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|| SportsShooter.com: News Item: Posted 2002-01-23

Rodeo Dazed: covering a rodeo
Or, how a born-and-bred New York boy learned to love the greatest show on dirt

By Darren Carroll

Photo by Darren Carroll

Photo by Darren Carroll
As a kid, I always looked forward to December. It meant Christmas, and all that comes with it. Presents, vacations, presents, family, presents-all told me that, at least for a day, all was right with the world.

Now that I've (sort of) grown up, I still look forward to Christmas, but as someone constantly immersed in shooting professional sporting events-and all the aggravation that comes with them-December has given me something else to look forward to: The National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas.

Every year for the past four years, Sports Illustrated has obliged me with a trip. And every year, as I descend into the tunnels beneath the Thomas and Mack Center, near the makeshift pens chock full of bulls and calves and horses, the now-familiar aroma ofwell, I'm not sure how you'd describe it, but it's sort of a mixture ofactually, now that I think about it, let's not describe it.

But it's very distinctive. Anyway, as the distinctive aroma of the National Finals Rodeo wafts before my nose, I inhale deeply, and know that somehow, in some wierd way, all is still right with the world

I first went in 1998, as an assistant for SI's Lane Stewart. Back then, even though I'd lived in Texas for four years--and therefore should have learned these things--I couldn't tell you the difference between bucking horse and a barrelman (for starters, one has four legs, the other has two).

At the time, I'd been assisting for SI for almost five years, and had seen enough prima-donna millionaire portrait-session whining, enough uncooperative PR people, and enough NBA Finals, to pretty much convince me that there was no longer anything redeeming about professional sports, nor barely anything worthwhile about covering them. All that changed when Lane, who had been shooting the National Finals (or just "NFR" for short) for years, began walking me through the finer points of the 10-day event.

Photo by
Talk about a culture shock-and no, I'm not talking about the jeans and the boots and the hats and the belt buckles. That takes some getting used to, sure. But what I still can't get over, even after four years, is the culture of the event itself-the fans, the contestants, and the staff.

My God, the people are actually nice! The media relations staff actually wants to help! They ask me what they can do to make my life easier! The contestants ---most of whom make more than you or I would ever see in a year (unless, of course, you work for Gannett) say "Yes, ma'am" (with a tip of their hats) or "No, sir". Sure, they're competing for a winner's check and the winner's giant belt buckle, but they do it with humility and a demonstrable love for what they do. And--get this-they thank you for coming out and covering their equivalent of the Super Bowl.

All of this, coupled with the prospect of spending a few days out in Las Vegas with 20,000 or so cowboys, makes covering the NFR a pleasant, if not unbelievable, experience-complete with the potential for some great pictures. If you've never been, get yourself a ticket to Vegas and go. The NFR is the perfect antidote for a year's worth of pent-up sports photographer's angst.

So first, a little primer on how it works. Rodeo is made up of two types of events: roughstock and timed events. The timed events are steer wrestling, calf roping, team roping, and barrel racing (the sole women's event). Roughstock events include bareback riding, saddle bronc riding, and bull riding.

Photo by Darren Carroll

Photo by Darren Carroll
Cowboys who compete in these two categories take a rather dim view of their counterparts. To the roughstock cowboys, the timed events guys are candy-asses who don't want to ruin a nice pair of jeans--which, in fact, isn't true. The timed events cowboys will tell you that the roughstock guys are just plain nuts--which, in fact, is indeed true. A little.

The two categories occupy opposite ends of the arena, and the 2-hour nightly program alternates between them, so you have to be ready to move quickly to get to the ideal shooting spots-if you want to move around, that is. Typically, space for photographers is made available it the middle of one side of the arena (essentially, where the penalty boxes are in hockey), and in a corner at the roughstock end. Spaces fill up quickly, so mark a spot early-it's unbelievable how many photographers show up from really tiny media outlets. Those of you familiar with college football sidelines will no doubt see a parallel.

The difference between the two is the media relations staff from the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA). They're spectacular And unlike their football counterparts, they have a firm grasp on who is "for real" and who isn't. If you fall into the former category, they'll bend over backwards to help.

Photo by Darren Carroll

Photo by Darren Carroll
I tend to roam around a lot, rather than claim a spot on the side rail and plant myself there. In fact, I've never had a picture published from any of the "standard" positions. Look around. There are plenty of places in the arena to work from. I find that some events (bareback riding and bullriding) are best shot from semi-elevated spots, to clean up backgrounds and capture facial expressions, while others, such as calf-roping and barrel-racing, look great from a dirt-level vantage point.

There's a TV dugout on one side of the arena that can accommodate 1 photographer per event (provided you're up for lying flat on your stomach in a pile of dirt) on a first-come, first-served basis.

If cleared by the PRCA, it's also possible to work behind the bucking chutes, and there's a lot going on that makes for good pictures. It's crowded back there, though, so the PRCA doesn't let anyone and everyone do it.

