Florida Brown Pelican
A Florida Brown Pelican sitting on a pier preens in the late afternoon sun.
The relatively flat Captiva Island landscape means that the warm late-day sun reaches the island's eastern/bay-side dock piers - providing great lighting for photographing the pelicans that like to sit on these piers.
I carried the Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 L IS II USM Lens with the Canon EF 2x III Extender for my lightweight bird lens on this trip. The f/8 image quality this combo delivered is impressive.
600mm f/8.0 1/640s ISO 400
When I need to stress-test the autofocus tracking capability of a camera and lens, I frequently call upon the Quarter horses for help. Only the best gear can keep up with this action - and I am definitely challenging by the bouncing action.
300mm f/2.8 1/1250s ISO 500
All Wound Up
This young soccer player is going to need to unwind before becoming effective on this play. An f/2.8 aperture allowed me to get an action-stopping shutter speed at only ISO 800 on this dark day.
300mm f/2..8 1/1250s ISO 800
Dog Head Shot
This is a relatively easy shot to reproduce - if you can get a dog to sit still.
The light is from a late-day sun (warm color balance). The background is simply a green field. The problem of course is getting the dog to look in one direction long enough to capture the shot as the depth of field at 300mm, f/2.8 and this short focus distance is not tolerant of any movement.
300mm f/2.8 1/1000s ISO 100
Stopping a Galloping Horse
If you can script the action, the odds of getting a great action photo increase dramatically. If you can repeat the script, those odds skyrocket far higher. And, being able to pick the time of day for the shoot is golden. For this galloping horse shoot, I had full control. But even with full control, you still need to know how to get the shot.
I often test camera and lens AF performance using a rider on a galloping horse. This is a challenging subject that I am familiar with, allowing me to best appreciate a camera and lens' capabilities. I often share sample pictures from these shoots and thought you might appreciate the "How To" behind these shots. To dive right in, let's select a lens.
Select your Lens
Tracking a fast-moving subject requires a fast, responsive-focusing lens. I prefer longer focal length lenses with an effective 400-500mm angle of view being ideal for my situation. A narrow angle of view allows me to isolate the horse and rider against a relatively small area of strongly blurred background. The longer focal lengths keep the horse and rider in the framing sweet spot for a longer duration.
There are many lenses capable of tracking this action, but the Canon L telephoto lenses are generally my preference. When testing a camera, the Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM Lens and Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM Lens are usually my first choices. I completely trust these lenses to perform amazingly in all regards and their narrow depth of field at wide open apertures shows me exactly where AF placed the plane of sharp focus.
If the lens has IS mode 3, that is the mode I use. Otherwise, I turn off image stabilization.
The Camera Setup
The camera itself is of course an important component in stopping a galloping horse. If you have only one, that is the camera to use. If you have a choice ... the faster and more accurately a camera auto focuses on a fast-moving subject, the more likely it will be able to keep the horse's rider in focus and the faster that camera's frame rate is, the more likely you are going to capture the ideal horse position. The Canon EOS-1D X and Canon EOS 7D Mark II (used for the included image) are my top 2 choices.
Since you know that the subject will be in motion, use the camera's AI Servo AF mode. In this mode, the camera will predict where the subject will be at the precise moment the shutter opens.
I also recommend using the fastest frame rate burst mode your camera offers. Some people refer to this mode as "Spray and Pray", but ... just because you can create a catchy saying that has negative implications does not mean that the implications are right.
The fastest frame rates available today have a purpose and that purpose includes allowing the photographer to concentrate on framing the action while capturing a large variety of subject position(s) to later choose from. The faster the frame rate, the more likely the ultimate subject position will be included in the results (be sure to use a fast, high capacity memory card). You can alternatively release the shutter when you think the subject will be in perfect position, but ... know that horses can move very fast. This American quarter horse was approaching at an estimated 35-40 mph (56-64 kph). Good luck timing even a short shutter lag with all four hooves off of the ground.
For the galloping horse photos, I always use manual exposure mode. I select the widest aperture my lens has available, which is most often f/2.8 or f/4. The wide aperture allows more light to reach the sensor, allowing the use of faster (shorter) shutter speeds and lower ISO settings. I usually select a 1/1600 sec. shutter speed. I can get by with a modestly slower shutter speed setting, but 1/1600 practically eliminates motion-blur issues for this subject (same in most people-in-action photos).
I use the ISO setting to adjust the final image brightness delivered by the selected shutter speed and aperture. If ISO 100 is not low enough (such as under bright sunlight at f/2.8), I use a faster shutter speed. If the light is rapidly changing (clouds cause this), I use an Auto ISO setting, but this is not my preference.
When shooting in the late-day sun (the ideal time of day for this scene), the light level typically goes down throughout the shoot. I watch the histogram between passes and adjust settings as necessary.
