True Grit — Shooting Rodeos

I recently published six young-adult books about rodeos (Abdo Publishing), which involved not only researching and writing the manuscripts, but also photographing the action. (Yay for platypus journalism!) Bareback riding is one of my favorite rodeo events to shoot. With no saddle and a single handhold called a rigging, cowboys try to stay on the bucking bronc for eight nerve-rattling seconds. Bareback riding is a wild event that takes tremendous skill to master.

One of the biggest problems with many rodeo photos (or any sports photo) is that the photographer isn’t close enough to the subject. Filling the frame was my goal when I took this shot at the 2012 Hamel Rodeo, in Corcoran, MN. I wanted a “you are there” feel that captures the frenzied action.

I’ve noticed that in saddle bronc riding, the horses like to bolt out of the chute and head for the opposite side of the arena. But with bareback riding (and bulls), the animals often stick close to the chutes for some reason. So, armed with a pre-arranged press pass, I positioned myself along the inner fence, close to the chutes. This is a no-man’s-land where only a few photographers are allowed to shoot. (I’ve chosen not to join the PRCA photographers who shoot inside the ring–I don’t think I’m fast enough to outrun a bull!)

With my trusty 70-200mm zoom, I knelt down in the dirt and waited for the right moment (knee pads are always in my camera bag). I set my ISO to 400 and aperture to f/2.8, which gave me an action-stopping shutter speed of 1/3,000 sec. I often shoot with much slower shutter speeds to give a slurpy feeling of motion, but in this case I wanted to freeze all the action. One of the cool things about sports photos is being able to freeze a sliver of time so your eye can take in the whole scene, which normally zips by literally in a blink, too fast to comprehend.

When this bronc burst out of the gate, it headed right for me. It was a tough ride; the cowboy was barely hanging on. I racked my zoom back to 70mm. I waited until the action filled the frame, then got off a burst of three or four frames before the horse banged into the metal barrier, sending me tumbling backwards into the mud. Kids, don’t try this at home! (As I recall, the rider stayed on for the full eight seconds, scoring big.)

In choosing this frame for publication, I like the interaction of horse and rider. The cowboy’s leg is showing air, but his teeth are gritted with determination. His hat brim covers his eyes, giving him an anonymous “everyman” kind of vibe. The horse’s mane and the cowboy’s chap fringe are flying. This is an action shot! It’s man against beast! (One thing to note: the horse’s ears are up. He’s not really angry, he’s just trying to shake off the dude on his back so he can get back to his pen.)

To process the shot, I decided to go black-and-white, with a gritty texture. I didn’t want color to distract from the main point of the photo. In Camera RAW, I adjusted for contrast. I had to double process, once for the horse/cowboy, and once for the crowd, to keep all the highlights from blowing out. I combined the two exposures with a mask, then flattened.

I first converted to black-and-white using a simulated red filter, which darkened the sky and lightened the skin tones. Next I used the Gradient Map adjustment panel, then converted to grayscale (Image–Mode–Grayscale). After that I converted to a tritone, a nice combination of rich black and two warm grays.  Back to RGB mode.  Burned the four corners, which brings the viewer’s eye more toward center.  Lastly, I used a high-pass sharpening method for extra-crispy goodness.

Thanks for stopping by, buckaroos!