George Wilson: A Primer on Rodeo Photography

Arroda 41

“Well, it's bulls and blood

It's dust and mud

It's the roar of a Sunday crowd”

- “Rodeo” by Garth Brooks

Just say the word “rodeo” and images of bull riding and bronc busting fly through our minds. The word itself is taken directly from the old Spanish rodeo which roughly translates into English as “round up”.

Rodeos themselves were not originally the sporting events we see today. They were an integral part of cattle ranching in the regions of our country having a Spanish influence, primarily the Southwestern United States. Ranch hands would often gather to compete in friendly competitions of “ranch vs. ranch”. As popularity grew, bronc riding, bull riding, and roping contests began to appear at other venues. William F. Cody (Buffalo Bill) inspired by the popularity of these events, created the first major rodeo and Wild West show in North Platte, Nebraska in 1882.

My background is in editorial (news) photography, meaning that an assignment to cover a rodeo dictates understanding its heritage and each event. It is the first step to being able to “shoot” a rodeo. Frankly, it is the first step to working on any assignment or with any client you may have. Secondly, just as in real estate, it is location, location, location. Each event has a pattern of how it unfolds. Knowing where the event starts inside the arena is crucial. Knowing how a rodeo event typically moves as it plays out is another vital piece of information for the photographer.

As an editorial photographer, you may be restricted to specific “media pits” or designated areas from which to shoot. This varies from rodeo to rodeo and is largely dependent on whether the event is a local event or a national championship. PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) rules do not allow editorial photographers behind the bucking shoots or on the chute platform itself. The PRCA also dictates that all photographers working a rodeo event wear proper western attire; typically jeans with a long sleeve collared shirt. The Cowboy hat is an optional item for photographers and baseball caps are not permitted. This keeps the photographers aligned with the heritage of the rodeo events.

The skill of photographing a rodeo comes first from understanding the events and how they will move in the arena. It comes from understanding where the height of the action will be and how to anticipate it through the actions of both man and animal. It is also being able to interpret the skills of the cowboy or cowgirl as they interact with their horse in certain events. There are multiple contests on the arena floor for each event. But most importantly, the relationship between horse and rider is the fundamental key element to the photographs coming out of a rodeo event. The interaction between man and animal is what makes the technical and creative aspects of rodeo photography exciting and rewarding. Being on the arena floor during bull riding or bronc busting events ready to climb the fence out of the path of a bucking and snorting animal, while holding your camera, adds a bit of excitement as well.

So, let’s talk about the events and how to shoot them. As an editorial photographer, names (and hometowns) are very important to your photographs. They assist you in telling the story and give your images a personal attachment to the event. This captivates the reader and helps them read further or makes them contact the person, if they know them, to just say “hello” or “I saw your picture in the paper”. It may also generate a call from the person photographed to the photographer to obtain a print or digital file of the image. When you get to the rodeo, and always remember the news photographer saying “you can be 1 hour early, but not a minute late”, ask for a “day sheet”. It will give you the names, numbers and hometowns of the competitors. Now that you have arrived early, walk the arena fence. Find the locations of chutes and based on the information I give you, select your shooting positions ahead of time.

For your camera settings fast shutter speeds are a must. I recommend no slower than 1/500. Apertures should be wide open and I typically shoot at f2.8. Most often I shoot with a 300mm f2.8 or longer, so a monopod is a standard item. Set the height of your camera’s viewfinder to about chest high (this is roughly the height of a horse’s shoulder) so that you are on eye level for most of the calf roping and steer wrestling events. Full height on the tripod works for bronc busting and bull riding as well as barrel racing.


The goal of the bareback event is for the rider to stay on for what seems like an eternally long 8 seconds while executing good technique. For this event I find that positioning myself across from the bucking chutes and off to one side works best. I try to stay at a 45° angle to the chute. Working with a wide aperture on a long lens the extra distance between the rider and the crowd often gives just enough blurring to show the crowd while still separating the subject from the background.

Follow the horse and rider out of the chute and allow a few steps for the horse to start the routine of trying to throw the cowboy. This varies from horse to horse, but after a while you will see the body language. The cowboys will make a spurring action from the horses neck down to the horses shoulders. The optimum image will show cowboy spurring down to shoulders, toes out, and the rear legs of the horse extended outward. The example image above has all of the sought after points and the horse’s legs are extended rearward, although not fully. The second image below has all of the same points but the horse is fully off the ground as well. Remember, this event will last no longer than 8 seconds per rider. The action is most often confined to an area between the bucking chutes and the center of the arena.

