Horsing Around - Again
This past weekend, my wife and I once again had the opportunity to attend the Kawartha Regional Appaloosa Horse Club (KRAHC) annual show, hosted at the beautiful Saddlewood Equestrian Centre, in Bethany Ontario. Neither of us own a horse, and we don't know a lot about them, but we do appreciate the animals and truly respect the work that goes into caring for and showing these animals.
Normally, I do take pictures at these events for fun, because, well, horses are just plain gorgeous animals, and this event would have been no different, save for one significant change.
This year, the club hired me to take photos at the event.
The organizers of the event, Doug Mileham and Lorna Kozmik, reached out to me a month or so ago and asked me if I'd be interested in taking on the responsibility of documenting the entire event, start to finish. They were always pleased with the photos I captured in the past and this time, wanted to ensure I could - and would - stay for the duration.
I was flattered by the request (not being a "horse-person") and agreed.
Between that initial discussion and the actual event, something else rather exciting happened to me; I was able to attend a two-day Adobe Stock photography workshop that our Stock team put on for students at Full Sail University in Orlando, FL. Not only did I learn quite a bit, I also participated and helped students throughout the workshop. By the end of it, everyone participating (including me) had content to upload to Adobe Stock. You can learn more about this workshop by checking out my project, Taking Stock, right here on Behance.
Most importantly, the workshop got me to thinking; I was going to be photographing people and horses for two solid days. The odds of creating a few stock-worthy images were very good. So, I balanced a reasonable budget for the KRAHC (they are a volunteer group and fundraising is critical to keep the club going), and offered all participants the option of signing a model release form, in exchange for which I would provide one professionally finished digital file of the model. The response to the offer was pretty good - over 15 model releases signed over the weekend, and a few more coming in via Facebook or email.
Fast-forward a few weeks and we arrived, bright and early at Saddlewood. Saturday was to be a beautiful, sunny day, with almost no clouds. Great for photographing landscapes and structures (and horses, it turned out), but that direct lighting can be challenging when people are involved, especially when one is trying to avoid flash photography.
Initially, checking my camera screen after each shot, I was feeling a little nervous. Judging photos on the back of my camera in bright sunlight - even with the histogram visible, wasn't doing much for my confidence level. Shadows on faces seemed much more drastic on the camera screen. However, I always shoot in raw format, so I knew I would have some flexibility regarding exposure balancing. The key for me was to be as consistent as possible, so I didn't have to manually process every single image.
You can see from the samples below (click on any image in the grid to enlarge it), while the shadows were obvious, they were not overpowering. The ability to adjust just shadow and highlight information in Lightroom really helped me make the most of these shots.
My goal was to shoot as much as possible. That request had also been made by Doug, too - take lots of pictures. And I lived up to that request and goal; by the end of the first day, I had close to 1100 photos and by the end of the weekend just over 1600 images - more than 50 GB of raw images to sort through - gulp! I tried to ensure I photographed every participant, more than once. I'm not sure if I got everyone, but I know I came close.
Saturday was a busy day in the sun. In the morning, participants were showing their animals in a variety of classes, and in the afternoon, there was a lot more excitement as the riders showed their horses in action.
I was very pleased with the responsiveness of my D750 autofocus for these jump shots, as the two gates were not very far apart, and the nearest one was quite close to me. I got a lot of practice in fast zooming this weekend!
The big event was the gaming round, where horses were raced around obstacles and timed for speed and graded for accuracy.
A sombre, touching moment occurred in the afternoon as the club paid respects to Jan Smith, wife of Jim Smith, owners of Saddlewood. Teala Kozmik sang Amazing Grace, acapella, as Paige Palmer led a riderless horse into the main ring.
Directly after this heartwarming moment, a Versatility Class was run in memory of Jan. The idea behind a versatility class is that competitors must compete and change tack in back-to-back events, without ever leaving the ring. There was a lot of excitement and some laughter, especially when Randie Alyssa had to change from her western outfit to English-style outfit, but forgot to remove her spurs first!
We stayed for the very tasty dinner put on by the Omemee Lion's Club and for the evening fun at the bonfire and fundraising auction that night. I even scored a great little wine bottle cooler and aerator at the auction!
I started culling the work on Saturday night, once we got back to the cottage. I was exhausted, but it was important to me that I get the shots from the day at least transferred to my laptop, so I had a safe backup of the shoot. I kept those media cards separate and loaded two fresh cards for Sunday. I was so tired that night, I only got through a rough cull of the first card - approximately 500 images, that I was able to push to a synced Collection in Lightroom Mobile. That step was turned out to be incredibly useful to me on the following day.
Sunday was not the bright and cheerful day we had on Saturday; it was cool, damp and rained most of the day, which meant all the events had to be run inside the large internal ring. This was challenging for riders and photographers alike, but outside was simply not an option.
From a photographic perspective, the barn was pretty evenly lit, but quite dim. This posed numerous challenges for me; focus, exposure and most importantly stopping action. I had two options: go with a lower ISO for better quality images, but risk blur, or go with a high ISO and live with the resulting grain/noise that would be part of the images. Having been in the situation before where I had perfectly exposed, finer grain images that were useless due to camera shake or subject movement, I opted to push my D750 to its limits and set the ISO to a nerve-wracking 128,000.
Almost the top limit of my camera. And even at that, I was moving from 1/50 to 1/100 of a second for shutterspeeds. Aperture remained around 5.6 for most of the images.
I also shot everything with my camera mounted to a monopod. I actually shot with the monopod the day before as well, but more to take the strain off my shoulders/back. I let the monopod carry the weight of the camera for most of the 8 hours I was shooting on Saturday, and for the 6 hours inside on Sunday.
I tweaked color balance in every single shot. Frankly, it's a bit obvious from the image grid above. I have a feeling I'll be revisiting some shots to improve color consistency...
I shot a LOT of images on Sunday. I knew there would be many flubs, as I was balancing fast movement, high ISO and dim, sometimes contrasting lighting. Challenging as it was, I'm pleased with the end results. One advantage of shooting inside was that I got closer to the horses and riders and also had some great opportunities for dramatic shots, including panning and backlighting.
Noise - or digital grain - is apparent in these images. It's simply a product of using a high ISO, just like grain was a by-product of high speed film.
Overall, it was a busy couple days for me, but the response from the KRAHC membership made all the work worthwhile. I've received many, many positive comments about the images via Facebook and that warms my heart.