Photographing Wild Horses
It's four in the morning. The late winter sky is spilling over with stars and the moon has completed her journey for the night. I'm wearing a t-shirt, heavyweight long-sleeve western shirt, sweater, and my favorite cotton duck jacket from Cabela’s with a drawstring at the waist, a double set of zippers, jeans, and insulated hiking boots. There's a pair of gloves in the pocket of my jacket that I'm thinking about slipping on. I'm also wearing a wide-brimmed hat in anticipation of the sun I hope will soon warm the day.
My guide, Jim, is wearing a t-shirt, jeans, tennis shoes, and a baseball cap. Aren't you cold, I ask? Nah, you get used to it, comes the reply. Jim has been scouting, outfitting, and guiding this part of the country for more than twenty years – it takes more than a little pre-dawn chill to make him take notice.
It's over an hour’s drive from Colorado, across the Wyoming border, and into the 250-square-mile preserve where over 1600 horses roam free. In winter water is plentiful, but forage is scarce – the horses disperse into the hills where they are safer from predators. During the warmer months, the forage becomes more plentiful, but the water runs only in the low places. The horses come down from the hills and gather where water can be found. Because it’s still winter, we're not expecting to see as many horses on this day as most will still be ranging the highlands, which are inaccessible to our vehicle.
We arrive in the dark at an overlook. A thin gray light is beginning to show on the eastern horizon. Finding horses, or any wild game for that matter is greatly facilitated by a good pair of binoculars or a spotting scope. We both get out in the red glow of morning and begin sweeping the horizon with our binoculars. Our choice differs, Jim is using a pair of Swarovski glasses and I'm using Nikon Monarch 5. One thing we agree on, though, is the 10 x 42 power of both our glasses. If you aren't familiar with binoculars, the first number, 10, is the power, and the second number is the field of view. For most people 10x is as much magnification they can handhold before having to mount their binoculars on a tripod. 42 is more than enough FOV for most activities, including scouting horses.
Looking towards the south, Jim spots the horses first. With the naked eye, they look like black ants or slow-moving rocks. We get back in the car and head by a circuitous route towards the herd. Fortunately, Jim knows every twist and turn of the dirt roads and in very little time gets us within range.
In the early morning, the horses are cold and sluggish. Moving slowly, I can get well within 50 yards of the first group of five. Later in the day, when they’re more active, this may not be possible.
I’m using a Sony a6400 mirrorless camera and a Sigma 100-400mm f/5.6-6.3 DG DN. With the 1.5x sensor crop factor, the focal length becomes 150 to 600mm, a good all-around focal length for photographing wild horses. However, the addition of a 2x teleconverter would be even better.
NOTE: When attaching an extender, extension tube, or any other accessory between the lens and the camera, always attach the accessory to the camera, making them one unit, then the lens. Reverse this order when removing the accessory, that is, remove the lens, then the accessory.
The Sigma lens is black. If I were using a white lens, such as the Canon RF 100-500mm, I would wrap it in camouflage tape available from sporting goods stores. The reason for using a black lens, or taping a white one, is that when critters (as wildlife is called by us savvy photographers) see a bright or colorful object moving, whether it is a lens or a light-colored shirt, they head for the hills; that is, the hills across the valley from the one you’re standing on.
There are two types of camo tape: vinyl or cloth. Cloth tape sticks better but tends to leave a residue. This can often be avoided by removing the tape when you return from the field (it seems to get worse the longer the tape is on the lens – a few days shouldn't be a problem). If any residue does remain, try using a little Goof Off or Goo Gone, both available from hardware stores. Vinyl tape doesn't usually leave a residue, but it doesn't stick as well either.
When handholding lenses longer than 200mm, good support is an absolute requirement for sharp, in-focus images. This applies when you are stalking the subject on foot across an uneven landscape. The best support to use is a sturdy tripod with a gimbal head, such as the PG-01 Compact Gimbal Head from Really Right Stuff.
But this can become burdensome when stalking horses. And unless you carry the tripod with all three legs fully extended it could take too long to set up should the horses become skittish and bolt. My compromise is a carbon fiber monopod. I suggest lever locks, such as those found on the [pro]Master MPV432+. The MPV432+ includes a retractable base that adds to its stability. The base has a ball head. This is a critical component as you can loosen the head to rotate the monopod around the base and more easily follow the horses.
If you chose to use a monopod, I would recommend a ball head rated to support the weight of your camera and lens. Be certain it has a fast quick-release system and a tension lock for panning. Check out the [pro]Master SPH45P ball head rated to hold twenty-nine pounds.
Jim is used to guiding photographers to where the horses are. He told me that most of his clients come equipped with a half dozen or more lenses, three or four bodies, a photographers’ vest filled with gadgets, and several bags of auxiliary equipment. When he saw that my entire kit consisted of a monopod, a single 100-400mm lens, and two camera bodies, he asked, aren't you traveling light? Nah, I said, you get used to it.