Self Assignment
Wild Horses

Photos © 2004, Steve Anchell, All Rights Reserved

It's four in the morning. The late winter sky is spilling over with stars and the moon has completed her journey over the horizon. I'm wearing a T-shirt, heavyweight long-sleeve western shirt, sweater, and my favorite cotton duck jacket from Cabella's with a drawstring at the waist, a double set of zippers, jeans, and insulated hiking boots with Vibram soles. 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 Beall, is wearing a T-shirt, jeans, tennis shoes, and a baseball cap. I ask, aren't you cold? Nah, you get used to it, comes the reply. Beall has been scouting, outfitting, and guiding this part of the country for over 20 years--it takes more than a little predawn cold to make him take notice.

It's over an hours drive from Colorado, across the Wyoming border and into the 250 square mile preserve where over 1600 horses roam free. In winter the 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 water runs only in the low places. The horses come down from the hills and gather where water can be found. Because it is 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.

(Top) Minolta Maxxum 7 with a 600mm AF APO lens wrapped in camo tape mounted on a Ries tripod and double-tilt head with a Really Right Stuff quick release. (Bottom) Minolta 300mm AF APO lens supported on a BushHawk shoulder stock. Copyright Donna Conrad.

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 through the use of a good pair of binoculars or a spotting scope. We both get out and in the red glow of morning begin sweeping the horizon with our binoculars. Our choice differs, Beall is using a pair of Minolta Activa XL glasses and I'm using Leica Geovids. One thing we agree on, though, is the 10x42 power of both our glasses. If you aren't familiar with binoculars, the first number, 10, is the power, the second number is the field of view. Up to a point, the more the binoculars weigh, the easier they are to hold steady--small, lightweight field glasses transfer body shake, larger glasses absorb it. Both the Leica and Minolta glasses are heavy enough to provide clear, steady viewing.

Looking toward the south, Beall 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 toward the herd. Fortunately, Beall 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. I am able to get well within 50 yards of the first group of five with a Minolta Maxxum 7 camera and a high-speed 300mm f/2.8 APO lens. Both are supported by a BushHawk shoulder stock. Later in the day I won't be able to get anywhere near this close.

My choice of Minolta cameras is due in part to my disappointment in the way so many manufacturers have eliminated camera functions which I feel are basic to good 35mm photography from all but their pro-line cameras. The Minolta line of film cameras have every feature which I require as a professional photographer. A selection of exposure modes (for wildlife I usually use shutter priority), mirror lockup, depth of field preview, multiple exposure capabilities, auto-bracketing, and a choice of metering modes. And the Maxxum 7 body which I use isn't even the top of the Minolta line. In addition, since I was first introduced to the Minolta SRT 102 in 1972, I have always found Minolta technology to be on the cutting edge of 35mm photography.

In my experience, there are no finer lenses made than the Leica R series. With that off my chest, the Nikon, Canon, and Minolta lenses are the three next best and are equivalent to each other in every respect. The differences between the three come down to personal taste, usually more to do with proprietary lens coatings than sharpness or color correction.

All three companies make super-fast, high quality telephoto lenses designed for sport and wildlife photography. The Nikon IF-ED lenses are available in black or light gray. Both Canon EF and Minolta HS lenses are only available in white. This presents a small problem when photographing wildlife, as they generally have very acute vision (animals with poor vision don't last long in the wild), and bright objects tend to spook them.

Initially, Minolta painted their HS lens barrels white to lower the temperature inside their two manual focus lenses which were made using Fluorite crystal elements. Their newer AF APO telephoto lenses use a specially developed AD (Anomalous Dispersion) glass to achieve the same result. While this glass is not as affected by heat as the Fluorite crystal elements, still found in Canon lenses, the white color has come to represent the "pro-look" for long telephoto lenses, for both Canon and Minolta.

Be that as it may, I recommend wrapping the lens in camouflage (camo) tape available from sporting goods stores or L.L. Rue (www.rue.com; (800) 734-2568). L.L. Rue makes and sells a line of outdoor photography accessories, including vests, camera supports, and blinds. They even have a line of slip-on camo covers for Canon lenses (but not available for Minolta or Nikon).

