STEPHEN Mowbray freely admits he "can't ride a rocking horse”.
However what the professional equine photographer lacks in riding ability, he makes up for in deep passion and zeal for horse events.
It's Stephen's job to capture the very best in eventing, reining, polo, show jumping, dressage, carriage driving, cutting, campdraft and rodeo - in the past two weeks he covered world-qualifying show jumping at Boneo Park as well as the ABCRA finals rodeo in Tamworth.
Despite his now robust portfolio, Stephen is actually an unlikely candidate for becoming one of Australia's foremost sporting photographers.
The New Zealand- born foster child has worked in marketing and promotions for Coca-Cola, had a 16-year stint as a deli owner in Sydney and as a kid vowed to "never ride a horse again” after an unlucky fall.
This week the Rural Weekly caught up with the charismatic snapper to find out how a Kiwi, who was escorted out of the first rodeo he tried to photograph, made a name for himself in the equine industry.
Stephen's first taste of the rural lifestyle came from a stroke of good fortune.
"My sister (Debbie) and I lived in a children's home in New Zealand. We were very fortunate that a couple, who didn't have children at that time, came to the Anglican Social Services and said they had a property and would like to take some children on a holiday so they could experience country life,” he said.
Colin and Pam Heslop's property Glen Hope was nestled deep within the South Island off the Lewis Pass.
"It was just an amazing place,” Stephen said.
"It was fairytale kind of childhood. You couldn't ask for more adventures; it was an extraordinary place.
"We would be picked up with all of our bags from Christchurch then drive a couple of hours to the front gate of the property, then we would park the car in the garage then load everything on to the back of a tractor, or a truck, so we could cross the river and head up the hill to the house.”
Stephen now describes Colin and Pam as his mum and dad, so soon enough every school break was spent on the sheep and cattle property.
Every time the kids started their holiday, Colin would put on a slide show with pictures he had shot while they were at school.
"Col would pull out the old slide projector and show us all these incredible photos,” he said.
"So the memories of my childhood are really the colours of transparency slides. All of these amazing vistas of high country mustering and sheep and the mountains and the snow and shooting and hunting.
"The colour palate of my childhood is very much the high country in New Zealand. It's just etched in my head.”
Stephen believes it was those photos, displayed on a modest projector, that moulded his own style of photography, particularly his use of colour.
Col and Pam later had their own children - Ben, who became a champion bull rider, and Juliette, who also rode in gymkhana and barrel racing events. Horses were instrumental on the property, but Stephen said riding was never his thing.
His preference of being an observer of equine events rather than a participant was cemented after he had a fright on a fast-paced horse.
"I was warming up a barrel horse and I went around the first barrel, the second barrel, then after the third the horse decided to come home quite a lot quicker than I wanted it to,” he said.
Stephen laughed when recalling the feeling of going "bloody fast” and being somewhat out of control.
"Basically we came flying back to the house, toward the tack shed, got to the fence and the horse stopped but unfortunately I didn't.
"I just went flying straight over the horse's head, landed in a big pile and I stood up and said 'right, that's it. I am never getting on a horse again.' And I pretty much never did.
"I always tell people I am much happier on the ground.”
Finding his place
With his first pay cheque, Stephen bought himself an Olympus camera.
He became a keen landscape snapper and was spoilt for choice among the South Island's snow-capped mountains and glorious scenery at the Milford Sound.
"I was printing and developing all my own black and white stuff in my one-bedroom apartment,” he said.
"I just learnt over time about my camera craft and my skills. I have always had a camera in my hand.”
Later he found part-time work as a wedding photographer for a studio.
By the late 80s he had moved to Melbourne to work in sales and marketing with Coca-Cola. This started a decade-long career with the company and eventually he shifted to Sydney.
"Then I bought my own business,” he said.
"I bought a delicatessen in the eastern suburbs of Sydney that I had for about 16 years... but, I always said when I grew up I wanted to become a photographer.”