As I said before, they're willing to work with photographers, so be prepared to present them with a reason and a plan. A word of advice, though: it may be best to just observe the activity back there for a day or two before venturing up, so you know how to stay out of the way and avoid the occasional stray hoof. They don't call them"bucking horses" for no good reason.

Photo by Darren Carroll

Photo by Darren Carroll
One other piece of advice: get yourself a cowboy hat if you plan on doing this (those of you who know what I look like can now enjoy a good laugh picturing me in one). The only people without them behind the chutes are the drones pointing the TV cameras (imagine that-a TV "photojournalist" not being dressed appropriately), and the last thing any one of us wants is to be mistaken for one of them.

This time around, I decided to take more of a documentary-style approach to the event instead of concentrating solely on action. This may your best bet as well, as the ambient light at the Thomas and Mack center is pretty abysmal. What would be your standard 1/500-f2.8 exposure on 1600 film gets eaten alive by the mass of dark brown dirt all over the floor. 1/250, f2.8, 1600 is about right. It's great if you're an artiste looking for blurs. It's fine if you're working a more journalistic angle and don't need to stop action.

It sucks if you're trying to freeze a guy getting flipped off a bull, or a bareback rider slamming his head against a bucking horse's hind-quarters. My assistant, John Healey, somehow managed to get 12 Speedotrons up and running for the two nights I shot action this year. I say "somehow" because strobes are a dicey proposition for the NFR. The PRCA installs its own set of at least 20 packs, and the stage lighting pulls enough power to light up a small town.

Photo by
Don't consider them as an option unless you a) plan on hiring stagehands to help get your lights up (your alternative is a two-day, do-it-yourself install and one hell of a back ache), and b) want to hire an electrician to install a ton of power. And getting even light out of a set of strobes at the rodeo takes lots of time and patience.The action can happen anywhere in the arena, and you're lighting an area the size of a hockey rink-except you don't have a nice, white sheet of ice underneath to bounce and fill your light evenly. Instead, you have to rely on specific aiming, differing power settings, and a mix of reflector sizes to ensure consistent exposures across the arena.

But enough techno-geeky stuff.

One of the more interesting things about covering the NFR is that, unlike most major sporting events, a photographer from a mainstream newspaper or magazine occupies the position of an outsider. Much like we see each other constantly at football or baseball games during the season, rodeo photographers tend to be a rather close-knit group. It's a photographic world much different from what those of us who shoot the more mainstream sports are used to-a world where a 400- or 600mm is bound to raise a few eyebrows, where remotes don't exist, and where competition for images is rare.

The atmosphere among photographers is very relaxed-hell, the Canadian guys would greet Chris Covatta with a smile, a kind word and a handshake--and there seems to be an unwritten "please check your ego at the door" policy inside the press room. It's rather refreshing.

Covering a rodeo for a non-rodeo publication creates another interesting situation. What I'm looking for-and I'd bet what most of us would be looking for--is essentially a "bad" rodeo picture. True Rodeo Photographers are looking for a rider in perfect position on the livestock, with the animal in perfect position as well-a saddle bronc rider, for example, will be spurring his horse, with one hand in the air, while the horse has all four hooves off the ground. That's the classic saddle bronc picture.

Timing is indeed everything.

Mike Copeman and Dan Hubbell, the two photographers who cover the NFR for the PRCA-and probably the two best rodeo shooters alive today--get these on just about every ride. I don't know how they do it. I know I couldn't.

On the other hand, a guy staying on a horse or a bull is about the last thing I want. And for that, I'm sort of weird as rodeo photographers go. I'm not rooting for disaster, but let's face it: I don't think your average Sports Illustrated reader wants, or cares about the finer points of, the perfect rodeo picture I described above.

Photo by Darren Carroll

Photo by Darren Carroll
But a guy having a little tete-a-tete with close to a ton of pissed-off hamburger-to-be-and getting knocked unconscious in the process-is something anyone can react to. So I go for the imperfect rodeo pictures: riders getting thrown from bulls, cowboys getting smacked by horses.

The guys who are actually in the pictures hate them. "Hey, next time, could you get a picture of me actually staying on the bull?" asked one. Another, when told he'd be the subject of a two-page spread in SI, said, "Geez, I stay on the bull for two seconds, the worst ride of my life, and that's what gets my picture in? Great." Baseball shooters would probably have an easier time getting a "Nice shot" from Barry Bonds than I would from a rodeo cowboy. Well, you can't please everybody, I guess.

But if the only complaint I have about the NFR is that the athletes don't necessarily like the pictures that show up, that's fine by me. Given all the crap we have to deal with in coveringevents these days, and all the complaining we like to do (and I'm certainly as guilty as anybody else), I'm hard-pressed to find anything else to bitch about.

The bottom line is, covering the NFR is probably one of the most refreshing assignments one can have in this business. Give it a try, Besides, you might be surprised at how you look in a Stetson.

(Austin-based freelancer Darren Carroll was recently named the 2001 PRCA Rodeo Photographer of the Year (and has a big ol' silver belt buckle to show for it). He contributes frequently to Sports Illustrated.)



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