An Interview with Sharon Lee Chapman
Coronet Bay, Victoria Australia
Commercial/Editorial/Equine Fine Art
1. How did you first get into photography?
I first got involved in photography about 15 years ago when I purchased my first camera, an SLR. I was then asked by a friend who couldn’t afford a photographer to photograph their wedding. I’d only had my camera a few months and definitely still had my training wheels on. I arrived with 6 rolls of film, 5 color and 1 black and white. It was before digital days, so it was a nervous wait to get the photos developed.
2. And specialising in horse racing? Always a passion?
After a few years of doing weddings for friends and work colleagues, I decided I needed some formal training and enrolled at Photography Studies College for a semester. For our end of semester portfolio assessment, we had to select a documentary style topic. As a lover of horse racing and horses in general, I chose to document the “Life of A Horse” and did my conceptual piece on a foal’s journey to the racetrack.
As part of this process, I spent a morning with a trainer from Caulfield, John Salanitri, who asked me to do a few photo shoots for them. I was offered a share in a few of their young horses and from that point on I was hooked.
Not long after this, I took a day off work and went to Warrnambool for the Famous “Grand Annual” and lucked into a media pass for the day I was fortunate enough to capture an image that no one else captured, that went global and featured the front of every newspaper in the country and even made the New York Times and Washington Post. This image won me the coveted “Quill News Photo of the Year Award”, for which I was truly humbled and honoured.
3. Can you tell us what it’s like when you get the winning shot? Do you know instantly?
As an editorial photographer, there are certain times when you know you’ve captured something special. This is often when I’ve removed myself from the pack or the “herd mentality” as I like to call it. Walking away from the herd and trying something different is challenging. It’s very easy to make the wrong decision and miss the “magic moment”, but my reasoning is that there is no point in 20 photographers all capturing the same moment. As a freelancer, who is competing against photographers from Getty Images, The Herald Sun, The Age, AAP etc, my only chance of getting published is to “dare to be different”. Sometimes it pays off, sometimes it doesn’t. The photo that won me the Quill Award is a perfect example of this as I had my camera positioned on a different area to everyone else. If the action had been where the other photographers were, I would have missed the moment, but on this occasion, I got lucky.
4. Horse racing is a divisive sport. Do you get any negativity? How do you handle it?
Horse Racing has it’s share of negativity and challenges with licensing issues with the governing body, that has recently seen me not apply for media accreditation in Victoria. As a result of these changes, it forced me to slightly diversify my business model. A big part of my business now is supplying “Equine Fine Art” to customers the world over. This can range from a commissioned piece of work for a client who would like their horse photographed with a view to having a large piece of art in their homes, to artistic prints of the world’s best horses, like Winx, to Equine fans who love the horse and want a piece that is a little different to the norm.
I’ve also realised the value of offering both drone and video services to the business and my partner has come on board and not only operates the drone and video, but has become a terrific photographer in his own right. We try and ensure we are both cross trained in everything, so at a moment’s notice, we can turn up on location for a client and offer all these services.
I’ve tried to turn these restrictions and negativity into positives and I feel that I’m a much more well rounded photographer with a new skill set as a result of not focusing just on horse racing.
Horse photography is incredibly challenging and exciting and being able to photograph these incredible animals and being trusted by some of the top farms in Australia is very rewarding. Being able to photograph Winx the way I have for the past 2 years and documenting that part of her career has been incredible. Some of the best images I have of Winx are when I have tried something different and once again moved away from the herd.
5. Lessons for someone considering getting into this type of photography?
The best advice I can give to any budding horse photographer, is to know your subject, study them and their behaviour. They can be potentially dangerous to deal with and you have to be on your guard, give them their space and watch their body language to know when they may feel threatened. Understanding their behaviour goes a long way to working out the best way to photograph them to keep it always safe for horse, handler and photographer!
My 2nd piece of advice, go for the risky “money” shot. Don’t follow the herd. If you follow the herd, you will always end up with essentially the same shot as everyone else.
6. What’s the craziest thing you’ve done for a shot?
There’s lots of crazy things I’ve done to get a shot, from hanging out of helicopters at Birdsville with a 200-400mm lens to climbing on the top of the starting gates to mount remote cameras. However, one of the more “crazy things” I’ve done is last year the morning after the Cox Plate.
Winx had just won her 3rd Cox Plate. For those not into horse racing, this has only been achieved once in the races long history, back in the 80’s. My partner and I got up at 3am and left home and ventured to Altona Beach (about an hour and a bit from our home in Mt Martha). We were hoping Winx would arrive for her usual recovery session. After an hour of waiting, she arrived.
However, there were quite a number of other photographers all there hoping to capture something special of Winx. I knew what the money shot was. I knew the exact angle and position I needed to be in to get it. To get the shot wasn’t going to be easy. I had to get in the water, but further out than the horses go. This particular morning there were quite a few sand banks, and Winx was about 4 sand banks out from the shore. To shoot even with a 400mm lens, she was a tiny dot on the horizon.
So I ventured out, and out, and out and as Winx came towards me, I had to step off the last sand bank and on the other side of the bank. As a 5 foot nothing photographer with a 400mm lens on a monopod, well this can be fraught with danger. There was no turning back now though. I was deeper than anyone else and the ONLY photographer on the other side of Winx.
