This is the third in a series of posts looking at what it takes to prepare for and shoot the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.
Having been to the Thomas & Mack Center to shoot the WNFR twice before has its advantages. Most rodeos I shoot have plenty of places from which to shoot: from dedicated platforms to sunken pits to just shooting through fence panels. Thomas & Mack is not a normal rodeo grounds, it’s a basketball arena/concert venue and the dirt is roughly the size of a basketball court plus the benches and the floor seats. The lower bowl of seating ends right at the top of the fencing which means that unless you’re shooting for the PRCA itself, there are exactly zero shooting positions available at dirt-level. They set aside a very narrow (we’re talking body width) shooting position along the side of the arena equidistant from the bucking chutes and the timed-event chutes. About 15 people try to cram into this little space, and end up making the same pictures as each other for ten days in a row. After the first night of my first trip there, I knew I had to figure something else out.
I started by walking up to the upper deck and shooting down with a 400mm. For bareback riding where the cowboys routinely lay out facing the lights, it makes for dramatic pictures. As I looked around from the upper deck, I could see spots at the end of aisles and in the corners where I could get better angles that were more compatible with my gear and the compositions I wanted than the official pen in the middle. Shooting with the 85mm 1.4 from the sides and the 400mm from the opposite ends worked well. The only negative was kneeling on concrete, but that’s why I’ll bring kneepads this year. In general, as long as you’re not risking your safety or blocking anyone’s view, you’ll be ok in most places.
You won’t always have the advantage of knowing the venue well (or even at all) before you shoot. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to find out what you can. There are plenty of pictures of sports venues online, and seating charts for many. You can also look at pictures made at games and try to figure out what some options are. It’s not an exact science but it can help you prepare, and can tip you off if you need to rent a different lens.
Here’s the seating chart at Thomas & Mack marked up with shooting positions:
a: This is the official area for still photographers. Camera level is about 10 feet above the dirt and the angles and distances to the bucking and timed chutes are bad. I doubt I’ll shoot from here unless I have an epiphany about how to take advantage of it.
b: This is a sunken position, primarily for a TV camera. Camera level is inches above the dirt. Excellent low angle position, close enough for shorter lenses. Should be good longer lens location for steer wrestling/team roping. Very bad for tie-down as the roper jumps off on the other side of the horse. I haven’t shot from here, mostly because I could never figure out how to get to it.
c: These positions are at the end of aisles opposite the bucking chutes. Camera level is 15-20 feet above the dirt, but the long distance across the arena minimizes the angle. Ideal for first few jumps of bareback and saddle bronc. Good distance for bull riding, but with the risk of being blocked by barrelman (clown) on some rides. 400mm all the way.
d: This position is at the end of an aisle looking across the bucking chutes. Ideal for first/second jump pictures with 85 1.4. In danger of being screamed at while shooting by local lunatic AP photographer just as in 2011.
e: These positions are at the top of the bottom bowl, good for overhead pictures of roughstock, barrel racing and steer wrestling. The problem with these positions is that people walk by to come and go from their seats and don’t care that they might be walking in front of the camera. Key is to find a good usher and shoot from where he/she is. 400 for tight action, 200 for loose.
f: This position is opposite the timed event chutes, and serves the same purpose as the c position for the timed events.
g: This is the highest position and is at the bottom of the top bowl. It’s good for overhead, straight-on pictures of the tie-down roping and steer wrestling. 400mm all the way.
Behind the scenes locations include the locker rooms, hallways, sports medicine room, and the warm-up tent. Because it is the WNFR, each ride is important, but I will have failed if I come home with 10 days worth of action pictures. My first responsibility is to my clients who have given me a lot of latitude to be creative. But I also must work on doing something different each night. Some of my clients will be using the pictures nightly on social media, so the last thing I want is to deliver the same pictures of the same people over and over with only the shirt color differentiating them.
Given the shooting positions and what I’m trying to accomplish, I’ll be bringing a lot of gear, hopefully packed a bit more carefully than this:
Cameras & Lenses:
Nikon 16mm 2.8 Fisheye (arena overall, behind scenes)
Nikon 50mm 1.4 (behind scenes)
Nikon 85mm 1.4 (across bucking chutes)
Nikon 14-24mm 2.8 (arena overall, behind scenes)
Nikon 24-70mm 2.8 (tv pit near chutes)
Nikon 70-200mm 2.8 (across bucking chutes, opposite team roping – both ropers)
Nikon 400mm 2.8 (stands, opposite ends)
Nikon SB-800 + AA batteries + AA charger
Nikon batteries + Nikon charger
iPhone + cord + wall charger
MacBook Pro + Charger
2x backup drives + cables
Think Tank Pixel Pocket Rocket with spare memory cards
Kingston cable lock for my laptop
Think Tank Photo Airport Security rolling bag (during travel and the walk to and from Thomas & Mack)
Think Tank Photo Skin belt system (during the performance)
Visible Dust sensor swabs
Sensor Sweep brush