In the February of 2013, Stephen and his wife Vicki were left some inheritance money and, with Vicki's encouragement, Stephen bought himself the equipment he needed to become a sports photographer.
"The lens I bought is what's called a Canon 400 F 2.8, it's just a magnificent piece of glass. It's what every sports photographer in the world uses, well the Canon guys anyway.”
Now that he had the gear, Stephen set himself a goal to create a portfolio, hoping it would help him secure a job with an organisation like Getty. In March he went to the Sydney Royal Easter Show to start building a suite of photos, and lucky for him, that night the Australia vs New Zealand rodeo was scheduled.
"So I walked around to the back of the stadium where the cowboys were warming up and people saw me with my big camera and lens and someone said 'mate, will you take a team photo of us?'.
"So I did that and promised to drop the photos back to them the next day, then the rodeo started so they all walked out into the Spotless arena, so I just walked out with them.”
With his new lens and the rodeo action in full swing Stephen had a ball.
"I was having a great time clicking away, and I looked at the back of my camera and I was thinking 'this is amazing'. This was my first experience with a major action sport with the lens and it was just incredible.
"Next thing I know I am getting a tap on the shoulder and this fellow is asking who I am and what I am I doing.”
Stephen was soon informed rodeo photographers had to be accredited and they must be wearing the appropriate clothing, which included a white coat, long pants and the correct boots.
All things Stephen was lacking with his runners and open shirt, so he was swiftly marched out.
After apologising to the media officer, he asked if he could bring the photos he had shot in for some feedback and to talk to her about the proper accreditation.
"When I came back she put them on the computer and she said 'wow, these are incredible'.”
This is just one incident among a list of humorous stories Stephen rattled off about finding his feet within the equine world.
A common theme among his yarns was that he had a knack for making friends, and most of the time his photos spoke for themselves.
On another occasion, while on his way to his nephew's 30th birthday party, he noticed goose-neck trailers parked outside of the Australian Equine and Livestock Events Centre in Tamworth.
"When I walked into AELEC I saw these horses dancing with cows,” he said.
"It was the National Cutting Horse Association Futurity.
"I was absolutely mesmerised. I could not believe that a horse could get down and dance and hold a beast it had cut out of a herd.”
He became fascinated by the different disciplines and obsessed with learning how to perfect the best image.
When at a reining event (he attended thinking it was a cutting) Stephen received a pro tip simply by asking the man standing behind him, who happened to be NSW top trainer Guy Wiseman.
"He told me you are looking to get a photo of a horse that is in the shape of a prawn, they need their tail and legs tucked underneath, to be quite flat across the back with their head level, not too low, not too high, and they need to be stepping through.”
These days, Stephen can work 38 weekends out of a year as an official event photographer.
He has earned a reputation for quality work, and is deeply passionate about his industry.
"I take a hell of a lot of pride and care on how I present my work, for my reputation, but also for the riders,” he said.
Stephen said he would never publish a "crash photo” or an image where the horse or rider looked completely out of position.
"With the camera gear we have nowadays I can easily put up bad photos. The camera will take them. But there is a fraction of a second between a good photo and a bad photo.
"I can't put photos out there that don't show respect for how bloody amazing these people and horses are. Or how incredible the sport is. I will never do that.”
Stephen has been known to contact photographers who post images that are detrimental to equine sports.
"There are lots of people out there with cameras and I have no issue with that, everyone has the right to take photos, but the riders have the right to be shown in a reasonable light.
"Not all of the photos that someone has taken should be dumped on Facebook for general consumption.”
Love of horses
Stephen doesn't have a favourite discipline he prefers to capture.
"I adore them all. They are all so different,” he said.
"What they call the Gold Cup in cutting, which is the Derby horses ... to watch them cut a beast from a herd and hold it in the hands of the professional rider like Todd Graham, it's camera candy. It's just unbelievable to watch.
"And to see a grand prix dressage, someone like Heath Ryan do a freestyle dressage, I just sit there and can't believe what I see.”
Visit www.stephenmowbrayphotography.com for more information about Stephen's work.
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