Because this action scenario is not unique and because I shoot action with some frequency, I have Custom Mode 1 programmed for the above parameters on all of my cameras. If I am shooting action, I simply turn the dial to Custom Mode 1 and tweak the settings as needed.
I want the rider's face to be in focus as the rider is more important than the horse for my photos and an important choice to be made prior to shooting is the AF point selection. There are a lot of AF point options with some of the newest high-end camera models. As a rule, the center AF point is a camera's best-performing AF point. However, in the horse galloping situation, the center AF point tends to fall on the horse's nose. Since I choose to shoot with a shallow depth of field, focusing on the horse's nose places the rider out of focus.
There is more than one AF point option that can work as I desire and I often use more than one in a shoot, though I seldom select more than a single AF point option. Placing the left-most center AF point on the rider's boot and the saddle area works well. I also like to use the top-most AF point placed on the rider's head. Because the horse and rider are going up and down very rapidly, it is difficult to keep the horse's ear from capturing the camera's focus attention when using this AF point. The latest and greatest cameras can have their AF parameters tuned and instructing the camera to not be too quick to focus on distractions can resolve this specific problem.
You might find that an AF point placed low on the horse's chest places your rider adequately in sharp focus, but ... the lack of contrast in that location may challenge the camera's AF system.
Setting up the Action
The horses I am primarily shooting are running on a slowly curving trail at the top of our field. As the rider is warming up the horse, I am adjusting my shooting distance to ideally frame the subjects and to align both horse and rider with the background (I also dial in my exposure during warmup).
There is not a lot of foreground in my galloping horse pictures, but you can readily see the background and that is very important for the overall image. I try to select distant landscape (mostly small mountains) that is pleasing but not distracting. I prefer the high contrast line between the sky and the forest to not go through the rider's head, but above or below is good. My choice is usually to shoot from a very low position – typically squatted behind a monopod-mounted camera and lens. This low position places the rider higher into the background.
Capturing the Action
When the horse and rider are warmed up and ready, it is time to go live. The rider typically lets me know that they are ready, I check the camera's electronic level to insure that I am (nearly) perfectly vertical and let the rider know that I am ready.
I carefully watch for the rider to appear over the horizon. As soon as the subjects appear, I place the AF point in the desired position and begin AI Servo AF tracking by pressing the shutter release half way (pressing the rear focus button also works if the camera is so-configured). As the subject approaches the ideal framing distance, I fully press the shutter release and follow the subject until too close for usable framing.
As the horse and rider trot back for another pass, I check the results just captured and make any adjustments needed. Since I am usually testing a camera or lens when shooting this rider on a galloping horse scenario, I shoot many passes.
Reviewing the Take-Home
With a fast camera and many passes, I am often looking at a thousand or more images to review. Reviewing is a time consuming process and, when using a top-performing camera and lens combo, selecting down the keepers can be a huge task. While making the first pass through the images, I mark all that are out of focus for immediate deletion. If the camera, lens and I did our jobs properly, the keeper selection challenge grows considerably after the first pass. I have favorite positions for the horse, prefer to see open eyes on both the horse and the rider and also look for something unique in the image (such as a big tail swish).
Not Just for Galloping Horses
As you likely guessed, these instructions can be used for photographing much more than just galloping horses. While galloping horses may have some unique challenges, a significant number of in-motion subjects including many in sports action scenarios can be properly captured using this technique with or without tweaks.
I'll leave you with a quick warning: Don't lose sight of safety. I described a large and potentially dangerous subject rapidly approaching the photographer who is concentrating through the viewfinder. It is easy to become consumed with capturing what is in the viewfinder and failing to get out of the way of danger. Be aware of what is happening around you. It is always best to live to try again.
300mm f/2.8 1/1600s ISO 250
Girls Soccer Action
A defender approaches the offender in girls soccer action. Here are some aspects of this shot that I like: The bright colors lit by a lightly-cloudy sky give the image some pop. I have the ball, the subject's face and the added drama of a competing player - ideal for sports action photography. I also like that the background is heavily blurred but has recognizable objects in it including the goal.
The Canon EF Extender 1.4x III was used for this shot. The Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 L IS II Lens pairs excellently with this extender.
420mm f/4.0 1/2500s ISO 200
Drying Brown Pelican
A Brown Pelican dries itself in the warm late-day sunlight.
For ideal bird photography lighting, I oriented myself so that I was between the sun and the pelican (or nearly so).
600mm f/8.0 1/250s ISO 160
Portrait on a Horse
The 300mm f/2.8 lens blurs the distant forest into a pleasant green background for this portrait of a girl on her horse. In this shot, I have the horse slightly into the frame and have the rider's head and feet about equidistant from the edge of the frame.
