May 27, 2008

Wild! Revisited

Over the Memorial Day Weekend, I went back out to visit the semi-local wild horses again. When I first arrived the only wildlife to be seen was cows. The ranchers are starting to haul cows out to the summer grazing leases so they are all over the roads and I had to be on high alert for the bitty ones that dart to and fro'. Other changes since the last trip three weeks ago is how lush it has become. The area has had a lot of rain in the last two weeks so there is plentiful grazing for everyone and all the scrub oak is leafing out resulting super pretty, colorful and photogenic backgrounds.

After dodging the cows, I drove along the roads where the horses are usually often seen. Nothing, nada, zip, zilch, not a one showed up in a usual or unusual area. It was midday, they were hiding in the trees. Finally, one of the bands from three weeks ago put itself in view, but not in a very photographable time or place so after just watching them from the car for a bit, I continued on. It was probably 20 more miles and just a bit short of an area where there is very high gas field drilling activity before any more horses came into view. A small band of three. They were standing way at the back of the huge meadow and after a short bit of walking, the stallion saw/heard/smelled me and came over to me to investigate while leaving his harem in the back of the field in safety. Safety... haha, they were oblivious and still grazing, truth be told. It wasn't until the stallion came very close to me and stopped and snorted that they became aware. I stayed in the shadows and he trotted back and forth in front of me for a bit and then took off back to his harem, one of which was very lame and thin.

Back in the car, soon I came across another band. It turns out it was the very shy band that was in the Ponderosa forest on my prior visit. This mare, affectionately called Big Momma, was huge before and now she's even bigger, she can't be far from foaling, but I thought that three weeks ago too. I snapped a few nice images of them from the top of a little ridge before they saw/heard me and wandered off. There were several more bands deeper in the trees so I hiked around to see if I could capture them too. It turned out to be a baby bonanza in the trees near a stock pond and two of the stallions got a little close to each other than they like so they took a few minutes to dance and sort it all out. Once they worked all their rankings out without too much fuss, all three bands trotted off through the trees toward the pond. I departed for the car happy that I caught a little bit of action.

Next stop, a pretty chestnut mare that was standing in the road. When followed through the trees, she led me to her mate, an equally pretty chestnut stallion. He kept playing with me, trotting away and then to me. Looking at me straight on, and then with one eye, all the while keeping one ear on me too. I watched them for a long time and eventually the mare had enough and they disappeared into the trees.

On the way back to the main road, I spied what looked like pintos way up a valley. It was exactly that. Most of the horses in this area are bay or chestnut so it was a treat to see some of the few with color. The more colorful horses also seem to be more flighty but it could be for the protection of the new foals. After hiking about a mile into the valley through the trees I was able to see the very young foal in the group, maybe only a few days old. I took a few snaps but the stallion was highly agitated and wasted no time taking the band into the trees. I took the cue and left them alone while they continued through the trees on the other side of the valley.

After hiking the mile back to the car and driving down a different road, I found another colorful band that was within reach of the car. They too, had younger foals and decided to head into the trees but much more casually than the prior band. The sun was getting low in the sky and by this time I had seen over 45 different horses so I decided to head for home. As I was heading back up the road that leaves the main valley to go back towards the land of cows, as a last minute treat, I find another band just walking down the middle of the road. They yielded into the sage as I approached and gave me a very nice pose in the setting sun as a parting gift.

May 25, 2008

All in a Days Work!

OK, I confess, it took several days, actually!

I'm not a wedding photographer, and I didn't even stay in a Holiday Inn last night! I will, on a rare occasion, photograph a wedding. Five years ago I photographed the wedding of one of my best friends. After the wedding, his wife immediately went into medical school and got super busy with it. For that and various other reasons she didn't order any of the pictures. Normally this is no big deal but at this particular time it became one. The reason: I shot the wedding on film and since then I have completely changed over to digital equipment and while I still have a film scanner, it needs repaired because its autofocus no longer works. I haven't had much motivation to send it off to Nikon since I only have to scan the rare negative these days. So, now, here I am with a wedding album order for over 60 images and a film scanner that isn't really that capable of doing large quantities of scanning!

The day is saved when I learn my friends/clients also have a high resolution scanner. Fortunately for me, she also is a photographer and has old film to scan. She sent me home with her film scanner. (I will say that it was pretty embarrassing to be caught without all the tools of the trade. Note to all you photographers out there; keep even your lesser used equipment in top shape! Thank goodness this client is also one of my best friends.) Now this film scanner is not the same brand as mine so I had a crash course in learning it. It wasn't super user-friendly at first but once I got the hang of where all the buttons were it was very easy to use and it did a beautiful job of scanning.

