Photo Essay: Blue Ridge Fall Races (September 18, 2010)

The photo essay is posted at KLM Images.

Event excitement vs photo excitement

The clock

Races of all kinds are exciting events.  There are crowds of people, outrageous hats, and colorful entertainments as well as all the action on the track.  When you consider that each race only takes a few minutes to run, and that typically a half-hour slot is allotted for that, you can see how essential the tailgate refreshments become.


Running and jumping horses are inherently photogenic.  It’s easy to just snap away and come back with a great many pleasant shots, but once the excitement of the event is past and I look them over with a more dispassionate eye, I find myself torn between showing as much of the race competition as possible (like a documentary) and concentrating on good shots that speak on their own, without the “I was there” excitement to boost their appeal.

There are many great body and leg poses that are lovely to look at, but this one of a rider casually heading out to the starting post struck me.  If you put a pin through the top of the saddle, the horse’s legs, tail, and head and the jockey’s body all radiate outward like the hands of a clock.  The balance of mass and alignment of spokes all conveyed a smoothness and control of motion.

The wheel

The top photo on the left is a perfectly reasonable shot showing the thrust of what will be the winning horse, but to me it is relatively static.  The photo below it, which is really the very next stride, is completely different.  The alignment of the legs and whip are like the spokes of a wheel.  Unlike the “clock” above it is not balanced, showing the forward momentum of both horses and the speed and mass which is pounding down the field.

Nothing is changed between the two horses, but just that small shift in which legs for which horse are visible makes all the difference to the effect of the shot.

What draws my eye in the jumping shot is the grey’s mane.  The clumped texture echoes the structure of the hurdles below.

Texture echoes of mane and hurdle

(As a side note, intrusive cars on the racetracks in background shots are bad enough, but a special hell should be reserved for folks who put brightly colored temporary fencing in place to poison many shooting locations.  If you only try to shoot the jumping at one fence you can position yourself to avoid most of the background noise, but if you’re trying to cover more than one fence (with a long lens), it’s hard to avoid the problem.)

Race photography is prone to long horizontal shots and as the image gets wider, the subjects get smaller and the action recedes.  The right-hand cropping in this photo is accidental (I didn’t get all of the bay pony) but good; the ponies and riders at maximum extension communicate the speed of this race to the finish, as if they are moving so quickly they’ll run right off the frame.

Ponies & riders extended off the frame

Discoveries after the shoot

Stable colors vs monochrome

How many sets of stripes are there?

Neither of these shots was set up or planned in any way, just the natural result of taking many photos and hoping that the milling action in the paddock would yield something interesting.

On the left, the stable colors gleam against the essentially colorless grey/sage background, focusing your attention on the hopes of the owner (and in fact, this was the winning horse and jockey of this particular race).

On the right, the rich brown of the horse and the subdued colors of the stable are elegant and dignified, but where did all those stripes come from?  I find them an amusing accent to the heavy mass of the hindquarters.

News vs photography

I am a photographer, not a journalist.  I look at images and appreciate the stories that they appear to tell, but I do not have the nose or interest to pursue the actual news, to get all the facts and report.  Nonetheless, news occurs at the events you attend, and it is well to be prepared, especially when it is bad news.

Before the accident

One of the jockeys suffered a terrible accident after his horse ran wide of a jump and bolted with him early in the fourth race, causing him to collide with a course fence.  The accident had already happened before the race was finished, and the race ran on to its conclusion, as is expected.

As it happened, I had shots of the jump where the horse ran wide and the beginning of the bolt, and of course there were medics and a helicopter.

I was very torn thinking of what to publish.  Thankfully I am under no journalistic obligation to provide photos dwelling on the accident itself and its aftermath, which I restricted to a couple of helicopter shots.  But there were people who would be interested in anything they could learn about the cause of the bolt, and for them I did preserve the jumping shots that show it in the background.

The pre-race photos included many of this jockey, and it was distressing to know the outcome.  The best I could do was to try and provide the very nicest photo possible of him, knowing it was likely to be his career closer.

Non-standard portraits

Larger than life

The local foxhunt often provides outrider services for a steeplechase. This huntsman took clear pleasure in his flamboyant attire and, since he is a large fellow, these shots of him effectively taller than his horse were particularly amusing.

It can be a challenge trying to get a portrait of someone who is always “on” in this way.  On the one hand, he will generate more comedy than quieter personalities, but on the other hand it can be hard to get past the surface, considering how exuberant that surface may be.

Stand up straight

After capturing these shots, my husband’s camera caught the one below, where the exposure was blown out.  I liked the more introspective expression and wanted to salvage it in some way.

When I have photos I like which are technical disasters that can’t be repaired in the basic photo editing process I mostly sigh and move on, but there are some shots for which I make exceptions.  One of the simplest approaches is to stop thinking of it as a photograph and consider it as a drawing instead.

I do most of my post-processing in Lightroom and DxO, since Photoshop is not designed for high volume, but Photoshop does have some nice basic tools for special effects.  In my somewhat elderly release, these are part of the “Filter Gallery”.  There I can see what a photo might look like as a charcoal drawing, or stained glass, or ink sketch, and so on.  Usually there is one particular special effect that preserves what I like about a photo while rendering it in a way that is not visually obnoxious, though often I can’t predict which effect will work best.  I’ve never before found a use for the neon light filter I used this time, but I very much like the result.

I am usually able to incorporate the resultant alteration in the photo essay (where I caption it as artistically altered, when it isn’t obvious), but this time the new version would have been too jarring in style to do so.  Instead, I will save it for some other use later on.

Unrecoverable blowout

Salvaged for a later use

Classic shots where least expected

Even though this was a race not a foxhunt, the presence of nattily attired foxhunters made it likely that some classic foxhunting shots might occur.

I was on the lookout for a nice closing shot when some of the staff of the Snickersville Hounds obligingly headed off to supervise the final race.

Take these gifts when the photo gods offer them.

Ending a race essay with a classic foxhunting shot

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