Saddle up for Action with this Beginner’s Guide to Rodeo Photography
Ever heard the expression “This ain’t my first rodeo”? Well, it’s not. I grew up in the shadow of the world’s biggest outdoor rodeo…Cheyenne Frontier Days. I spent many cold mornings at the knee of my father as he announced slack or tagged along and stood behind the chutes when he ran the first aid gate. Later, in my teenage years, I dabbled a bit in some rodeo events like barrel racing and pole bending. Rodeo photography is something I’m incredibly passionate about because rodeo was such a huge part of my upbringing.
But if you didn’t grow up in a rodeo family talking the sport at the dinner table, it can be hard to understand. There are all sorts of terms and different events require different skills. Rodeo can be even harder to photograph for the uninitiated. But even if you aren’t a cowboy or cowgirl at heart, you can learn to photograph the sport and horses with ease! Below is my best advice for breaking into this exciting field with The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Rodeo Photography
Learn the Sport
Rodeo is a sport unlike any other. It’s made up of different events. Each event has its own rules and skills, and understanding those rules is an important part of mastering rodeo photography. As you understand what happens in each event, you’ll learn where to stand to get the best shots, what action to look for and when to fire the shutter. Understanding rodeo itself also helps you connect with rodeo audiences and learn what sells best to what audience. For example, a photo of a wreck that wows your social media audience might not be the one that the contestant actually wants to purchase.
Official rodeo events include bull riding, bareback bronc riding, saddle bronc riding, tie-down roping, steer wrestling (sometimes called bull-dogging), team roping and barrel racing. Some rodeos also include steer roping, pole-bending, break-away roping, goat-tying, or a wild-horse or pony race. The events, along with the gender and age of participants, will vary by area and level or the rodeo.
There are also ranch rodeos. Whereas most rodeos have evolved to include events like bull-riding that are exciting to watch but not rooted in traditional skills, ranch rodeos emphasize the heritage of ranching and farming. Ranch rodeo contestants are usually local cowboys or cowgirls instead of professional athletes. The events also include events more closely tied with historical skills needed by western cowboys and are generally team events. Ranch rodeo events include calf branding (using a mock brand), team doctoring, colt riding, team sorting and wild cow milking.
For a complete description of rodeo events, including what they are, the rules and how they are scored, click here.
Dress the Part and Follow the Rules
When you head off to photograph a rodeo, dress the part. Many organizations, clubs and arenas have rules about what to wear in the arena or ready areas. These requirements usually include jeans, a long-sleeve, western-style shirt, boots and a cowboy hat. Even if your area doesn’t have an official dress code, you’ll want to dress appropriately. You’ll be less conspicuous and be seen as a professional. At a minimum, I recommend jeans, closed toed shoes and a long-sleeve shirt.
Always, always, always follow the rules you’re given. Rodeo moves fast and the rules are there for your safety. If you’re allowed in the arena at amateur rodeos, have a spotter there with you. It’s too easy for you to get lost in the action and not see a threat coming from your blind side.
Best camera for rodeo photography
For the best rodeo photography images you can shoot, you’ll want a fast camera. You’ll want high shutter speeds to be sure. But you’ll also want something that can shoot at a fast frame rate. Cameras with a high frame-per-second rate work the best. A good rodeo photography camera would include the Nikon D5, the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, the Nikon D500, the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, or the Sony A7ii or A9.
You don’t have to run out and buy a brand new $5,000 camera to get great rodeo images. You can shoot rodeo with any camera you have. You’ll just need to be more deliberate about when and how you shoot.
I personally shoot rodeo and other action photography with my Nikon D500. I’ve also used my Nikon D750 but it’s simply too slow if I want to shoot in burst mode.
Don’t forget to use high quality, fast memory cards. Don’t miss a shot because you skimped on your memory!
Best lenses for rodeo photography
To capture rodeo action inside an arena, you’ll want a telephoto lens. The bigger the arena, the farther away your subjects are and the bigger the lens you’ll want, especially if you like close-up action shots.
I know professional rodeo photographers that use a 400 mm or 600 mm lens. But those quality lenses are usually out of the price range of beginning rodeo photographers.
I personally like my 70-200 f/2.8 lens for rodeo action. The f/2.8 aperture gives me a lot of light if the rodeo lasts into the night or is held in an indoor arena. When I need extra length, I pair the 70-200 mm lens with a 1.7 teleconverter for a little extra reach. That limits my aperture to f/4.5 but gives me 1.7 times the reach with the same lens. The 70-200 f/2.8 is also a great lens for other sports and portraits, so you’ll be able to use it in a lot of different scenarios. Canon, Nikon, Sony, Tamron and Simga, along with a few others, make a version of this lens.
