Being Realististic (and Horseball)
When I worked in industry a million years ago, SMART objectives became a ‘thing’ and, of course, since I was first introduced to SMART objectives some of the criteria have changed but I have always known SMART as Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound (as mentioned, other flavours are available!).
I can imagine that you are thinking: What has this to do with photography? Others may be thinking: What has this to do with horseball? Others may even be thinking: What is horseball? Read on and all will be revealed.
Towards the end of 2021 I was asked if I could take some photographs of someone playing at the finale of the horseball season at a venue near Coventry and I gladly accepted. While the photographs were OK, I knew that I could do better – I needed to do better – and, as the sport was such a fantastic spectacle, I was hooked. It had been a very long time since I had ridden so it was lovely to be in the company of horses again.
So what is horseball? Imagine a hybrid of rugby and basketball played by two teams of four on retired thoroughbred racehorses; it’s fast, exciting and (for the safety of horses and riders) very strictly refereed. More information can be found on the British Horseball Association website.
My first horseball pictures were taken in the late autumn of 2021 at a large indoor arena which had a mixture of ambient light through ceiling panels and the viewing gallery as well as some fluorescent lighting; while this is perfectly suitable for the equestrian events, it is challenging for capturing fast action shots but I was determined to try.
The response to my photographs was very positive – I think mostly because the riders had a record of their participation and because there was not a regular photographer at the events. I was contacted to discuss attending regularly to cover the 2022 league events (particularly in the run-up to the FIHB Horseball World Cup being held in Saint-Lô, France in August 2022). Unfortunately, nothing came of this discussion; I think that there were some operational within the horseball organisation and – quite possibly – I may have been my own worst enemy by sharing the pictures that I took subsequent league meetings!
I can hear some of my photographer chums screaming ‘You did what?’. I know, I know but hear me out!
Equestrian photography was very new to me and taking photographs of an extremely fast-moving sport at close quarters in an arena with (for photography) challenging lighting meant that my learning curve resembled the north face of the Eiger. I approached the challenges of taking photographs of horseball in a couple of ways and the first was, simply, academic – was I getting the best out of my equipment?, was my technique correct?, what did I need to learn? The second approach was – in the absence of a regular photographer – was there a commercial opportunity here? The answer to this was clearly ‘Yes’ but I felt that I had to be able to consistently produce high quality images before I could ask anyone to part with hard-earned cash. I know that some (while refining their process and technique) may have simply made the images available and the teams & riders could choose whether to buy them or not but I didn’t want to make anything available for sale unless I was satisfied with the quality; right or wrong, that was my stance.
During the winter of 2022, I visited some other stables and training grounds to maintain contact with some of the teams and riders as well as improving my understanding of the sport and improving my photographs of this exciting sport. Some of this pre-season training included attending GB squad training being conducted by Christophe Desormeaux. Along with many of the riders, Christophe helped me to gain a better understanding of the sport and riders’ technique which (of course) improved the content of my photography.
The early spring sessions watching and photographing the horseball training was really useful. Getting to be a familiar face for the riders and building up some trust was very important but, equally, I was able to capture some sharply-focussed action shots outdoors (though sometimes an amalgamation of base-layers, thermals, gilet and a fleece-lined hat was required!).
Having taken some good shots of training outdoors, I was ready for the 2022 British Horseball Association season though this meant contending with the challenging lighting in the arena used for the league meetings.
Challenging light: Photographers will be familiar with these challenges and may wish to skip this section but, if you are unsure what I mean, I will explain as simply as possible.
Essentially there are three elements that need to balance when taking a photograph: aperture, shutter speed and ISO (light sensitivity).
The aperture is the amount by which the lens opens when taking a photograph: if wide open it lets in loads of light (Yay) but this affects the amount of the subject which will be seen in sharp-focus (sometimes, Boo) – known as the depth of field. If we see a portrait of a person where they are in focus but the trees behind them are softly blurry then that is principally down to the aperture setting. Now…this is great for a portrait where nothing else matters other than the subject but not so good for sport when we all want to see what is happening around the subject so that we have context or can imagine the story of the scene therefore we need a balance between allowing as much light as possible to come into the camera while ensuring that all of the interesting stuff is in focus.
