Quill Award Winner Sharon Lee Chapman on Horse Photography

Sharon Lee Chapman may not have been in horse photography for long, but her talent, and deep love of horses, is evident. Here, she tells us about how she started with her craft, what makes a good photograph, and her amazing adventures in horse photography.

BECOMING A HORSE PHOTOGRAPHER

Like many young girls, I grew up with a love for horses and horse racing. I never owned a horse growing up but always had a fascination with them.

I’ve only been an equine photographer full time for five years. My background is in law, specialising in property and mortgage law.  I made the switch in 2011, after realising it was “now or never” and didn’t want to look back in 20 years and regret any decisions or lack of.

I started photographing horses in around 2008, when I did one semester at Photography Studies College in Melbourne. I had to choose a subject for my final portfolio and documentary piece, and having always loved horses, it was a natural decision to base my portfolio on horse racing.

I love to capture their natural beauty, whether it be a beautiful moment of light beaming into their stall, or foals running around a paddock, or a stallion and his raw power.

Sharon Lee Chapman Horse Photography Spring Racing Carnival 2016 | Track Mode

At Warnambool. Image: Sharon Lee Chapman

ADVENTURES IN HORSE PHOTOGRAPHY

I don’t ride — however, I’ve travelled extensively throughout the world and always try and book a trail ride in some exotic location where I can. These have included Lesotho on a Basotho Pony, Patagonia through the Fitz Roy National Park and Hawaii.

My most amusing experience on a horse occurred in Egypt. I ran out of money after an eight-month backpacking adventure and could only afford the horse ride to the Pyramids, not the camel ride.

I was led through the streets of Giza on the way to the pyramids, assuming this was because I was an inexperienced rider. Once I got off for a photo shoot and went to re-mount, I noticed my horses’ eye were all white. I was told, “He’s blind”. 


“Some of the local men asked if ‘I was for sale.’ I had to beg my guide not to sell me for a few camels.”


Upon getting back on, I was then asked if I’d like to go for a  gallop. So my first galloping experience on a horse was through the desert with pyramids on one side and sand dunes on the other. 

As we overtook a few horses, some of the local men asked if “I was for sale.” I had to beg my guide not to sell me for a few camels. Yes, this is a true story!

I’ve been very fortunate to photograph at some of the biggest race carnivals in the world, including Royal Ascot, The Cheltenham Jumps Festival, The Dubai World Cup, The Hong Kong Cup, Singapore, South Africa, Ireland and the US. They are all very different.

Royal Ascot has such a steep tradition with the Queen’s arrival every day and you can even bet on the coloUr of the Queen’s hat.  This old fashioned tradition of top hat and tails is amazing to photograph.

The contrast then to Cheltenham in winter with everyone in tweed jackets, scarves and fur hats with a carnival dedicated to jumps racing is a massive contrast, but they are both incredible in their own right. 

The US with Saratoga, which is the oldest race track in America, has a beautiful old-world tradition of its own with a 40-day carnival that races every day except Tuesdays.  Many families spend weeks at a time and rent a house for the summer.

ON WINNING THE QUILL AWARD

The Banna Strand photo was all about creating an opportunity for yourself. I didn’t have media accreditation but drove to Warrnambool and took a day off work in the hope that I would get one. 

As luck would have it I did, and I stood with all the pro photographers. 

When the first series of horses jumped, I followed them with my camera as I wanted to capture the crowd as well. It was just a very lucky shot that Banna Strand jumped into the crowd in that moment. 

I didn’t know for at least half an hour that I had anything that no one else did as I assumed all the other photographers had captured the same moment. It just snowballed when I first showed TVN the photo and I was swamped with radio interviews the next day and was even on Channel 7 news. 


“Had I not taken a risk and driven down to Warrnambool, that photo wouldn’t exist in history. Luck played a big part, but creating that opportunity for yourself as well.”


I remember my Dad ringing me to say he saw the photo in the New York Times online.  It’s still a surreal moment and one I have to pinch myself about again and again. I was so fortunate to then win the Quill Award for News Photo Of The Year.

