This ethereal photo of dawn breaking golden over Great Meadow ran last month In the Middleburg Eccentric as an eye-catching illustration for a story about the Great Meadow Foundation. Alas, yours truly made a mistake on the photo credit: Robert L.  Banner, Jr. is the sole owner of all copyrights and he’s generous about granting permission to use it, especially in connection with Great Meadow.

Rob took the photo on July 18, 2009, during the Merry Oak Olympics Overnight Trail Ride.That was an annual summertime event when 30 kids and ponies from Middleburg-Orange County Pony Club (MOC) got to stay up all night and horse around—with chaperones, of course—but seriously? Wow and whoa, because it gets even better.

For several years Rob served as head honcho and chaperone, assisted by his wife, Julie Banner, a couple other adult volunteers, and Arthur “Nick” Arundel, Great Meadow founder and patron of the MOC event. They rode for a couple hours until they reached the camp set up in a clearing on a bluff facing the Great Meadow racecourse and polo field. Pairs of kids took an hour-long shift through the night to make sure ponies on picket lines in the meadow didn’t get loose and wander off to find greener grazing. Most of the kids stayed up all night, along with their chaperones, safety first and all that.

“That overnight trail ride and the gymkhana and swim the next day is one of the most fun things I’ve ever done on the back of a horse,” said Rob. “It was late summer, approaching dawn, and I knew the race course would be filled with a nice mist. I had no idea that it would be such a beautiful backlit scene when the sun rose, but I could tell that it was getting ready to happen.”

The kids, awake and asleep, who responded to his urging—‘Come on, you gotta see this, it’ll only last a couple minutes’—were sincere with their ‘Aw gee, Mr. Banner, that’s really pretty!’ and other appreciative noises, but by then Rob had his eye on the eastern horizon. 

“Of course, I was already shooting like crazy, trying to capture what it looked like every few seconds. The light was changing so quickly,” recalled Rob. “I had to pinch myself. I was looking through the lens, praying: “Oh my God, I hope I capture this because this will never happen again in my lifetime.” The glimpses I got in the monitor were hysterically beautiful and breathtaking. Then, just as the sun rose, a light breeze blew the mist so that it moved like a wave. The depth of field was so tight that the trees on the far ridge were in focus.”

In an exchange of emails in December 2009, Rob wrote: “I was just lucky enough to be standing there with a camera, watching it unfold. As amazing as the photo is, the real thing was absolutely ethereal. It gave me chills up and down my spine.”

Rob shot his magical image with the old tried and true Nikon D200, a semi-pro digital body, and the very fast f2.8mm Nikkor 80-200mm zoom telephoto lens. With the D200 set for Program mode, the jpeg’s metadata cites a shutter speed of 1/320th second at f9.0 (great f-stop for depth of field), ISO 400 (digital “film” speed), at 200mm (more like 300mm on that D200).

“No tripod. It was all handheld,” Rob said. “Out of habit, I was holding my camera and lens against a handy tree to make it steady. I guess I have 35-40 frames of that moment and only two were “OMG” moments.”

Bitten by the horse bug early in life, Rob’s passion evolved in Tennessee where he grew up riding to hounds, showing hunters and jumpers, and competing in owner-rider timber races. After graduating from The Episcopal Academy, he earned his degree in English literature at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. His career track led inevitably into the world of equine and equestrian publishing where he started out as advertising director for Horseman’s Journal for five years, spent another five at Equus Magazine, then signed on as publisher of the Chronicle of the Horse from 1991 to early 2009.

Rob credits several people for improving his photography skills, such as Douglas Lees, Eclipse Award-winning photographer, who has helped many people to shoot better over the years. Tricia Booker, the former editor of the Chronicle of the Horse, taught Rob to print and develop back when everyone was still using Tri-X; they also competed to see who got the better pix for the magazine at shows. Early in his career, Rob found himself greatly influenced by Katey Barrett, West Coast equestrian photographer, who still shoots with film and specializes in using backlighting to create artistic works.    

In February 2009, after serving on the board of the Great Meadow Foundation for 17 years, Rob succeeded Mr. Arundel as Great Meadow’s President, thus taking over the daily management of this unique 501(c)(3) non-profit. Great Meadow’s mission is the preservation of open land for community use, and the very existence of Rob’s photo, which is worth one thousand words, substantiates why and how Great Meadow inspires dedication in its board members and supporters and attracts more than 200,000 visitors annually to attend equestrian and other rural sporting events.

“I hope more people realize that many similar photogenic vistas are there for them to see firsthand throughout the Piedmont,” Rob said. “I hope also that these scenes help to fortify their commitment to preserve and protect.”

If anyone needs a reason for supporting Great Meadow Foundation, just study Rob’s surreal photo. Such a “once in a lifetime” photo serves as both reward and incentive, especially for someone whose job is to ensure that future generations will be able to enjoy all that Great Meadow and its “hallowed ground” has to offer.

“It was dawn and the view just unfolded,” Rob said. “There was no enhancement at all. No special effects. No filters. That was exactly the way it looked that dawn. But it wasn’t all me. I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. In a lifetime of taking pictures, that was the best picture I’ve ever taken.”

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