Thursday, May 29, 2008

Fun Horse Day / Friday Tip

I spent a lot of my Memorial Day weekend just hanging out with Chinook. He got a bath (his first of the year, he was filthy!) on Sunday, and I fiddled around a lot playing with him and my camera on Monday. I like taking photos of his changing colors throughout the year, and comparing the changes not only through the seasons, but through the years. He is a sooty buckskin, but now that he's getting older, his coat has changed pretty drastically. A decade ago this time of year he would have been a sleek rich golden buckskin, with heavy sooty dappling coming in a little later in the summer. Now however his hair is a bit longer, fuzzier and is mostly a sort of faded black with some light spots valiantly trying to poke through. The changes on his head are pretty dramatic, while the transition on his flank is much more subtle.

And that leads me to this week's tip. We all like to photograph horses for reference, but sometimes it can be tricky, especially in dark arenas. Here are some tips for getting great reference shots. These tips require manual mode (or one of the program modes) on your camera, but it's really not as daunting to figure out as it seems!

Horses move, and they move fast. Even when they're just standing around posing for photos, some part of their bodies is frequently moving. The first thing to do is to set the shutter speed to something that will capture motion so you don't have to guess at what that blurry area really looked like. The shutter speed is the amount of time the shutter is open on your camera - the time it actually takes to capture the photo. Try a shutter speed of 500. (That's 1/500th of a second.) You can go down to 250 (1/250th of a second), but that's about the slowest you should go to stay safe. If you are photographing a horse in action, you can make the shutter go faster; try 750 or even 1000 to make those legs stay nice and crisp.

Next, consider the aperture, otherwise known as the f-stop. For reference purposes, you don't want to get all fancy with shallow depth of field. Those photos look pretty when well executed, but they will cause part of the horse to be blurry while another part is in tack sharp focus! Try to stick to the f/4 to f/8 range. You will be using a range here because not only does this setting affect depth of field, but ALSO the exposure!

While the shutter speed determines how long light can get through the opened shutter, the aperture determines how much light actually gets through during that time. This is the tricky part, so bear with me for quick explanation. The shutter in your lens can open up as a very tiny hole (a narrow aperture, or high f-stop such as f/16, f/32 or even higher) and only let in a little light. Or, the shutter can open a lot (a wide aperture, or low f-stop such as f/4, f/2.8 or even lower) leaving a large hole for lots of light to get through. The higher the f-stop, the smaller the aperture. I know, I know... it sounds crazy and backwards. All you really need to take away from this is that as the f-stop gets higher in number it lets in... less light. There is a good visual diagram of aperture sizes (and a much more thorough explanation) on Wikipedia. (Don't worry about the technicalities of the differences between f-stop and aperture.) Now, the shutter speed/f-stop balancing part does require practice. The good news is you can just take your camera outside in different lighting conditions, point it at a big bush or something, and play with the settings until you are comfortable with them.

Back to our f-stop range for practical use. If your shutter speed is set to 500 and the day is bright, try an f-stop of f/5.6 and see what happens. Hopefully you are using a digital camera with a preview window so that you can see how bright or dark the photo turned out. Is the image too bright? Go ahead and move the f-stop up to f/6.7. Remember, moving the f-stop up lets in less light, so this will result in a darker photo. If the image is too dark at f/5.6, then try going the other way to f/4 to open up the shutter and let more light in. Always keep in mind that the lower the f-stop number goes, the shallower the depth of field gets. Very pleasing photos can be created with f/2.8 and even lower, but a lot of skill is required to ensure the proper bits of the photo are in focus.

Learning how to use your camera's manual functions will not only allow you to get exactly the results you need, it will often times allow you to photograph horses without using the flash. This is very important! Most importantly, as a photographer of strange horses, you will not know how they will react to a flash. A calm horse can instantly become frightened and dangerous. Some horses are even afraid of the sound of a shutter click. Show horses are often used to flashes, but never assume they are, and refrain from using a flash when photographing on the rail at a competition. Secondly, our cameras really aren't all that clever. They'll want to move on to using flash in situations where it simply won't help. Horses are usually too far away from the lens for the flash to work, so the photo won't turn out anyway.

That's enough for now... Next week, info on the ISO and using histograms to really help you nail your exposure and make sure you get good shots. You can click on the photos in this post for larger versions which you are welcome to keep for your personal reference files if you wish. Mousing over the photos will reveal the settings I used. I tried to include only photos on which I did minimal processing in photoshop for a true idea of what the settings do.


Carol H. said...

Great tips, Mel! One question for ya -- if the horse is farther away, you can get away with using a lower f-stop, can't you? For instance, if you're 5-10 feet from the horse and using f 2.8, some parts might be out of focus, but if you're 25 feet away, as long as you're focused on the horse, you should be okay. Is that right?

Mel Miller said...

Hi Carol! That's a great question actually. I'm going to try to take some photos to illustrate this and I'll type up something about it in the next Friday Tip. :-D