Horses in motion

Thanks to our friends Dave and Michelle, I had a great seat for the finals of the Extreme Mustang Makeover last Saturday night (August 14, 2010) at Will Rogers Coliseum in Fort Worth. It was a great show and I got a lot of pictures; you can view the entire gallery here.

Shooting an event like this poses a bunch of special challenges to a photographer. The lighting isn’t very good, at least for photography. I put my Pentax K20D into TAv (Shutter + Aperture Priority) mode, which is basically full manual, except that I can set a range within which the ISO should be adjusted automatically. I set the range to 800-2000. That left me to decide what aperture and what shutter speed to use.

I brought a couple of near telephoto prime lenses with me: the Pentax 70mm f/2.4 limited, and the Sigma 105 f/2.8 macro. At the finals, I mainly used the Pentax 70mm, and most of the time it was wide open. Since I wasn’t close to the subjects I knew that I’d have plenty of depth of field, and I needed that wide aperture to allow me to use a faster shutter and hope to keep the ISO down.

As for the shutter, I started out at 1/250th sec, pretty reasonable for this kind of action. But as I shot, I started wanting to slow the shutter down. It’s fairly easy to take a photo of a horse that’s standing still, like this:

Rider and horse await the judges' numbers.

What’s rather more difficult is to capture a horse in motion and convey the sense of motion.

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CATCHING THE SUBJECT OFF BALANCE

One way to do it is to freeze the action with the actors in poses that are clearly out of equilibrium, poses that nobody could maintain, like this shot from the afternoon, taken at 1/200th sec:

Chasing the calf

Or this shot, where the rider has left the saddle and is about to bounce off the ground. Of course, it would have been better for me if she’d jumped off the saddle on my side of the arena:

Rider jumping out of saddle

Or this shot, where the calf is pulled up into the air after being roped:

Calf being roped

That shot was taken at 1/160th sec of a second. There’s little blur in the horse or the calf. The motion is conveyed almost entirely by the impossibility of the postures.

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MOTION BLUR IS NOT ALWAYS BAD!

But blur can convey motion sometimes better than perfect clarity. The cliché for photographing waterfalls is to use a slow shutter, so the movement of the water becomes a soft blur. The same principle applies here, I think. At least I personally prefer this shot, taken just a second earlier than the preceding one:

Rider roping calf

The blur here, in the calf, and to some extent also in the horse and rider, better conveys the sudden, jarring violence of the moment.

Well, that’s an extreme case, perhaps. Sometimes, especially early in the evening, I kept the shutter fast (which seems like the safe thing to do) and just tried to click the shutter at just the right instant. I clicked the shutter at just about the right instant in this shot:

Rider pulls back on the reins, horse stops.

You can see that the horse is coming to a stop from the dirt kicked up by its back feet. But you can’t really feel the motion, the momentum.

Decades ago, when I was studying for my masters degree in creative writing, my fiction mentor, the great novelist Caroline Gordon, used to tell us that, if you want to convey great speed in your narrative, you need to slow your writing down. Well, interestingly, to convey the sense of a horse’s speed, you need to slow down your shutter. The photo above was taken at 1/320th sec—too fast. I slowed it down to 1/160th sec. At this speed, there’s a risk of simply taking out of focus shots. But if you’re good (and a bit lucky), you’ll get a mixture of blur and sharpness that conveys motion. Here’s a photo of a rider turning her horse in a circle:

Rider turning horse in a circle.

The horse’s head and tail are moving faster than its midsection or the rider, and so the head and tail show some motion blur.

And I started panning a lot, that is, as horse and rider moved from left to right or right to left, I moved my camera sideways in order to keep them in my viewfinder. With a shutter that’s not too fast and not too slow, you’ll get the rider and horse in focus, and the people in the background will blur, like here:

Tracking the rider and horse with the camera as they fly by.

Of course, it helps also if the horse’s mane is streaming out behind it.

A few times, I dared to go even slower than 1/160th sec. This shot was taken at 1/100th sec.

Fast-moving horse.

The trick is to keep your eye on the subject in the camera’s viewfinder—and click that shutter at just the right moment. The next two shots were taken at 1/125th sec. Notice the blurred background here, and also the blur in the horse’s fast-moving hooves:

Horse moving fast

This shot, taken a second later, is, I think, even more successful, because the horse’s feet are in the air at the moment of capture:

Flying horse

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EFFICIENCY AND TIMING

I should add that my Pentax K20D, while a terrific camera, is not known for speed. I didn’t shoot in bursts. The K20D’s frames-per-second rate simply isn’t fast enough to make that useful, especially when you’re shooting raw. Sports photographers often use burst mode. You can hear their cameras at events, clicking away four, five, six times for each shot. I can’t do it.

But I wouldn’t do it if I could. What’s the point? If you practice, you can catch the moment. The great sports photographers of the past managed to do it, and they had to focus manually, as well. And who wants to come home after an event like this with 2000-3000 photos? I had to pick through about 700 photos and was pretty mad at myself about that. Taking four shots to capture one is simply inefficient.

The key is timing.

Addendum 8-20-2010: Due to the change in this blog’s overall theme, I have had to shrink the images one size so they would fit. You can see the images at a larger size in the source gallery, the entire gallery here.

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