Do you often return from a photography session or trip to upload your photos and immediately delete the bad photos from the set? While getting rid of the obvious blurry image can save you disk space, I find that deleting can sometimes do more harm than good. Had I culled my images right away I never would have created this photograph.
Earlier this month I took a trip to photograph wild horses. I usually do these trips several times a year in the warmer weather in addition to teaching workshops. Wild horses are one of my passion projects. On my last trip, I visited an island where the horses survive off the dunes and maritime forest. They often visit the sandy beach. Rarely if you know what to look for you can even catch them going into the water. Through years of experience and understanding wild horse behavior, I can tell when they are likely to go for a swim. The reason that the horses go into the water is to cool off and use the salt water's natural effects at pest removal. Being wild, they are just as bothered by the biting flies, ticks, and mosquitoes as I am while out photographing them.
On this particular occasion, several horse bands were driven together and battling over the beach which is the best territory. That is a whole different story, but important to note is that with all of the scuffles and tense standoffs the horses were overheated from the hot summer sun. Lashing their tails, kicking out, and stomping they were also beleaguered by insects. The band of horses that wins the beach also wins rights to the prized water. Knowing this, I followed them for several miles down the beach as the bands fought. Eventually, after some mock charges and squaring up, the losers wandered off. It didn’t take long for the winning band to start eyeing up the shoreline. The moment I had waited for unfolded in front of me. The entire band, foal included, all went into the ocean.
To capture this, I was ready. My camera was set to a high shutter speed to freeze the action, continuous focus on, and burst frame setting for max frames per second. Usually, when the horses go into the water they dip in ankle-deep, splash around a bit then come right out. As I watched they went deeper and deeper into the ocean, waves crashing over them, to my utter delight. I looked to my group and asked, “Who wants to get crazy photos and doesn’t mind getting wet?” We all dropped our bags and those with sneakers on left them in a frantic heap and took off. With our 500mm+ telephoto lenses to give us a safe distance, we waded out into the water for the ultimate perspective and water foreground. The horses frolicked around in the water like youngsters. Some of them stood still with the water up to their chests or withers and braced as wave after wave crashed over them. The air was electric with the sounds of waves, horses splashing, and camera shutters firing.
Photographing the horses in the water like that was an amazing experience that I will never forget. After years of studying and creating equine art of wild horses, I have never seen them go into the ocean both for so long or to swim so deep like that. Once home I had hundreds of images to look through from the set. With other projects to work on and a slightly bad habit of hoarding my photos anyway, I didn’t delete any sharp photos from that day. Then a few weeks later while sitting down to look through them with fresh eyes, I noticed something interesting. In the background of a sequence of the photos, a single horse gallops right through the frames creating a huge splash in his wake. I was photographing other horses standing together, but he ran right behind them perfectly in focus. In most of the photos he was obscured by the other horses, and then disappears to the left. Had I deleted any photos right away that I didn’t think were as strong I would have never noticed him back there.
Out of curiosity and a hunch, I opened all of the photos where the horse was running through into Photoshop. I cropped and cut out any part that wasn’t him. I was shocked to find that like a puzzle I had him perfectly galloping, ears forward, mane flying, and ocean erupting around him as he raced through the water. With patience, enough coffee, and decent editing skills I could mask and match the pieces together into one digital artwork that captured that hidden moment. I set about my quest determined to see it through.
After about 5 hours of painstaking masking, clone stamping, and fixing the mane with the background eraser tool I had a huge file that completely surprised me.
The lesson here is to hoard your photographs with wild abandon; you just might find hidden treasure in them.
That being said, I will mention that as a wildlife photographer I am careful with doing artificial edits. I prefer to keep things natural as I saw them. I am up front about when one of my photos would be considered Photoshopped, such as a blue hour blend for the milky way. I see this wild horse photo as a digital artwork or photo puzzle if you will, and no less art than a single shot photograph, just different. I am so pleased with the result and that should be what drives you rather than the criticism of others.
By keeping your extra photos, you can solve common problems as well. If you photograph people and in one image their eyes are closed or a goofy expression you can borrow that area from a photo a few frames before or after. Images that are sharp and well exposed, but just not as good can be scraps for something later on. Textures and skies can be useful for future projects.
What do you think of keeping spare photographs? Have you ever used one photo to save another image? Have you ever created a puzzle photo like I did with the wild horse? Let me know in the comments below.