Stan Lee Pengelly's Travels

Mogolian Horse Trek Part Three: Photographing the Naadam Horse Race

I’ve traveled with two pro photographers: Thomas Kelly (Mongolia) and Nevada Wier (Sri Lanka, Peru, China) and have learned from both.  I like to watch how they work and what they are looking for in a photo.  In this blog I’m going to describe how both teacher-photographers influenced a photo I made in Mongolia with Thomas and why it is one of my favorites.

Naadam is a festival of competitive events held once a year featuring “manly arts” which are wrestling, archery and horseback riding.  We attended all three events but the one I liked most for photography was the 15-kilometer horse race.  There was lots of action and drama and I’m a nut about horses.

We travelers came via bus to the area where the horse race was being held.  The location was away from any town and very desolate and the land flat.  By the time we arrived we were told the horse race had already started and the horses were about 30 minutes away.

Thomas gave his recommendation on how to photograph the action.  There were two approaches.  First, use a very fast shutter speed and while panning with the moving horses, freeze the motion of the horse and rider.  The second approach, conversely, was to use a very slow shutter speed, pan with the horses and allow the motion of the horse legs and background produce a blur that would give the impression of motion.

I love French Impressionism, always have since high school.  My high school art teacher “turned me on” to the French Impressionist artists like Renoir, Monet, Manet, Degas and others.  Recently, I have been trying to get impressionism into my photos.  I knew that if I used a very slow shutter speed and panned I would get a blurry look that I was looking for.  Freezing the action is ok but I wanted to give the sensation of motion.

Thomas said that since the sun was so bright getting a slow shutter speed would take some working with the camera settings.  He said to put the camera in manual or shutter priority mode, run the camera ISO down to 100, set the shutter speed to between 1/30th  and 1/60th second and adjust the aperture accordingly.  If the camera had high-speed motor drive, use it.  I set my camera to 1/30th.  I wanted plenty of motion blur.

I was using my Canon 60D DSLR with a 70-200mm f2.8 L-series lens that has dual mode image stabilization.  The lens is a pro-level lens, very sharp and the most useful feature it had for this situation was the dual mode stabilization.  In Mode 1, the lens would correct for jitter in the vertical and horizontal.  This mode was great for photographing stationary subjects.  In Mode 2 the lens would correct only for vertical jitter, which is great for when panning.  I put the lens in Mode 2.

In the distance to our right we could see dust trails of something approaching.  These weren’t caused by the horses but by chase vehicles.  Some horse and riders had someone driving alongside giving instructions and cheering them on.  All of the riders were boys age 5 – 12 years old and while they had been riding a horse nearly their whole lives were given an edge by having a coach working with them in real time.

The lead horse became visible and as it was passing I panned and shot several frames and checked the display.  My panning was ok but not the best.  I needed to be steadier.  Soon more horses came and I got better and better at panning with the horse and rider, capturing the action and getting wonderful motion blur.

Out of dozens of frames I finally got there was one I liked the best.  There were two horses and riders in the photo.  At the moment I snapped the picture the finish line was only about 50 meters away and the horses running muzzle to muzzle, both were at full speed and completely focused on winning.  The riders also were concentrating and since I was able to capture their faces, their intensity was obvious.

Naadam Horse Race.  Canon 60D DSLR, Canon 70 - 200mm f2.8 L-series, 1/30th second f 22

Naadam Horse Race. Canon 60D DSLR, Canon 70 – 200mm f2.8 L-series, 1/30th second at f 20, exposure bias:  +0.67, shutter priority

When judging if a photo is good I like to use a technique Nevada Wier taught me, which is called CLAP.  C stands for Color.  L for light.  A for Action and P for Pattern.  According to Nevada a photo is good if it was at least two of four attributes.

Using Nevada’s criterion, I think it is a good photo because 1)  Color is a factor of the photo.  The bright colors of the boy’s outfits stand out against the muted color of the background.  They seem to float in front of the background and give an eerie 3-D effect.  The subject is lit, but this fact doesn’t contribute much.  2) Action…there is plenty of action.  I set the camera to enhance it by creating motion blur.  The horses legs are a blur of motion.  The leading horse’s shoulders show motion and power.  Their mane and tail hair are being blown back as they move and add to the sensation of speed.  3) Pattern is the two boys, side by side and the two horses, side by side.  If only one horse and rider were in the frame, this photo wouldn’t have been as interesting.  Put two horse+rider teams in the frame and it becomes a good photo.

In addition, compositionally, the picture is framed well because the horses are galloping into it with the left side blurring towards them.  The photo seems balanced.

When I travel now it is always for the photography.  If I couldn’t photograph I wouldn’t be there, regardless of the subject matter.  Traveling with a pro like Thomas or Nevada has helped my photography improve in jumps.  Each trip I feel like I’ve gotten to be a better photographer as well as have an experience few others have had.

About Stan Pengelly

I used to be an engineer and found that a very boring, uncreative pursuit.  So in 2005 I quit, walked away from the career and the college degrees.  Now, I own a small business and do a lot of foreign travel.  I love photography and mixed with my traveling I get to be as creative as I  want.