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

Rodeo Time

By Roger (19 July 2015)

It's been a busy couple of weeks, with very little chance to exercise my shutter fingers. I did get to spend a couple of hours, at the Fauquier County Fair, with our local camera group. We went on opening night for the rodeo.

As rodeos go, this one is small. You don't get to see many of the events found at the big rodeos. This one is limited to a couple dozen bull riders and the barrel racers. And, since it started late, the sun set before we got to the barrel racers. The good thing about small rodeos is you can get close to the action if you get there early enough. We did and were right on the fence, across from the chutes.

While we were waiting, we got to chat with the show's official photographer, Chris “Click” Thompson. (You can check out his site here.) He was setting up strobes around the arena, so he could keep working after sunset. He spent some time with our group, talking camera geek stuff. He travels with the show, as a free-lancer, so he's seen the action many times and passed out some shooting advice. He dropped by, again, mid-way through the bull riding to check in on us. It was a thoughtful gesture from a full-time professional.

Since our group had been to this rodeo, last year, we knew the best place to catch the bulls coming right out of the chutes.

Let 'er rip

Let 'er rip

This is a good time for a zoom lens, with a quick autofocus, because the action moves quickly around the arena, and you can't move with it. I used the 70-200 and kept the autofocus on active. The sun was fading, so we were increasing our ISO to keep the shutter speeds above 1/640.

Hanging on

Hanging on

My favorite shots have the bull's feet completely off the ground. You might not think a 1,600 pound bull could jump that high, but they seem to get real agitated at the riders. You can tell how low the sun is by looking at the bull's shadow on the chute.

That bull has great hang time

That bull has great hang time

I noticed more riders wearing helmets, rather than hats, this year. I'm all for safety, but maybe you shouldn't be hanging onto the back of a bull to begin with. The disadvantage of those helmets becomes apparent when you hit the dirt. And many of the riders did just that.

Bull Rider Faceplant

Bull Rider Faceplant

That facemask scoops up lots of dirt.

That facemask scoops up lots of dirt.

When the bulls cooperate, you can get some great facial expressions from the riders. There comes a point on the ride where they realize the bull has the upper hand, and they are going down.

End of the ride

End of the ride

Uh-oh!

Uh-oh!

Unfortunately, because of the late start, I didn't have the light I needed for the barrel racers. The speed and skill those horsewomen display is fun to photograph. Here's one of my favorites from last year.

Gotta love the barrel racers

Gotta love the barrel racers

We all had a great time at the rodeo: eating only the finest cuisine; hanging with other photographers; and lots of challenging subjects to photograph. Don't miss your chance when the rodeo comes to town.

More Horsing Around

Roger’s nice photos from the Gold Cup reminded me that shooting photos of horses can be quite rewarding.  Especially here in VA horse country, there are lots of opportunities to just stop by the side of the road and see pastures full of them, doing what they do best.  Several members of our Fauquier Viewfinders Camera Club own horses and delight in showing endless photos of them. Unfortunately, many pictures are of the horse just standing around.  To really engage your viewer, you need to show a bit of the personality of the animal in your picture.  Horses are curious, if you are quiet and non-threatening; they will come over to examine you. 

Catching them in motion, especially trained horses can be even more interesting.  When you can get a fog machine as well…well, that is a horse of a different color.  Oh wait, that is material for another blog.