Sony a7II At The Churchill Downs With Doug McGoldrick

Doug McGoldrick reached out to us recently with a set of images we didn’t expect to see—photos from behind the scenes at the Churchill Downs. This Kentucky racetrack is the home of the Kentucky Derby and isn’t the kind of place you get access to. We reached out to him to get more information about his access to the track and the horses and to find out how he captured the shoot. 

One of my main gigs as a photographer is shooting campaign material for political campaigns. Two years ago I was shooting a candidate near Louisville, KY one of the people who was hanging around the shoot was talking to my client about horses and the derby and my ears perked up. One of my favorite things as a photographer is getting into places that most people don’t get to see. I’ve been backstage at the Joffery Ballet, inside steel mills, at a Super Fund cleanup site, in custom motorcycle build shops, and many more, I just love seeing how things come together.

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Before I met my contact at the track I knew next to nothing about the world of horse racing. When I got back from my gig in Kentucky I immediately shot an email off to the guy who was talking about horses asking if I could shoot backstage stuff at Churchill Downs. He responded that it would be no problem to get me into their stable at Churchill Downs.

Louisville is just about a 5 hour drive from my home base in Chicago so two weeks ago off I went. I wanted to maximize my shooting time and minimize my expense since this was a personal project not a gig, so I arrived at midnight and was up at 5am the next day out the door and shooting. The stables at Churchill Downs run 24/7 so I could have gotten there whenever I wanted, but I knew that the training was from 6am-11am and that’s what I was after.

A million photographers have shot the fancy hats and outfits on the front side of the tracks but I wanted the working side of the track. I shot 4 days from about 6am – 3pm mostly all on the backside, I was able to walk over with one horse for it’s race it was pretty amazing to walk right on the track.

For the shooting I had two cameras on me all the time. On one side I had a Sony A7ii with a 24-70 Zeiss lens and on the other I had my old Canon 5dMKii with a 70-200f4 lens on it. I actually brought several of my Leica lenses with me and a tilt/shift as well, but the environment was very dusty and dirty so I really didn’t want to change lenses, so I stuck with the zooms. Normally I’m a big fan of off camera lighting ,but it was a big no no with the very skitish horses, so everything is available light only. The Sony performed amazingly well in all kinds of crazy light from pre sunrise to full sun.

I’d had the a7II for about a month at that point, and at first I was a little underwhelmed with the camera, but I’ve found the more auto things I turn off the more I love it. I think the default settings do way to much thinking for you. My plan is to replace my canon with a second a7ii later this year. A lot of people gripe about the battery performance on the sony’s and it is lacking, but I put it on airplane mode and turn off the monitor and have been able to get pretty decent results with the battery, but I still carry 4 batteries and a charger all the time.

I’d bet 75 percent of the shots I made were from the Sony over the Canon. I was incredibly happy with my results from the four days I was there. I’d still love to go back some time and get more shots. There are some many facets I’d like to see. It would be great to shoot at an auction and to see some of the very young horses being trained, really get a full story about the life of the horses.  I couldn’t have done any of it without the people at Red Dog Racing, and James and Anita Cauley for letting me bother them for a couple days while they worked. I’m sure I asked a lot of really stupid questions, but I certainly had a lot to learn.

You can see more of my work at http://dougphoto.com instagram @therealdougphoto and Facebook https://www.facebook.com/pages/Dougphoto/

My daily shooter is Sony a9 with a vertical grip and various Sigma lenses attached like the 14mm 1.4 Art. Find more gear recommendations in our shop.