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Rodeo photography tips and advice

Tips on capturing winning rodeo photographs

This unfortunate bull-rider has just discovered that he can't get his hand free. He is stuck to the bull, which has no thought of staying still. It was a rodeo clown who quickly stepped in to free his hand, saving him from serious injury.
This unfortunate bull-rider has just discovered that he can't get his hand free. He is stuck to the bull, which has no thought of staying still. It was a rodeo clown who quickly stepped in to free his hand, saving him from serious injury.

The rodeo is entertaining, but can also be a dangerous place, as many sports arenas tend to be. Whenever people are intimately involved with powerful, unpredictable animals, they run the risk of casualty.

There are safeguards in the rodeo, of course, including the experience and skill of the participants and the outstanding intervention of the rodeo clowns, who don't act like clowns at all when their help is needed. They are rescuers - brave, quick-thinking and selfless when it comes to pulling someone out of danger, especially in bull-riding events. Countless riders owe their well-being to risk-taking rodeo clowns who place themselves squarely in the face of danger to pull another person from it.

Many bull and bronco riders now wear safety helmets and body armor, and stringent regulations are designed to keep risk at a minimum. But, mishaps do occur. When they do, and the well-being of a rider is in jeopardy because of some awful thing that has gone awry, the photographer faces the same moral dilemma as if he or she was photographing a racing car pile-up or a serious, bone-breaking skiing accident. Do you continue to photograph the terrible incident? Or do you turn your camera away so as not to capture the misfortune that is befalling a human being in front of you?

The answer is that you should continue to photograph the incident. You are recording images that could be useful in an investigation or in teaching others what went wrong and how to avoid similar happenings in future. Besides, you can never predict the outcome. All may end well. The idea is not to take frightening or even gory pictures, although that is sometimes unavoidable. The idea is to simply show what happened. And photographs (and video) can do that better than anything else.

The pictures on the left show just such an incident.

The rider had dismounted from the bull in a Laughlin, Nevada rodeo, only to discover that his hand was stuck. The photographer could hear him shouting that he couldn't get it free. The rodeo clowns leapt into action. One of them, the clown on the right, was able to time it so that he could quickly reach in and undo the rope, freeing the cowboy.

The pictures tell the story more clearly and dramatically than words. Viewers of the photographs feel the drama of his entrapment and the relief when he is freed as if they were there.

Your rodeo photographs can tell similar stories.

But, in order to take them properly, you should know some things. We are going to provide you with important pointers about rodeo photography that may not have occurred to you, and that can make your pictures memorable and exciting.

Start with the basics

  • You will need a telephoto lens or a zoom lens that has a telephoto setting that can bring you close to the action. Your lens must bring you close enough to fill the frame with your rodeo subject.
  • Since most rodeos are outdoors when the weather is typically sunny, you should find a shooting location that has the sun behind you or off to one side so you are not shooting into the shadowy side of your subjects or into the sun itself.
  • Bright sunshine or a bright overcast sky should permit you to shoot at high shutter speeds, essential for stopping action in almost all sports photography. A shutter speed of 1/250 second is not enough in most cases. 1/1000 sec and greater is preferable. There are a lot of fast-moving objects at the rodeo, including the rider's hands and boots which might be photographed as a blur at 1/500 sec.
  • Be sure you have sufficient depth of field, though, with an event that is occurring at a variety of distances, when its participants are both near and far.
  • Set your camera's resolution high for the best quality images. You may capture a terrific picture that you wish to enlarge, and will deeply regret not having enough resolution to properly blow it up afterwards.
  • We shouldn't need to remind you that you will need plenty of storage space on your camera's memory cards because you will undoubtedly be taking a lot of pictures, and that your camera's batteries should be fully charged and that you should have spare batteries.
  • A very important point in capturing great rodeo pictures is the speed with which you are able to take pictures. All action events benefit from high-speed or multiple-exposure photography. The rodeo is a prime example. If your camera is capable of continuous high-speed photography, be sure you set it that way in advance. If not, be prepared to wear out your finger on the shutter release button when the gate opens and the rider comes out.

Beyond the basics. Some things you may not have thought about.


