Capturing the Moment

Do you remember getting ready for class pictures? Doing your hair, putting on an outfit that even your parents could agree on only to get the proofs back and wish you could burn it? Portrait photography is not for the timid. I have to give kudos to photographers who turn out quality work and don’t just try to get it over with regardless of the product. The digital age of photography has probably improved portraits way beyond my school picture experiences so I’m dating myself, but if you think kids are hard to photograph, try horses!

One thing I always wanted to do was photograph horses. I haven’t really had access to do it before, other than shooting pictures over people’s fences along the road, which gets you a lot of heads down grazing pictures that are not very satisfying. It’s also hard to get quality when you want to shoot an event from the stands and all you have is your camera phone. It just can’t do the subject or the experience justice.


I had the opportunity to take candid photographs of the colts in the training class and during the sales catalog photo shoot as an assignment for my Equine Sales and Marketing class in preparation for The Legends of Ranching Performance Horse Sale. One of the things it reminded me of was how much I love photography, and how much I missed the challenges and the rewards of capturing “that” moment. But I had the easy job.

A student trainer grooming a colt before the photo shoot. Photo credit Dixie Crowe

The instructors from different classes in the equine program united in a monumental effort to photograph each of the consigned colts for the catalog photos. They’re a lot like school photos except that instead of the colts doing their own hair, their student trainers and class teaching assistants were getting them ready. Once they were looking fabulous and wearing their school uniform (they each had the same saddle blanket under a western saddle), Mr. Synder, the instructor for the colt training class, lead each one in front of a green screen with photo lights shining on them. If that wasn’t a weird enough experience for them, there were a whole bunch of people watching them. Ms. Santistevan and Mr. Brooks took long turns behind the camera directing tiny foot placements, shifting of weight, height of the neck and the seemingly longest part…getting the ears to perk forward. Students from my class were looking for details like manes and tails in place, saddle strings hanging appropriately and the like. Ms. Kurtz, a co-instructor in the sales class, manned the computer looking at the shots as they came in from the camera and also helped direct Mr. Synder’s movement, placement of the horses, and announcing when we had a usable picture.

Mr. Brooks waits patiently to capture the perfect moment, while Mr. Synder stands off screen holding the carefully positioned colt and teaching assistant Chelsea Boggs tries to get the ears to perk forward. Photo credit Dixie Crowe

Student and teaching assistant helpers off screen tried all kinds of tricks to perk the ears forward while keeping the neck in a low relaxed position. Some horses responded to sound, others to handfuls of dirt tossed in the air, and some to the classic bucket of feed shaking. Some of the colts got in there and just handled the whole thing like it was a normal part of their day. Others couldn’t figure out why we were being so picky. Sometimes it was funny to watch. Other times it was tense because there were so many “oh, almost” moments.

But like I said, I had the easy job photographing what was going on around me from the colts getting exercised, groomed and prepped, to documenting the photo shoot process. The thing that made it go so smoothly was a lot of patience, everyone doing their own part, but also a whole lot of teamwork.

Mr. Books, one my equine science instructors who is an excellent photographer, came to my sales class last week and gave us a short run down on setting up the digital camera for shooting horses in action and the lower light conditions of the B.W. Pickett Arena. His lecture moved me light years forward with my camera so instead of wasting a lot of time and continuing to miss great shots, I got much closer to what I wanted to capture.

Tim Weddington, the Program Coordinator in the Adult Learner Veteran Services office (ALVS), who is an excellent photographer as well, critiqued some of my first candid shots from last week and answered a lot of my questions about why I wasn’t able to dial in my camera into the ranges Mr. Brooks had recommended. Without investing in a better lens, I went back out there with what I had using Mr. Weddington’s suggestions, and just shot a ton of photos, Over 2,300 shots covering three separate days to be exact.

A moment when it all came together, the lighting, the horse, the student trainer. Photo credit Dixie Crowe

The ability to shoot hundreds and even thousands of pictures at one event is definitely a huge advantage of digital over film. With horses it is hard to anticipate the moment when they will look their best or when a shot will come together with everything you want. It can pass in a millisecond, just a passing expression that you can never duplicate. Being able to shoot continuously and come back later to look through the results is very freeing. Yes, there were a lot of junky shots, blurry shots, and stuff that just didn’t look good with either the horse or the person, but I did get some really good ones that I’m very happy with even without any adjusting in photo computer programs. (All the pictures included here are totally raw with no computer editing or cropping)

I want to make photography a more integral part of everything I do in Equine Science to not only improve my photographs, but also the knowledge of my digital camera. I still miss the old darkroom days when I developed my own rolls of black and white film and spent hours printing my negatives. I also miss how well I knew my film camera and what I could get out of her, but I must admit that the instant gratification of seeing all my digital pictures right away is pretty exciting.

In some ways I feel like I’m straddling the line between art and photojournalism. The photography I used to do was aimed at creating single art pieces not commercial photographs, or portraits, or even journalism. I’m streching myself in a new direction. What I am trying to capture is the relationship between the horse and the human, and in some of the shots documenting the photo shoot process showing the work it takes to get the horses in the right position to really show off their best attributes. I’m also learning what it takes to produce a quality sales catalog in the equine industry.

I feel very lucky that I’m getting so much hands on experience in different aspects of sales and marketing specific to the equine industry, and getting back into photography as part of my learning experience. I feel even luckier that I have so many generous faculty who not only helped me figure out what direction I want to pursue, but also offered me opportunities to develop or refine the skills I have so I can go out there and follow that passion. Then again, that’s part of the reason I chose CSU’s Equine Science program in the first place.