Demystifying the world of sports photography

WNFR (Wrangler National Finals Rodeo)

2013 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo Diary Part 3: What to Bring & Why

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 D3S
Nikon D3
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)


Gitzo monopod
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)

Cleaning Gear:

Visible Dust sensor swabs
Rocket blower
Sensor Sweep brush
Eclipse solution

Business cards
Portfolio books


2013 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo Diary Part 2: Picture Editing

This is the second in a series of posts looking at what it takes to prepare for and shoot the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.

Famously the NFR is a fast rodeo. The action alternates between the roughstock end and the timed-event end with precious few breaks in the action. Generally from the national anthem to the end of the bull riding is never more than a few minutes beyond two hours, 50-100% shorter than a regular-season rodeo. This is good for workload, bad for workflow where editing time can be as much as 3-4x shooting time. I’ve already covered captioning in advance, this post will take a look at setting up a workflow that can handle a high volume of pictures, a variety of clients with different time sensitivities, all with an eye toward making it through 10 straight days of shooting.

As discussed, I’ll mark the pictures in-camera that I need to edit immediately after each night’s action is over. After those pictures are captioned and tagged, I’ll apply some light editing. Ideally it will just be a crop and a quick toning. The Thomas & Mack Center is a mess of different colored lighting mixed with the smoke from the fireworks they set off before each performance. I’ve gone back through my pictures from 2011 and made notes on color temperatures and exposures, and from that information I set up presets in Aperture that can be batch-applied. I’m not counting on this to be perfect right off the bat, but I do expect to be able to get it pretty close after a night or two, and in turn save a bunch of editing time. (I realize most of you do not use Aperture, but you can build presets in Lightroom and other editing programs as well.)

Since the rounds start at 7pm, I have the whole next day to tag, caption and edit the remaining pictures, clean my gear (sensors and glass), charge the batteries, and download the stock draw for that night. The daily goal is to caption & tag everything and rate pictures in the following way:

4*: best of roping and barrel racing pictures plus anything out of the ordinary…edit & send ASAP
3*: best of the rest…edit & send following day
1*: keep in case (generally very similar to 3 & 4*, kept in case clients want slightly different versions to show off a logo or piece of gear not visible in the (photographically) best versions.
X: reject (probable delete after a second look at a later date)

So 4* pictures will be captioned, edited, and delivered each night, 3* the next morning, 1* will sit until a client wants to see options, and X will eventually be deleted. Everything needs to be organized, but not everything needs to be edited, not with 10 consecutive days of shooting.

Everything will be continuously backed up to 2 external drives, one will be with me and one will be in the safe.

The key to making it through the 10 days is getting a lot of rest, eating as close to normally as you can in Vegas, and conserving energy so that the night’s shoot/edit can go as smoothly as possible. Last time I made it to about the fifth round before exhaustion took over and the seventh round before I got a full-on cold which had me limping to the final round. I’m hoping that extensive planning and some better time-management will get me through in better shape this year.


2013 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo Diary Part 1: Caption in Advance

This is the first in a series of posts looking at what it takes to prepare for and shoot the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.

When shooting on a deadline, it’s always best to get as much work as possible out of the way in advance. One of the easiest things to accomplish beforehand is setting up IPTC metadata and code replacements for captions. Regular season rodeos are challenging because it’s not possible to know exactly who is competing or what bull/horse they draw until the day sheet comes out just before the rodeo. College and pro sports are easy because rosters and numbers are available online. The WNFR is more like mainstream sports because qualifiers became official and are posted on October 1, two months before the rodeo starts. Based on this information, I was able to fill out placeholder captions for every WNFR contestant for each of the 10 days of the rodeo. An example for timed events:

Team roper Trevor Brazile of Decatur, TX records a time of in the first round of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, NV.

After the round I can fill in the time, copy/paste it into the caption field and be done.

It works a bit differently for roughstock events:

Bareback rider Kaycee Feild of Payson, UT rides of for points in the first round of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, NV.

The day before each round, the stock draw is posted, so I can update the captions day-by with the horse or bull, stock contractor, and then add the score after the round.

