2016 Gold Cup

By Roger (15 May 2016)

Last weekend, I got the chance to go out on the course for the Gold Cup Races, in The Plains, Virginia (link). The races have been going on since 1922, so it's a long-standing tradition, here in Northern Virginia. I've been to the many events at Great Meadow and blogged about the joys of putting on one of the course photographer's vests, back in November, 2014 (link). It's always a long, enjoyable day when you get the chance to take the cameras some place challenging.

Time for racing

And the lighting conditions were challenging. Since the races begin at mid-day, you always have lots of contrasty light. This year, however, we also had moving clouds and were constantly changing our exposure settings. We've had a long run of rainy days, lately, so the course was also little soggy, and race day dawned with lots of clouds in the sky. Luckily, it held off. The day got sunny for some of the races – there are nine – but, by the end of the day, it was clouding up, again.

The key non-photographic requirement for all photographers out on the course is paying attention to what is happening on the field. Each race follows a different course, and you definitely do not want to interfere with any of the proceedings. A couple of jockeys were de-horsed, so you also have to be alert when unsupervised race horses are running loose. They could cause serious damage to you and your gear. Fortunately, neither jockeys nor photographers were harmed.

We started off with the terrier races. You wouldn't believe the intensity of some of the owners in this “fun” race. The dogs just want to run after the raccoon tail and jump the miniature fences. Take a look at their faces when they come out of the starting kennel. This is always a crowd favorite.

And, they're off!

As we prepared for the real races, we split across the course and around the grounds. Some of the photographers were there on assignments to photograph the crowd and ancillary events more than the actual races. There were about 50,000 spectators and vendors dining, drinking, and partying. There are hat contests, tailgate contests, fancy car displays, and para-mutual betting going on, so it is a target-rich environment for photographers. I did shoot some photographs of the crowd, like the one below, but my primary interest was the races.

One of the hat contestants

I tried to stay away from the main gaggle of photographers to get some photos that varied from the main pool. For example, I didn't shoot any photos of the finish line because I went out along the back of the course. (Most of the photographers weren't going to walk that far out.) The course is almost two miles around the outer fences, and, as you can see below, the back of the course is free of spectators. You can get a cleaner photo back there.

Far end of the race course

Due to obvious safety concerns, you stay out of the path of the horses and not too low to the ground. I found a few places that allowed me to get low, behind some barriers, to safely grab a few photos low and close. I was trying to get a different look from the standard photos. It's pretty exciting to be on the ground when the horses come galloping by, within 10 feet.

My down low shots

Of course, you can only differ so much from the standard race shots. There are certain photos that we all made at one point or another. Because these are steeplechase races, you want some of the fence and hedge jumping. One of the races included a path through the shallow pond. There was no way I was going to miss that shot.

Through the brush fence

Through the pond

The last couple races of the day are on a flat course, so I left the course and concentrated my efforts on other subjects – the officials up the tower and jockeys returning to their tent, after the race.

A view halloo?

Mud-covered, but happy with the results of his ride

All in all, it was a great day, with lots of photos and new friends made. I hope to shoot the fall race, in November, if they ask me back. I don't get to photograph these kinds of events very often, so I try to take advantage of them every time I can. According to my phone, it was also a great step-count day. ;-)

Resting between races. Photo by Tony Gibson

Should You Avoid Group Shoots?

By Roger (16 November 2014)

Shooting a single subject with a group of photographers can be less than ideal. At times, it can seem like you're in in a photography mosh pit. Sometimes, you're shoulder to shoulder with other photogs, everyone trying to get a decent photo (you already know it isn't going to be unique). But there are times where the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, and the group shoot may be worth a try.

Combat photography?

Combat photography?

If you find yourself in this situation, you're probably at some sort of organized event. And, although you may wish there weren't so many folks crowding your space, keeping an open mind may still result in a nice photo.

WWII Japanese Zero

WWII Japanese Zero

So, why would you ever subject yourself to this kind of scenario? Well, going to an organized event can give you access to subjects more easily than you could get otherwise. The Zero, above, was taken out of the Commemorative Air Force hanger, in Atlanta, for our workshop. Moose Peterson (link), a highly-acclaimed warbird (and nature) photographer led the workshop and was there to help with technical solutions and ideas. We spent the entire day with several World War II aircraft. The planes were moved out of their hangar and put in several different positions, so we could get better photographs. We, also, had access to the pilots who flew the planes. A reasonable trade-off, in my opinion, for a crowded shoot.

Contrast that with my recent trip to the Military Air Museum (link), in Virginia Beach. It only cost me the ticket price, but I had to shoot this B25J Mitchell bomber in the hangar, with other aircraft too close for me to get a clear photo of much more than the nose art. The docents were very helpful and gave me unfettered access to the aircraft. They even let me bring in a tripod! For some reason, however, they wouldn't move the planes around for me. ;-)

Organized model shoots, like the one below, sponsored by Westcott Lighting (link), are another example where you may want to join a group shoot. When you are just starting out, you may have a hard time coming up with all the ideas and resources they use. They show you what is possible with their great lighting products and a staff of set designers, stylists, and make-up artists. Even if you have some experience using lighting and sets, these group shoots can be fun to walk up to; snap a few shots; and take away a nice photograph and lots of ideas and inspiration.

Westcott Photoshoot Clown

Westcott Photoshoot Clown

Different Sets from a Westscott Model Shoot

Different Sets from a Westscott Model Shoot

These group shoots are also great for variety or trying new types of photography.