Once I got everything scanned, I started the process of post-processing the images. For those non-photographer readers, that means all the color balancing, cropping, contrast, shadow and highlight balance and blemishes and because it's scanned film, getting rid of all the dust specks and minimizing the film grain. As I began to re-familiarize myself with five year old images I could really see how much my photographic skills have improved over the years. There were details that I make adjustments for automatically now that I didn't even think about then. Nothing replaces experience. I've always said that and it definitely shows when you look at my older images. At first I was disappointed in the images. I wondered how on earth I was going to be able to bring them all up to my current level of quality. About 10 images into the wedding, I got into the groove and had a plan and began to have a lot of fun with the older images. the bride wanted some black and white and partial desaturations in the mix. About halfway through all the images I began to realize that the five year delay in ordering the album images was going to work out to my (and the bride's) benefit. I have skills now that I didn't five years ago to really make these images shine. I'm so glad I was able to prep them in the digital age and not the traditional way.

Of course, it all took time and lots of it. I spent approximately four full days to prepare 60 images. For those that think digital is cheaper than film..... well, it isn't! What your checkbook might save is more than spoken for in time, especially if you're going to do them right. I won't even get into the never ending equipment and software upgrades which go right back to your checkbook! Ahhhhh the costs of being a professional! I do enjoy it though, I used to say that photography sure beats a desk job, but I spend far more time at my desk than I do shooting in reality. Still, I love it. It's what I was meant to do. You can see the latest results of all my Memorial Day Weekend desk time in the finished wedding images.

May 20, 2008

Navajo Lake CTR

The beginning: When I was young, my parents lived in Albuquerque, NM. In 1972, my mom went to her second competitive trail ride and managed to drag my dad along. Well, little did either of them know, that was the beginning of a long life that included Competitive Trail Riding. Simply put, my dad said, "We can host one of these!" Two years later after moving to Farmington, NM, they did.

The North American Trail Ride Conference had existed for almost 15 years at the time, Region 3 was not yet official but NATRC still sanctioned the ride. Now, the Navajo Lake CTR has been sanctioned for 34 years consecutively. It's one of the top 5 rides in NATRC that has been run consecutively with no interruptions. There have been 4 campsite changes since the beginning and now many of the trails are permanently marked and recognized by the BLM. In fact, the BLM, Chris Barnes of the BLM in particular, helped mark it with carsonite signs and rock cairns and a slew of volunteers from San Juan Valley Trail Riders. There is a permanent parking area and 4 different loops available at any time for riding.

The competitive ride utilizes sections of the permanently marked trails as well as new trails and some of it's old historical trails as well. They like to keep it fresh and interesting. The trail also varies from ride manager to ride manager, they all have their favorite areas to ride. Yes, over the years there have been different managers of this ride. Not only did my parents bring Competitive Trail Riding to the area, they also got many others interested in it. There is a pretty solid core to our local "club", The San Juan Valley Trail Riders, and they all take turns managing the now 4-5 regular rides in the area. I put "club" in quotes because it is a club where there are no dues, no membership list and if you want to be included, just come to a ride or meeting! Mostly San Juan Valley Trail Riders is just a checking account with which to support the rides.

Other ways this CTR has impacted our family: Well, my mom became a horsemanship judge, my dad became president of NATRC for a while, My sister, Cathy and I had a really good reason to spend lots of time with our horses and I'm sure that kept us out of other trouble. My brothers weren't immune either even though they weren't into riding. We all got to spend lots of quality time outdoors in a relatively free environment with lots of adults keeping track whether we knew it or not. My mom, Cathy and I all got National Awards and lots of practical horsey knowledge. (NATRC rides require that you care for your own horse at competitions). My sister went on to compete in the Intercollegiate Riding Team for NMSU. The coach was thrilled to have a student with ZERO AHSA points and a lifetime on a horse! She eventually went on to win a Intercollegiate Reining title. I would not be an equine photographer without the NATRC CTR background.

All in all, the Navajo Lake Competitive Trail Ride, started way back in 1974 by my parents, has made our family rich with good, good friends, an extended sense of community, excellent horsemanship, equitation, sportsmanship and horse care skills both on and off the trail and provided a background from which the kids, particularly the horse-crazy girls, in the family could really expand. What a great sport and I owe much of the quality in my life to it.

More CTR Images

May 13, 2008

Bosque del Apache

Bosque del Apache is a wildlife preserve in the middle of New Mexico. It lies in once was farmland along the Rio Grande river just south of Socorro, NM. It plays host to many migratory birds in the winter months, including Bald Eagles, Snow Geese, Sandhill Cranes and on occasion, even the super-endangered Whooping Cranes. It also happens to lie along my path home from an event, a small horse trials, in Las Cruces that I shoot twice a year.

The end of the day, with its pretty light is the best time to be there. The best birds are there in winter, usually November-February with January and early February being the peak of the winter bird activity. Of course, it all depends on what the weather is doing as well.

I made a point of getting out of Las Cruces last November in time to get to Bosque del Apache before the sun set. The winter birds were just beginning to arrive in notable numbers so I paid my entry, a paltry $3 for the day, and began to drive the loop. At first there didn't seem to be much activity but before long, a large number of vehicles in a turn-out pointed the way to a Bald Eagle in a dead cottonwood. There was one other serious bird photographer there as well, so we shot and chatted for a bit and every time the bird moved, shutter buttons got pushed. The other photographer, whose name I did not catch, had a true bird lens on; 500mm in Canon L glass! (I want one, of course). I had to settle for scenic shots that happened to include an eagle. No close-ups for me! I didn't mind, birds are not my passion and I got a few very nice landscapes with gorgeous light, an extraordinary tree and a few birds to boot.

