Picture this: Cell phone photos help with equine emergencies


Educate your clients on how to snap good images of what's ailing their horses to send to you.

Communication between horse owners and veterinarians has always been crucial to good patient care—especially in emergencies. Veterinarians depend on clients to know their horses and to spot problems and communicate those problems so the veterinarians can take appropriate action. To help with this, veterinarians can educate clients about parts of the horse, simple medical terminology and anatomic descriptions.

But an emergency call about a horse with "a cut on the bendy part of the leg with some whitish stuff showing" does not help a veterinarian assess the situation or formulate an appropriate treatment plan. Does the veterinarian need to make an emergency call? Just how serious is the problem? What can the client or trainer do at the barn before the veterinarian arrives? Without education, none of these questions could be answered and the care of the injured horse would be jeopardized. Fortunately, we're now well into the digital age, and a picture is indeed worth a 1,000 words—or an emergency call or two.

A camera in the pocket

A 2010 survey showed that nearly 250 million Americans have mobile phones. The revolution in information transfer via digital pictures and video from mobile phones is ever expanding. Most phones offer cameras that range from 3 to 5 megapixels, and some even have 8 megapixels or more. While few people purchase phones because of their camera capabilities, these newer phones offer as much resolution and photographic options as high-quality, stand-alone cameras.

This improved technology and the ease of image transfer makes cell phone pictures and videos ideal for veterinarian-client communication. A good photo that conveys the information the veterinarian needs in order to assist an owner and a horse, however, does require a bit of photographic knowledge and some cell phone expertise.

"Just because you have a camera doesn't make you a photographer," says Enzina Mastripolito, a longtime photo contributor to Thoroughbred Times and other magazines. Mastripolito stresses the basics of photography as the key to getting a useful picture. Martin Benjamin, professor of visual arts at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., and a freelance photo contributor to the New York Daily News, equine racing publications and other print media, agrees. Here are some of his tips for increasing the chances of a good photo.

Lighting basics

Benjamin says the two most important elements in this kind of photography are lighting and detail or sharpness. Lighting is the most crucial because, if used correctly, proper light will usually make a sharper, more defined photo. For example, sunlight coming over one shoulder (without your shadow blocking any of it) is good, Benjamin says, because it will make the camera close the lens down more, which leads to better depth of field and more area of the subject in sharp focus.

Overall, the best lighting option is a brightly lit, open shady area. This type of lighting is what you may find in a barn aisle during the day and should provide even light to your photos. Benjamin recommends avoiding the middle of the day when the sun is high overhead. This produces highlights that are too bright and shadows that are too dark. Be aware that many of the injuries that clients ask veterinarians about occur on the horse's lower legs, belly, sheath, vulva or groin. The horse's body often shades these areas, and even the best of lighting situations and photos of these cuts, punctures and other traumas are often too dark to be diagnostically useful.

The use of a separate light source, such as a good flashlight or droplight positioned to the side of the area of interest, may help improve lighting on these pictures. Some camera phones come equipped with automatic flash capabilities with numerous settings for variable flash options. These settings and a phone camera flash use can be helpful in a dark stall or in the evening light. Flash use often washes out an image, however, and it can cause loss of detail or excessive brightness. Flash use can also cause a distracting reflection on wet or glossy surfaces and can cause a horse to squint or close its eyes, which makes taking images of injured eyes almost impossible.

Cell phone cameras come with a variety of flash options, which include the ability to turn the flash off and to adjust the white balance to sunny, cloudy, night, incandescent, fluorescent and other choices depending on the phone model. Many cell phone cameras also have a red-eye option. This setting causes the camera to flash seconds before the actual photo is taken. This keeps the flash from being captured and reflected in the subject's eyes, producing a bright glow or a red eye appearance, which is unwanted. This setting is excellent when a client is attempting to photograph a horse with an eye injury—a common injury that's usually of great concern to the client. Eye injuries often demand continual, close and accurate communication between veterinarian and owner, at least through the initial crucial period.

Benjamin suggests putting a thin piece of tissue over the flash to soften the light and produce an even exposure, but this takes some practice to accomplish. Sometimes simply being aware of the lighting challenges and using the best options available will help produce a better picture.

Find the detail

One can achieve sharpness and detail with correct lighting, but this is also where the capabilities of various cell phones come into play. "Every phone camera has a minimum focus for sharpness, and users of this technology can figure this out by moving the camera back and forth while focused on a stationary object," Benjamin says.

When the image is sharpest, you've determined the point of optimum focus. Additionally, some companies are now offering special cases that fit over certain cell phone cameras and convert the normal lens to a macro lens. "These special lenses are good for close-ups and produce a sharp clean image," Benjamin says.

Cell phone cameras traditionally function poorly in low-light situations because they have slow lenses. "Low-light results have been the drawback of point-and-shoot cell phone cameras and even some professional model cameras in digital photography until recently," Benjamin says. "Sensors have been getting better, and the next generation of all cameras should be better at capturing sharply in low light." Additionally, advances in motion stabilization technology will make cell phone videos and pictures sharper and less blurry.

There's a substantial time delay between the camera "click" and image capture in most cell phones, so it's occasionally difficult to get a good picture of a horse that will not stand still. Holding the camera at arm's length introduces motion in some cases and will harm picture quality. Benjamin suggests simply holding the camera braced against a stationary object and keeping it as steady as possible. Try to take multiple exposures as well, he advises, so you can review them and pick the best and sharpest one to use.

Because size and depth are important to wound evaluation, it's a good idea to include a comparison object in the photos. These objects can actually be taped to the skin around the injury. Clients should place a coin or pen or other common object near the cut to give you an idea of the length. Place a Q-Tip in a puncture wound, when appropriate, to give an idea to depth and direction. A series of photographs showing how the wound responds to flexion and extension of the leg can also be important since many suturing decisions on lower leg injuries hinge on how much tension will be placed on a potential suture line during limb motion. Having your clients provide you with this information may allow you to be better prepared and better equipped—bringing casting material to immobilize a joint or calling a farrier for assistance with foot support—when you arrive at an emergency.

The future of communication

As cell phone photographs and videos become better, sharper and more informative, it stands to reason that they will increasingly become part of the communication network between horse owners and veterinarians. Already, radiographs, ultrasonograms and thermography scans can be sent via e-mail or text attachments to cell phones and larger screens, and the ability to magnify digital images without losing quality will make evaluation of these images increasingly commonplace.

If a pre-purchase exam takes place in Germany for one of your clients, you can evaluate a video and radiographs sent to your phone within the hour. Trainers evaluate videos of horses working on tracks in other states taken and transmitted by cell phones and are able to immediately respond with instructions to assistants. Veterinarians can make remote lameness diagnosis in a similar fashion by instructing assistants or technicians to flex a horse and then observe the cell phone recorded trot out or hoof tester evaluation or other parts of a standard examination.

It's truly the digital age and, in effect, we will all have to become better photographers and videographers because the images we send to trainers, potential buyers, clients or fellow veterinarians will become a larger part of a horse's medical record. These images will play an increasing role in medical decision-making. The quality and usefulness of those images will only be as good as the skills of the person behind the lens.

Dr. Marcella is an equine practitioner in Canton, Ga.

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