If you use camo tape there are two types, vinyl and cloth. Cloth tape sticks better but tends to leave a residue. This can often be avoided by removing the tape as soon as you return from the field (it seems to get worse the longer the tape is on the lens--a few days or week 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 appear to leave a residue, but also doesn't stick as well.

When hand holding lenses longer than 200mm, a shoulder stock is an absolute requirement for sharp, in-focus images. This applies especially, though not exclusively, when you are stalking the subject on foot across uneven landscape. There are many shoulder stocks available but I like the carbon-fiber model made by BushHawk (www.bushhawk.com; (800) 325-8542). It is light, adjustable for eye and shoulder positions, and has an optional electronic release at the front of the stock.

To support the high-speed Minolta 600mm f/4 APO lens, I use a wooden Ries tripod (www.riestripod.com; (206) 842-9558). In general, I prefer wooden tripods because they absorb the mirror vibration at shutter speeds between 1 sec and 1/30 sec. Although the Ries tripod will take any pan and tilt or ball head made, I like to use the Ries double-tilt head, designed for movie and large format view cameras. It has a large platform to support the weight of the lens and a vertical tilt with a simple but effective tensioning system to prevent the lens from falling forward.

Holding the tripod head retaining screw located between the legs of the tripod with one hand allows the head to pan smoothly allowing me to follow moving objects--horses or race cars. The system was originally designed for movie cameras which require the ability to pan smoothly; it has since been adapted for view cameras. The J250 head easily supports the 14 lb lens and Maxxum 7. Ries makes an even heavier head for 11x14" and larger view cameras.

The best quick-release system I have found is from Really Right Stuff (www.reallyrightstuff.com; (888) 777-5557). For this assignment I used a 6" multipurpose rail along with a 60mm B2-Pro Lever Release clamp. The 6" rail is designed to work with super telephoto lenses, allowing them to slide forward and back inside the release clamp until they are in balance. This means there is less chance of the lens falling forward without warning. The combination of rail, release clamp, and J250 head provides a perfect support system for photographing moving wildlife.

Even so, wooden tripods aren't particularly lightweight, although a 10 lb wooden tripod will carry more camera weight than a 10 lb metal tripod. A lighter weight alternative to this system would be a heavy-duty carbon tripod and Novoflex MB ball head, available from HP Marketing Corp. (www.hpmarketingcorp.com; (800) 735-4373). The Novoflex ball head is rated to support 22 lbs. There are other ball heads which are rated to carry less weight. I don't know about you, but when I've got a valuable lens precariously balanced on a ball head, I want the highest weight rating I can get! Just as important, the Novoflex has a separate tension control. The ability to control the tension of the ball head separate from rotation is not unique to Novoflex, but it is a must-have when supporting this much weight.

Along with the 300mm and 600mm lens I carry a 2x converter. This gives me an additional focal length of 1200mm. Additionally, when I am hand holding the 300mm on the BushHawk shoulder stock, I can carry the extender in my pocket. When I find myself out of sight of the vehicle, but still in sight of the horses, I then have 600mm capability. When attaching an extender, or 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 (remove the lens, then the accessory).

The one piece of equipment which I missed having on this assignment was an Ergorest car window mount. Often horses will come closer to a vehicle than they will to a person standing outside of one. Had I had an Ergorest with me on several occasions I could have supported the 300mm on the car window and
potentially have gotten even closer to the horses. The Ergorest is also available from HP Marketing.

Beall 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 photographer's vest filled with gadgets, and several bags of auxiliary equipment. When he saw that my entire kit consisted of a tripod, shoulder stock, 300mm and 600mm lenses along with a 2x converter and two camera bodies, he asked, aren't you traveling light? Nah, I said, you get used to it.

Steve Anchell is an internationally published photographer/writer. Anchell has authored many books on technique and has conducted photographic and darkroom workshops since 1979. His next workshop is Towns & Pueblos of Northern New Mexico. For more information on his workshops call (719) 256-4157 or visit
www.anchellworkshops.com.

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COMMENTS
3edc9's picture

I'm quite glad to have seen this blog, thank you so much for all the great information on cameras and wonderful pictures, I'll be sure to pass the url on to my more artistic family and friends....

Tommy

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