Shooting for Success: The Perfect Sport

I’ve photographed sports from amateur badminton to professional football to World Cup Downhill Skiing and I have to say that my favourite sport to photograph is outdoor rodeo.

Now, before I go any further, please don’t feel it’s necessary to comment on the cruel, inhumane nature of rodeo. I am aware of it all and probably agree with you on most points, but this blog is about photography. If you wish to comment on cruelty to animals or find out more about PETA, try here: PETA BLOG.

Back to photography. as a photographer, I have two reasons for loving outdoor rodeo:

  1. daylight is brighter than arena lights, even on a cloudy day, and the more light you’ve got, the faster the shutter speed you can use — and like any sports photography, the faster the better.
  2. a lot of action happens in a relatively small area, making it easier to follow ALL of the action with your camera and keep it in focus. A raging two-thousand-pound bull can twist, turn, leap, buck and change directions all in a 20′ x 20′ area in eight seconds or less. My fastest SLR (Canon EOS A2E) shoots five frames per second at 1/3000 of a second so I can capture a lot of images in eight seconds.
3-Time World Champion Bull Rider Tuff Hedeman
Tuff as Nails. Photo copyright Tim Reynolds.

But, just because I can shoot that much that fast doesn’t mean I should. That’s a lot of film to blow through, and even in the digital world, that’s a lot of memory. The one skill I found comes in very handy for reducing the amount of wasted images is understanding the physics of the sport and knowing that when the bull/bronc is airborne his motion forms an arc and you can usually predict when the animal has reached the top of that arc. Why? Because at the top of the arc, the upward motion stops and the downward motion follows. For that split second, all of that raging muscle will almost pause just for you. But you have to be ready.

Actually, this is true for most sports. The football receiver leaping in the air for a pass, the golfer in her backswing, the diver above the board…. Understand the nature of the sport and the kinetics/physics of the motion involved and you can save film and grab better shots. Even if your camera has a delay, like my little Nikon digital P5100, you can get comfortable with the delay and anticipate.

Jake the Slugger
Jake puts it into Play. Photo copyright Tim Reynolds.

Here’s a shot of my grandson, Jake, playing T-Ball. With the setting I had my camera on (and the speed of the memory card) there was an atrocious delay (for me), but I’ve played a lot of T-Ball (I couldn’t hit a pitch to save my life) so I have a pretty good understanding of where to stand, how fast he would be swinging and what was going to happen. I actually pushed the shutter release long before Jake’s bat got to the ball. I accounted for the delay and this was the result. Like the sport itself, it just takes practice.

Another (strong) suggestion I’ll make here is that you don’t get too tight on the action. Yes, maybe you have a 400mm lens that can show you the sweat of the athlete’s brow, but you usually want to make sure you’re capturing the best image possible, and sometimes the best image includes something more than the center of the action. If you want brow sweat, then go for it, but in sports, like life, the unexpected happens and that’s what you really want to capture.

Take another look at the shot of Tuff Hedeman, multi-time World Champion Bull Rider above. I caught the action at the top of the arc. The bull’s feet are off the ground, the fringe on Tuff’s chaps is flailing and frozen, Tuff’s arm is perfect. This is such a favorite of mine that I painted it.

But it’s not all there was to the image. Look at what else I caught in the shot (below). By staying a bit wider than just the bull and the rider,

Tuff, the Bull & the Clown
The most dangerous job? Photo copyright Tim Reynolds.

I was able to catch the clown doing what I consider the most dangerous job in the world. I’m sorry I don’t remember his name, but if Tuff was on the bull at the Calgary Stampede, then chances are the bullfighter (as this job is called) is world class as well.

The addition of the bullfighter now adds either humour or more tension to the shot. Being the sick puppy that I am, I see the humour. He’s almost tentative in his reach, like a child going for for an extra cookie. On the tension side, just because I’ve frozen the bull in place doesn’t mean he wasn’t still two-thousand- pounds of kicking, spinning, bucking and jumping beast. To get THAT close to his killer horns is a job you will never catch me doing. The bullfighter has to have a bigger pair than the bull, as far as I’m concerned.

And just in case you want to really focus on that part of the image, there’s always cropping. The quality of your film, your equipment, the number of megapixels you capture, all play a part in how far you can widen the shot and how close you can crop in.

Bullfighter & Bull
The Most Dangerous Job in the World. Photo copyright Tim Reynolds.

Check out the look in the bull’s eyes. You don’t need to see his hind end to know that someone has got a strap around his bull parts and he’s not happy.

So many sports happen over such a large field of play that you grab your moments when you can, but unless you have a press pass you’ll be lucky if you can get close enough for one shot as the car/skier/runningback/fielder passes by. With rodeo, it all happens in a contained area and it usually happens during the day.

The other cool thing is that my shots above were taken from a paid seat at The Calgary Stampede… and they are better than anything I’ve ever managed to take with a Press Pass. Rodeo is a highly accessible sport, and at the small-town rodeos you can often expect to get right against the rail and maybe get a little mud and blood on your gear. But if you don’t own a Stetson and real western boots, at least don’t show up in dress shoes or high-tops, and for God’s sake (and your own social safety), either wear your bought-that-morning John Deere baseball cap forwards or backwards (to keep it away from the camera) — cuz on a cocky, rapper angle with the fricking shiny stickers still on the brim will just get you tossed in with the bull.

One last thing. If you’re going to shoot rodeo and plan on wearing a huge, shiny belt buckle, you’d better have earned it yourself, riding in a rodeo. And pull your pants up or a couple of real cowboys will do it for you, Citee Boi.

Have fun.



(Next Week: Taking it Slowly)

All Words & Images Copyright Timothy G.M. Reynolds.


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