The shutter speed is self-explanatory but when we are balancing the aperture and ISO settings if the shutter speed is too slow then the action will be blurred – sometimes we might want something to be blurred to give the impression of speed but, generally, we’re looking for sharply focussed pictures. If we have loads of light then faster shutter speeds are possible but in poor light we might be forced to use a slower shutter speed to allow the camera to (shall we say) soak up the scene.
The ISO setting is how sensitive the camera will be to light. In a lovely sunny day we might use ISO 100 as there is lots of light, we can set the aperture so that we have the right depth of field where the important subject is sharp but unimportant or distracting elements are blurred and we can set an appropriate shutter speed such as 1/125 sec for someone sitting on a bench but 1/250 sec or 1/500 sec for a child riding their bicycle for the first time. Now if the day is very cloudy, we might set the camera to ISO 400 meaning that we can still use the same aperture setting and still take the photograph at 1/500 sec because the ISO setting is compensating for the lower light. (I hope that you’re still ‘with’ me!). Modern cameras can have ISO settings going as high as ISO 12,800 or even 25,600 but the higher the ISO setting the photograph will become grainy – no longer in sharp focus.
All this is often referred to as the Triangle; balancing the best shutter speed to freeze the action, the best aperture to capture all the action or detail that needs to be captured with an ISO that allows the best possible photograph with a minimum of looking like the photograph has been painted in pea soup!
…and so….back to horseball.
Taking photographs of horseball invariably requires a high shutter speed to freeze the action (generally 1/1,000 sec) and a depth of field that means that several players involved in the action are in focus which then means that the ISO has to be adjusted to allow for these requirements; this is straightforward when outside in daylight but when the light is challenging (as in the horseball arena) the ISO has to be pushed higher meaning that photographs are grainier/less sharp.
To compensate, my most recent shots have been taken using an f/1.4 85mm lens which meant that photographs could be taken at f/2 at 1/1250 sec using ISO 4000… and there’s the problem.
The last set of horseball photographs were taken on a bright, cloudless day in July. The light outside could not have been better yet, in the indoor arena, I was still needing to use ISO 4,000 to achieve anything approaching an acceptable standard. This has made me re-evaluate taking horseball photographs as a commercial opportunity.
If the best photographs that I have been able to take at the indoor arena have been achieved on the brightest of days yet the opaque skylights still require me to shoot at ISO 4000 then can I expect to produce comparable results in the autumn and when the 2022 season finale takes place and the sky is often overcast and the sun not as strong? Sadly, unlikely.
Perhaps the best that I can offer is a limited range of images suitable for social media and, perhaps, prints up to 8 x 10. Now it may be that teams and riders would be perfectly happy with such images – I just don’t know. I can see that I need to undertake some market research but I do know that, while talking photographs of horseball has been great fun and overcoming some of the challenges has been rewarding, if I am going to continue taking photographs regularly, I need to be able to cover my costs.
I started this article by mentioning SMART objectives (see…I hadn’t forgotten) and I will focus (sorry but that is an inevitable, if dreadful, pun) on Achievable and Realistic.
Can I achieve the quality of images that I would happily sell? When taken outside in daylight, yes but at the indoor arena that’s debatable (though I may be being over critical of myself).
Am I already achieving the quality that potential customers would like but without realising it? I need to be realistic and – above all – honest with potential customers for my horseball images and myself.
Like I said, I think that some market research is required and I plan to write about that in my next blog article.
This horseball adventure started as a favour to a friend and then excited me as a photographer as well as wondering if it might have commercial value. It has been a fantastic learning experience and have met a lot of kind and interesting people.
Will I go to the British Horseball Association League finale in the autumn of 2022? Definitely.
Do I feel that I am taking the best pictures possible using my available equipment? Probably (there’s always something that can be learned).
Do I feel that there is some commercial potential in going to the league meetings? Possibly and that’s what I will be working on next.