Matt: Use Your Surroundings

Two of the themes we have been trying to drive home are “get close” and “use the light to your advantage”. I had the opportunity to put both of these into practice last weekend, and I thought I’d share.

On Saturday and Sunday, I shot the Rowell Ranch Rodeo for the first time, despite the fact that it’s just 20 miles from my house. After walking the grounds and shooting behind the chutes for a bit, I set up on an elevated platform on the side of the bucking chutes. As soon as I did, the announcer started the grand entry, and I noticed that the grand entry was starting on a hill overlooking the arena, about 200 yards away. No big deal, I’ll shoot the visiting queens and the sponsor banners as they enter the arena. But then a woman on a white horse carrying the American flag started racing down the (steep) hill kicking up a trail of dust. It was far too late to get a good picture, so I picked up my 400 and did what I could, which clearly was not much:

I wanted a good picture of the flag entry, so I made a mental note to find out If I was allowed to climb the hill for Sunday’s entry. On Sunday morning I asked Phil Doyle (the official photographer for the rodeo) and he said sure, and we talked about it for a bit, and only after I had decided how to make the picture I wanted, Phil said “Watch out for the rattlesnakes.” At that point, I wanted the picture badly enough to go, so I climbed the hill and waited. Luckily I saw a bunch of bees, but no snakes. And I got the picture I wanted, plus a face full of dirt:

There is no substitute for getting as close as you can. Sitting somewhere with a long lens is lazy and likely to produce boring pictures. Get close, you can always back off later if the picture or your safety demands it.

As the days wound down, I noticed that the sun was moving in a way that would put the chutes in the shadows while the arena would get light coming in almost totally from the side. When shooting sports you should always be looking to either blur out or compose out distracting backgrounds. The rare times when this happens naturally are gifts, and you should use them. But in most cases this is going to mean getting off of automatic settings and braving the world of full manual. On auto (shutter/aperture priority) your camera is going to want to bring up the exposure on the shaded area, and in the process overexpose your subject. If you manually meter (or use your screen/histogram) to get the correct exposure of your subject, the shaded area will underexpose, providing you with your clean background.

Sometimes there’s split light and some kind of automatic setting is the way to go. Sometimes you can’t get close enough and you just need to get a picture, any picture. But the times when you can get close or use the light to your advantage, these are the times you will get pictures that stand out.


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