Ground level is preferable for bull and bronco riding events - All photographers need an edge when they are photographing an event like a rodeo that attracts large crowds. You have to have a better view of it than most of the audience does if you are going to get the best photos. This means you may need to pay for premium-priced seating near the chutes (gates), and you want your seat to be in a section where the sun is behind you and no one (preferably) is in front of you to stand up and block that crucial shot. You will have noticed that the professional photographers at big sporting events like big league baseball and football games are always located in a place where they can get great ground-level pictures with no one in front and no one to jostle them.

How can you get into such a favored shooting place? You can call a day or so in advance of the event, explain what you want and you may get just what you ask for. If not or if you can't call beforehand, you will need to arrive early, before the rodeo is ready to start. Seek out the rodeo organizer and ask him or her if you can be given a preferred place from which to take pictures, usually the place where the Press is allowed to be. You may be asked to pay for the privilege. You could offer your best pictures as a form of payment. Often, you will find that your courtesy in asking is rewarded with a special pass without the need to provide something in return. Most organizers and rodeo bosses are used to such requests, and recognize that good photographs of their event, no matter who takes them, prove beneficial to them in the long run. If you are affiliated with a rodeo group or are taking pictures for an organization (even a small town newspaper or a horse-riding website), that is all in your favor and you would be wise to mention it at the time. Publicity is publicity, and you don't always need to be from the L.A. Times to get preferential treatment as a rodeo photographer.

But what if your request falls on deaf ears, or if you arrive too late to secure a good shooting location? It can happen that a rodeo organizer can't meet with you or doesn't wish to give you a pass. All is not lost. You can still use your wits to get into a good shooting position at most rodeos.

You will find that most members of a rodeo audience don't object to your locating yourself in the best possible place for taking pictures. People who look like serious photographers usually seem to get away with things that someone with a point-and-shoot camera gets shouted down for. The key is to be relatively inconspicuous - not to get in anyone's way but still to get into the best place for good pictures. This can mean kneeling right on the walkway, in front of the bottom row of seats, keeping yourself as low as possibe so as not to block the view of those behind you. The security staff may notice you and ask you to resume your seat, and that is a risk you take. But, you may be able to explain that you will only remain long enough to get the pictures you want and will move on soon after.

You can sometimes get around the problem of security personnel asking you to move from a good location by speaking with one of them in advance, especially the supervisor when possible. Let them know that you will be moving around, and you'll be quick to take pictures then get out of the way of the audience. You may be surprised to find that they become cooperative and give you more leeway than you would otherwise have, especially when they observe you behaving as you said you would. Security staff have even been known to recommend a good spot for picture-taking where you can remain undisturbed, sometimes right in front of their post.

Or, maybe you can just move around with your camera within the seating area so that you can employ different shooting angles for an event. One moment, you are at the top of the bleachers and two minutes later, you are shooting from the aisle next to the lowest seats. As long as you aren't tramping in front of too many people or blocking anyone's view for too long, you will usually be tolerated. Rodeo audiences are generally fairly easy-going, and realize that it takes a good shooting location to get a good photo. Heck, sports moms, even rodeo moms, do it all the time. They stand up or move to a better shooting location when their child is performing to take a picture, and no one seems to mind.

Professional rodeo photographers are usually found at ground level, close to the chutes when bull and bronco riding take place.
Professional rodeo photographers are usually found at ground level, close to the chutes when bull and bronco riding take place.

Events such as barrel racing are best photographed from a location where you can see the entire arena.
Events such as barrel racing are best photographed from a location where you can see the entire arena.

The stands can be your best location for photography of some events, particularly those that take place anywhere throughout the arena. Barrel racing is one example. Calf-roping and steer-decorating are others. If you are at ground level near the chutes, you will certainly get some good shots, but you run the risk of your vision being blocked by a judge or may find you are too far from the action.

Shooting from the stands permits you to see the entire arena. If you are kneeling in front of the lower seats or standing in the top row, you will be in an ideal location to get great photographs. But, if the top row is very high, you may not be able to capture expressions on the participants' faces, especially since many of them wear cowboy hats which block their faces when viewed from above.

When you just don't know what to expect from an upcoming event, and therefore don't know where to position yourself to get good photographs, get close to the judges' stand. They are always located in a place that affords them a clear view of everything that happens at a rodeo. Once you have observed the event, you will be able to consider other locations for better camera angles.

Watch for a pole or flag in the stands that can block your view at a critical moment. If you think the action may move so that the pole will be in your way, reposition yourself beforehand. Getting in front of the obstruction is ideal.

