Saddle Up for Rodeo Magic
March 23rd, 2016 by David LaBelle
I shot this through the pipe fence with a 50mm lens. Rather than try to get in the arena and risk being crushed by a bull or steer, or flattened by a horse, I waited for the action to come within range to make a good image. And yes, I shot a lot of average frames that were not so interesting. Photo by David LaBelle

I shot this through the pipe fence with a 50mm lens. Rather than try to get in the arena and risk being crushed by a bull or steer, or flattened by a horse, I waited for the action to come within range to make a good image. And yes, I shot a lot of average frames that were not so interesting.
Photo by David LaBelle

As a young man influenced by television Westerns, I wanted to be a cowboy. I still cling to the delusional dream of having a horse and a little spread in Montana.

Until then, I will have to be content to hang around ranches and rodeos.

Few aromas—save the sweet fragrance of fresh-cut alfalfa hay—compare to the heavenly scent rising from dusty earth sprayed with cool water before a rodeo. Add the smell of leather and animals, dung and denim, and my nostalgic heart carries me back to my country childhood and what felt like a less-complicated world.

Rodeos are magical places soaked in history, able to carry us back to our roots and a romanticized Old West. Corrals and arenas drip with color, pageantry, texture and testosterone, with endless stories of close calls, loves, dreams and heartaches.

Few venues offer greater visual potential: preparation and performance, youthful faces glowing with hope and older ones etched by time, storytelling details on every saddle. Short of knowing the subtle intricacies of this colorful American sport, I offer a few lessons I have learned.

If you are bent on becoming a rodeo photographer, you need cowboy boots; jeans; two hats—felt for winter, straw for summer (most venues will not allow you in the arena to photograph without those); a shiny, chrome-plated silver buckle that covers half your midsection (optional); and current health and life insurance.

Find a mentor, someone who knows the bulls from the cows, so to speak. You can usually spot ’em kicking around the arena, talking to the pickup riders or clowns. They look cool, like they belong.

If you are able to photograph in the arena—which I do not suggest unless you are with someone who knows the turf—pay attention and never turn your back on a frothing, unpredictable animal that weighs as much as a small car. Outside the arena, shoot through openings between steel cables or wooden planks using as wide of a lens opening as possible (f.2.8) to create a shallow depth of field to basically erase the foreground.

Go early. Scout the best location, where the sun is not in your eyes. In the front row, nobody blocks your view. If you have a telephoto lens, the raised back row allows you to see above fences.

Ask the ushers—people who know the sport—where you can safely go to make pictures. Most are willing to help.

Go backstage before or after the event—the semi-private places where athletes physically and mentally prepare. Those pictures are usually the most revealing, most human, most personal.

Study and see the light. Most rodeos are in summer, beginning just before dark. Usually there is a magical time when the sky turns red or orange and artificial lights just come on, before a colorful sky turns black and only the arena lights illuminate. The combination of ambient light and artificial light can be enchanting. Start with a low ISO (100 or 200) before increasing to 1600 or 3200 once night falls. Use available light when possible. It is almost impossible to shoot flash through bars or slits in fences.

David LaBelledaveL_mug_2011 is an internationally known photographer, teacher, author and lecturer. He has worked for newspapers and magazines across the United States and taught at three universities. He grew up on a frog farm in rural California, roaming the creeks and hills with his coon dogs. Many of the lessons he learned during those magical boyhood years have been applied to photography and teaching the essence of this art form. For more information, visit www.greatpicturehunt.com.