300mm f/2.8 1/1000s ISO 400
Shooting Sports with Extenders
There are few lenses that work as well with extenders as the Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 L IS II USM Lens. This shot was taken with a Canon EF Extender 2x III mounted for a 600mm focal length.
The results are remarkable.
600mm f/5.6 1/2000s ISO 320
For some, this is the ultimate thrill. I'm more thrilled taking pictures of this particular sport. And the 5D III and 400 IS II combo performs remarkably well at this task. This shot was my preference from a burst sequence capturing the jump.
400mm f/2.8 1/2000s ISO 100
Girls Soccer Drama
The opposing team is bringing the ball down the field. The goal and keeper (I can envision her pressing her hands against her cheek - or something similar to create that pose) can be seen in the background while a defensive player meets her opponent.
Position yourself on the field to align the components that make your shots as good as they can be.
300mm f/2.8 1/1250s ISO 800
Cooling the Horse
A Quarter Horse cools down after a session of galloping.
Obviously, most of this picture is out of focus. This is intentional of course, and this technique usually works great for a person or animal as long as the eyes are in focus as they are here.
300mm f/2.8 1/1250s ISO 500
Alert Golden Retriever
The dog is one of the most readily-available subjects in many households. Getting a good shot of the dog is not always easy, however. Here I had the dog hanging out in a green field near sunset. With the sun nearly behind me (just enough angle so that my own shadow was not in the frame), I caught the tongue barely exposed and alert ears in this picture.
300mm f/2.8 1/1000s ISO 100
Taking a Knee
You know who will be taking this ball.
By positioning myself properly on the sideline, I had a clean background (with the flag as a bonus) for this shot that resulted in more background showing than expected.
420mm f/4.0 1/2500s ISO 320
Backlit Horseback Riding
Backlighting highlights the dust particles in the air as a young girl rides her horse around the ring.
300mm f/2.8 1/1000s ISO 400
Joy is a Horse
The face often reveals the true feelings - and those feelings appear to be a happy peace as this rider rests her horse.
Going-away shots do not always work, but the position of this horse's head along with the rider's side glance work for me. Light is from a setting sun.
300mm f/2.8 1/1250s ISO 500
Crowd on the Field
A young soccer player navigates the traffic on the field.
I nearly always use the center AF point (only) when shooting sports. The center focus point is typically the most accurate for tracking fast action. However, the center of the frame is not always where you want the point of focus to be. This along with the use of a prime lens from a fixed position (sidelines) means that cropping is frequently needed during post processing. This picture is an example of everything coming together properly for a non-cropped final image.
300mm f/2.8 1/2000s ISO 200
One Happy Girl
There is no question that this girl is having a good time.
Mix up your shooting position to add variety to your results. For this shot, I was shooting from ground level. This resulted in some blurred foreground grass and a high-key background to the rider.
300mm f/2.8 1/1250s ISO 320
Little Blue Heron in Corkscrew Swamp Wildlife Refuge
Corkscrew Swamp Wildlife Refuge is a great place to photograph wildlife - from Painted Buntings to butterflies to alligators to Cottonmouth Water Moccasins to various wading birds and much more. This Little Blue Heron was intently hunting below the boardwalk.
I carried the 300 f/2.8 L II and 1.4x III combination while exploring the boardwalk. And I carried them in a Think Tank Photo Glass Taxi when not actively shooting. Not long after this shot, I opened the pack - and a camera body cap with a rear lens cap attached rolled out, across the boardwalk and into the alligator-infested water below. While I was not happy about the loss of the caps, I was even more disturbed to have put litter in the water. at this great place. After finding a refuge worker, I was given permission to hang over the edge of the boardwalk (while being held onto) and retrieve the still-floating caps using two large, dead sticks (that I had to also-retrieve) as chopsticks. The retrieval was successful (and entertaining to those watching I'm sure). Phew.
600mm f/8.0 1/100s ISO 1250
Riding Horse in the Rain
The Canon EOS 70D delivered very impressive AI Servo performance in my 800+ image session with the cantering and galloping quarter horse. Even in the light rain.
The four hooves in the air illustrate the speed this horse is moving at. And the human subjects rarely give any argument when asked to ride for me.
For this photo, I was using AI Servo mode (of course) with the center AF point selected. I did my best to keep that AF point pinned on the horse's right shoulder and the rider's right stirrup to cause the plane of sharp focus to land near the rider's face.
300mm f/2.8 1/1600s ISO 400
Florida Brown Pelican on a Pier
The piers on the east/bay side of Captiva Island are great places to find Brown Pelicans - and late in the day is the ideal time to photograph these very interesting birds hanging out there.
With a mostly-still bird and adequate time to capture the shot, I was able to handhold this 600mm-effective lens and extender combination at a shutter speed of 1/30 second.
600mm f/11.0 1/30s ISO 200