Steer Wrestling

Steer wrestling is always an exciting event. This and calf roping are two of my favorites. In this event you have highly trained horses working closely in partnership with cowboys. It has many unexpected twists and turns as well as spills and tumbles. In this event, the cowboy drops the reins and leaps from a galloping horse onto a running steer. Then through strength alone he will stop the steer and wrestle it to the ground. This event will typically start at the calf chutes on the end of the arena an go lengthwise through the arena. This allows the cowboy and steer some uninterrupted distance. I usually position myself on the opposite end of the arena on the inside of the curve so that the event runs toward my position.

In editorial photography capturing faces is a key element. By being opposite the chute you have the opportunity for some great expressions! In this event the preferred shots, as shown in the above example, are as the cowboy leaves his horse trying to grab the steer by the horns and around the head. Secondary shots are of the cowboys digging in their heels and spraying dirt. In the second example image below, the steer ran towards the opposite side of the arena affording an opportunity to follow the action and get just such a shot. This event is won by the fastest time so be ready and keep your camera on a high-frame shooting rate. Be aware that this event rarely extends greater than half the length of the arena.

Calf Roping

Calf roping and team roping events provide the possibility for a wide variety of shots. These events are based on the skill of a cowboy to quickly isolate a sick or injured calf from a herd and then immobilize it for care. The cowboy and his horse start by chasing and roping a calf and ends when the calf’s legs are tied and immobilized. For the photographer the entire sequence is an explosion of image possibilities. Weighing into the scoring is how well the horse works with his rider. My favorite shot is the Lasso above the cowboys head at a full gallop chasing the calf.

But just as important to the sequence of events is the dismount as the cowboy prepares to flank and tie the calf. This usually provides a dramatic skidding horse and flying dirt for your image.

This event, like steer wrestling, will typically start at the calf chutes on the end of the arena. This allows the cowboy and steer some uninterrupted distance as they run lengthwise through the arena. Although the action seldom goes past the center of the arena, I will again position myself on the opposite from the calf chutes on the inside of the curve so that the event runs toward my position.

Barrel Racing

This event allows the cowgirls the opportunity to get out in the dirt and shine! Usually these ladies are in such unison with their horses that every move looks effortless. Here, sought after images show the horses leaning into turns around the barrels with nostrils flaring and dirt flying. The cowgirl should be balanced and upright in the saddle regardless of the lean of the horse. The horse should clear the barrel as contact with it results in a time penalty. This again is a timed event, so speed in focusing and shooting is the key to successful images. The event itself is run in a clover leaf pattern, so it begins and ends in the same place. My own preference is to be close to the starting chute. This enables me to shoot all barrels easily as well as getting the horse and rider at a full gallop from the final barrel back to the starting chute in all out race against the clock.

Bull Riding

With weights than can exceed a ton, bulls are the true contest of the rodeo cowboy. Here anything can happen. I have found that bulls will give you more twists and spinning motion than horses. Many of the bull riders do not make it far past the bucking chute. That being said, the optimum position is 90° from the shoot so it's best to shoot across it rather than at it. This gets the action as far from the chute as possible. Always be ready for raging bulls, buck offs, wrecks and clowns distracting the bull from a thrown rider.

My own preference for images is a thrown cowboy and a twisting bull. Other photographers like the high rear leg kicks. Photographing the bull riding events means looking for a decisive moment in the image.

A photographer must always push the edge of the envelope, try new subjects. This means there will be failures and successes. We must learn from the successful images. I was nervous shooting my first rodeo. I had a number of failures, but I had some great successes too. The images in this article were all shot on one day at one rodeo. I shot more than 2700 frames and saved only 91. My success rate was 3.3%. My editing philosophy is simple - images do not heal miraculously overnight in the hard drive. Also, this is my business – if I cannot sell it, why keep it. I have moved past the emotional attachment to images that I experienced in the early days of my career. I find that many photographers today place too much fear on failure and therefore, may never completely explore the many possibilities in the world around us. Do not let fear encumber your creativity or success. I try to face each assignment or idea with a fresh clean view, without fear of my own limitations or thinking that I need some special piece of equipment. This has allowed me to being truly happy doing what I do everyday.

George Wilson has more than 30 years of experience as a professional photographer, and his work has appeared in many national and international publications. Now focusing on nature and wildlife photography, George exhibits his infrared black and white landscape work and teaches photography at numerous art centers, botanical gardens and at the Walt Disney World Resort in his home state of Florida. A key element to George’s work is his dedication to traditional photography as his post processing is strictly limited to tools aligning with the traditional darkroom. To see more of George's work, visit

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