Every assignment is different depending on what your editor needs, the nature of the venue, and the access you have. Sometimes you’re there to make pictures that will sell to the widest variety of clients. Other times it’s a big game and you need pictures of the most important plays. Once in a while you’ll have to focus on one player. How successful you are as a photographer depends heavily on how well you can deliver no matter what the assignment is or the obstacles involved.
Recently I had an assignment for Spin to Win Rodeo Magazine that I knew was going to be challenging. Spin to Win focuses on team roping, and generally tries to alternate covers between headers (the cowboy who ropes the steer’s horns) and heelers (the one who ropes the steer’s feet.) My picture of header Trevor Brazile was the August issue’s cover, and some readers complained that Brazile’s partner Patrick Smith wasn’t included. The September cover needed to be a heeler, and the biggest rodeo ending before the closing date was the California Rodeo Salinas. That meant that my assignment became: get a great cover picture of the winning team roping heeler.
The California Rodeo is one of the oldest, over 100 years old. Tradition is very important, and in team roping it means they do things differently than any other rodeo. Both ropers start in the same box, and the steer is given a longer than normal head start. The arena is considerably bigger than average, and all of this produces longer times. The longer the steer is running, the more unpredictable things become. In general the header ropes the steer and pulls it around to the left. The heeler comes from the right side around to the left and ropes the feet, most times ending up facing the left side of the arena. But with the rules at Salinas, anything can happen. Shoot from the right side and the heeler could be facing away. Shoot from the left and the header could eclipse any view of the heeler. The far end is more than 100 yards away, not the best bet for a high impact cover picture.
Team roping, along with the other timed events at Salinas, is a five-head aggregate competition, meaning that everyone gets 4 tries and then the top 12 lowest times qualify for the short round and a fifth try. The lowest time on 5 wins. This means (unlike rodeos with no short round where the winner could be long gone by the end of the rodeo) that the winner will be competing on Sunday. But to be safe, it’s better to have pictures from earlier in the week as a backup in case something goes wrong photographically in the short round.
Now that you know more than you ever wanted to know about team roping, there is the matter of access. My editor sent in a credential request for me, making sure to ask for the exact access I needed. Since I don’t have a PRCA photographers card, I can’t shoot from the dirt. This means that it was vital that I be free to shoot from the fenced-in pit on the right side and from the bucking chutes on the left side. But when I picked up my credentials I found no chute pass and when I went to the arena I was informed that the fenced-in pit was considered as part of the dirt. The “official” photographer there really likes to protect “his” territory, “bless his heart” as they say. Very luckily for me, a PRCA official who knew me was at the rodeo and after a while was able to fix my access situation. In the mean time I may or may not have sent a series of urgent texts to my editor.
With everything finally sorted out I was able to concentrate on shooting. By Sunday I had a good feel as to how far down the arena runs were finishing, and as the team ropers went in order of slowest to fastest, I could cheat a little based on the time each needed to win. The second place team of Derrick Begay and Cesar de la Cruz were behind by enough that they needed a really, really fast run to have any hope of winning, so I cheated in closer. At that angle I had to accept that I would have no shot on header Begay but would give myself the best chance to get a high-impact picture of de la Cruz. It all came together, with the team turning in a very fast time to take the lead, and de la Cruz facing directly at me straining while his rope burned through his hands as he tightened his loop around the steer’s hind legs. Professionally I can’t root for anyone in particular, but I knew I had a cover if their score held up. But the last team to go still had a chance to win it with a good run. They didn’t quite get it done, so Begay and de la Cruz won and all that was left to do was edit the pictures and transmit.
Obviously only a small portion of our readers shoot rodeo, and only a small portion regularly get assignments, so I’m sure the overlap of these sets is in the low single digits. But I thought it was important to write this up to show the kind of thought that goes into shooting. Too often we see pictures where there was clearly no thought involved at all, just someone with a camera pointing it in the general direction of the action, and pressing the shutter button. Your pictures will get better as you begin to consider your surroundings, the tendencies of the competitors, the access you have, and what you are trying to accomplish (for yourself or for your editor). The more you think about all of these factors and how they interact with each other, the better your results will be.
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