Other telephoto lenses to look at would include:
- Nikon 200-500 f/5.6
- Canon 200-400 f/4.6/5.6
- Canon EF 400 mm f/2.8
- Nikon 300 mm f/2.8
I also keep a wide-angle lens and a mid-length portrait lens in my pack for capturing behind-the-scenes images or portraits. My rodeo kit usually includes my Nikon 24mm f/2 lens and my Nikon 50mm f/1.4 lens.
Again, don’t run out and buy a $12,000 lens. Make due with what you have or rent a lens for a while to see if rodeo photography is going to be something you want to stick with.
Other equipment you’ll want at the rodeo
Rodeo is a dusty, dirty sport and you’ll need to protect your gear to keep it working as you head down the road.
I always use a filter on my lens when I’m shooting a rodeo, usually a simple UV filter. It keeps the front lens element of my lens from getting nicked by a rock or smeared with cow poop (which has actually happened to me). I usually keep a dozen or so lens wipes in my bag for just such an occasion. I also clean my gear after every rodeo to keep the dirt from working its way into the sensitive inner workings of my equipment.
A tripod or monopod can be helpful if you’re shooting a long event. I prefer the monopod because it’s easier to move with the action. It also takes up less space in crowded shooting areas and camera pits.
Have a camera/lens cover for your equipment if you’re shooting outside all day. I swear thunderstorms follow rodeos like ants to a picnic.
And finally, don’t forget sunscreen, a raincoat and hat cover for yourself. Oh, and pack snacks. Rodeos can run really long and you might not have time to hit the taco stand between contestants. Some of my favorite moments photographing rodeos are spent sitting in the dirt eating a sandwich with the other photographers while they plow the arena between events.
Best Settings for Rodeo Photography
The most important setting for photographing rodeos is shutter speed. Rodeo moves fast, whether it’s bull riding or barrel racing. I start with settings of f/4, 1/1000 of a second and ISO 100. If it’s a bright sunny day, I might have to raise my aperture or shutter speed to let in less light. If it’s a cloudy day, I’ll raise my ISO to give me the light I need. If it’s an indoor arena, I’ll drop my aperture to f/2.8, raise my ISO as high as my camera will let me and even drop my shutter to 1/560 if needed.
As you get more rodeos under your belt you’ll find a shutter speed that you like. I like to use a shutter speed of at least 1/1000 of a second because I get clean arms and feet with no motion blur. That speed also lets me get really defined dirt clods or streaming hair. At lower shutter speeds, I am more deliberate about how I frame my shot and when I fire the trigger.
If your camera/lens are just really struggling with the lack of light (some indoor arenas are absolutely awful), you can try panning shots. Or focus less on the action shots and more on the behind-the-scenes images.
Finally, you’ll notice most of the images on this page are shot in landscape mode. That’s two fold. First, I think the action lends itself more to landscape orientation. And second, I’m usually shooting off a monopod, so switching between portrait and landscape orientation takes some extra time and effort.
How to photograph different rodeo events
I’m going to cover the events you’ll see at most rodeos. Feel free to extrapolate this information for an event your local rodeo hosts that we don’t cover here.
As a general rule, the best rodeo action photos include the whole animal (bull, bronc, calf) and show the cowboy’s or cowgirls face. You can of course choose tighter shots to tell a story. But the quintessential rodeo image shows the stock, the cowboy’s face and action.
Timed events include the roping events like steer-wrestling, tie-down roping and team roping. These events are timed and the fastest time wins.
For timed events, focus on the action and sit where you can see the action coming at you or past you. This usually means the opposite end of the arena from the roping chutes or the side of the arena. Don’t waste battery and storage shooting photos too soon. Wait for them to start swinging a rope or making a move on the steer. If I have a choice I like to photograph from the left side of an arena looking toward the roping chutes as most cowboys will dismount from the left side so they aren’t as hidden behind their horse.
For bull-dogging, wait for that moment when the cowboy leans off his horse and reaches for the steer. Don’t forget to his throw of the steer.
For roping shots, I shoot when the action is coming at me and the rider is swinging his loop. I also like shots taken from the side where you can see the rope snaking out toward the animal or when the rope has landed and the cowboy is making his move. Using the rope as a connector between the stock and cowboy is a great visual.
Team-roping is the hardest for me to photograph because it moves so quickly. I like to capture as the header catches and the heeler is swinging his loop. The final moments where the steer is stretched out and the run is finished is also a really cool shot, but it’s hard to get because you need to go so wide to fit everything in the frame.
Rough stock events include both bronc riding events and bull riding. These events are scored, and the score is a combination of how well the cowboy and the animal performed.
Try to stand across from the bucking shoots so the action is coming toward you. If you are too far away to get a good tight image, stand on the side of the arena to capture the horse and cowboy.
