As a professional photographer, I have always felt that the sharing of knowledge and experience is a noble venture. By doing so, the level of professionalism within the field is advanced and it allows the creativity and thought processes of others to be stimulated by things you have learned and discovered. What seems simple and elementary to me might be a building block in the career of another colleague. Those who have been photographers long enough know that most everything has been done and that techniques come and go like fads in clothing come into vogue in a cyclic pattern. One year soft focus is the rage and the next year extreme depth of field is the in thing. In my corporate photographer career the dictates were always that of the art director or photo editor. Today I have been blessed to follow my own trail, creating images that are a true reflection of my own personal style. Having been raised in the city, and upon leaving my corporate photographers life, I am often asked what events caused me to change direction and become a rodeo photographer. The whole thing started while I was on an editorial assignment in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in 2004. While attending a Friday night rodeo something exploded in my heart and unlocked a passion for the sport of rodeo. I decided in the summer of 2005 to create a personal project focusing on the subject of the Rodeo and the American Cowboy. After that summer I applied for my PRCA photographers card and this season marks my third year in professional rodeo.
My interest lies with more than just the rodeo events, although I do love that part of it. I also want to show the real people behind the rodeo, the work that precedes the action, and the beliefs that drive the entire process. I want images of cowboys, cowgirls, and everything of visual interest that makes a statement about cowboys and western life. Being a rodeo/western photographer is my passion. The direction that I have chosen fulfills my creative drive to capture images of rodeo/western subject matter. So let me share with you some of the things that I have learned and maybe, by doing so, it will inspire you to search and unlock the passion of photography within you.
The camera body is the most basic piece of equipment and is often the most debated because each rodeo photographers preference is different. I shoot with Nikon gear possibly because I started with Nikon in the 1960s before Canon, the other big name, ventured into the SLR camera market. I shoot all digital and have for almost thirteen years now. I feel that a good quality SLR with 6-8 megapixels is quite adequate for rodeo shooting. Remember the camera is just a tool. When a hammer is used, it is the operator who makes it strike the nail. The same concept applies to a camera. It is just a tool and its what the photographer does with that tool that makes the difference between a good and a mediocre image. You must take the time to learn the cameras operation and then utilize that acquired knowledge through practice to become proficient. You have to pay your dues.
Good glass is expensive but the investment is critical for images that are sharp and are designed to produce excellent color rendition and contrast value. I feel that Nikon produces the highest quality optics available on the market. My lens choice as a rodeo photographer is the AF-S VR Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8G zoom lens. This versatile lens is fast focusing and is equipped with the vibration reduction feature. Its features include ED glass and a fast f2.8 maximum aperture. It is very sharp even when used wide open. This makes it extremely valuable in low light levels when high shutter speeds are required. I do not use a tripod or monopod as they would only slow my reactions and hinder my creativity as a rodeo photographer.
Flash is something that I am going to say the least about. A single on camera TTL flash unit can be used, but you must purchase the top of the line with the most power and then modify and correct to the units operation to compensate for the different conditions found in a rodeo arena. Most rodeo photographers are using multiple lighting set ups, thus lighting the entire arena. I would make a recommendation to those interested in rodeo photography that you concentrate your efforts first in finding day or early evening rodeos to shoot where you can shoot freely without the added technical equation of the flash unit. Practice and build your confidence, gain experience, and most of all create great rodeo images.
It is very important for the rodeo photographer to have sharp well exposed images with excellent contrast and color rendition. It has always been my belief, based on my experience, that most images are soft in focus because of camera or photographer movement rather than a focusing error. This is a problem caused by the use of a shutter speed that is to slow. Remember that when you are using a zoom telephoto lens the subject is magnified. At higher magnifications small movements by the photographer become large movements in the magnified image to be captured. As a general rule I make a fraction out of the selected lens focal length and then make sure that for general hand held shots that my shutter is well above that computed number. An example of this would be a 200mm lens. Make a fraction of that focal length (1/200). By using this simple procedure I know that a lens of 200mm would require a minimal shutter speed of 1/200th of a second to produce sharp hand-held images. But rodeo is a fast paced action sport that requires the photographer to use high shutter speeds to freeze action. You will find that you will need shutter speeds of at least 1/000 of a second or higher to produce sharp action images. Camera steadiness can also be enhanced by the vibration reduction feature found in many of the new lens designs. Its like a built in gyro that helps stabilize the camera while shooting. The fast speed of the f2.8 lens also becomes invaluable in getting those higher shutter speeds, especially when the light level is reduced. Remember to keep those shutter speeds as high as possible unless you want to pan with the subject to blur the background or unless you want to be really creative and use very slow shutter speeds that will blur the subject accentuating the motion and speed of the action.
Learn to use your gear and become comfortable with its operation. Let it become an extension of your eye. You will find that by fully understanding the technical operations of your equipment that it will allow you to become a more creative photographer. By understanding your equipment you can put aside those operational elements and begin to work in unison with your camera thereby producing great images with good composition possessing depth and feeling.
As I have become more familiar with the rodeo events, I have become a more competent rodeo photographer and I have found myself shooting fewer images. With my camera to my eye I have come to imagine myself in sync with the motions of the animal and rider. I try to anticipate the next move keeping them tight in the camera frame. As a rodeo photographer I want my captured image to be at the height of action, but I also want it to display the technical skills involved in the rodeo performance by the riders and animals.
Each event in a rodeo involves more than one player. It is the interaction between man and animal, or in many cases man and beast, which makes the technical and creative aspects of rodeo photography so exciting and rewarding. And, keeping yourself out of harms way adds some excitement of its own.