Fun events, like those in which kids are involved (sheep-riding, catching a pig, etc.) offer the chance for entertaining, uplifting photographs. But, they can be so busy that a general shot of them appears confusing. You want to be as close as possible to the action to follow one or two kids with your lens to get close-ups that show their emotions during the height of the action. If you are permitted to enter the arena (which can occur with smaller, local rodeo events), this would be the time to get in there with your camera. If not, try to get as close as you can, near ground level, and use a long telephoto lens or zoom setting with a fast shutter speed. A very fast shutter speed will permit you to have shallow depth of field, softening the background so that your subject stands out from the confusion.

Try to guess where the best action moments will take place, and get yourself close to them, situated so that your camera angle will capture the scene best. You don't want to be in a spot that permits you to only photograph a rider's back circling a barrel when another location would allow you to capture the rider's picture from the front. Roping is an event that can be photographed from more than one shooting angle. A picture taken directly in front will show both roper and calf heading towards you. Shot from the side or a 45-degree angle will provide another view that shows the animals' legs stretched out and the cowboy leaning into the saddle.

Most good rodeo photographs show the participants' faces, particularly the eyes. If you don't think you'll be able to capture faces, change your location to one that will provide that ability. Expressions, especially during heated moments of high action, can make a photograph great. If you zoom in occasionally to fill your viewframe with the face of a rider, a judge or announcer, you may be surprised to find that you have taken a photograph that could appear on the cover of a rodeo magazine.

What about using a tripod? A tripod is essential when you require stability to avoid blur from camera movement at slow shutter speeds. If you wish to show blur to give the impression of movement, a tripod is helpful, since it goes a long way to preventing camera shake, especially with a long lens. The only blur from using a slow shutter speed should be from your subject's movement, not your camera's. There is another important consideration, too. Most grandstand seating areas move slightly, shaking or vibrating when there are a lot of people in them. A tripod will move if the surface on which it's resting moves, negating the stability needed for slow shutter speeds.

But, when you wish to stop the action with fast shutter speeds, a tripod can get in the way. Very fast shutter speeds don't require a tripod, since camera shake is usually not a factor. Your ability to track a fast-moving subject can be inhibited when your camera is attached to a tripod. It can also be a pain in the neck to have to fold a tripod to change your shooting location, and it is usually difficult to find room to place a tripod on a surface in the rodeo's crowded seating area.

An exception is made when you have attached a heavy lens to your camera. A 600 mm super-long telephoto lens can weigh 10 pounds or more; too heavy for continuous hand-held photography. A tripod will support such a big lens. A monopod will also do the job; you will find it more practical with its smaller footprint.

Watch for sudden movements that can catch you by surprise. When you are tightly framing an action scene, concentrating on capturing that one moment that best tells the story, you may be caught off guard when something unexpected happens. An example occurs when an animal like a bull or horse suddenly leaps up, becoming completely airborne. If you aren't quick enough to raise your camera, you may find that you have lost all or part of a shot that you would really like to have had.

This can especially occur when your camera is attached to a tripod or when you are resting the lens barrel on a surface, such as a railing in a fence. If you are supporting the camera instead, you are in a better position to raise it quickly to follow the action.

Things happen fast during a rodeo event, and you should always expect the unexpected. Being ready for a sudden change can mean the difference between capturing the shot of the day or missing it.

Another example of a surprise for which you should try to prepare yourself is shown by the photographs below, in which the rider was suddenly catapulted from the bull's back, landing an amazingly long distance away.

The photographer was able to quickly zoom out to ensure that both the bull and the rider remained within the viewframe - quick action that resulted in an unusual series of rodeo photographs.

A sudden leap that the photographer had not expected placed the rider's head outside the viewframe.
A sudden leap that the photographer had not expected placed the rider's head outside the viewframe.

The photographer, alert to the possibility of a sudden change in the composition, was able to quickly zoom out to capture the rider's (
The photographer, alert to the possibility of a sudden change in the composition, was able to quickly zoom out to capture the rider's ("Ouch!") landing.

Wind & dust - On a breezy day, you should situate yourself so that the wind is at your back to prevent dust that is kicked up from heading in your direction. It can get into your camera gear, block your view of an event and just be plain miserable when you get coated with it. It is extremely important to be in a dust-free spot (preferably inside a vehicle or building) when you have to open your camera to change a media card or when changing lenses. Be careful that you don't shake dust off your clothing.