Pretty much anything goes in bull riding as there’s always excitement to be found. Try to catch the action at the top of the bull’s buck for the most dynamic images. If the bull is spinning, wait for him to spin around so the cowboy’s face is in the image. No one is going to buy an image of the bull’s poop covered butt and the back of the cowboy’s head.
In saddle bronc riding, the preferred photograph is where the bronc’s front feet are extended, his head is down and his back legs are high behind him while the cowboy is looking forward, his riding arm dropped toward the horse’s head and his free arm raised strong behind him. The lines this creates are really gorgeous and the cowboy will love you if you snap a frame in that moment. This shot is especially powerful when shot from the side but also looks great at ¾ profile.
Bareback riding uses a similar profile, but the cowboy will be laid back along the horses’ back with his feet up on the horse’s neck spurring. Again, hold for a ¾ or full profile shot. One of my favorite bareback riding shots is the first jump out of the chute.
That’s not to say shooting buck offs or wrecks doesn’t make for some spectacular images. Don’t put your camera down just because the whistle blew.
Barrel racing, at the professional level, is done by women. Each woman rides her horse around a clover-leaf pattern of barrels. The fastest time wins.
I look for two things in barrel racing photos…the athleticism of the barrel horse and great expression from the rider. I prefer to stand just before and to the side of the left barrel if you’re looking at the pattern from the rider’s perspective. Most riders will choose the right barrel first. That gives you a chance to photograph them coming off the first barrel, coming into the second barrel and then the run back. Unless it’s a runback, get the barrel in the image to lend it context. And get the cowgirl’s face in the image if you can. The rider look down toward the barrel as they approach it to help her horse find his footing, so sometimes you can’t always see eyes. But these ladies are really intense and expressive so if you catch it right…wow!
On the run back, I wait until the cowgirl has her head up and is looking forward toward the finish line and the horse is really running all out. Catching the horse laid out with all a foreleg or rear legs extended makes for some great lines; catching the moment when all four legs are off the ground and the horse looks suspended is another favorite of clients.
Many rodeos also host what’s called slack. These are events held before or after the public performance of a rodeo. Large rodeos, like Cheyenne Frontier Days or Rodeo Houston, have so many contestants they can’t fit them all in during the public performances. So the rodeo picks up the “slack” with runs at other times. Frontier Days, for example, conducts theirs several days before the celebration officially begins. Most of the time slack is limited to barrel racing and timed events.
Slack can be a really awesome place to practice your rodeo photography. The event is usually free and not very crowded. Even large pro rodeos will open up photography opportunities during slack.
Other rodeo photography images
Don’t neglect the behind the scenes images of the rodeo. Rodeos are full of texture, color, and patterns, all of which make awesome detail shots. I have almost as much fun wandering shooting detail shots as I do shooting action.
If you’re shooting in an iconic or well-known arena, a few wide-angle establishing shots can help tell the story of the day.
And don’t neglect the other people who make rodeo go…clowns, pickup men, judges, fans or other contestants helping one another. These folks are all really expressive! Don’t stop shooting when the ride is over. Wait for the celebration or show of frustration. Cowboys will throw their hats, kick at the dirt, sling mud or even shake their booty in celebration of a good run.
Pro Tip: If you want to get a great image of a specific pro-level rider, research videos of the animal or cowboy. Most bulls and broncs have a pattern to how they buck and you can be prepared for how they’ll perform. If you’re more concerned with a timed-event cowboy or barrel racer, you can learn his or her habits and decide ahead of time the best place to photograph from.
Using flash photography at rodeo
Indoor arenas are the bane of rodeo photographers the world over. Our local rodeo has the worst lighting. I HATE it.
Professional rodeo photographers can and do use flash photography safely. If you’re interested in using artificial lights at an arena, check with the rules of your rodeo first. Then make sure you have the right gear. You’ll need high powered strobes and triggers and the knowledge to use them safely. I suggest shadowing a photographer who knows how to light an arena to make sure you do it safely.
How to make money at rodeo photography
Rodeo is probably more prolific than you realize, especially out here in the western United States. Our local community, for example, has dozens of rodeos and related events every year. So there are lots of opportunities to photograph the sport and make some money at it.
Different types of rodeos/organizations
Different organizations have different rules when it comes to photographers. Check with your local rodeo about their needs, rules, and procedures.
Some of the rodeo organizations out there are: Little Britches Rodeo, National High School Rodeo Association, National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association, PRCA (see below), Professional Bull Riders, Women’s Professional Rodeo Association, Championship Bull Riding, All Indian Rodeo Cowboys Association and the International Gay Rodeo Association, just to name the national companies.
There are also local youth and amateur rodeo series, specialty events that feature barrel racing or team roping and local gymkhanas which feature some rodeo events. In short, if you are dedicated to the sport and the craft, there are many levels and opportunities to make money working as a rodeo photographer.
