When we got to the rodeo I was surprised at the sheer amount of amateur photographers in the stands. There were literally 20-25 shooters with about 7-8 wielding Canon 100-400mm 4.5-5.6L IS USM lenses with another 5-6 using 70-200mm lenses in different varieties. There was also a mix of the Canon Big Whites along with those shooting with consumer lenses. Bodies ranged from 1-Series down to Rebels with the majority shooting with 7Ds with a few 5D Mark IIs and IIIs mixed in.
The large turnout of photographers, at least in part, was because Canon was one of the sponsors of the event and they teamed up with a local camera shop to provide instruction and use of some of Canon’s super telephotos. This also explained the dearth of Nikon shooters, of which I only counted three. The official event photographer, though, was a Nikon shooter and he was shooting inside the arena with a pro body and a 70-200mm f/2.8G AF-S VR II lens.
How to get this type of shot
I have shot enough outdoor action to know that shooting back lit subjects is not only a challenge for exposure, but also can render AF less effective. So prior to purchasing the tickets, I Google Mapped the rodeo grounds to determine which direction I should be shooting to get front lit subjects. It also helped out that Canon was sponsoring a photo workshop, since they would most likely be situated where their class would get the best photos. This turned out to be the South bleachers near the West facing gates.
When shooting an event such as this one, and in general really, I shoot in Manual mode and set my exposure prior to the start of the activities and keep it there for the entire event only periodically checking exposure throughout the day and adjusting if necessary. This is advantageous since panning is required to track the action and as the backgrounds behind your subjects change, so can your camera’s meter reading. Shooting in Manual mode ensures that I get good subject exposure despite what might be in the background that might influence the meter reading as would be the case if I were in one of the automatic modes such as Shutter or Aperture Priority.
The general rule for sports photography is to use a shutter speed of at least 1/500s in order to ‘freeze’ the action. To get this shutter speed I shot wide open at f/2.8 (this also helps with subject isolation due to the shallow depth-of-field). Since I was using a polarizer, this aperture gave me a shutter speed of 1/640s to 1/800s at ISO 100 depending if I was shooting North or South. In hindsight, I should have either taken the polarizer off, thus giving me 3 – 4 times the shutter speed I was at, or bumped up the ISO along with the shutter speed. Even at 1/800s, at 100% view, there is still some motion blur on the subjects.
I shot most of the day at high shutter speeds to try and freeze the action. For the barrel races (photo below), I wanted to capture the speed at which these ladies were riding, so I slowed my shutter speed down to 1/100s and panned my camera with the rider. This resulted in an image with the horse and rider against a streaking background. The image is more dramatic IMO and gives a better sense of speed than a shot of the horse and rider frozen.
Later in the afternoon when the structures on the west end of the arena started to cast a shadow on the gates, I had to switch to spot metering and put my camera into Shutter Priority mode and Auto ISO since the riders went in and out of shade and full sunlight (photo below). Using the center spot to meter the scene allowed me to get proper subject exposure despite the rapidly changing conditions.