True Grit — Shooting Rodeos

True Grit 1600x1280I recently published six young-adult books about rodeos (Abdo Publishing), which involved not only researching and writing the manuscripts, but also photographing the action. (Yay for platypus journalism!) Bareback riding is one of my favorite rodeo events to shoot. With no saddle and a single handhold called a rigging, cowboys try to stay on the bucking bronc for eight nerve-rattling seconds. Bareback riding is a wild event that takes tremendous skill to master.

One of the biggest problems with many rodeo photos (or any sports photo) is that the photographer isn’t close enough to the subject. Filling the frame was my goal when I took this shot at the 2012 Hamel Rodeo, in Corcoran, MN. I wanted a “you are there” feel that captures the frenzied action.

I’ve noticed that in saddle bronc riding, the horses like to bolt out of the chute and head for the opposite side of the arena. But with bareback riding (and bulls), the animals often stick close to the chutes for some reason. So, armed with a pre-arranged press pass, I positioned myself along the inner fence, close to the chutes. This is a no-man’s-land where only a few photographers are allowed to shoot. (I’ve chosen not to join the PRCA photographers who shoot inside the ring–I don’t think I’m fast enough to outrun a bull!)

With my trusty 70-200mm zoom, I knelt down in the dirt and waited for the right moment (knee pads are always in my camera bag). I set my ISO to 400 and aperture to f/2.8, which gave me an action-stopping shutter speed of 1/3,000 sec. I often shoot with much slower shutter speeds to give a slurpy feeling of motion, but in this case I wanted to freeze all the action. One of the cool things about sports photos is being able to freeze a sliver of time so your eye can take in the whole scene, which normally zips by literally in a blink, too fast to comprehend.

When this bronc burst out of the gate, it headed right for me. It was a tough ride; the cowboy was barely hanging on. I racked my zoom back to 70mm. I waited until the action filled the frame, then got off a burst of three or four frames before the horse banged into the metal barrier, sending me tumbling backwards into the mud. Kids, don’t try this at home! (As I recall, the rider stayed on for the full eight seconds, scoring big.)

In choosing this frame for publication, I like the interaction of horse and rider. The cowboy’s leg is showing air, but his teeth are gritted with determination. His hat brim covers his eyes, giving him an anonymous “everyman” kind of vibe. The horse’s mane and the cowboy’s chap fringe are flying. This is an action shot! It’s man against beast! (One thing to note: the horse’s ears are up. He’s not really angry, he’s just trying to shake off the dude on his back so he can get back to his pen.)

To process the shot, I decided to go black-and-white, with a gritty texture. I didn’t want color to distract from the main point of the photo. In Camera RAW, I adjusted for contrast. I had to double process, once for the horse/cowboy, and once for the crowd, to keep all the highlights from blowing out. I combined the two exposures with a mask, then flattened.

I first converted to black-and-white using a simulated red filter, which darkened the sky and lightened the skin tones. Next I used the Gradient Map adjustment panel, then converted to grayscale (Image–Mode–Grayscale). After that I converted to a tritone, a nice combination of rich black and two warm grays.  Back to RGB mode.  Burned the four corners, which brings the viewer’s eye more toward center.  Lastly, I used a high-pass sharpening method for extra-crispy goodness.

Thanks for stopping by, buckaroos!


Wild Bill R.I.P.

Wild-Bill-HICKOK-FoutsJames Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok was murdered by the cowardly Jack McCall 138 years ago in Deadwood, Dakota Territories. His funeral notice in the Black Hills Pioneer read: Died, in Deadwood, J.B. Hickok, (Wild Bill) formerly of Cheyenne, Wyoming. Funeral services will be held at Charles Utter’s Camp, on Thursday afternoon, August 3, 1876, at 3 o’clock, P.M. All are respectfully invited to attend.

Wild Bill was buried at Ingleside Cemetery, a nice spot on the mountain overlooking Deadwood. Because the real estate at Ingleside was so valuable to a growing Deadwood, Hickok’s body, along with all the other residents of the boneyard, were reinterred a couple years later farther up the mountain at Mount Moriah Cemetery, where Wild Bill rests to this day.

Wild Bill’s headboard, provided by his best friend Colorado Charlie (Charley) Utter, reads: “Wild Bill–J.B. Hickock. Killed by the assassin Jack McCall in Deadwood Black Hills. August 2nd 1876. Pard we will meet again in the Happy Hunting ground to part no more. Good Bye–Colorado Charlie C.H. Utter.”

Rest in peace, Wild Bill.


Using Myth to Make Sense of Our World

spear-rakhamI used to teach a course at Concordia University in St. Paul, Minnesota, about the power of mythology and how authors can tap into it to make their stories resonate with readers.  Here’s what I told my students on the first day of class:

Myth: a traditional story originating in a preliterate society, dealing with supernatural beings, ancestors, or heroes that serve as primordial types in a primitive view of the world. Myths bring the unknown into relation with the known.

Why do we tell stories, or read books, or watch movies and television shows? Is it merely for entertainment, to pass the time, or to relax our minds as we take a break from our busy workaday world? Or is there something deeper going on, some yearning to make sense of our existence?

The great scholar Joseph Campbell was convinced that mythology dips into the hidden recesses of our minds and reflects common themes and characters that have been important to humankind since the first hunter pulled down a wooly mammoth on some frozen plain thousands of years ago.

Campbell, of course, is famous for the PBS TV series The Power of Myth, and also for his many books about mythology, especially Masks of God and The Hero With a Thousand Faces. He defined the Hero’s Journey, a course of plot events that occur in nearly every myth, with a cast of readily definable supporting characters that include mentors, villains, heralds, and tricksters.

The same basic characters appear over and over again in stories. They share many common characteristics, and perform very specific functions that propel the plot. Swiss psychologist Carl Jung called these characters archetypes.

Jung suggested that archetypes, as well as common plot elements, come from the “collective unconscious,” ancient personality patterns that are shared by all and passed down generation to generation. As Christopher Vogler notes in The Writer’s Journey, “Fairy tales and myths are like the dreams of an entire culture, springing from the collective unconscious. The same character types seem to occur on both the personal and the collective scale. The archetypes are amazingly constant throughout all times and cultures, in the dreams and personalities of individuals as well as in the mythic imagination of the entire world. An understanding of these forces is one of the most powerful elements in the modern storyteller’s bag of tricks.”

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Ghost Marshal Update

GM-Cover-7-10-14Yeehaw, buckaroos! I finished the final edit and proof of Ghost Marshal this week. Now the manuscript is off to my trusted posse of beta readers. Hopefully I’ll make any last-minute corrections in the next couple of weeks. Then it’s time to hit that “publish” button! In the meantime, enjoy this reworked version of the cover. Amazon recently increased their minimum file-size requirement for covers, so while tinkering with the original, I came up with a rendition that’s a little more gritty and layered. Weird Western goodness!