After being cooped up for two consecutive days inside our cabin in the North Georgia mountains this July 4 Holiday weekend, my spousal unit had had enough. We arrived Wednesday evening and It had been raining for two days and nights non stop, keeping us from even thinking about doing anything outside. On Friday night, the spousal unit cracked. There was a rodeo slated to start that night just across the Georgia/North Carolina state line and we found out it was going to take place rain or shine at 8:00 pm. Saddle up, kids, we were gonna be rootin' tootin' cowpokes.
As things would have it, when I was trying to decide what camera gear to take to the cabin for the long weekend, the last thing I expected was to do anything resembling sports photography and certainly nothing requiring long, fast lenses. I thought that if there were going to be any photo adventures while in the mountains, they would be of the landscape/wide angle variety so I packed accordingly. One D3S body, 17-35mm f2.8, 35-70mm f2.8, and 15mm f2.8 fisheye. In an oh-what-the-heck moment, I threw my 70-200mm f2.8 lens in the bag along with a 1.4X teleconverter just in case. Whew. With the 70-200mm at my disposal for the rodeo, I figured I would at least be in the game, so to speak.
I would much rather have had my 400mm f2.8 with me but then I also would have much rather have had a rainless, mud-less night too. From the moment we left the cabin for North carolina until we returned it rained. The rodeo grounds were nothing but one huge mud pit. As you got anywhere within 50' of the barricades surrounding the competition area, every step you took meant sinking to your ankles (or deeper) in mud. Without any rain gear for the camera, lenses, or me, the only way to shoot was to hold an umbrella over my head with one hand and shoot one handed with the camera in the other hand. Given the mud and the difficulty walking, lugging a monopod-mounted 400mm from the parking area to the barricades would have required Moses to part the mud so I could get to/from the barricades without me and the gear ending up in the mud. Sometimes mobility has its advantages at the expense of lens length, I guess.
With only one hand to handle the shooting chores, I zoomed out to 200mm, settled on some basic exposure settings and used a new shooting technique - swing the camera up one handed to eye level, lock in on the moving subjects as quickly as possible, fire off frames until I couldn't hold the camera up any longer, and lower the camera back down. Not exactly the most stable of shooting platforms and it showed in the images I managed to get. Few were anything remotely close to the sharpness I expect to get but there was nothing I could do.
As far as sharpness goes, there were other dynamics in play that didn't lend themselves to sharp images. For one, it didn't help that I couldn't get as tight as I normally do with a 200mm focal length limitation. In order to show some semblance of action in the final images I had to crop. Man, did I have to crop. Next, because of the marginal lighting available (which consisted of four banks of high school football field type stadium lights made dimmer by the rain), I was at ISO 3200 and could only manage shutter speeds of 1/400th second. Never having shot a rodeo before, I hoped that was fast enough. I didn't want to up the ISO any higher because I knew I would be cropping images beyond ridiculous bounds. my D3S's are amazing when it comes to high ISO shooting, but when you're enlarging ISO 6400 noise by 400-500%, images are not going to look good. So I opted to go down to ISO 3200 and hoped 1/400th would stop the action sufficiently. Sometimes it didn't, sometimes it sort of did.
Then there was the issue of constant white balance changes. When we finally got back to the cabin and I downloaded the card, I saw that not only were the lights barely marginal in terms of brightness, the color and intensity shifted from frame to frame. In a five shot burst, one frame would be cyan, one magenta, one dark, one yellow, and one decent. The decent one was not always the best action shot or the sharpest shot. On some of the images (like the one above), the color issues were so bad I simply gave up trying to correct the color and just went to Black & White.
Now, you'd think that after all the griping and complaining above that I regretted trying to shoot the rodeo Friday night but nothing could be further from the truth. I actually enjoyed the challenge of trying to come up with a few serviceable images under the worst of weather conditions, shooting one handed, and having to make do with a lens that was nowhere close to being long enough. I also learned a lot from shooting my first rodeo. I'll use the experience to make my next rodeo a lot more productive since I now know what to do in terms of positioning and shooting angles. And hopefully it won't rain....