As Winx walked past me, then walked back towards the exact “money spot”, I held my breath, hoping she would walk past in the exact path she had done previously. As she walked past as though “walking on water” with the entire city skyline behind her, I knew instantly I had captured possibly the best and most important photo of my career. A photo that I know no other photographer had captured and of one of the best horses this country has ever produced.
The only downside I had my car keys in my pocket (which I forgot in my attempts to get the “money shot”, which resulted in my car immobilising itself and with no spare key on me, I endured a 92km tow home, euphoric at my “shot” and knowing I would have a great story to tell.
It’s by far my favourite photo, as a lot of thought went into the execution of it, a no fear factor and a resilience to get the shot no matter what.
7. How do you find your clients? It’s a different business model to other photography jobs – can you explain a bit about that?
The horse industry actively uses social media. I have recognised this and spent a great deal of time cultivating my social media accounts. I mainly use Twitter and Instagram and found this a great way of attracting new clients. The types of clients I attract are Farms, who may require their stallions to be photographed for high end commercial usage, including billboards and various ad campaigns, for TV commercials and other print media.
The farms also require photography for foals (to advertise their stallions progeny) and their facilities. Clients and general fans of racing also purchase both digital files and prints for a range of different purposes. I have started to work with a few Feed and Horse Vitamin companies who rely on imagery for their product labels, brochures and websites.
Longines in Paris recently purchased an image for worldwide distribution to be used in large billboard advertising in all major cities. Having an active and strong following on social media and an up to date, easy to navigate website is also key to attracting new clients.
It’s a very different business model to weddings, which, although are a great source of referral work, are generally “one off” jobs. By attracting new clients, I can build long-term relationships with them, as they are rarely “one off” jobs and the majority of them require ongoing photography services.
I also have to be proactive and establish good relationships with News Outlets. The day after this year’s Cox Plate, when Winx, re wrote the record books winning her 4th Cox Plate, I again strayed away from the pack and captured images that I knew no one else would have. I called my contact at the Sydney Morning Herald, and although there were 20+ professional photographers in attendance, my image appeared on the back page of the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald. Having these contacts and maintaining these relationships is key to what I do.
8. We all learn from failure, what has been your biggest lesson?
There have definitely been moments where I have simply been in the “wrong place” and missed capturing key moments in big races. You can play safe in a big race and shoot with a 70-200mm lens and more than likely capture the winner, or you can go for the riskier, more intimate shot, captured with a 200-400mm lens. In a tight finish, especially when a horse finishes fast from the back, you have to commit early and stick to a horse. It’s an awful feeling when you know you have missed the winner. The most important thing to do when this happens?? You must move on, and concentrate on capturing the winning horse returning and the owners/jockey/trainer celebrations to the best of your ability and realise the finish is “one part of the story”. The first time this happened to me, I was so angry and embarrassed, it then distracted me from all the other shots. So, get over it, we all have these moments as horse racing photographers and just keep shooting!!
9. Best place you have photographed
I’ve photographed at some of the biggest race carnivals in the world, including Royal Ascot, the Dubai World Cup, the Hong Kong International Carnival, Singapore, South Africa, Ireland, UK and the US. They have all been amazing in their own right. My favourite however, is the iconic Birdsville Races, the most remote race meeting in the world.
Birdsville, it’s about a 4,200 km round trip from home, accessible only by 4wd or light plane. It’s never been truer that the “journey is just as important as the destination”. The effort to get to Birdsville, makes me as a photographer ensure that every single frame counts. It’s a lot of effort to get there and only 2 race days (13 races in all) and there is so much to photograph from so many different positions on the track. It’s because of this, that I try shots that I never get to try at other tracks and Birdsville is the only place I know in the world, where you can photograph the races whilst hanging out of a helicopter with no doors! As the horses leave the gates, and the dust flies, it’s surreal being in a helicopter chasing the field, large lens hanging out the side. It’s one of the more exhilarating photo experiences I’ve had.
Another favourite is Altona Beach. Not only is the place that Winx frequents, but every day at Altona provides different shooting conditions. The light, the difference in the tides, sunrise, times and positions the horses enter the water, I always end up with different shots and it’s a great place to challenge yourself as a photographer and try something new. One of my favourite shoots there this season, I used 2 cameras. One with a 500mm fixed and one 24-70mm and nothing in between. This might seem crazy, but it challenged me to think about each and every shot and precisely when to stop shooting with the 500mm, giving me time to get into position (usually as low as possible) to shoot with the wide angle. It was collectively one of the most successful and rewarding shoots I have done there.
My favourite photo
I can’t go past my Winx photo from last year, and although I am more widely known for my Quill Award Winning Photo of Banna Strand, this was essentially a photo of a “news worthy disaster type moment”, and a photo I got lucky to capture, being in the right place at the right time. The Winx photo, I thought about, envisaged for weeks and knew exactly what I needed to do to capture it and which lens to use, and the position I needed to be in. The only thing out of my control was the tides and the depth of the water!!!
I may have nearly drowned, but hey “I got the shot” and that’s all that matters right!!!