The goal of the bareback rider is to stay on for what seems like a really long 8 seconds while executing good technique. The broncs idea of the event is just the opposite of his rider as he attempts buck the cowboy off as quickly as possible. The action in this event is fast and uncertain but it allows for some great shots. In order to capture the action of the bareback ride the rodeo photographer must first allow the horse to exit the chute. Many photographers shoot too quick and unless the horse rears in action, it takes him a few steps to begin his bucking routine. The cowboys spurring action is from the horses neck down to the horses shoulders. The rodeo photographers favorite position is when the cowboy spurs down to shoulders, toes out, and the rear legs of the horse extended outward. It takes time to anticipate these moves. Watch and feel the movements as you view the bareback rider in your viewfinder. In those short eight seconds, be prepared for buck offs and spectacular horse action.
Again, there is a maximum of 8 seconds to get some great shots, if the ride lasts that long. The saddle bronc rider has a saddle and holds a long thick rein. The cowboy spurs from the front of the horse to the skirt of the saddle in an arcing motion. The sought after position of the cowboy is spurs on the horses shoulder, toes out, with the horses rear legs extended out. Again be patient and let the bronc exit the chutes. Wait for the action to begin and see if you can sync yourself with the action of the ride. Keep your eye to the viewfinder as the cowboy attempts to complete his ride on a bucking horse whose movements are totally unpredictable.
Steer wrestling is always an exciting event. This is traditionally performed by some of the bigger men in rodeo riding highly skilled horses. It has many spills and unanticipated turns and shows the raw strength of the cowboy as he wrestles the steer to the ground. The rodeo photographer can shoot from many different angles, but my favorite position is when the cowboy is leaving his horse as he grabs the steer around the head. Also be ready for more action as the cowboys feet dig into the ground, slowing the steer while preparing to take him down. Be prepared and be alert as steer wrestling is won by the fastest time and the action occurs quickly.
Tie Down Roping
Tie down roping involves many well honed sequences and provides the possibility for a variety of shots. The cowboy begins by chasing and roping the calf and ends when he ties the calfs legs. In between this start and finish sequence skill and talent are put too the test. As good as the cowboy is his score depends also on the involvement of a highly skilled mount who works in unison with him to get the job done in the shortest period of time. As a rodeo photographer my favorite shot is after the calf is roped and the cowboy begins his dismount to flank and tie the calf. The action is great as the horse is sliding to a stop, poised for action, as the rope begins to tighten on the calf. Other photos of the event can be exciting and interesting but this is my favorite.
With team roping the rodeo photographer now has to be concerned with five subjects racing at top speed, two cowboys on horseback and a steer who wants no part of any of it. The header will rope the steers head and the heeler will follow and rope the rear legs. After the header ropes the head of the steer he dallies left to allow the heeler a clear shot at the rear legs. And of course the final member of this group, the steer, will do his best to avoid the ropes of the pursuing cowboys.
I find as a rodeo photographer that I like the view from the right side of the arena facing the oncoming ropers. I like to photograph them as soon as the header gets the rope on the steer and begins to dally the steer to the left in preparation for the healer to rope the rear legs. At that point they are both at a full gallop with the healers loop in the air ready to rope the steers legs. That position to me shows the peak of action in the team roping event.
This event allows the cowgirls the opportunity to shine and they really do make it look effortless. When I look back at my images and see the lean of the horses as sharp turns are made around barrels, and how balanced and controlled the riders are, the more I appreciate their athletic skill. As I photograph this event, I prefer positioning myself by the second of three barrels. Although the barrel racer may begin from either side most seem to choose the barrel to the right first. The barrel racers really fly and winning means having the fastest time. I like to capture the horse and rider as they approach and begin to make their turn. This is when having a motor drive on your camera enables you to capture some fantastic action images. Also try positioning yourself in other locations and see what works for you. Different height angles also provide varying degrees of interest.
This often becomes one of the favorite events of the rodeo photographer. Its a true contest between cowboy and bovine. Be ready for thundering bulls, buck offs, wrecks, bullfighters, and cowboys using every ounce of strength they have to stay seated atop the bucking bull. I like to capture the bulls with high rear leg kicks, high jumps, or spinning twisting movements. As a rodeo photographer I want to capture the peak action in the bull ride because its that one decisive moment that tells the story. That decisive moment might be the action of an airborne cowboy or the athleticism and strength of an 1800 pound bull. Be well aware of the bullfighters and the barrel man clown as they are a colorful and integral part of the event. They add to the action of the bull ride as they dash in to protect the rider often taking spectacular hits from the bull in the performance of their job to protect the rider from injury. Be ready to capture the antics and athletic abilities as they interact with the bull. Theres never a dull second when the bulls are out.
A professional photographer friend of mine once said, If you never fail youre not trying hard enough. I think thats a good rule to live by, and it can especially apply to photographing rodeos. It means not being afraid to try new ways of seeing and doing and then learning by the mistakes you make. Too much fear is placed on failing and therefore you do not completely explore the many potential possibilities of your subject and its surroundings. Your creativity is encumbered as you tend to visualize and photograph everything the same way. Break out of the mold and be bold and dont let your mind be encumbered by past failures. Be patient and take small steps. Become the type of individual who is persistent on the road to success and develop a passion for your photography. Release that creative impulse from your heart and let it uplift you and give you satisfaction and meaning to your existence. That is what I have done and I can honestly say I am truly happy doing what I do.