I also have a code replacement that looks like this for place (first-sixth) and the corresponding money won per round that will be inserted after the time/score:

and a first place check worth $18,629.81

So there’s a bare minimum of typing that needs to be done on deadline.

During the rodeo I will either use the voice memo feature on the camera or shoot the scoreboard to make sure I have IDs for everything. Since my deadline assignments are for Spin to Win Rodeo and Barrel Horse News, I will flag pictures of the money winners in the roping and barrel racing so I can download and edit those first. If anything out of the ordinary happens in the other events I’ll get those onto the wire as soon as possible for national exposure. The last thing I’ll do directly after each round is pull pictures for my commercial clients to use on social media. When I get back to the hotel, I’ll make two full backup copies and be done for the night.

*Next up: Going “Training Ground” on my own pictures from the 2010 & 2011 WNFRs to see what works, what didn’t, and begin to make a shooting plan for this year.


*Please Read Below*

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NFR Diary – What Do You Want to Know?

If you’ve been around here for a while, you might remember my Wrangler National Finals Rodeo running diary from 2011. After being banned last year (politics!) I recently was approved for credentials for this year’s “Super Bowl of Rodeo”. I have two magazine clients, and a handful of commercial clients, and will be in limbo in the desert for 10 days shooting the best cowboys, cowgirls, and livestock in the world.

Two months out I have already started preparing (studying my pictures from last time and creating code replacements for captions). I’m thinking about doing another diary this year, but I want to put it up for discussion first. I’m happy to share my stories, but since we preach thought and preparation over and over again, I want to hear questions you have about how to planning, traveling, deciding how and what to shoot, workflow, delivery, and anything else relevant. What would you want to know if you were getting ready for a shoot like this?


*Please Read Below*

Big Lens Fast Shutter is funded solely from the pockets of Ryu Voelkel and Matt Cohen. If you think the information we give you about sports photography is making you a better sports photographer and as a result a well balanced human being, please show us your appreciation by clicking on the “Donate” button and send some of your hard earned dollars/euros/Brixton pounds our way. People who donate will be mentioned on our next show unless you want to remain anonymous. Thank you for supporting us and may the force of sports photography be with you, always.
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Matt at WNFR #7: The End

So I made it (barely) through my 11 days in Vegas, and after all the talking (complaining) all that’s left is the pictures. So here is a selection of my favorites from this year’s Wrangler National Finals Rodeo:

Matt at WNFR #6: Don’t Stop Shooting

One of the first newspaper assignments I ever took, back when I was shooting high school sports exclusively was a basketball game in a very wealthy suburb of San Francisco. Early in the game, one of the referees had a heart attack during a play. I saw him fall through my viewfinder but didn’t think much of it until there was pandemonium in the gym. Several parents identified themselves as doctors and started working on the man, and the gym was evacuated. Being inexperienced, I evacuated as well, and called my editor to tell him had had happened. Let’s just say that he wasn’t happy that I didn’t keep shooting, as even though the game was over, there was now a news story.

This was an easy (if embarrassing) lesson to learn, so since then, I shoot until someone makes me stop, no matter how crazy it is. During Wednesday’s seventh-round performance, Wyoming bull rider Clayton Savage made the whistle on a bull named Early Bird. Savage scored 85 points, good enough to win the round, but when he dismounted, one of his spurs got tangled in his bull rope and Early Bird took him for a ride across the arena. I’ve seen things like this happen, and it usually ends with at least a broken leg, and often worse. While it was happening, the arena was filled with gasps and verbal expressions of horror. I knew I was there to shoot it, not to watch, so I ripped off 20 or so frames after the ride was over. Don’t stop shooting, no one can see the pictures you don’t take.

Matt at WNFR #5: The Secret Weapon

With severely limited shooting positions and 10 days of shooting, it helps to have a secret weapon. While I have been steadily pushing my luck with where I have been shooting from, I’m not getting any lower (well-trained security at Thomas & Mack), so to get some pictures that look different, I decided to get as close as I could (shout going out to the spectator whose legroom I bogarted) and shoot with my 85mm f/1.4. Most people don’t think of this as a sports lens, and this is why sports pictures made with it will look different.

