7 Tips For Rodeo Photography

In Sports Photography by Stanley Harper

Rodeo photography is one of those genres that allows a photographer to capture sights that will transport the viewer back in time. In this article, I will toss out some tips that will help you have a decent foundation to shoot rodeo.

Rodeo was formed out of the dust of ranches throughout North America. It allowed the working cowboy and vaquero to test their skills against others in timed and scored contests. Organized rodeos range from the local junior competitions to the large, multi-million, weeklong events. Across the country, just like we have photo workshops, rodeo will have workshops that will hone the skills of the cowboys and cowgirls who compete. In short, if you live west of the Mississippi, you are not going to have to travel far to capture some sort of rodeo.



Just like any other sport out there, safety is the main thing a photographer has to take into consideration. Inside the arena, there are several different things going on. From the pickup men to the bucking bulls to steers running full speed, there are numerous things one has to watch for.

Being able to identify a location to safely shoot from can range from easy to daunting. Some organizations will dictate where photographers can shoot from, while others will give them free range to shoot from wherever they want. As the photographer, your job is to capture the action, not be a part of it. Do not put yourself in a position where a 2000 pound bull is going to key up on you. Also, depending on the location, even shooting from the other side of the fence might not be the best place. A lot of arenas will have fencing that is rock solid, while others will be somewhat temporary and an animal crashing into the fence will move it.  The image below is one of my very first rodeo shots that I loved.  I was shooting through the fence and a second after I captured this, the horse crashed into the same piece of fence.  I had already moved, but an organizer did not see the humor in my photo technique.



Just like any other sport, glass that has reach is a must. Not only for safety, but for technique. If you have pretty much an open access pass that will allow you to be behind the chutes, or possibly where the cowboys are hanging out, your wide angle lens can stay home. There are two reasons for this. The first I already mentioned, safety. The other reason is technique, which I will mention after this section.

If you do not have anything that is at least 200mm, you will pretty much be up a creek without a paddle. Even then, 200mm is on the edge. 300 mm is better and 400 mm is the Holy Grail.

So what about aperture ability? Well, you will be find during the daytime if you do not have something in the f/2.8 category, but once those clouds move in, or the sun goes down, even f/2.8 might not be enough. That might come across as somewhat defeating the purpose, but stick with me as I will wrap this all up into a nice little bow here in a few.

You may or may not want a monopod. I highly recommend using the Vanguard AM-264TR monopod. Unlike other monopods that will sink down in the dirt somewhat, the legs at the bottom provide the shooter with a solid base. If you do not want to save a few dollars, then you can easily step down the monopod rung. Read my review of the AM-264TR monopod here.


Although this young cowboy's eyes were shaded by the bill of his cap, by shooting up, I was able to capture most of his face. Mom purchased this image as a very large canvas.

Kneepads. Wait, what? Why? In the section below, I write about how you want to shoot rodeo, and sports in general.  The image below shows how this technique pays off.


It goes without saying in regards to shooting sports, you want to be lower than the participants and shooting up towards them and you want to be shooting as tight as you can. It definitely gets reiiterated with rodeo photography. Many participants will be wearing cowboy hats and if you are above and shooting down, you will miss the face and the eyes. While this is pretty a hard and fast rule, it can also be broken if you have secured a shooting position that will help you produce a shot that is different.

Shooting tight, again, is a must. We are there to capture the story and the story is the cowboy/cowgirl in action. We focus on that person and we shoot to fill the frame for the most part. This is where having glass that has range will help you out.   You will be limited on how tight you can shoot due to the glass you are using.  Do not be afraid to crop in post.



Just like any other sport, excluding motorsports, we want to freeze the action. Since most of the time our goal is to capture that brief moment, we want all of the elements of our image to be sharp and frozen.   You want to be able freeze the bronc rider and horse in mid air.  The rope as it hangs above the calf's head.  The explosion of dirt from the arena floor as the rider lands.




I usually use 1/1500th as my baseline shutter speed. I have had success at 1/1000th, but prefer the higher speed if I can dial it in. Depending on the event, you can dial down the speed a little bit and still freeze the action. Of course, you want the aperture as wide open as it will go and then tweak your ISO to fit.


For those of us that shoot sports from time to time or as a regular deal on the local level, we are going to have to with location lighting that is poor. This is not much of an issue with the photographer armed with the latest and greatest full frame body and 2.8 glass. On the other hand, for those of us using older generation crop sensor bodies with noise performance issues, this is a problem and it is a very real problem. So how do we work around it if we want to keep shooting? Easy, step outside the box and slow that shutter speed down and start panning.


Now wait a second? In the previous section, I was preaching about freezing the action, now I am preaching about showing motion. What the heck?

Several rodeo events lend themselves perfectly to dropping the shutter speed and panning. Those great motorsports shots that are almost complete blurs except for the car work great for rodeo also. Barrel racing is the one event that is perfect, while the roping events come in a close second.  Freezing the action is great, but capturing the blur of a neon rope is awesome.



One of the things about rodeo is even though the ride may be over, the story continues.  The bull rider may have just been bucked off, but there is still a 2000 pound bull on the loose.  There will be a joyous cowboy who will wave to the crowd.   Stay trained on the action in the arena and capture shots that most will ignore.



Studying the work of the experts in any given photography field is a must.  Matt Cohen and Phil Doyle are two elite photographers in the world of rodeo.   Just like any other genre of photography, it pays off to read about it before you shoot.  Rodeo is no different.  By reading some tips put out, I was able to shoot my first event with a high level of confidence.

About the Author

Stanley Harper

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Stanley Harper is a photographer based in the Oklahoma Panhandle town of Hooker where the task of finding an outstanding and photogenic landscape is almost impossible. Besides long walks on the beach, Stanley's photographic endeavors include seniors, families, the night sky, sports, weddings and the occasional thunderstorm. If you would like to check out more of Stanley's work, hit up his various social media accounts and websiteFacebook, 500px, Stanley's website, and of course Instagram.