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Getting the shot
Wednesday, October 20, 2010 - interview conducted by Ellen Harvey

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From high-end professional equipment to cameras on cellular phones, it’s never been easier to capture the harness racing action going on around you. Or is it? Regardless of your equipment, it still takes practice—and a bit of luck—to shoot like the pros.

Ellen Harvey recently sat down with six of the sport’s top photographers—Ed Keys and Mark Hall of Hoof Beats, Claus Andersen and David Landry of Canadian Sportsman, Joe Kyle of The Horseman and Fair World and Michael Lisa of Meadowlands Racetrack--to ask them for guidance on how an amateur can take better photos of their horses. Here is what they had to say:

Hoof Beats: Digital photography has made getting a great shot of your horse an attainable goal for the amateur. What should she look for in shopping for a camera?

Mark Hall Photo

Claus Andersen

Claus Andersen: Don’t fill your hands with too much technology. You want something with automatic settings. For the most part, people don’t want to get into manual settings or learning how to do that. Most cameras have automatic aperture or shutter speed settings.  Shutter speed automatically compensates for motion or movement in the horse.  Aperture is more like a depth of field and makes your photo sharp from front to back. 

Dave Landry: There is so much to choose from, even at the lower range. These lower-end cameras do a lot of thinking for you; it’s remarkable what is packed in.

Joe Kyle: I think at the $200 level, you should get at least six or eight mega-pixels. Pixels collect the light and are the elements that make up the image. The more pixels, the sharper and greater detail you will get. 

Ed Keys:  They’re always coming out with point-and-shoots that are better and better. I have a new camera that I bought for $150, which included a case and card. The card is the digital equivalent of film and stores the images. The thing I like about it is it can do high-definition videos with sound and you can put it on your TV set and watch it--and it will do still pictures at 12 million pixels. 

Mark Hall: Handle before you buy. My fingers are big, and some of these cameras have small buttons, so I know I’m going to have a problem. Best Buy will have maybe 50 cameras on display; you can see how they fit in your hand. If you use Facebook and YouTube, some cameras are geared to that when you buy them. They come with a sticker that says YouTube and you hook it up to your computer and it takes you right there, already sized for it. 

Mark Hall Photo

Dave Landry

Michael Lisa: I like Canon; they have the digital Rebel and you can’t go wrong with that. It is a digital SLR (single lens reflex) and look for packages that include lenses, some have a zoom. It depends what special they are running, they can include a flash card or a lens for the $500 – $600 range.

Hall:  Get one small enough to put in your pocket and carry it all the time. How many times have you seen something and said, ‘I wish I had my camera?’ You improve your chances of getting a great shot.

Kyle: George [the late USTA photographer George Smallsreed] said always have a camera in your car. Now he’d amend that to say always have one in your pocket. 

Hall: You might want to look for a waterproof and shockproof camera, especially around the barn.  Fuji, Olympus and Pentax all have one and prices start at about $200. 

Ken Weingartner Photo

Mark Hall

The automatic cameras have a universal code. The sports setting shows a runner for fast-moving objects like horses, a portrait setting, a video camera and an automatic setting. For 90 percent of the pictures I take I just put it on auto. If you want to take a picture of a horse, use the sports setting. It can shoot maybe 1 – 3 frames a second. Chances are good of getting all the legs off the ground.

HB: What features might be overblown and not necessary?

Hall: Some have a panoramic setting, which comes with a software option to stitch your pictures together. Nice, but not essential. Some come with rechargeable or AA batteries. I prefer AA batteries because if the battery goes dead, you can’t stop and recharge. 

Landry: I don’t think any features are overblown, because you’re getting so much more in an amateur camera than we got when we first started using digital cameras.

HB: How about a tripod? Is that necessary?

Keys: If you’re taking scenery pictures, a tripod is handy. If you’re taking a picture of your horse, it’s not critical. If you’re at a racetrack, you want to be able to pan with the horse as you’re taking the picture. A monopod is similar to a tripod. It has one leg and attaches the camera at the top. If you don’t have something like that and you’re shooting video, your videos will be kind of jumpy, but it’s restrictive if you’re trying to shoot action.

Mark Hall Photo

Ed Keys

HB: You’re shooting a horse in a race. How do you get all four feet off the ground in a race?

