After living in Virginia for more than a dozen years I finally made it to the Steeplechase. While Kentucky has its majestic Derby, that’s just riding around a circle. The Plains has the Virginia Gold Cup Steeplechases – compared to track racing it is a marathon with uneven turf, obstacles, fences and low walls along the way. The event has been held since 1922 and is widely attended by the host residents of Fauquier County and neighboring Washington, DC.
Photographing an event like this is all about location. I attempted to find a spot that was about 50 yards on the opposite side of a jump with the sun to my back. From this location I could get a nice shot of the horses approaching and clearing the obstacle without too many shadows or sun glare. I was also careful to get in a position where I was shooting either slightly upwards or downwards so as to either get mountains and sky or grass in the background. From many angles shooting level yielded too many distractions in the background like buses, trucks, tents, or worst of all, port-a-johns.
I was armed with a medium focal length lens (24mm-105mm, F/4); this allowed me to get shots of the crowd and shots of the race without the hassle of changing lenses. I set the auto focus point selection to a semi-broad setting (9 focal points) which helped me get the focal point I wanted without having to choose the particular horse/rider pair too far in advance of the actual shot. It was hard for me to tell who was going to make the jump first, so this compensated for that ambiguity. It was a bright day with plenty of good light and I was shooting with a tight aperture (>F/11), so I wasn’t too worried about depth of field.
Lastly, I selected continuous drive mode to ensure that I was able to capture multiple shots through the course of the jump. Many pros will turn their nose up at this “spray and pray” technique, but I opine that steeplechase demands this setting. There are just too many unknowns when those horses are taking on obstacles, and I didn’t want to miss anything. Steeplechase is a dangerous event; there are falls, collisions, retreats, and detours. There is also great athleticism and skill that are demanded in the face of the random risks of these races. Its best to be ready for anything.