Further around the loop, there were a few ducks in the water near the road, well within reach of my paltry 70-200 zoom. I know nothing about ducks but after a trip through the bird book, they appear to be Northern Pintails. The other thing I didn't realize until I got home and looked closely at my images is that they seem to be having an argument!

By this time, the sun had set and the light for photography was fading. There wasn't enough light left to get decent images of the Sandhill Cranes and the few Snow Geese that were in a large pond on the north side of the Refuge. then, suddenly, the last rays of the sun hit the thin clouds above and the sky was on fire. Right then some cranes flew by.

The next time I returned to Bosque del Apache was in Mid February, right after another horse trials in Las Cruces. It was a bit late in the year for catching spectacular bird images, however, because it had been so cold up north there was still an amazing number of Snow Geese around. Now, for years I have heard stories of how neat the Snow Geese were to photograph and once I found the pond full of them I felt disappointed. They were not in a pond that was agreeable with the coming lighting conditions. I took a few shots and decided it was not going to be a great day for pics of that particular subject. I continued on around the loop hoping to see some that were not backlit. I did find a pile of cars with a bunch of people overlooking a neighboring pond but there were not really any birds. I stuck around and waited, surely the 50 people, including a good number of photographers with 500mm lenses, standing on the observation deck knew something I didn't.

Then I heard this noise, I didn't know where it was coming from and all the sudden hundreds, no, thousands of birds were flying right towards the observation deck and overhead. Snow Geese! They circled around and landed on the far side of the pond. I was wishing I had one of those 500mm lenses about then. Then they took off again, and circled overhead and landed closer. I decided that those with the 500mm lenses were missing out on the whole incredible sight and I was suddenly happy I could back out to 70mm. The Geese did this once more before the sun went down. Absolutely amazing how many geese there were. I cannot even begin to describe the sound every time they took off in unison. It wasn't deafening or anything, but it was loud and rumbly like a freight train. I figured after the sun disappeared they would be done but I stuck around for a little bit more anyway just enjoying the colors of the evening. Before too long the Snow Geese took off one more time for a final display in front of the earth shadow slowly marching across the sky. Now I understand what the lure of the Snow Geese really is and it appeals to far more than the photographer. It is an incredible sight and sound display of the natural world.

May 5, 2008


Seems like wild horse images are everywhere these days. It has become kind of a fad to pay money to a guide in Colorado or Wyoming for a chance to see and/or photograph wild horses being wild horses. I'm no exception.... well except for the paying money part of it. I'm lucky enough to have plenty of wild horses not too far away. The truth is, if you live anywhere in the western part of the United States, chances are there are some nearby. Often it's the feral horses of the reservations that are wild. While many may not consider them truly wild, for horse behavior's sake, they might as well be. Chances are they've been living wild for at least a few generations and it doesn't take very long for a domestic horse to figure it out or die.

New Mexico is just not that well known for it's wild horses, but they are all over the place. Most of them are on reservation land in the western half of the state. There are also a few herds of real government-managed wild horses. The herd I occasionally visit and photograph is on National Forest land and is one of the only herds managed by the National Forest Service. The forest also is on one of the largest Natural Gas reservoirs in the US so the horses see a lot of vehicle and heavy equipment traffic. They pretty much ignore all the vehicular traffic.... unless it stops to stare at them for too long! They thrive on all the extra grazing that the replanted pipelines and well pads give them and the soft ground for a good dirt bath is offered in the sand roads and well pads as well. Another thing that makes photographing this wild herd unique is that there are trees. It IS a National Forest, after all.

With the horses being in a forested area, it can make it a lot more difficult to photograph them well and get nice clear shots. You just can't break out the Really Big Lens and star blasting away over the usual sagebrush covered plains of the Colorado and Wyoming herds. While they are not very concerned by moving vehicular traffic, they are also not as used to being looked at by people as the popular Wyoming and Colorado herds so once you stop for more than a few moments or you get out of your vehicle, they are often gone in a flash. Occasionally you get lucky and find a band that isn't as shy. Well, that's if you can find a band at all! The trees and brush is thick enough that often you never see any at all.

This weekend I got lucky. I found several small bands, some in the open and some in the trees very close to the road. I was hoping to see some foals and I did find one. I saw 3 more mares in various bands that are getting ready to foal and at least 2 bachelor bands. The bachelors seem to hang in groups of two. One of the bands did allow me to get out of the car and walk a little ways towards them with the stallion making darned sure he stayed between me and his harem. I was careful not to press too much as I didn't want them to spook and run away. Another very shy band was deep in ponderosa pines. It was challenging to get a clear shot of them through all the trees.

I spent a little time also looking at their hoof prints in the sand roads. I have been studying and learning about horses feet and farrier work and I find it very interesting that none of these wild horses feet are shaped anything like what most of the domestic horse world considers ideal with their pretty oval, narrow-heeled, overly long hooves and toes. Even the bittiest of baby prints showed very round, not oval, hooves.