- Either way, choose a version of this lens with stabilization and fast autofocus. These features will increase your chances of achieving sharply focused images.
- Another good lens choice would be a 70-300. A longer focal length lens than that really gets too heavy to hike with, and too heavy to hold for long periods, unless you use a monopod.
- When I need longer than my 70-200, I swap my full frame camera for a crop sensor. My Canon 7DII has a "crop factor" of 1.6 so my 70-200 becomes an effective focal length of 112-320. As an added bonus, my 7DII is lighter than my 5DIII.
- For even more reach, I add a Canon 1.4X Extender to my 70-200. Adding an extender means losing a stop of light since the maximum aperture on an f4 lens becomes f5.6. On an f2.8 lens, it becomes f4. The main benefits of an extender is its portability. An extender is light-weight and easy to attach in the field. It's also a very inexpensive way to get a longer focal length. If you have a spare 8K to spend on a 500 or 600mm lens, go for it. I don't :)
- Before we move on to recommended camera bodies, I want to emphasize the importance of using a long focal length for horse photography. Using a 70-200 or 70-300 or 100-400 (or longer) forces you to move further away from the horses. That's great for your safety, of course but (dare I say?) more importantly, that distance reduces distortion in your images. Wider focal lengths produce distortion when used to photograph horses because you're so close to the animals. Horse images captured with wide angle and shorter focal length lenses will have unusually large heads, disproportionately small butts and stubby, shortened legs. It's hard to recognize these distortions when you first start making equine images so look at an experienced professional equine photographer's images, compare them to your work and make changes as needed. Using a longer focal length and positioning yourself further away is the best method to reduce that distortion.
- I'm a Canon shooter (you may have noticed!). My primary camera body is a full frame 5D Mark III. My secondary body is a crop sensor 7D Mark II. Both of these cameras are metal and weather-sealed. I trip a lot (and drop things) so a hearty camera build is a priority for me. Both cameras also have a chunky little joystick which makes it easy to move around the focal point. I almost always want that point focused on they eyes of the horses so I'm moving it around frequently. This joystick makes that easier for me to do. The 7DII gives me a bit more reach, as I mentioned, is a bit smaller and has insanely good autofocus and an incredible frame rate. The 5DIII has better low-light capabilities and a slightly higher pixel count. The frame rate and autofocus aren't quite as fast as the 7DII but are still amazing for this type of image making. The Canon 5DIII is probably one of the most popular camera bodies among professional equine photographers.
- Another reason I like the 7DII and the 5DIII is that they have 2 memory card slots: one for SD and one for CF. I only use CF cards and buy the most expensive ones, since they have the highest "write speeds." Have you ever been shooting on burst mode and suddenly, your camera locks up? Don't let that happen again. Go out and buy six 32gb CF cards. Images will write to your card much faster, keeping your camera's buffer empty, and enabling you to maximize the number of frames you can shoot per second.
- And that's it! Add some extra batteries, a lens cloth or two, your favorite camera strap and you're ready to get out there. Now go have some fun!