How to Photograph a Rodeo :: Digital Photo Secrets

How to Photograph a Rodeo

by David Peterson 0 comments

If you're already an old hand at shooting sporting events, you may think you have the rodeo thing figured out. How different could it be? In any sporting event, things move fast, so you need to use a fast shutter speed to get clear pictures. Isn’t that all there is to it? Read on to find out.

Unfortunately, it's not as simple as that. Rodeos are pretty unique shooting situations. First of all, major rodeo events are often held indoors in poor light, so you're going to have trouble achieving the very fast shutter speeds that you need to freeze the action of fast moving people and animals. That means if you're new to photographing rodeo and you have an opportunity to visit an outdoor event during the day, you're going to want to take advantage of that.

Shutter speed, ISO and flash

Make sure you arrive early, and try to get most of your photos taken in the early part of the day while the light is still good. Once the light starts to fail, you may want to switch to shutter priority. Shutter priority mode is going to guarantee a sharp photo in low light (to a certain degree—when it gets too dark shutter priority mode won’t make much difference), and you won't have to worry about keeping track of what your camera is doing with its settings as the light starts to fade. Choose a shutter speed in the 1/500 range—remember that may change depending on how fast your subject is moving. If the event is barrel racing, for example (which is a timed event run at break-neck speed), you may want to choose a shutter speed faster than 1/500. If you're shooting mutton bustin', on the other hand (Kids riding sheep!), you can probably get away with using a slower shutter speed, especially towards the end when all the sheep are putting on the breaks and the kids have fallen off. Make sure you're aware of how fast any one event is going to be moving so you can make adjustments accordingly. And remember too that there's a difference between how you will shoot a subject that’s moving parallel to your lens, and how you will shoot the same subject when it’s moving towards or away from you. As a general rule you will need faster shutter speeds for those parallel moving subjects, and slower shutter speeds for subjects moving towards or away from you.

You will almost certainly need to raise your ISO, especially if you are indoors or in failing light. Remember that it is much more important to get a sharp image than it is to capture a photo without noise, so always make sure to raise your ISO before adjusting your shutter speed, especially if you’re going to have to go below 1/500.

And whatever you do, don't use flash at a rodeo. Your flash is probably not going to have the reach you need anyway, and at a rodeo it can actually be a hazard to both people and animals. The last thing you want to do is flash a bright in the face of an angry bull, because that's just going to make him even angrier. If you do use your flash, not only will it probably not do you a lot of good anyway, but it may also cause someone in the arena to suffer injury. So leave your external flash at home, and leave your popup flash down.

If you're taking pictures indoors, the good news is that the light is going to remain pretty much the same throughout the entire event, except during those events where they lower the lights for dramatic effect. Generally speaking, though, the light is going to be more or less the same from one event to another, which means you'll have a very good idea about what settings to use regardless of how far into the evening it is. If you happen to be shooting in a very poorly lit arena, then you will need to maximize your ISO. Go as high as you can tolerate, and consider going even higher than that if you're still not able to achieve the shutter speeds you need. You may have to step a little outside your comfort zone in order to get a sharply focused photograph.

Remember that your ISO should be high enough to allow a shutter speed of at least 1/500, and if you can't accomplish that you may need to use other tactics. For example, there are going to be parts of the arena that are brighter than others—those spots directly beneath the lights, for example. Concentrate on photographing the action that happens in that part of the arena. If it's still not enough, you may have to resort to photographing the slower parts of each event. For example, calf-roping starts out very fast, but once the cowboy is tying up the calf, you have an opportunity to get good photos at slower shutter speeds. Yes, the cowboy's arms and hands will be moving pretty fast and you may get some motion blur in his extremities, for the most part the calf is going to be pretty motionless, and the horse will standing pretty still as well, so you won’t have to worry too much about blur.


