Rodeo Photo Tips

© Liz Masoner

That’s not how you ride a bull

The song says:  “Well it’s bulls and blood, It’s dust and mud, It’s the roar of a Sunday crowd” (Garth Brooks).  That sums up rodeo really quickly.  It is a string of heart stopping moments run together in rapid succession for hours. Capturing those moments with your camera takes luck, practice, and these photo tips.  Read on and you’ll be ready to try for some great action shots at the next local rodeo.


I am admittedly notorious for putting myself in less than safe situations when it comes to photography but when it comes to rodeo, you HAVE to pay attention to safety or you’ll wind up dead.

  • Fences Don’t Mean Nuthin’
    When it comes to rodeo, fences aren’t going to stop anything from coming at you. That bull in the arena weighs almost a ton and can clear an 8 foot fence in one hop if he’s mad enough. Don’t be hanging on that fence when he crashes into it, through it, or over it. ALWAYS know where all the animals are and have an escape route.
  • Paramedics Have Right of Way
    The paramedics are there for a reason. If a rider gets hurt every second counts. Don’t block the paramedics from an entry gate or clear passage to the rider areas. Be ready to get out of the way if a paramedic even looks your way because, quite honestly, nobody is going to show you any sympathy if a paramedic knocks you down trying to get to an injured rider.
  • Ditch the Flash
    The official rodeo photographers get a chance to light the arena with flashes safely out of direct line of sight of the animals. You won’t get that chance. If you pop a flash in the face of an animal, especially one that is mad or scared, very bad things can happen for humans and animals. The least scary outcome I’ve seen when a flash was fired in an animal’s face was that the bull stopped dead in his tracks and stared at the photographer for 4 full seconds. That doesn’t seem like much but while that bull was making his mind up over whether to keep bucking or come over the fence after the guy with the camera, that cowboy’s score was ruined and he lost any chance at the prize money of the night.  And it was probably all for nothing as green eye probably ruined the shot anyway.
© Liz Masoner

Bless the boys that protect their noggins but those helmets still don’t look right in rodeo pics

Shooting Location

Every arena is different but here are some things to remember when looking for a good vantage point.

  • Angle
    If you want to shoot from a low angle  to intensify the action you’ll need to look for a shooting spot where you can pick a decent background. Remember to watch for light poles, equipment, and debris in the background. Rodeo is not about neatness so you are likely going to really have to look closely at what is behind your main subject.  Look for a location where you have a nice view of the stands and the background fence is reasonably neat and pleasing to the eye.  If you want to shoot from a high angle so that just dirt is the background for your shots, be sure you have a clear line of sight to the arena floor. People walking in front of your shot is incredibly frustrating.Remember that your point of view will make a difference in the impact of the shot. Low angle shots put more power in the action while higher angle shots put more emphasis on the viewer of the photo.
  • Lighting
    For daylight rodeos, watch the sun. Keep the sun at your back so that your subjects aren’t in shadow. Remember to watch for shadows of stands, poles, and people when shooting with the sun behind you.For nighttime rodeos, pick a location where you have a good shot when the animals and riders are in the best illuminated area. Remember that in limited light situations, being closer to the light means more light captured by your lens.
© Liz Masoner

Barrel Racing is all about the turns (the more experienced the rider and horse, the closer turns will be to the barrels).

Know Your Event

Every rodeo event has a different type of pivotal moment. Knowing the event will help you anticipate the action for the best shot.

    • Kiddie Fun
      There are rodeos specifically for child competitors. There are also kiddie events as some “grown up” rodeos. Events like mutton busting (a kid rides a sheep instead of a bull), ribbon grab (one kid ropes a calf while another has to grab a ribbon from the calf’s tail), and hobby horse races (exactly what it sounds like), provide lots of opportunities for great shots. For these events (especially at smaller rodeos) it is often possible to get very close to the action for some great close up shots. Just remember that even calves have a lot of power. I’ve seen a calf flip a teenager completely over his back like he weighed nothing.
    • Barrel Racing
      Barrel racing is about speed and tight corners. Depending on the arena, riders may have a long lead up into their arena entrance or they may burst out of a starting area from a standstill. This entrance and the final mad dash out of the arena are the best moments to capture the speed of the event. The other main moment of barrel racing is the turn around the barrels. Pick a barrel where you can capture the turn and either the entrance or exit run from the same shooting location.
    • Bull Riding
      Bull riding is, at most, 8 seconds of furious action followed by the occasional bull and clown antics. The first burst out of the gate, when the bull goes from still to full motion, usually produces some excellent facial expressions on the rider but the gate is often in the way of a really good shot. Bulls also twist and turn a lot during rides so be careful to capture the action when the bull is parallel to you or facing you. Prime points in bull riding are airborne bulls with their bodies stretched out and the rider stretched out as well. Remember that bulls are generally released from multiple gates so position yourself with a good view of as many gates as possible.
    • Bare Back Broncs
      Think bull riding but with horses. No saddle and a very cranky horse under the rider. While very similar to bull riding, you’ll see less spins and more height from the broncs. Frame your shots wider so you don’t cut off a rider’s head when the bronc jumps for the moon.
    • Roping
      There are multiple roping type events at rodeo. For most roping events, the prime shots are of horse and rider galloping behind the target animal with lariat overhead and the moment when the cowboy or cowgirl has jumped off his/her horse and just grabbed the target animal to wrestle it to the ground.
    • Every Event
      For every event there is a trump shot. The shot that works for every event is the fall. Spills, falls, tumbles, any of these events are a desired shot for every event.

© Liz Masoner

Clowns deliberately put themselves in harm’s way to protect riders. These are great opportunities for action shots.

Camera Settings

Of course your settings will be different in every situation but there is one main thing to remember.

Shutter speed is king. Speed, speed, and more speed. The faster your shutter, the sharper the action. If it means bumping your ISO way up and dealing with grain to get that fast shutter speed, so be it. Underexposure makes noise worse in an photo so it is better to kick your ISO up one more notch for a nice, bright scene that minimizes noise than deliberately underexpose.

For most events, 1/500 of a second is a bare minimum to stop some of the action but to really freeze a fast horse or spinning bull you’ll need a shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second or faster. This is why many pros prefer fast glass (lenses with wide aperture capability).

If you can’t reach the high shutter speeds due to equipment restrictions, you still have the option of panning for some events. By turning your camera with the action, you can create blurred backgrounds and still freezing a fair amount of the action with the animal and rider.

Official Photographers

While some small local rodeos won’t have official photographers, most pro rodeos will have an official photographer. These guys and gals have paid dues to the organizations and gone through the paperwork and process to get to that point. They put in a lot of time and money to be the official photographer.

Don’t interfere with any lighting set ups or remote rigs these guys have set up. Also, do the right thing and don’t sell your photos from a rodeo with an official photographer.  Be a good sport, have some fun, and get great photos.  Maybe one day you’ll be the pro that is the official photographer.


Rodeo Photo Tips by Liz Masoner ©
Contact Liz with reprint requests for photos or text

More Photo Tips/Lessons:

Editing Tips


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