Know the rules and techniques - If you understand an event - its rules, timing, equipment, customs, the people involved, penalties and restrictions, its better performers and superstars, its dangers and so on - you will better be able to photograph it. Almost all sports photography has key moments when you will have a best chance for a good photo. In rodeo, each event has such moments. In barrel racing, you will generally get a more dramatic shot when the horse is turning around a barrel than when it is racing in a straight line. In bull-riding, you can often get a more exciting photo when the ride is finished, but the rider still has to get off the bull. In roping, the lariat's loop as it is being thrown can make a better shot than when it actually gets tightened around the steer's neck. Learning as much as you can about the whys and wherefores of rodeo events will give you an advantage that will help your photography.

If you plan to photograph a big rodeo event like the Calgary Stampede, you would be advised to attend a smaller rodeo beforehand so you know what to expect. At such really big events, you will be far more restricted and will probably have to remain in your seat to take photographs. It helps to know what seat to select for the best chance of capturing good pictures.

Take pictures to tell the story - Rodeo is an activity where one thing usually leads to another, making it an ideal candidate for a series of pictures that tells the full story. Viewers are always interested in seeing photographs that show both cause and effect.

A bronco that turns surprisingly fast can catch a rider unprepared, resulting in a spectacular unseating. Both the turn and the unseating can make good photographs on their own, but taken together, they explain to the viewer what happened (as demonstrated by the series of photographs at the beginning of this article). Most of the time in a fast-action sport like rodeo, taking pictures that show a "step-by-step" series of events requires continuous high-speed photography. If your camera doesn't have that capability, you can still capture a sequence by being fast with your shutter button as you follow the action. It may not result in as many close-together pictures, but it can produce a meaningful sequence that tells a fascinating story.


Take pictures of the side events, too - Rodeo organizers will often provide their audience with non-rodeo attractions, such as a motorcycle daredevil act or a trick rider. Generally, these secondary events occur during times when the arena is changing over from one rodeo event to another, keeping the audience entertained. Clowns often put on a comedy show that may involve a funny prop or a trained animal during these times. (Notice in the picture on the right that the clown's car is being "driven" by a pony.)

Capture the crowd - It may seem to make little sense to aim your lens away from the action, but when you do so quickly to zoom in on people in the audience during an exciting moment, you can often capture the exhiliration and enthusiasm that the rodeo can create. It can be done in a second or two before you switch back to the action, but it may give you a great crowd picture that you will value forever as a good rodeo photograph.

Look for interesting details - A championship belt buckle, an interesting saddle, a trophy, a beautiful horse, a celebrity in the stands. These are just some examples of subjects that can make your rodeo album well-rounded. Such pictures provide a welcome break for the viewer who has been looking at shot after shot of action pictures. Many rodeos have midway-type sales booths set up outside the arena, where an array of interesting, colorful products can be purchased. A picture of a pretty girl holding up an item, an elderly cowboy examining a sales table or a child trying on a new hat can add human interest to the rodeo experience captured by your camera. A laughing couple poking their heads through a fence or using two straws to share a drink can make for a fun photo. A huge line-up at the port-a-potties can provide some very interesting expressions. (Okay, maybe we're pushing it a little with this suggestion, but you get the idea. Keep a look-out for more than just the events at a rodeo when you have your camera available. Any gathering of people can lead to wonderful human interest pictures.)

Don't forget the close-ups - A full-frame picture of just the head of an excited or exhausted bull, a cowboy's expression of elation or disappointment and a rider's look of effort or concentration are only some examples of the kinds of pictures that you can capture by zooming in tightly at the right moment. Such images can increase the feeling of drama and highlight the emotions that the rodeo can bring out.

Judges, officials, staff and announcers - You may think that a picture showing rodeo officials will be of no interest. But, a photograph showing a judge's concentration and emotional reaction during an event can be a great character study. Announcers often become excited when the action is intense and provide you with a photo that will interest anyone who sees it. Many rodeo officials have been around a long time and "seen it all." They are often characters in their own right with weathered, interesting faces, and a picture of them will add color and variety to your rodeo photo collection.

Added attractions can be worth photographing.
Added attractions can be worth photographing.
Further information...

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Photographing cattle

Photographing horses
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Tips for getting above the action.

Choosing a shooting location