Rodeos are dangerous places. If you don't believe me, you've clearly never been to a rodeo. And the relative lack of safety close to the action means you’re almost certainly going to have to take photos from the grandstands. There is no safe place at ground level—if you see photographers there, they are professionals with a lot of experience photographing large animals in a rodeo setting. Even if you're behind a barrier, that's not always going to protect you—a large animal like a bull weighs between a ton and a ton and a half, and a barrier means nothing to him when he's angry and out of control.


Because you’re going to be taking photos from the grandstands, that means you will need a telephoto lens. Depending on how big the arena is, you may need between a 200mm and 400mm focal length. If you don't already have a lens like this, borrow or rent one because you really aren’t going to be satisfied with images shot at wider angles. And keep aperture in mind, too—a lot of consumer lenses (that is, inexpensive lenses) aren't usually very fast (meaning that their maximum apertures aren't very wide), and they may not go wide enough for those low light situations. You need a wide aperture because it will let in a lot more light during those fast exposures, which will of course help you get a sharp photo.

Wide apertures

The ideal aperture to shoot an event like this is ideally somewhere between f/2.8 and f/4. Now the challenge with larger apertures, of course, is that it can be difficult to keep a moving object in focus when you have a shallow depth of field. So you're really going to have to learn through practice—shoot well-lit events if you can and keep the aperture in the middle until you get the hang of keeping your subject in focus. Using your camera’s focus-tracking can help, but even focus tracking isn’t perfect—you may have more luck if you turn off auto-focus, pre-focus on the part of the arena where the most action happens and then wait for subjects to arrive there.

Another benefit of larger apertures is that you'll blur out some of the distractions that are always present in an arena setting. For the most part, you're not really going to want to include advertising material on the arena wall, or the faces of rodeo officials and other people who are just standing around the sidelines watching the competitors. You'll want your viewer to focus on your subject or group of subjects, and you want to soften up those other distractions. One good way to do this is by keeping your aperture wide.

Do remember, though, that the distance between your subject and the background, and the distance between your camera and subject can have a big impact on how much blur you get in the background. Generally speaking, when you’re a long way away from your subject you won’t get as much background blur, and when your subject is close to the background you also won’t get a lot of blur. Use your telephoto lens to get as optically close as you can but don’t be disappointed if your backgrounds aren’t as blurry as you’d like them to be.


I can tell you from personal experience that it’s very difficult to pan a rodeo event. I have seen some very good panned images shot at rodeos but I will say that they tend to be more about luck than skill. This is why: because animals don't move smoothly the way cars and other vehicles do, so it’s going to be exceedingly difficult to get a perfectly crisp shot of them with a streaky panned background. That's because an animal's legs move quickly, tails fly and heads bob up and down. Now, if you catch the animal in a certain stride, and you use the right shutter speed, you may be able to get a successful panned shot, but I don't recommend spending too much time on this in a rodeo setting, or you going to end up with a lot of disappointing images. If you are going to try, start out with subjects that move smoothly, such as a wagon pulled by walking horses. Use a pretty fast shutter speed (by panning standards)—say 1/30 or 1/60, and wait until the light is poor enough that you actually need to use a slower shutter speed. If you really have no alternative but to shoot pictures in low light with a slow shutter speed, that's the time to try panning.

When all else fails, see if there is an open barn that you can visit after the event ends. Sometimes you can get photos of riders and horses behind the scenes, or you may be able to photograph the horses as they're being hosed down and put back in their stalls for the night. Those scenes are going to require much slower shutter speeds, so if the light was an issue for you during the event itself, you don't have to walk away empty-handed.


A rodeo is a fun event and you can get some really wonderful, dramatic photos there, but you need to understand what the limitations are. Low-light photography of any kind is a challenge, and low-light rodeos move fast, which makes them an even bigger challenge. So if you have a choice, hone your skills at those daylight, outdoor events and when you’ve mastered those, challenge yourself in a major indoor arena.


  1. Shutter speed, ISO and flash
  2. Safety
  3. Equipment
    • Telephoto lenses
    • Fast lenses
  4. Aperture
  5. Panning

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.