Rodeo, high-speed shooting, and one reason photos are special

Went to the Mesquite Pro Rodeo last weekend. We used to go to the great, annual Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo when we lived down in Houston. The Mesquite Rodeo is a more modest (and less expensive) affair but very entertaining. If you’re in the Dallas area, I recommend you give it a try sometime. Very family friendly. Anyway, I went to take photos.

Ride ’em cowboy

Because rodeo is so very difficult, a lot of the rides end pretty quickly. You get to see lots of cowboys getting thrown off the horse. You see fewer cowboys staying on and really getting a good ride.

The horse and rider come out of the chute in a hurry.

This cowboy had a good seat and a good ride:

If you’re not familiar with rodeo, the hand in the air isn’t for style points, it’s a rule.

The camera catches stuff that happens too quickly to be observed in real life — or on video — like the way the rider rises out of the saddle (above) or is thrown back (next).

There’s a rhythm to a successful ride: up down, lurch forward, stop abruptly.

And the camera can catch and freeze moments and postures that you really don’t ever notice, like this shot of the horse and rider almost straight-on from the rear, with horse’s head down and its hooves kicking up.

And of course, the ride comes to an end eventually. Actually, they don’t all end in a fall. Sometimes the cowboy is rescued by other cowboys who ride up alongside so he can jump off the bronco on to the back of another horse. But the really good rides seem to end in a spill sooner or later. It happens too quickly and too unexpectedly for comprehension or memory when you see it live. That’s what the camera is good for.

Notice that the rider and horse are now on the other side of the arena, so the photo shows people in the stands. That helps the picture, I think, because you can see the startled rections of several of the spectators, like the ladies on the far left and the far right. I also like the way the horse is so curled up. You can sense the energy that finally tossed the cowboy face down in the dirt.

Still photos vs video

Some subjects are particularly well suited to video and not particularly well suited to photography. At the rodeo there was an event for kids, where kids got to ride a sheep. Sheep don’t buck and the fall from a sheep is not so dangerous, so this is safer than it sounds. Anyway, most of the kids fell off the sheep not far from the gate. But one kid clung to the sheep for dear life. Most of the time he was hanging on the sheep sideways, but he didn’t let go.

In the end, one of the rodeo clowns had to catch the sheep and pull the boy off by his ankles.

The spectators gave the kid a standing ovation.

The photos of the boy on the sheep aren’t especially interesting. So you’ll have to take my word for it, that this kid’s ride was the highpoint of the evening. I hope his parents got the video. (There was a videographer in the arena.) The amazing thing about his ride was that he stayed on the sheep, or to put it more abstractly, it’s action over time that makes the ride interesting.

A photograph, on the other hand, is about an instant. It doesn’t have to be a “decisive moment,” in Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous phrase. In my sequence of shots of the bronco rider, no one moment is “decisive.” A bit like the famous photos of the galloping horse taken by Muybridge, there is some interest in freezing the frames even as you see one frame change to another. Many people seem to think Muybridge’s movement photos were interesting because they were proto-movies. Not at all. At least until the invention of slow-motion (i.e. super high speed) movie cameras, you couldn’t see the actual movements of a horse in a movie any better than you could in real life. The camera captures that moment. Might not be decisive, but if the photo is good, the moment it captures is interesting, significant, compelling. It takes you out of time and lets you really stop and enjoy a moment that, in reality, was over before you had a chance to appreciate it.

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At least for the time being you can see the whole series of photos from the rodeo here or here.

Faster isn’t always better

Once the action got started, I put the Sony A77 into high-speed drive mode (8 fps). There’s a 12 fps continuous shooting priority mode (on the mode dial) but that’s going overboard. I didn’t buy the A77 for its unmatched frames-per-second shooting and I normally keep the camera in the low-speed (3 fps) drive mode, which is adequate for just about everything I do. But rodeos move fast. A long ride lasts 8 seconds. So using the “hi” speed drive mode seemed appropriate, at first.

But after a while I changed my mind and went back to the normal low-speed mode. I ran into two problems with the 8 fps mode.

In hi-speed drive mode, it’s just about impossible (for me, anyway) to take just one photo. Every time I touched the shutter, I used up two or three frames whether I wanted them or not. After a short while I noticed that space was being eaten up on my 8 GB storage card faster than I liked, and the rodeo is a two-hour event.

But the more serious problem is that you can only shoot 8 fps for a short while — about 1.5 seconds or roughly 14 frames — before the camera’s buffer fills up and you can’t shoot at all until it clears, which takes several more seconds. (The continuous advance priority shooting mode that goes up to 12 fps has about the same limitations as the 8 fps hi-speed drive mode.)

Shooting at 3 fps, on the other hand, I was able to keep shooting without a hitch for about 18 frames (roughly six seconds) and a little less smoothly even after that. Remember, a good ride lasts about 8 seconds. Shooting in the low-speed drive mode I was able to keep shooting through an entire ride.

And shooting more slowly, with the ability to squeeze off just one shot if I wanted, I was able to be more deliberate, to anticipate my shots and take the ones I wanted, without filling up my storage card with junk, and without giving myself more work to do on the computer (deleting all the extra images).

There’s a moral here. Shoot as fast as you need to — but not faster. Actually, this is right in line with what I’ve been trying to do for years: shoot more slowly and more deliberately. Fewer shots, more keepers. There are no bonus points for shooting more frames (although many amateurs think there are).

That said, I might use the 8 fps or even the 12 fps shooting modes some day. Seems ideally suited to photographing certain sports where the action is really brief, like a platform diver somersaulting into the pool or a wide receiving catching a pass then getting the stuffing knocked out of him.

A technical note about settings

All of the photos in this post were taken with a Sony A77. As I mentioned above, more often than note, the camera was in low-speed (3 fps) drive mode, which allowed me to shoot one frame or a dozen or more, as the spirit hit me.

The shooting conditions inside the arena were challenging. We were on the fifty-yard line, which was great, but up in a suite, which meant we were not as close to the action as we would have been down in the orchestra seats, row 1. And the lighting in the arena was worse than I expected. I brought a long zoom (Tamron 70-300mm f/4-5.6) but ended up using the Sony DT 85 f2.8 SAM prime lens for almost all of the photos. I shot almost entirely at ISO 1600 or higher (lots of shots at ISO 3200). And I shot almost entirely in M (full manual) mode because it’s the best way to balance the conditions (low light) against the subject (fast action): in M I can set the aperture pretty wide (mostly f/2.8 or f/3.2) and set the shutter speed moderately high (mostly 1/250th sec or higher) and know that those settings will stay put.

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