How I Made It: The Story Behind Douglas Dubler’s Leaping Horse Photo

Photo of a jumping horse

We mostly know Douglas Dubler 3 for his iconic fashion and beauty photography, so when he showed us his striking equine image above from the recent Hampton Classic Grand Prix, we were a bit surprised. We shouldn’t have been. Dubler 3 has been photographing horse jumping for a few years now and sees this type of photography as an extension of his other work.

We wanted to learn more about the image, which was captured with Sony’s fast-shooting Alpha a1 camera, so Dubler 3 agreed to answer a few questions about the photo for “How I Made It.” You can see other “How I Made It” stories here, here, and here.

Q: What’s the story behind the photo?

Douglas Dubler 3: A few years ago, I began photographing horse jumping through a friend whose daughter was being trained by an ex-Olympic equestrian team member.  I quickly learned the technical and aesthetic demands of the equestrian world. Having said that I wasn’t very interested in the more typical horse jumping photographs. My inspiration came from the “Elgin Marbles” in the British Museum. A collection of classical sculptures made by the Greek sculptor Phidias, they were originally part of the temple of the Parthenon and the Acropolis. Like the Elgin Marbles, I wanted to depict the extreme musculature and emotions of the horses and their bonds with their riders.  So similar to my career in the fashion industry, I chose to do tight “beauty” shots. This image is full frame with some vertical cropping only.

The rider in this photo is Nicky Galligan, from Guardian Stables, on his mare “Javas Miss Jordan.” Nicky placed 1st in the $75,000 Grand Prix Qualifier on September 3rd.

Q: What were some of the challenges of photographing an event like the Hampton Classic Grand Prix?

Douglas Dubler 3: The Hampton Classic Grand Prix is the best known and most attended horse show event in the United States. Like any popular event, the major challenge is access to be able to get the images. That requires a press credential in addition to a VIP credential which gives some additional advantage in terms of being close to the action. In particular, on the day of the Grand Prix, the event is more focused on two legged celebrities. Navigating the people becomes critical.

In addition, everything moves very fast. The horses go over the jumps in less than two seconds. Rather than trying to do many different jumps, I find one jump that has the best lighting, separation between rider and background and stay with that one jump for that particular class. That way I am assured of getting exactly what I want. It’s more of a quality than quantity approach. 

Typically, the lighting is for me too contrasty by virtue of the time of day. But on the day of the Grand Prix, the skies were cloudy which is nice aesthetically, but you pay the price with having to increase your ISO. Photography is an art of compromise.

Q: Can you share some technical details about how this image was shot including gear used, settings, etc.?

Douglas Dubler 3: Speed is of essence here. A fast shutter speed. For me a minimum of 1/1000 sec but more desirable 1/2000 or faster if the light level permits. Enough f stop to give me the depth of field to get the rider and horses head sharp. I used Sony’s 100-400mm f4.5-f5.6 GM OSS Zoom (here at 400mm). And most important a super-fast framing rate. Ten frames per second (fps) is inadequate, 20fps much better but 30fps gives me 50% more images per second than the 20fps capture.

This image was shot with the Sony Alpha a1, a 50MP camera at f/9 at 1/1000 sec, ISO 2500 at 30fps. It was processed in Phase One’s Capture One (V21) software. I used Sirui’s AM-204V Monopod with Stand Spider. The spider base gives me the additional stability necessary for precise composition. Tripods were not allowed.

Last but not least, I used two 256GB SDXCII cards from ProGrade Digital to make sure my write speed could keep up with the framing rate. I never hit the buffer and I had the capacity to capture 7000 50MP RAW files per card. I averaged about 1200 images per day.

Q: What advantages did the Sony Alpha a1 camera give you for capturing this image?

Douglas Dubler 3: With the Sony Alpha a1, I can shoot at 30fps and with good timing, start the capture as the horse approaches the jump and follow him through down the other side of the jump. And out of the 60+ frames, I can choose the position I feel is best. Also, the camera has no viewfinder blackout and is the first camera made by Sony that will allow RAW files in “lossless” compressed format (my preference over “lossy” compressed). This shoot with the Sony a1 was the best I have done with the horses. Also, even at ISO 2500, the file quality is great. Maybe next year Sony will have a camera that does 40fps.

Q: You are most known for your fashion and beauty photography. How does your fashion and beauty work inform your sports and action photos, such as in this shot?

Douglas Dubler 3: I see everything through the eyes of a “beauty” photographer. Whether it’s abstract, flowers, portraits, or horses. I’m looking for the lighting, the line, the composition. To those things I add my “trademark” of super high quality and carefully controlled color both in capture and processing. And last, but maybe most important in the chain, is retouching. My retoucher, Irfan Yonac , has a proprietary process for removing noise without affecting resolution. Impossible to do with a plugin. Most photographers today don’t use professional retouchers. From my decades as a beauty photographer, I would never have attempted to do hair and make-up, styling, or retouching.  This file was shot at ISO 2500. I know I can print it at least 30X40 inches. And for me the art of photography is the print.

Q: What are you working on next?

Douglas Dubler 3: I’m working on a book of 50 beauty photographs from 50 years. Each one with a full-page narrative about what went on behind the scenes. Hopefully to be published by the end of the year. A limited edition of 800 and a strictly limited edition of 200 (with an original print printed by me) totaling 1000 books only for the first edition.

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