How much can rodeo photographers earn?
For me, rodeo photography is part passion project (in other words, unpaid) and part money-maker. As I explain below, becoming a paid professional rodeo photographer through the PRCA is no small feat. But there are still ways to make money as a photographer with a passion for a pitchin’: get paid by a third party, the rodeo or get paid by the athlete or athlete’s family.
Get paid by the publication or other third party
Some publications, including travel magazines and newspapers, will pay you to cover a local rodeo. These rates vary from a few dollars per image they use to a few hundred dollars per event. Because of that, you’ll want to reach out to these publications or organizations (think tourism or travel boards) prior to the event to see if they’d be interested in paying you to shoot for them.
Less common are staff rodeo photographers. These professionals work for rodeo-based organizations or publications and travel the country photographing rodeos.
Get paid by the rodeo
Next, some rodeos may pay you to be their official photographer. Again, the pay can range from $25 and free lunch to a few thousand dollars if it’s a large event lasting several days. Contact the rodeo well ahead of time to see if they have a need and/or budget for a photographer. If it’s a PRCA sanctioned rodeo, they only hire PRCA member photographers (see below).
Get paid by the athlete (or her parents)
Many rodeo photographers make their money by selling images directly to the athlete or to the parents of athletes. You can either take photos of all the athletes and try to sell them after the event. Or sign up athletes on a pre-paid basis and shoot just those cowboys and cowgirls who have paid for your work.
I switched to a pre-paid model last summer and it’s been more lucrative for me. Instead of making a few bucks on a few 5×7 prints, I have my income in-hand before I ever start taking an image. If you want to make money shooting rodeo, I’d encourage you to consider a pre-paid model!
Any work you do with a rodeo selling client images should be approved by the rodeo organizers.
Becoming a PRCA Member Photographer
The PRCA, or Professional Rodeo Cowboy’s Association, is the professional organization of rodeo in the United States. It’s also the governing body for rodeos in this country and a few others in places like Canada. Think NBA, NFL or MLB, just for rodeo.
It’s not the only rodeo association in the country, but it’s by far the biggest. It sanctions its events. For cowboys or cowgirls to participate in PRCA events, they need to be a member or “cardholder.” The PRCA also sanctions a small number of photographers to serve as official PRCA photographers. Those cardholding photographers are then eligible to serve as licensed photographers for PRCA events. In the world of rodeo, it’s a pretty big deal.
Only PRCA member photographers are granted a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license to use the images taken during PRCA-sanctioned events. And only PRCA-member photographers are permitted to shoot from inside the arena and behind the chutes during PRCA events.
Getting your PRCA photographer’s card is no small task.
The PRCA makes it a difficult process. As a result, only a small number of people actually hold the card.
But to be an official PRCA photographer for an event you need the card. To become a PRCA member photographer, you have to follow some clearly defined steps, including being mentored by an existing PRCA member photographer, photograph every contestant a number of rodeos (including indoor and outdoor events) and submit those photographs for review by a committee.
For the record, I’m not a PRCA member photographer. I admire those that are and appreciate their work. And while I love photographing rodeo, it’s not a lifestyle that’s conducive to my family.
That’s not to say other photographers don’t photograph PRCA events…they do. I’ve photographed several as a guest photographer or media. But the true top hands of rodeo photography are the PRCA member photographers.
My recommendations? Don’t start at the top. You don’t get to be a football photographer starting in the NFL for instance. Start at the local level, hone your craft and work your way up.
Learning more about rodeo photography
Compared to portrait or newborn photographers, there aren’t a lot of rodeo photographers out there. So getting specific advice or training can be difficult. If you want to learn more about photographing the sport, your best advice is to reach out to an existing pro and ask if you can mentor with them. Your mentor doesn’t have to be a PRCA member photographer – lots of successful rodeo photographers forgo that formal aspect of it. Anyone with experience photographing the sport can teach you a great deal!
Finally, don’t be discouraged if you encounter some jackwagons along the trial. Rodeo photographers can be a cliquey bunch and I’ve been mansplained to more than once by some dude. Don’t let it get you down. If you have a passion for the sport and work at your craft, you’re technique will eventually speak for itself. And for every Joe the Jerk I’ve dealt with, I’ve met two really amazing and helpful photographers who gave me pointers and tips!
The final go-round
If you love watching rodeo or photographing sports, rodeo photography might be right up your alley. Ask around in your community for opportunities to practice taking pictures of the sport and determine if it’s a type of photography you’d like to pursue. Once you have some experience and a well-rounded portfolio, you can start looking for paying rodeo jobs. I have to warn you though…the song “Hooked on an 8-second ride” isn’t just about cowboys! There’s something inherently addicting about photographing rodeo as well! Now clamp your hat down, give a nod and bust out of the chutes as a rodeo photographer!