This past weekend I had the opportunity to be the official photographer for the Gold Dust Rodeo in Idaho City, ID. It's one of my favorite local rodeos because of the gorgeous scenery, hospitable committee and staff, and general old-time-y-ness.
This time around, I actually got to be inside the arena, shooting from up close and personal. This has its benefits and drawbacks at the same time. On almost every other project, the shot comes first. Inside the arena, though, safety comes first, and the shot second. It's worth it, though, if you know your way around livestock and rodeo action. (If you don't, I do NOT recommend being inside the panels!)
My setup was simple because I needed to be quick and flexible. My go-to camera is my Sony a6000. It shoots 11 fps with object tracking, so I could lock in on my subject and lay on the shutter. It's also lightweight, and the articulating screen let me get all the way down to the dirt when necessary and still keep my head on a swivel. My 55-210 f/4.5 lens got the nod as well, based on its light weight and quick autofocus. (Eventually I'll find a tele lens with a wider aperture, but this one gets the job done for now.)
All my images get processed in Lightroom, but I've also been using Nik for some sharpening, and to get some super dramatic black-and-white filters with Silverefex Pro.
Sometimes it isn't the action that's dramatic. Sometimes it's a beautiful young woman with a striking pose atop a horse... that appears to be having a stroke. Okay, no stroke, really. No animals were harmed. Still, this barrel dodger is clearly having a moment, and it really makes the photo much more fun:
Incidentally, this isn't just a pretty face and a goofy horse. She's a talented barrel racer, and the horse is a hard worker. By the time this event hit, the sun had set, and I had moved from shooting at ISO 100 and around 1/1000 all the way to ISO 1600, and trying hard to eke out shots at 1/500. By the end of the night I was between ISO 1600 and 3200 under minimal halogen lighting. Flexibility is the key!
The contract personnel were on top of their game, and they present some of the most compelling "behind the scenes" images. The strangest part of behind-the-scenes shots at the rodeo is that most of them happen in plain view of everyone. Since they're not fast action, though, they get lost. They shouldn't. They're important.
While I would never claim that my work is nearly as difficult as anyone else's in the arena, it's exhausting for me. It's a strange feeling to have your head buried in a viewfinder, but still on a swivel. Nearly every event has the opportunity for imminent danger, and you can't let your guard down for a second - even when a bull seems to be penned and done! I stay no more than 15' from a panel, and don't mess around. I'd rather be out of the way and let the bullfighters and pickup men do their work than be any part of the action whatsoever. Besides, a photographer atop a fence is always good for a laugh from the others!
For the record, one bull did come after me. It was a good black bull from Superior Rodeo who dispensed with his rider rather quickly, and once the bullfighters turned him away from the rider, he set his sights on me in no time at all. I was already attached to the panel by then (once a rider is tossed, I get one hand on immediately), and scurried up it before he could get too close, but he charged and put a little shot of adrenaline in me anyway.
I love shooting the rodeo. There are so many stories and micro-stories that happen all around you. There are more images to be taken than a person can shoot in a night, but I do my best to capture every one I can. It's just too much fun.