Beyond the Rodeo

Capture some great rodeo photos by attending a rodeo in your area. Cowboys, cowgirls, horses, bulls and arena activity is in abundance, providing an array of rodeo photography opportunities.

Nothing but a lot of action in steer wrestling.

It’s time to Cowboy Up! All over the country–in big cities and small, it’s easy to find a rodeo event. Some are local and regional events held every week, while others are part of large professional touring contests. Whatever the case may be, there are plenty of images waiting to be taken–and not merely of rounds of bull or bareback riding.

In the larger rodeos, you must have credentials to go behind the scenes, but in the small, local events, you should have little problem reaching the areas where the cowboys are preparing both themselves and their equipment for their eight seconds of glory.

While the action in the arena makes great photography, the special moments before and after a cowboy’s ride can be just as rewarding. When you’re able to go behind the scenes for the first time, instead of just starting to shoot, take a few moments to look around to see what’s happening. You’ll be surprised at the activity.

Once you have a feel for the constant flow of participants, family, and others involved in the event, you’ll begin to see that the photo opportunities are as plentiful as the action everyone came to see. And the best part of all is that the performers turn a blind eye to a photographer roaming around snapping shots as they get ready, so you’re able to create images that aren’t staged. You can easily capture the spontaneity of preparation.

Working over his rope before the big ride.

You’ll be impressed by the care the cowboys take with their equipment. Bull and bareback riders will spend quantities of time warming up the rope that will be strapped around the bull or horse to anchor the cowboy’s grip. After they wrap the rope around a railing, they pull, stretch, and rub it to warm it for action.

Bronc riders also spend time sitting on their saddle, stretching it out, and applying baby powder where they want fluid movement. And almost every rider will go through a full roll of athletic tape taping up his elbows, wrists, knees, and other parts of his body that have been injured in the past or need more stability to help him hang on to reach that magic eight-second mark.

Family interaction is also a subject to seek out. Many contestants have their wives and small children with them, and a shot of a cowboy holding his young son in his arms before heading out shows where his priorities really are.

Equipment and even parts of equipment make other interesting subjects. The tasseled chaps cowboys wear show the personality of the individual riders. Some chaps are plain, while others display a variety of colors. Boots also reveal a lot about their owners.

Almost all the contestants enter the dressing room wearing one set of cowboy boots while carrying their riding boots. You can spend a lot of time just photographing boots and chaps.

A special moment with his son.

The interaction between the cowboys provides more interesting images as they share a laugh, play cards, or check out the riding order or standings sheets. With a large event lasting close to two-and-a-half hours, there’s plenty of time for the participants to kill before heading out for their performance.

Take full advantage of your opportunity to come away with shots that show how much more there is to a rodeo than taking down a young steer in four or five seconds or completing the hoped-for eight-second ride.


If you came to the rodeo for the action, though, there are several considerations to keep in mind when you’re trying to capture that dream shot where the rider and animal are in perfect position. Most rodeos take place at night in arenas that don’t have the greatest lighting.

This is where digital cameras are great, as you can crank up the ISO to a fast enough shutter speed to stop the action and get a sharp image. You’ll need a shutter speed of at least 1/640 to stop the action and hopefully get up to 1/1000 or faster.

Of course, if the rodeo is outdoors during the day, you should have plenty of light to freeze the action, even if you have to bump up the ISO to between 200 and 400.

Play with your white balance to see what works best. More often than not, you’ll be setting it to tungsten, the composition of most of the lights in the arenas. You can also set a custom white balance.

I keep a white card in my camera bag I can use to set a custom white balance when I’m not sure exactly what to use.

A monopod is great to take to these events to stabilize your shots, unless you’re able to stand near the chutes and can use the bars or boards to steady your camera.

Depending on how close you are to the action, a flash might also help, but remember that if the angle is just right, you’ll get a reflection in the animal’s eye that will look out of place. Depending on how many frames per second your camera can get on high drive mode, wait until the animal is facing you or is parallel to you.

A sequence of shots of the creature’s back aren’t the most interesting of images. (No matter what the animal’s position, you’re going to end up deleting a lot of images, especially the first time or two you shoot rodeo action.)

Saddle bronc rider coming toward you.

Regardless of the type of rodeo event you attend, try to situate yourself as low in the seating stands and as close to the arena as possible. The closer you are to the starting chutes, the better your images will be, because most of the action takes place within ten yards of the gate where the animal charges out.

Attending a small local rodeo might open professional doors for you. Not all small rodeos have crowds of photographers like the large events.

When you contact the organizers to see if you can have access, offer to provide them with images they can use for promotion. You might end up selling shots to the cowboys and the organizers, as well. No matter what, you’ll learn a lot about what goes on both in the arena and during preparation.

You’ll also go away with new experiences that will help you cope with other photographic situations. For example, I started out as a sports photographer. It didn’t take me long to realize that shooting sports is a great teacher for becoming a wildlife photographer.

You have to learn to react quickly and–more importantly–to anticipate when something is going to happen. Every picture you’ve taken in the past can help you in the future. You might even find a new interest that sparks a flame to go another direction with your photography.

Capture some great rodeo photos by attending a rodeo in your area. Cowboys, cowgirls, horses, bulls and arena activity is in abundance, providing an array of rodeo photography opportunities.

With chaps dangling,
a rider watches and waits his turn.

With saddle in hand, he enters the arena.

Getting a little air time

Thinking through the ride while stretching out his saddle

By Andy Long

By Andy Long

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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