Had I not taken a risk and driven down to Warrnambool, that photo wouldn’t exist in history. Luck played a big part, but creating that opportunity for yourself as well.

Sharon Lee Chapman Horse Photography Spring Racing Carnival 2016 | Track Mode

“Runaway Horse” won the Quill Award for Best News Photograph. Image: Sharon Lee Chapman

FAVOURITE ASSIGNMENTS

This is a hard question, as there are two close to my heart.

One of my favourite horses to photograph has been Red Cadeaux and the beautiful friendship that he had with his track rider, Stephen Nicholson and travelling foreman Robin Trevor-Jones. 

I was commissioned by the VRC to photograph Red Cadeaux when he visited Altona Beach. His tentative steps into the water in what was his first ever outing to a beach, where something I’ll never forget and always cherish.  I was waist deep in water and following his every step, not wanting to miss a single moment. 

Red Cadeaux is a horse that will forever be in my heart and memory.

I covered the Birdsville Races last year for Sports Illustrated after pitching the idea to them when they invited me to meet with them in New York last year. It was a huge amount of pressure to create imagery that would showcase the remoteness of Birdsville, the Aussie outback, but be up to the standard of the best sporting publication in the world. 

I found that I went to a whole new level with my horse photography because of this one assignment and putting pressure on myself to capture imagery I’d never taken before. I finally got to climb up on the barriers at Birdsville and attach a remote camera which is still one of my favourite horse racing images. 

Sharon Lee Chapman Horse Photography Spring Racing Carnival 2016 | Track Mode

The starting gate at Birdsville. Image: Sharon Lee Chapman

I’m heading back this year and now have 11 vehicles coming along for the ride and we are doing a fundraiser for the Royal Flying Doctor Service and the National Jockeys Trust. I’m heading off on the 22nd of August.  You can follow the adventure via our All Roads To Birdsville on Facebook and Instagram and via Twitter @road2birdsville. 

WHAT MAKES A GOOD PHOTOGRAPH

I strongly believe my background in wedding photography has helped a lot. Wedding photography is essentially about telling a story and capturing the emotion.

With horse photography, I’m always trying to find the most attractive detail of the horse and showcasing that element, trying to capture a beautiful moment. The bond between a strapper and a horse is also something I’m very passionate about. The strappers and track riders do so much work behind the scenes and it’s nice for them to have those moments captured.

I’m a big fan of black and white and I think certain images work far better in black and white. They make the image seem timeless and capture the emotion so well.

Sharon Lee Chapman Horse Photography Spring Racing Carnival 2016 | Track Mode

Petrify. Image: Sharon Lee Chapman

I think horse photography is all about evolving as an artist and always being prepared to push the boundaries and try something different. Horse photography like any form of art is very subjective and there will be huge variances in opinion on the best photos.   

If you don’t try something new, your photos will always look the same. 

It’s always a special feeling when a shard of light hits exactly the right spot and you press the shutter and realise you’ve captured something special. 

The best advice I can give is to practice, practice, practice and try and find your own style, whether it be the way you process your images, or crop, but don’t be afraid to try different angles. 

I am a firm believer that wherever possible, it’s great to get down low for photographing horses (providing it is safe and the horse knows you are there) because shooting up at the horse is such a beautiful angle.

Sharon Lee Chapman Horse Photography Spring Racing Carnival 2016 | Track Mode

Sharon Lee Chapman. Image from her Twitter account

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

Track Mode is a horse racing and fashion site founded and curated by Nina O’Brien. Subscribe to our newsletter to get exclusive race day fashion edits straight to your inbox! You can also find us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Google+.

Treat yourself to our guide to Spring Racing Carnival 2016 to get the best out of the season! You’ll find racing fashion inspiration, guides to horse racing, and more interviews with the most important personalities in the horse racing industry.

Sharon Lee Chapman has just launched a Fine Art Print Series which will be available at The Big Shed Balnarring in a variety of formats. Other fine art prints are also available via her website.

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