Kyle: You really have to pan and follow the horse, because if you just shoot at one spot, you just hope the horse has all four legs off the ground at that spot. If he doesn’t, you don’t get it. Put it in sport mode (motor drive) to shoot faster frames. 

Keys: The frames per second your camera’s motor drive gets is important; more is better.  Anything around five or six frames per second will get what you want. You might get one that’s perfect, the next one’s a little off, but that’s how you get lucky. You better not mind editing the material you’re going to get, because you will have frames you don’t want among the good ones. Since you’re not shooting with film, you’re not wasting anything; delete what you don’t want.

Hall: Some cameras have a slight delay after you press the button and before the shot. There might be a half-second delay to get the camera ready to focus on a spot. Practice on horses warming up so you get the timing down. You can also press down halfway – that will kind of lock your focus on that area. When your horse is approaching, press, hold, look at the screen and follow him as he races. That will improve your chances of getting all four feet off the ground. Don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t happen with just a few frames.

Mark Hall Photo

Joe Kyle

Landry: It comes down to timing and knowing the movement of an animal. It’s learning what is the peak of action when those legs extend out.  I like to move with the subject. It’s like any other profession or craft; you learn more from your mistakes than from your successes.

Lisa: A lot of it is luck, especially at night at the Meadowlands. We have a tiny window of opportunity, three or four frames, sometimes two, depending on where the horse is on the track, where we can catch them in a good light and if he just happens to be in a great stride. I have my cousin working for me, so if it’s a really important shot, get two people shooting at the same time. 

HB: Where to stand when you’re shooting a race?

Keys: You generally want the sun behind you. You don’t want to shoot in to the sun if you can help it.

Kyle:  A bright, but overcast, day is ideal for photography.  Then you can shoot from any angle because there are no shadows.

Hall: Look around for an angle that establishes where you are and avoids bad lighting. Get up in the stands or the backstretch and try to get a scene shot so you can see your horse. Beware of cars in the infield at county fairs, the sun reflects off them.

Mark Hall Photo

Michael Lisa

Andersen: I always look at the situation before the race, whether it be the Meadowlands or The Red Mile or Delaware, Ohio. Look at your backgrounds and decide where you think the angle should be.  I have in mind what I want to shoot as the horse is coming toward me or from the side or rear angle.  When you have a lot of varied lights coming, light and dark shadows, I try to get a meter reading and set my exposure manually so I know that is exactly what I’m going to get. Cameras on automatic can be fooled by bright light from the side.

Landry: At the Red Mile, when we thought Somebeachsomewhere was going for a world record, I was thinking I could go to the finish line, but I’d be where all the other photographers were.  What I’ve noticed in some of the big miles, a horse’s best stride is not necessarily near the finish line. In fact, when they go those huge miles, the finish line is not the necessarily the best place to get them in full flight. I went to the top of the stretch, found a nice, clean background behind where I thought the image would be, he’d come through and I’d get him. There was a beautiful pocket of light on him. If I missed that shot or somebody else had won, that’s a risk you take. I would have been backed up because the magazine could order one from Nigel [track photographer Nigel Soult] if some other horse won it.

Andersen: You will find more and more people are lazy about moving into position because they can use Photoshop and take out something bad in the background. That’s happening a lot and to me, that is not right. You should get yourself in a position to get that picture without changing anything in the background.

HB: How do you get a horse’s ears up? 

Keys: It’s mostly noise. If you have a small tape recorder with a recording of a horse neighing, that will do it. George Smallsreed and Tony Leonard, one of the great conformation photographers, always carried tape recorders and captured different horses whinnying.  When you play that, the horse thinks another horse is around and the head goes right up, the ears perk up. 

Hall: This happened to me when I was doing Muscle Hill. There was a Swedish photographer there with a stick horse that whinnied when you pressed the ear. When he heard that whinny, Muscle Hill’s head came right up. He was standing in the perfect conformation pose and I got about 12 frames.  

Mark Hall Photo
Mark Hall got this shot of Muscle Hill thanks to a little help from a toy horse.

HB:One of the most difficult shots to get just right is of the horse when he’s not moving – the conformation shot. How do you approach that?

Hall: You want a background as plain as possible, a scene of trees a bit far way. This is where you can use that sports setting, to maximize the number of frames you get. You have to shoot quickly as the horse will not hold the position you put them in indefinitely. You need the horse facing to your left and pose the horse so the legs that are farthest away from you are inside the feet closest to you. The distance between the sets of feet on each side should be proportional.  