I am not, and never will be, a bird or nature photographer, but, in a group shoot with The Raptor Conservancy of Virginia (link), I got the opportunity to give it a try. The RCV rehabilitates and releases injured raptors back into the wild when possible and cares for the birds that can't be released.

These birds are put onto a branch, near a stand of trees for a natural background. I tried to frame the photoss so that viewers couldn't see the tethers that keep the birds close to the handler. Where that isn't possible, I'll have to take a trip into Photoshop to make them look more natural. Ideally, I would like to photograph them in the wild, but – let's be real – I am not going to spend hours hiking out into the woods to find these birds in their natural habitat. And, with the birds so close to my camera, I could use my 70-200mm, rather than renting or buying a long, expensive lens. For a small donation to the RCV, there were eight raptors easily accessible for our small group of photographers. We had plenty of time to try different angles, and the handlers were very helpful and informative. It was certainly worth an hour of my time to give it a try.

Saker Falcon

Saker Falcon

Barn Owl

Barn Owl

I would much rather make more unique photos, in a setting of my own choice, but, from my point of view, there are times where group shoots are worth the inherent disadvantages they present. Your mileage may vary, so you need to make your own choice of which group shoots, if any, you want to join. They can be fun for variety and ideas, and that is the guiding principal for my photography.

Change Your Approach

By Roger (23 October 2014)

When you shoot the same subject frequently, you can find many of your photos beginning to revert to a norm. Things begin to look too similar. Your photographs may not lose their quality, they just don't excite you as much. If you find this happening to you, it's time to change your approach to the subject – explore different facets of the subject; do something, anything, you haven't done recently. You don't want your photography to become boring to you. That is a sure sign it may be boring to your viewer.

One of my long-time projects, for the last couple of years, has been photographing the Civil War sesquicentennial re-enactments. The project continues until April 2015, when I will join the re-enactors at Appomattox, Va., where General Lee surrendered to General Grant, 150 years ago. As a guy who loves history and genealogy, this photo project has been lots of fun for me. However, over the last 24 months, I've shot many battlefield re-enactments, and I was beginning to become less interested in the results. I was making the photographs for my project, not for my enjoyment.

I realized I needed to do something differently. So, at this weekend's event at Cedar Creek Battlefield, near Middletown, Va., I concentrated on photographs other than the actual battle re-enactments. Not only did I get a better variety of photos, my fun meter slammed back into the green zone.

Formation on the ridgeline, Cedar Creek, Middletown, VA

Formation on the ridgeline, Cedar Creek, Middletown, VA

I arrived at the rolling hills of Middletown early, while the re-enactors were practicing their close order drill, prior to the arrival of regular visitors. With lots of clouds keeping down the light, I shot these guys up on a ridge from a much lower angle and got this nice silhouette. It isn't an extraordinary shot, but I got what I saw in my head, and that is always a kick.

Once I had my plan for the day, there were photographs everywhere I turned.

Young Re-enactor

Young Re-enactor

For many, these events are a family affair, and some of the re-enactors start a very young age. I had a chance to shoot several shots of this cute, little girl, waiting with her mother and friends. I sat on the ground to keep at her eye level and made this shot as she noticed me. She turned shy and hid behind her mother.

This was a big gathering of almost 7,000 re-enactors. Cedar Creek was an important battle, pitting Union General Philip Sheridan against Confederate General Jubal Early. The Confederates were eventually defeated, and the Union controlled the Shenandoah Valley until the end of the war.

On Saturday, before the battles, the Union boys held a mass formation and a pass in review. It was an impressive site. It took almost an hour for all of them to parade by. The reviewing general looked more like General Sherman (not possible because he was in Georgia, threatening Atlanta), but he cut quite a figure, just the same.

The General for the Review

The General for the Review

There were too many soldiers to fit in my lens, but I made many photos of parts of the formation and during the pass in review. For an old Army guy, they were just too good to pass up.

Pass in Review, Cedar Creek

Pass in Review, Cedar Creek

After the Union pass in review, it was time to head over to the Confederate camps to see what I could find there. The folks there were busy preparing for the upcoming battle. Women in the camps were mending uniforms; preparing for wounded that were soon to arrive; and discussing bits of the day's news.

In the Confederate camp

In the Confederate camp

The re-enactors live in period-correct tents and cook their meals over fires during the event. When they aren't engaged in the battles, they will happily give living history demonstrations of camp life. We discussed the facts and personalities of this battle. As always, I had no problems getting permission to make photos of them.

Confederate Infantryman

Confederate Infantryman

The camp included a photographer who was taking authentic tin-types and ferro-types, with a replica camera. He had a long line, waiting for the opportunity to pose. He developed the photos in the tent with the same type of chemicals Matthew Brady used 150 years ago. I watched several of the photo sessions.

After Mark's blog, last week, I had to make at least one toned photo to look like it was taken 150 years ago. I'm quite happy to create the effect in Lightroom, but it was impressive to watch the re-enactment photographer create the real thing.

Tin-types and Ferro-types while you wait

Tin-types and Ferro-types while you wait

North Carolina Confederate

North Carolina Confederate

The day went entirely too quickly. I wish I could have made it there for Sunday when the Confederates were going to conduct their parade. The different approach brought back my enthusiasm to see this project through to the end in April. I began this project with the idea I would photograph the battles, but it needed a more comprehensive approach. The Civil War impacted Americans far beyond the battlefields, and the re-enactors do a great job of showing us how life was lived in those times.

And I found some humor on the edges of the battlefield. Keep the fun in your photography.

We didn't have these kinds of rations when I was in the Army.

We didn't have these kinds of rations when I was in the Army.