Our second shoot in Morocco was just outside of Essaouria, at Zouina Cheval. This stable is similar to Ranch Diabat. You can take lessons or lease a horse for the day, and ride along the dunes and beach. We were allowed to photograph the horses - as opposed to renting them to ride - since the advance team for the workshop sleuthed out all these locations months in advance. Zouina and Diabat actually back up to one another so by the time we had left Essaouira to head back to Marrakech, we were pretty familiar with this area.
Our plan was to photograph the horses at liberty again so each stallion's halter was removed and he was let loose in a small fenced, riding ring. Based on the direction of the sunlight, and the best background, we lined up along two sides of the fence. Sometimes the best background in a situation like this is simply the view with the least distractions. Sometimes it's a little jewel, like the mural at Ranch Diabat. Here, at Zouina Cheval, the ring was dug partially into the ground, with a fence and scrubby wall of brush creating a backdrop on one side. I chose to shoot with that scrubby area as my backdrop. I was shooting almost directly into the sun, and the light coming through the scrub was pretty dappled. Dappled light can sometimes makes it very tricky to compose since a great shot with strange light dapples covering the point of interest is a failed shot - and almost impossible to fix in Lightroom or Photoshop. Still, it seemed like the best solution to me, so that's how I set myself up.
The dappled grey stallion (sorry, unpreventable overuse of the word dapple) whose images leads off this post was the star of the afternoon for me. He had a sensitive, slightly put-upon look to his face and frankly, I'm a sucker for grey horses. I remember being a tiny 12-year-old kid, riding at a schooling show. I begged to be allowed to ride the new dappled (that word again) grey mare - her name was Anastasia - in one of the jumping events. My trainer shook her head but I was determined. I loved that horse. She actually jumped beautifully, my confidence soared and then, at the very last jump, she stopped dead. All 90 pounds of me was thrown onto her neck but I didn't fall. I gathered her up, turned her around and she jumped for me but we lost, of course, and the judge called me out on my overconfidence. Grey horses still always seem to bring out the nostalgic love I had for Anastasia, jump refusals and all.
These images are all dark and pretty gritty. Maybe that's the mood I was in when I shot them or maybe that's the mood I was in when I processed them. I've already told you some of my misgivings about the at liberty work and maybe the seed of those feelings germinated as we continued to make more at liberty images. It's hard for me to say exactly where my vision started but the deep, deep shadows, with the forms of the horses defined by the highlights, is deeply appealing to me in this series of monochrome images.
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I think, if I were to print these very large, that I would continue to do some clean up on them but I'm not a huge fan of what I call "white-washing." When expert retouchers use Photoshop to sanitize images, and blot away so-called distractions, I find images lose part of their essence. I like the clumps of dirt, the dust, the loops of saliva and the spray of spitty foam as these stallions raced round the ring together. They show energy, tension and movement.
Everyone agreed, with only stallions boarding in the stable, that these horses were companions, and friendly with one another. At the same time, everyone also kept a very wary eye to ensure that any companionable play fighting didn't turn into a bloody battle. Standing there at the fence, I could feel that edge of uncertainty every time the stallions thundered past. I had to close my eyes, turn away from the hard shower of dirt that followed them and shield my lens. If I whitewashed away the grit, would the images be too pretty? Would they tell the story I want to tell?
Before we started the at liberty shoot at Zouina Cheval, I wandered into the stable. The walls were minty green and the ceiling was loosely slatted, narrow boards. Because the sun was high, light filtered through the boards and dripped down over the horses. I'm a sucker for pattern and texture so I shot with the intent of creating a portrait series. The feeling here was light and bright and I didn't even consider converting to monochrome.
A few tips on photographing horses with vision:
- Yes, we're still talking about vision!
- It goes almost without saying that to create vision, you first have to have a very good technical grasp on your gear.
- At the beginning of a shoot like this, assess your location. Where is the light coming from?
- Since you create your vision, you choose: do you want to shoot with the sun over your shoulder? Or at a right angle to the sun? Or even straight into it, like I did here?
- Where can you stand so that you'll have the least distractions possible? Here, there was a huge pile of dirt adjacent to the riding ring and an apartment building in the distance, both on the right. To the left, there were a few cars and everyone who worked at the stable, watching the stallions show off. Some of my fellow photogs chose to shoot with the dirt pile as a backdrop. That didn't appeal to me, or suit my vision.
- Once you're warmed up and in the groove of the shoot, are you going to shoot every frame? Or just shoot when the horse is in the perfect location in the ring? Shooting every frame means you might capture more images but it doesn't mean they'll be brilliant, since you'll have a lot of post-processing work to clean up people and dirt piles.
- Do you see your images as monochrome? Or color? As the light changes, and the colors change, does your vision change too? That's OK! You can do a daylight series in monochrome and near dusk, change your vision to soft muted pastels.
- Are you trying to make at liberty images, where no hooves, tails or ears are cropped out of the frame? Or are you looking at making more abstract images? Your shooting style will change a bit, depending on what you're interested in capturing.
- If you want the full horse in every image, you'll be zooming in and out from 70 to 200 often - and quickly. If you are looking to capture the essence of the horses with more abstract cropped or detailed shots, be brave and leave your lens at 200 all the time. Yes, as the horse comes toward you, you have to work hard to keep focus and yes, you'll miss some shots but your results might just be fantastic too.
- Consider aperture as part of your vision. With a clean background, does it suit your vision if it's more in focus? Use a higher aperture then, like F8 (and adjust your ISO to keep your shutter speed high enough).
- Do you want your background blurred and soft? Use F2.8 or F4, just make sure that you're depth of field isn't too shallow, and that your timing is good. Horses move fast and at F2.8, a stallion could zip in and out of your depth of field in a blink, leaving you with blur where you intended to have sharpness.
- When you cull and post-process, continue to refine your vision. To reinforce the intent of your vision, create series, cropping all to the same aspect ratio, and matching exposure, white balance, etc.
- Note that while I talk incessantly about equine photography, these thoughts all apply to macro, architecture, bird and wildlife photography too.
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