Kyle: The left front foot should be straight and perpendicular as possible.

Hall: You almost want them leaning a little bit forward. I‘ve even tilted my camera a little bit forward which helps make it look better. Once you get the horse set, get your tape recorder going (for noise to keep the horse’s ears up) and shoot. You don’t want the background in focus, only the horse.  That makes the horse pop out a little bit more.  

Kyle: You don’t want the sun too high so that you get a shadow underneath the horse. You want the sun to show the face and neck of the horse and shoot at almost a 45-degree angle across the horse so the shadow of the horse falls away from them. You can shoot in the morning, stand the horse one way and then when the sun shifts, turn the horse to get the shadow falling away again. One thing about shooting conformation that’s helpful is patience.

Keys: It also helps if the person holding the horse knows what you’re after and is also patient. 

Hall: If you’re going to take a picture of a stallion, prep the horse like they would an expensive yearling, shine up the hooves, really work on the coat.

Landry: l believe it is by far the hardest thing in equine photography to do properly. It is a team effort. If the handler cannot place that horse, you’re euchred right off the bat. There are a lot of things to do with the horse ahead of time. You need a team. Somebody handling the horse, somebody with fly wipe, somebody to pick up legs and place them. 

HB: What are your thoughts about lead shank chains over the nose in photos?

Hall: It doesn’t hurt to ask them to go without the chain over the nose. I ask and if they say no, that’s fine, but they tend to go along if I ask to shoot without it. 

Kyle: Always have a nice leather halter and lead shank. I got to the point where I had my own halter and lead shank.

Keys: Yes, I have taken a lead shank off the nose. With Photoshop [laughter]. 

Hall:  The ideal is to double the chain through the ring at the bottom of the halter and let it hang.

HB: Do you think it makes a difference where you get your photos printed? 

Keys: Walmart, Sam’s Club, all the major chains that have in-house printing do a decent job. I have an inkjet printer that cost less than $100 and it does a great job.

Kyle: It’s what you give them – that’s what you will get back. If you give them a good quality picture you get a good quality picture back.

Dave Landry Photo
Dave Landry said that a horse's best stride may not be near the wire, so he shot his photo of Somebeachsomewhere from further up the Red Mile homestretch.

Hall: Maybe it doesn’t sound professional going to Walgreen or Meijer, but these are $50,000  – $100,000 machines. They are probably the machines a professional uses, they just don’t have professional people running them, but they’re mostly automated. Don’t overlook online printing options; we’ve used Winkflash here at the USTA and have been happy with them.

HB: Let’s say you’re an amateur ready to move from an all automatic camera to one with interchangeable lenses. Where does one start?

Landry: Interchangeable lenses give you a variety of options; you can get wide angle and zooms.  At one time, you had to buy the really expensive ones, but now some of these other zooms, such as Vivitar, Sigma and Tamron, actually do a very good job.

Andersen: The type of zoom lens most people should have is a wide angle zoom (such as 18-85mm) and eventually get a 70 – 200mm f/2.8 zoom. That’s your starting range. That (the 70-200mm) is a sort of mini telephoto and it gets you close enough to do nice portraits.

Lisa: That is exactly what I use every night at the Meadowlands, a 70 -200mm. I wouldn’t be able to use anything but a 2.8 at the Meadowlands because it’s night.

HB: How about shooting scenic shots, such as mares and foals in the field?

Landry: In terms of lighting, I love early morning and I love late afternoon, the warm light, the shadows are soft. The camera can handle that range of contrast, so you still have your three-dimensional look.  The scenario I like least is the midday sun, which we shoot a lot of racing in. It ‘s more “contrasty,” especially from June to August. The sun climbs high and as it gets high, you get more shadow and you have to either sacrifice shadows or highlights.

Andersen:  The best time to shoot anything is early morning or late afternoon, because light is softer. It gives you a nice, warm look. Most events are middle of day or evening so you have high noon and harsh shadows. In a horse’s case, lots of horses are dark and you might have light silks on drivers, so it’s a very contrasting look and difficult to get a good exposure. Soft-toned pictures are much more pleasing to the eye.

HB: Thank you for your time.

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The views contained in this column are that of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association.