Photographing the wild horses of North Carolina

What is is about the form of a horse that evokes so much emotion? Is it their gentle nature as they gaze in a pasture? Or maybe the power of their muscles visibly flexing as they gallop? We have all seen horses in competition, at the track, maybe have ridden a time or two, and many of us have had the pleasure of being up close and personal. But the wild ones…

With no halter and reins, and their harem and only the open land, wild horses are truly a sight to behold…and to photograph. This past October I spent four days with wild horses on two barrier islands near Beaufort, North Carolina. Each island had two characteristics in common: you could only get there by boat, and there are no people or homes there. The horses are in charge.

On Bird Shoal is the Rachel Carson Reserve, over 2000 acres with a group of horses that tends to stay together, about 30 in total. On Shackleford Banks, the horses prefer to stay in harems, groups of one stallion, perhaps one or two mares, and any recent foals as the family unit. There are about 120 horses on the nine-mile long island.

 Shackleford Banks is the long thin island and the Rachel Carson Reserve is just above the west end.

Shackleford Banks is the long thin island and the Rachel Carson Reserve is just above the west end.

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How this image got from start to finish

On March 23 I was in Kearney, Nebraska to view and photograph the annual migration of the Sandhill cranes.  These birds are graceful, awkward, beautiful and kooky all at the same time.  They fly with grace, but while on the ground sometimes exhibit some of the funniest behaviors you’ll see from a bird.  With a wingspan of up to 7 feet, these birds aren’t the biggest, but they’re some of the biggest most of us will get to see.

Every spring, hundred of thousands of them, 80 percent of the world’s population in fact, gather in a 10 mile stretch along the North Platte River in Nebraska.  It is a sight, and a sound, to behold.  So on our way back from Wyoming to Massachusetts its always a good stop.  It’s not always a great photo opportunity, though.  The weather can be bad, the light can be bad, and so on.  Plus, it’s hard to get my wife to want to stay in the middle of Nebraska for very long!

This year there weren’t as many cranes and they were hard to find at first.  I think we may have come a bit late in their migration cycle.  But once I found them, there they were.  The photographic problem was that it was heavy overcast, the light was flat and the cranes were acting skittish.  Usually I can approach them on the ground within about 50 yards and photograph them doing their thing with a telephoto lens, but this year I couldn’t seem to get anywhere near them before they would hop or fly away.  Hmmm…  I started trying to get some flying shots.  Typically the flying shots aren’t my favorite as there are lots of them out there and I try for something at least slightly unique.  But there I was with my tripod and long lens so I thought I’d point upward and see what happened.

I got this.


What was I going to do with that?  Well, I’ll take you through my thought process, and then post-production process in the hopes that you may find it interesting to see how one photographer gets from here, to something that I think isn’t too bad at all.

I didn’t like this image at overall but there were a couple things that I did like.  The two birds at the top were in just about opposite points in the wing movement.  I thought that was interesting. But there were many things wrong.  Like the birds were way too dark.  The sky was drab. They were flying the wrong way!  (I like animals to move left to right, I have no idea why!)  And finally, the bird at the bottom was doing the same thing as the bird above it and that was boring.

So I checked the image to make sure it was sharp (that’s the first thing I do) and decided to focus on the two birds on top.  I cropped it and flipped the image so they were flying the right way and got this.

Now, most photographers and artists will tell you that you should never have two of something.  One is OK, three is much better, but two?  And they’re right.  But rules are meant to be broken and I though that because the two were so complimentary in their wing position that it just might work.  But it sure wasn’t working yet.  I had obviously messed up the exposure allowing the sky to overpower my camera’s meter and not compensating for that.  So the next thing I’d have to do was to adjust the exposure of the raw image from my camera.  After a little tweaking the image started to look a little better.

At least now you can see them!  But still boring.  Because the light was so flat, the contrast is low, the details were hard to see and one of the coolest features of the Sandhill cranes, their red bonnet, was not really evident.  But we have a few trick to fix those pesky problems, and once done, the picture was improving.

OK!  Now we have some nice looking birds.  But it’s not much of a picture, is it?  No.  But why?  Maybe if the birds were closer together it would be better because they seem to be doing their own thing and now that I can see them, they appear more separated.  Maybe we should use just one of them.  No, wait, let’s keep them both but ask them to move a little closer to each other.

Fortunately these are very obliging birds and once they were closer, and they appeared to be flying together, the image was starting to look like, well, something.  But it just wasn’t quite right.

