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Today’s post comes from Simon King, a UK based Wedding, Portrait and Sports photographer able to blend the action and emotion to get truly emotive photographs. He is working on a personal project – a photobook documenting the lives of modern cowboys and cowgirls from ranch to rodeo. Simon would be grateful if you could visit the Kickstarter Project and look at the rest of the images on his Facebook page.

Rodeo - The American - Dallas Texas -  Sunday 2nd March 2014 - AT&T Stadium - Dallas


Being from the UK we don’t have Rodeo events. We get most other sports and activities, but Rodeo just hasn’t crossed over. I remember watching a video a few years back advertising Apple’s Aperture product with a photographer working at a small rodeo and the pictures were stunning. That sowed the seed for me and when I approached my 50th birthday, I was trying to decide what to do that was different from everyone else.

I first decided on a photobook project, but needed a topic that would truly motivate me. I looked at India, Tibet, Mongolia, and other exotic locations. But, in truth, it had all been done before, plus the only way to truly get unique photographs is to go off the beaten trail. Whilst I didn’t mind the planning aspect of such a project, I was worried about the safety and with young children decided against that. I then cast my mind back to the video that I had watched and started looking at the Rodeo as the topic for my project.

The more I looked into it, the more interested I became. I put together a Kickstarter project to raise funds for the project and sat back. Nothing happened. I really hadn’t done my homework and without photographs to back my campaign up, I fell flat and didn’t raise a single penny. Deflated I went away and sulked for a while, but my birthday was approaching and I still wanted to celebrate it in a way that was appropriate to me. After discussing it with my wife, we decided to go to New York and spend a long weekend away. I love street photography and thought, I’ll just do that. My wife foolishly said, “Isn’t that a bit boring? We’ve done that before.” So I thought again and looked for a rodeo that was taking place around my birthday.

The only one I could find was The American put on by RFD-TV taking place at the Dallas Cowboys stadium in Arlington TX. The largest, highest paying one day rodeo ever. The next step was to book the trip and more importantly get a press pass. I contacted my friend Skip Cohen and asked for his help with that aspec,t thinking it would be easier for someone based in the USA to get the ball rolling. As I cover sports in the UK (Rugby, Cage Fighting, Boxing etc), I was able to supply sample work that secured the pass. So we set off for Texas with bag full of equipment (see below) having never shot a rodeo before.

When we got there, we were blown away by the hospitality and the spectacle that unfolded before us. The events were astonishing and the athletes were incredible, yet down to earth. But most importantly, I got lots of photographs that I am very proud of and finally some collateral for my photobook project.

How I Got the Shot

The key with action photography is in most situations 1) freezing the action and 2) isolating the subject. Therefore the first factor in getting the shot is setting the shutter speed high enough to freeze what happens. This speed will vary depending on the sport. My research informed me that for rodeo, the shutter speed should be 1/1000th of a second. When you see the speed at which the action occurs, anything slower would result in motion blur. The second factor, isolating the subject, requires one thing: wide aperture. Ideally f/2.8, but that means expensive glass as you will need 70-200 and 300 focal lengths in your bag. This allows you to get shots that are not so close with the 300 and when they get close switch to the 70-200 (2 bodies setup ready to go). The last aspect of the exposure triangle pretty much decides itself with a shutter speed of 1/1000th and aperture of f/2.8. It’s a case of setting the ISO to get the exposure spot on. To do this, I fire of a few test shots and adjust accordingly. For this event, I ended up with an ISO of 4000 which with today’s cameras renders files that are pretty clean and useable.

Unlike studio work or portraiture, there is no direction involved in sports photography. You can’t control the lighting, you capture what happens in front of you, the skill comes from getting the right shooting spot, framing the action and getting the focus spot on. The final aspect of getting the shot requires an understanding of the sport/event you are photographing. I fell short there, but I was very nosy on the day and got lots of great advice from other photographers. By the time the shootouts took place, I had pretty much worked out where I wanted to be and how to get the shots I wanted. Although that sounds pretty simple, it takes practice and understanding of your equipment and tenacity as other photographers are all vying for the best position.

Normally for sports, I would shoot jpg as that allows for longer bursts of frames, but for this I wanted the highest quality files and the option to get as much from each image as I could. I decided, therefore, to shoot RAW and be far more selective when I pressed the shutter. The other aspect in getting this shot, amongst others, is the fact that the animals involved are pretty big and also have long tails. Therefore, I shot fairly wide to ensure that I didn’t miss the top of the tail when a horse or bull bucked. The quality of the RAW files meant that I didn’t have to be afraid of cropping in the post processing. The resulting photographs would comfortably print to A3+ and with careful processing A2.

Gear List

2 x Canon 5D Mark III
1 x Canon 70-200 EF L F2.8 IS MKII
1 x  Sigma 120-300 F2.8 OS (2013 Sport Range)
Lexar 64Gb CF Cards
Think Tank Airport International V2.0 Roller bag
Think Tank My Second Brain Laptop bag
15″ MacBook Pro
Adobe Lightroom
Adobe Photoshop CC
CameraBIts PhotoMechanic
NIK Collection
Manfrotto Carbon Fibre Monopod (for the 120-300 Lens/Camera Combo)
Black Rapid Strap for the 70-200 Lens/Camera Combo

Rodeo - The American - Dallas Texas -  Sunday 2nd March 2014 - AT&T Stadium - Dallas
The Original Image

Post Processing

I love black and white photographs, but for most sports work, the final image is required in colour. However, as this was a personal project and quest, I intended for the final photographs to be presented in black & white in a fine art style. Normally for action photographs, I ingest the files using PhotoMechanic and do minor edits using Photoshop to crop, sharpen, contrast levels, etc. But for these photographs, speed was not the key factor in processing them so I could take my time. I ingested all of the photographs using PhotoMechanic as usual, getting it to set the file name and apply copyright data and other IPTC information. But after that I took the files into Lightroom and began the process of culling the images and selecting the very best for use in promoting my next Kickstarter campaign.

Once selected, I then did minor processing in Lightroom and cropped the images. Then I converted the image above to Black & White using NIK’s Silver Efex Pro plugin. I have a custom preset that increases the structure, contrast and also applies a fairly heavy vignette drawing the viewer in to the action at the centre of the photograph. As I knew I was applying a heavy vignette, I didn’t crop the images too tightly to allow for that. If I cropped too tightly, the vignette would start to cover key aspects of the image and lessen the impact.

Once the preset was applied, I added in localized control points, lightening or darkening areas that needed additional dodge and burn. Also some areas needed extra detail, so I used the structure slider to control that. Once happy with the image in Silver Efex, I saved it and returned to Lightroom with the edited black & white photograph stacked with the colour original.

Rodeo - The American - Dallas Texas -  Sunday 2nd March 2014 - AT&T Stadium - Dallas


For action shots, I don’t think there is a sport that beats Rodeo for fast paced dynamic images that also show emotion. With the different events at a Rodeo, there are also many opportunities for different types of shots – from Bareback to Saddle Bronc, Barrel Races to Steer Wrestling, Tie Down Roping to Bull Riding. In addition to the action, there are many characters at a rodeo to provide the opportunity for candid shots or detail shots of the equipment in use.

I got so many photographs from that one Rodeo that I am really proud of and more than enough to help me promote my latest Kickstarter campaign. A link to the project is provided so please take a look. I’d love to get back to the USA and capture some more amazing images for the book.

About the “How to Shoot It” Series

This educational series highlights amazing images from our writers as well as our community. The goal is to not only feature inspirational work but to provide valuable education for our photography community. If you would like to submit your work, please click here for more info on writing for SLR Lounge.