Photography and photojournalism in Oregon and the Pacific Northwest

That there is a cranky piece of livestock

Canby Rodeo bull rider

Love it or hate it, there’s no denying that a rodeo offers a unique look at small-town America. With origins in the cowboy lifestyle and 19th century rugged individualism, the rodeo still offers the public a glimpse at skills that once were relatively commonplace but now are relics of a different age.

From calf roping to steer wrestling and sheer horse riding skill, the rodeo is a captivating event that is made more enjoyable by the sheer fact it is so darn foreign to most of us who live in Portland and the rest of the metro area.

There is no single event more anticipated at any given rodeo than bull riding. Watching the riders, many of them teenagers, one’s first impression is that you’d have to be certifiable to attempt mounting an agitated, pissed-off, 2,000 pound bull with a leather strap cinched around his hindquarters. Much less ride the beast for eight seconds.

And you’d probably be right. But to the guys involved, it makes perfect sense. It’s part of a sport that attracts only the completely fearless. And the fans at the Canby Rodeo eat it up, cheering each rider like a son. Regardless if he is from Texas, Oklahoma or Oregon, the bull riders are the stars of the show and they are treated like it.

Capturing sharp images of bull riders in action at the Canby Rodeo arena is another matter, however. As a photographer for several community newspapers, you get used to poorly lit high school football and basketball games, as well as any number of other difficult photo assignments. But the Canby arena takes the cake in this category.

With only four light towers, each featuring a trio of under-powered bulbs, there were four distinctly lighter areas of the arena beyond which the available illumination failed to reach. At either end of the arena was a veritable black hole. It’s made all the more difficult because of the dark brown dirt coating the arena floor.

In short, even though I had the ISO on my Nikon D300s set between 3200 and 6400, it still remained virtually impossible to achieve shutter speeds sufficiently fast to capture the surging bulls and their flailing passengers. With my much older Nikon D2H it would have even more difficult, with its relatively poor high ISO performance and limited sensitivity.

As it was, I had to stick with underexposing each frame by one to two stops in order to reach shutter speeds of just 1/250th to 1/320th of a second. This is barely sufficient to freeze the action and there are many areas in each frame with motion blur as a result.

Even with my reliable Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8VR zoom lens, which accompanies me virtually everywhere, it was tough to get many usable images. Judge for yourself below. Click here to view more rodeo photos.

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