So I put it down for a day.  Sometimes it’s better for me to get away from a project and let the brain work on it without my interference.  I came back the next day and looked at it again.  Now I had an idea.  What if the bird on the left were above the other bird rather than behind it?  That might make for a much more pleasing composition.

Now before you think to yourself “Hey, wait a second.  You can’t just be moving these birds around willy-nilly.  That’s not how they were in nature.”  You’re right, that’s not how they were flying.  And if I were editing images for a nature or bird magazine I wouldn’t accept this image.  If I were photographing trying to depict Sandhill cranes in their habitat I wouldn’t be making these changes either.  I am making photographs as art, and just as a painter might position the birds in a pleasing composition, so does the photographer when creating art photography.  So let’s move the birds a bit.  When we do we end up here.

  By moving the birds and squaring the crop, I now felt that I had a much more pleasing composition and I was starting to like it!  But we were not quite done.  As I looked at the overall image, it started to take on an asian art look to me.  So I thought I should accentuate that and give it an asian treatment.  And when I did, we have the finished product.

By adding a thick white border, a thin red border and placing some Chinese calligraphy I now have a piece that I am happy with.  I’ll print his on a parchment style paper and I think it will look pretty good.

If you scroll back to the top and remind yourself of what we started with, you can see that we’ve come a long way, but we have maintained the integrity of the subject, which is very important.  I’d love to hear what you think of this and what images you may have overlook that you might go back to.  Thanks for reading and your comments are welcome and appreciated!

A photographer writes: Lynsey Addario’s “It’s What I Do”

I have always been drawn to conflict photography.  If every picture tells a story, great conflict photographs speak volumes and the photographers behind each image have been the source of endless thought and speculation.  “How do they get access?  “How do they handle the stress?”  “What possesses them to put themselves in harm’s way?”  Last month I bought “It’s What I do – A Photographer’s Life of Love and War” by Lynsey Addario.  Addario is a foreign correspondent photographer who has spent her time behind the camera in the world’s most dangerous places, at the very worst times.

The book tells the story of a photographer coming to grips with her craft, competing in a world that does not favor her gender, and the balance between life in the trenches of war and the neighborhoods of her personal life when she returns from an assignment.

But for me “It’s What I Do” chronicles the evolution of Lynsey’s personal photographic style.  Cutting her teeth on last-minute assignments, dispatched by editors managing gaggles of freelancers, starting to travel to unfamiliar lands, navigating the landscape and making up the rules as she goes along, on to reaching journalistic heights with meaningful work that impacted governmental policy, to finally moving from deadline driven frenzy to creating art.  Ultimately the story is Lynsey’s journey to understand her subjects so deeply she finds beauty in despair – and captures it for all to see.

That part of the story resonates with many photographers who spend sometimes years evolving their photography into something that ultimately satisfies the reason they picked up the camera in the first place.  Lynsey’s search and drive for the truth is what turns this book into such a personal journey.

In a particularly poignant passage, Lynsey is on assignment for National Geographic and, just few months after her release from being held captive in Libya, she feels that in order to get the real story of her assignment, she must venture into Somalia, widely regarded at that time as none of the very most dangerous places a journalist can go.  And she does go, because she simply has to.

The book is liberally sprinkled with photographs and is tough to put down.  It’s What I do – A Photographer’s Life of Love and War” by Lynsey Addario is published by Penguin Press.

Photos used without permission and I hope its ok!


I spend a lot of time waiting.  Most photographers do.  I wait for the clouds to be just right.  I wait for the wildlife to do something other than yawn or chew.  I wait for the sun to get lower in the sky.  But I have found that patience is very often rewarded.  While I’m waiting I see other photographers come on to the scene, shoot and leave.  Then a few more.  Then a few more.  And I’m still waiting.  

Sometimes I think that the waiting is futile.  And, sometimes it is.  But often, something good happens.  What do I do while waiting?  I have to keep at least one eye on what’s going on, and a finger near the shutter, so reading and playing solitaire on my iPhone are out.  I catch up on the news on the radio, I think about my family and friends, I remember all the things I forgot to do yesterday and vow to remember them.  And then…

The sun just peeks over the horizon, and the shot is made.

And then…

The excitement runs right in front of you, and the shot is made.

And then…

The light streams through the window, and the shot is made.

The waiting is never fun, but the payoff is often there.  So grab your camera.  Find a good spot.  Then wait.  And let me know how it turns out.