Photographing Black Caviar

8 November 2011 11:16:00 AM AEDT

Jules Tahan photographs Black Caviar and they both live to tell the tale.

“A horse is a horse, of course, of course,
And no one (is scared of photographing a horse) of course
That is, of course, unless the horse is the famous Black Caviar.”

OK I changed the lyrics but you get the picture. And getting the picture is exactly what award winning photographer Jules Tahan was tasked with, when he was given the assignment to photograph the similarly award winning Black Caviar.
Easy yes? I mean it’s a horse, of course. The strapper brings it in. Jules fires off a few shots and off it goes to run, or roll or rear or whatever it is horses do.

But this, of course, as the song has told us ‘aint any ordinary horse. This is the horse many experts have suggested will one day be as entrenched in our folk lore as Phar Lap. He was the ‘Big Red’ - she is the ‘Big Black’ and this job could be a big break or a big nightmare depending on how big, big black’s reaction is to Jules’ presence...and his lights, his stands, his assistant, his camera, his props and his movements. “All I could think” said Jules when I caught up with him to discuss the assignment, “is what would happen if she got a fright from the flash and bolted or worse injured herself in her desire to back away.” Melbourne Photographer kills Black Caviar in attempt to get killer shot. Hmm, not really a headline on any photographer’s bucket list.

So how did Jules approach the shoot? 

"Well I always do a heap of research before hand. I’m not really in to racing but of course I knew who Black Caviar was. I read up on horse photography and checked out some classic images that had been taken in the past. Then I formulated a rough plan in my mind.”

And the plan?

“Didn’t work” he laughs. “When I got in to the stable it looked a little different from what I had expected. Besides which Black Caviar herself had ideas about where she would stand and it wasn’t exactly in keeping with where I thought she would stand.” A multi million dollar diva versus a photographer. Who won? “Who do you think?” he smiled. (It’s true this horse really does never lose.) “She’s obviously used to a fair bit of attention.” He added. “So as I was setting up she really didn’t seem phased at all. I made sure I explained to the trainers and staff exactly what I was about to do before I did it. I would tell them where I was going to put lights and when I was going to flash etc. I was determined there would be no surprises for them or the horse. Communication is vital to the way I work. I’m a photographer who keeps you in the loop.”

How long did you have?

"Not long” he mused. “So I had to think pretty quickly. The best way to approach it was to accept she was going to stand where she was going to stand for as long as she wanted to, and not a moment longer. Where she stood was in front of a really average looking, boring brick wall. At that moment I saw in my head a pretty unexciting shot. I thought ‘I know where this is going to end up. As a snapshot in the article.’ I wanted more than that. I wanted it to be a feature shot.’” “That’s where my research came in handy. I had looked at many classic horse portraits. The kind you see in Masters’ paintings, and I knew I had some wonderful misty landscape shots on my hard drive back in the studio. I made the decision there and then that was what I would go for. So I ceased to see the brick wall and concentrated on getting her right.”

All in 60 seconds? 

"You definitely have to move fast”, he agreed. “Being dark I knew I’d have to pump some serious light in to her so I threw a grid on the lights and positioned one to ‘fill’ her body and highlight her muscle shape and placed another pretty much straight on to her head. To make sure I got strong definition on the muscles I took the scrim off the Octolight I was using. And then I shot as much as I could. She didn’t move a muscle. This horse was well and truly ready for her close up.” “When she decided I had the shot, she moved on. All in all it took a few minutes. I then followed up with shots of the owner’s family and a portrait of her looking through her stable door, all of which were pretty much straight forward.” 

"Then I came back to the studio and the retouching magic began.”

Ahh, retouching.

The photographer’s playground. “I love it,” enthused Jules. “It’s fantastic what can be done now and I fully embrace it. But I didn’t do this by myself. I work with a gun retoucher, Stuart Wilson. He is amazing and I love the fact I can create something with someone instead of working solo all the time.” “Together we created an image that paid homage to the Masters but also maintained a slightly surreal element as well.

For example, we enhanced the glint on the grass instead of subduing it. Dulling it would have been too predictable and there’s nothing predictable about this horse.” And it seems there’s nothing predictable about photography. “I think that’s one of the things I really enjoyed about this assignment” reflected Jules. “There’s a billion reasons it could have been a disaster. But it turned out to be one of the most iconic celebrity shots I’ve taken. I have to confess it’s even exceeded my own expectations and that’s what can happen when things play out differently from how you expected they would.”

Finally, who is easier to photograph? Celebrity people or celebrity horses?

“Well” smiled Jules. “Celebrity horses are a challenge because they can’t speak. But then that might be exactly what makes them easier to deal with.”

So does this shot go straight to your pool room?

“I’m really happy with how it turned out and the feedback has been awesome. If it’s around in 100 years as an iconic picture of an iconic horse, it certainly gives purpose to my career.”

You can bet on that Jules.

To see more of Jules’ work head to (Jules is 2011 Gold & Silver winner at the AIPP APPA Awards).

To see him teach go to where he amongst others will teach you how to take better shots and retouch all online.

To see more of Black Caviar follow the news. She’s everywhere.

Original interview sourced from 'The Weekly Review'


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