It’s not without drawbacks: shooting at 1.4 (the only way to go) offers a vanishingly thin zone of focus. Depending on how close you are to the action, we’re talking inches, not feet. And because this lens isn’t built for sports, it (either version) won’t focus very fast. So shooting fast wild action like broncs and bulls means that you have to be quick with the AF-ON button, and also totally prepared to throw away a bunch of out-of-focus pictures.

But when it works, it really works (this is also true with lenses like 105f2, 135f2, and 200f2 depending on how close you are able to get).

Matt at WNFR #4: When to Break the Rules

So after the first two performances and being briefed on the pecking order, I decided that I was going to have to take things into my own hands. Ten days of shooting from above or from a less-than-optimal spot in the corral was not going to get me what I needed, and ultimately it’s my responsibility to solve the set of problems that stand in my way – literally and figuratively. We covered doing this at multi-day events in our interview with Matthew Stockman in Episode 8.

While I was shooting on Thursday and Friday, I was scanning the arena for places that would give me the angles I wanted, whether they were accessible to me or not. After a while I identified four spots, the bottom of the aisles on the right and left of each end. These spots are higher off the ground than I would have liked, but they offered head-on views of both the bucking chutes and the timed event chutes, and I could see that if I sat on the bottom step, I wouldn’t be blocking anyone’s view.

So the calculus is: Will the pictures be worth it? Are you creating a safety hazard? Are you blocking anyone who paid to be there? If the answers are Yes, No, No, then you have to at least consider risking the wrath of the media people and going for it. For me it worked (I finally got the straight-up action pictures of Billy that I needed, and can experiment more in the remaining performances, and no one said anything to me or probably even noticed.)

Saddle bronc rider Heith Demoss Of Heflin, La gets bucked off Chuckulator of Sutton Rodeos, Inc. during the third go-round

Matt at WNFR #3: The Pecking Order

Last year when I shot the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, the credential conformation email that I got said that shooting positions were “first come, first served,” which to someone who doesn’t mind getting to events early, was good news. But when I arrived, a woman with an 18-55 on a consumer body explained to me that positions were based on seniority, and I didn’t have any. Somehow I managed to keep my head from catching on fire. This year, I pulled aside one of the guys who has “seniority” and asked him what the real deal is, and I swear he said the phrase “pecking order”. So not being one of the official photographers I can’t get in the ring, and not having seniority I can’t get a decent position in the little corral, yet my responsibility to get pictures of my subject remains. There’s something oddly freeing when you’re completely boxed in, so I figured I was down to two choices: find the best position however off-limits and shoot until I got kicked out, or ask one of the media reps to make some kind of accommodation.

I decided to ask first so that I could say that I exhausted all proper channels, and to my surprise, I was allowed to shoot the steer wrestlers from the bucking chutes, giving me a nice head on view of both the dismount and the ground work. The only drawback was that the bucking chute platform is made of steel mesh, and I had to balance my monopod on my shot lest it drop through the mesh. Everything went well during the steer wrestling…until my subject Billy Bugenig jumped off his horse a little funny which obscured most of his face. Such are the dangers of shooting two horses, two cowboys and a steer coming directly at you for 4 seconds. I still have 8 performances left and a couple of tricks left to try.

Matt at WNFR #2: Travel Travel Travel Shoot

Let me just start this off by admitting that I am an idiot when it comes to travel plans. Somehow I failed to notice that I scheduled a flight from Oakland to Las Vegas that featured a THREE HOUR LAYOVER in Long Beach. Mechanical problems added a bit to that, and waiting an hour* at the airport for the hotel shuttle meant that basically I had about enough time to drop my bags in my room and walk over to the Thomas & Mack Center. As I have written before, good planning leads to good pictures, bad planning leads to stress.

