Day At The Track

The gift of photography

10:27 AM 20 Sep 2014 NZST
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Shelley Johnson Shelley Johnson
Shelley Johnson took this action photo during the 2013 Grand Circuit week of racing at Delaware
Shelley Johnson Photo
Outrider Cindi Johnson is one of Shelley's favorite subjects to photograph
Shelley Johnson Photo

Trenton, NJ --- For most of her life, the extent of Shelley Johnson’s photography featured holiday and vacation photos, much like the rest of the world.

About 10 years ago, her husband Jeff surprised Shelley with a point-and-shoot camera for Christmas, in hopes that nine months later she would be able to take sharp action photographs at the Little Brown Jug at the Delaware County Fair in Ohio.

“I’m not sure what Jeff was thinking,” said Johnson, who lives 35 miles east of Columbus, Ohio. “I had never taken action shots. I took it as a challenge.”

Jeff must have known something no one else did, because the challenge has been well met. A decade later, most of the cover photos on Scioto Downs programs are taken by Shelley, who has developed an eye for action and just this week enjoyed shooting another Little Brown Jug.

But her efforts in photography go beyond the racetrack. She also shoots photographs for the New Vocations Racehorse Adoption Program, which has Standardbred facilities in Ohio and Michigan.

“I find great joy shooting photos of Standardbred horses retiring from the track and moving on to other careers,” she said. “New Vocations retrains Standardbred racehorses for various occupations under saddle and places them in new, caring homes. Each month I photograph these great horses going up for adoption. This is my way of promoting harness racing and helping the Standardbred horse adoption program.”

While Jeff is the big horseman in the family, he did provide Shelley with a birthday present when he bought her a horse for her birthday named Master Chip in 2005. But it wasn’t like she just had to unwrap the horse at the stable.

“I had to do all of my own bidding at the (Ohio Selected Jug) sale,” she said. “I had never been to an auction, let alone bid on anything. It was quite stressful. He didn't do much on the track, but I sure loved him. He has a good home now and enjoys life.”

The Johnsons have also partnered with other owners on trotting fillies She’s Not Red and ML Cupcake, who are both broodmares now. They still have ML Cupcake, who was Ohio’s 2-year-old filly Trotter of the Year in 2010.

“I can't wait until next spring to see her baby,” Shelley said.

They also have a 2-year-old filly trotter, Carolina Charm, who has won four of six starts this season.

“The racing was always Jeff's thing,” Shelley noted. “He knows horses, stallions, etc. I only enjoyed watching the races if it was a horse I knew. That's when I started taking pictures. It gave me something to do, and he was able to stay for the entire card without me wanting to go home!”

It has led to a long, steady climb for the Ohio retiree who is technically a professional photographer by virtue of her sales, but still considers it a hobby.

After receiving that first camera, she experimented on her feathered friends before horses, taking photos of birds at the feeder outside the dining room window. When she and Jeff bought their first horse, Shelley would try to capture him in action at the track. When she shot the Jug, it became a bit tougher as horses trying to win races traveled a lot faster than those being jogged and trained.

“I took pictures, but they didn’t really turn out,” she said.

Johnson kept plugging away. She took online classes for nature photography and equine photography. Neither dealt with shooting actual race action, but did help in the process.

“I learned a lot about headshots and conformation shots in the equine class,” she said. “Also the proper distance to avoid distortion in the photos.”

She also put in countless hours practicing at the farm of her friend Doris, who jogged and trained her own horses and taught Shelley a lot about the animals.

But all the practice and all the talent in the world can only get a photographer so far without the right equipment. As her interest increased, so too did the quality of Shelley’s cameras. The big turnaround in her photos came several years ago when Jeff bought his wife a professional grade lens.

“That’s made a huge difference,” Johnson said. “He even said if he had known the lens would make that much difference, he would have gotten it for me sooner.”

She knew she arrived as a photographer when Scioto Downs made her a cover girl two years ago.

“At that point,” she said, “I guess I thought, hey, I got this!”

The monumental first cover came on June 21, 2012, with a photo of the entire field of a race on the starting gate, and an Ohio Lottery billboard behind them proclaiming “Winners Are Everywhere.”

“It felt amazing to see it,” Johnson said.

Aside from the program covers, she has had several photos in magazines by virtue of New Vocations using them. A week ago, Johnson was thrilled to see that one of her photos was used on the Scioto Downs billboard out front.

She has discovered that she gets her finest results when not focusing on anything in particular.

“I do my best when I just shoot random, with no pressure,” she said. “If I get it, OK. If I don't, OK. I will try to focus on a certain horse in a race if someone wants me to get a picture of their horse. That's hard though. The horse isn't always in view.”

And as good as she has become, Johnson still feels the biggest key to her success “is probably just good luck.”

“Most of the time I single-shoot the pictures,” she explained. “My camera doesn't shoot enough frames per second to use continuous mode. If I try to shoot in continuous mode and the horse has its foot planted on the track, it usually ends up planted in all of the shots. I like to try for shots with all four off the ground.”

As for attempting to choose her favorite photo, Shelley said it’s like trying to pick a favorite child. She notes that when so many photos do not come out, “whenever I get one that I think looks good, I’m happy.”

Judging by her success in recent years, Shelley Johnson has had quite a bit of happiness lately.

To view Shelly Johnson’s work, check out her website at www.sfjohnsonphotos.com

by Rich Fisher, USTA Web Newsroom Senior Correspondent 

Courtesy of the US Trotting Association Web Newsroom

 

 
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