*This wait was not totally in vain however. A little girl, maybe four years old, pointed at me and said “Look mommy, a real cowboy.” The mother told me that the girl loves cowboys, but had never seen one in real life. I told the mother not to get too excited because I’m not a real cowboy, and she gave me a “don’t ruin this for her” look, and said “You have the hat, you have the jeans, and you have the buckle. You’re a cowboy.”

I walked around Thomas & Mack for a bit checking out the bigger media room (good) and the same old shooting position (very bad). I made my way to the bareback riders room and caught up with Clint Cannon, Brian Bain, Matt Bright and Bobby Mote and made some pictures of them getting their riggings set up before their rides. I decided that I would shoot the first night from overhead rather than squeeze into the official shooting position at the rail and test my already thin patience.

The lighting at Thomas & Mack isn’t bad, but getting the white balance right is a little tricky, and because I had some trouble with it last year, I made it a point to get a few custom readings before things got stared. Then they had a pyrotechnics show that blanketed the arena in smoke and I had to scramble again.

When the action started, I moved from aisle to aisle trying to get the best angle possible on each of the events. Shooting people in cowboy hats from overhead introduces another risk, namely the brim of the hat covering the face unless they lean back. Luckily winning bareback rider Kaycee Feild helped me out:

Barrel racing is the only rodeo event for the ladies, and unfortunately it generally produces the absolute most boring photography. I like to use panning when I shoot barrel racing, and when shooting from overhead, I try to pan up and down (not just side to side) as the ladies go through the pattern. My favorite picture of the night is this one of Tammy Fischer attacking her second barrel:

That’s all from the first go-round. My mission today is to get caught up on sleep so that I can go into tonight as fresh as possible, and also to sneak into some better positions. But don’t tell anyone…

Matt at WNFR #1: What to Take

As I write this post, my apartment looks like a tornado hit it. I leave on Thursday for 10 days in Las Vegas covering the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. The WNFR is by far the richest event in rodeo with a total prize pool of $6 million US, and the contestants can easily make more money in its 10 performances than they have made the other 355 days of the year. I shot the event last year, but only for five days on a general assignment where I shot almost exclusively action. This year I’ll be there for all 10 days, and I have a specific assignment covering steer wrestler Billy Bugenig for the Ferndale Enterprise. Winning steer wrestling times are generally around 4 seconds which means that Billy will be in the arena for less than a minute total. I will need pictures outside of the arena as well, and this means bringing a wider range of gear than for a typical sports assignment. Combined with being away for 10 days, I’m faced with the logistical challenge of getting myself, my gear, and my clothes on a plane to and from Vegas, and Ryu’s suggestion of a pair of jeans and 10 t-shirts didn’t sound like a good idea at all.

But since this is a work trip, my Think Tank Airport Security (carryon, never checked) rolling bag will get filled first. Here’s what’s in it right now:

Nikon D3S
Nikon D3
400mm 2.8VR (NPS loaner while they fix mine)
70-200mm 2.8 (VR1)
24-70mm 2.8
14-24mm 2.8
85mm 1.4D
50mm 1.4
TC-14E 1.4x teleconverter
2xSB-800 Speedlites
SU-800 commander
Rayflash Ringflash
AA charger for SB-800 batteries
Think Tank Pixel Pocket Rocket with spare memory cards
Neutral density filters (for panning and daylight pictures with the 1.4 primes)
Giottos rocket blower and Copperhill Sensor Sweep brush (it’s a rodeo after all)
Kingston cable lock for my laptop

This fills the Airport Security completely, so my laptop (2011 15″ MacBook Pro), laptop charger, phone charger, backup drive and FW800 cable need to go in my carryon backpack, and the camera battery charger, and monopod need to go in my suitcase. I’m also going to try to pack my Think Tank Urban Disguise 40 in my suitcase so that when I am shooting without the 400mm, I can carry everything in there as I follow cowboys to casinos, bars, hotel rooms, horse stalls, etc.

I’ll fill my backpack with as many articles of clothing as I can and then get my suitcase as close to 49.9 lbs as I can, and hope that I’m not too funky by the end of the trip.


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