Rodeo Austin — tradition, variety and visual richness

Angus Nose, Rodeo Austin - Austin, Texas

Angus Nose, Rodeo Austin – Austin, Texas

March in Austin is fantastic. A great time to visit Central Texas. The weather is warm but not hot. The wildflowers begin to bloom along the highways and there are two noteworthy events that keep the area hopping. The first is SXSW, South by Southwest, which I wrote about in the last couple of posts. This event continues to grow and with performances, screenings and lectures in music, movies and interactive computer technologies, there is something for everyone. Over on the outskirts, the Rodeo also makes it into town at about the same time. Rodeo Austin has been around a lot longer that SXSW and in many ways it is the opposite from the externally focused trade show. SXSW draws people from around the country and around the world on the premise of showing what’s new. The newest social networking service, the artsy indy movie or the hot new band, ready to be discovered. The Rodeo, in my book, is about tradition and a celebration of Austin’s agricultural roots. Sure the music acts at the Rodeo may change but the core attractions are the same, year after year. You have all the livestock shows and bull roping that I as a “Yankee” city slicker from the East Coast may not totally understand. There are also the carnival foods and carnival rides which surround the Rodeo and form the stable perimeter which gives continuity to the event.

I’ve been to the Rodeo many times but this is the second year that I’m going specifically for photography. Last year, I suggested that we should do a photowalk at the Rodeo, this year, my friend Mike, returned the favor. While the Rodeo is basically the same, a lot has changed for me. Last year, I took my big rig, the Canon 7D and tripod, along with my Sony NEX-5 as an accessory. I mainly wanted to do long exposures and HDR blending of the colorful carnival rides. Well as my emphasis and interest in photography continues to evolve, I decided to take a different tack this year. Yes, I was still planning to do some long exposures of carnival rides but this year I downsized. I brought along my smaller tripod that I purchased before my India/Singapore trip and planned to use my NEX-5 with the wide-angle adapter. I also wanted to do street photography and street portraits which I’ve increasing done over the past year. For this I had my usual two camera setup, a pair of Olympus E-PL1s. So, yes, I brought along 3 cameras not including my iPhone. Kind of crazy, right? Well you know, all 3 cameras together weigh about the same as my single Canon 7D with wide-angle lens. With my new setup, I get to shoot all kind of different subjects in low light without changing any lenses. So there is a method to my madness. And given the small Domke camera bag I use, nobody would suspect that I had so much gear with me. One of the many advantages for small mirrorless, interchangeable lens cameras.

New Holland Loader, Rodeo Austin

New Holland Loader, Rodeo Austin

Mike and I get there early enough to catch some nice golden afternoon light. Just past the entrance there was a selection of machinery that I guess they use on farms and such. I have no idea, but I saw this New Holland loader that I figured would look good in wide-angle. Then I headed off to the livestock area. It was still too early to start shooting our main attraction, the light and color of the carnival rides so I wanted to pass the time. Who could resist cute farm animals. I whipped out my Olympus with the 45mm f1.8 lens and decided to take animal portraits.

Cute Calf, Rodeo Austin

Cute Calf, Rodeo Austin

Sheep and Lamb, Rodeo Austin

Sheep and Lamb, Rodeo Austin

My favorite animal shot is the one at the top of the post, the one of the Angus nose. I’ve never seen an Angus Cow up close and living. My usual interaction with anything Angus is distinctly less alive and usually comes with a bun at a restaurant. You can tell I don’t make it out to the country much. Speaking of food, you got to love the carnival food. I shot this in front of one of the food stands. Compared to the usual carnival fare, this must be the healthy food section, because this stuff looks mostly normal. Where are the deep-fried butter and the deep-fried Twinkies?

Carnival Food, Rodeo Austin

Carnival Food, Rodeo Austin

Dwayne with a Pizza on a Stick, Rodeo Austin

Dwayne with a Pizza on a Stick, Rodeo Austin

I did find a pizza on a stick and I love this portrait of Dwayne. It is important to emphasize that this is the Original Pizza on the Stick, as marketed on his red apron. You can sense the pride and satisfaction in his expression. I’ve noticed that much of the food here come on a stick. I’m originally from the East Coast of the US and there pizza slices are already considered portable food without the stick. Do you remember the opening of the classic disco movie, Saturday Night Fever where the main character walks down the street eating a pizza? (two slices at once, actually).

Young Texans, Rodeo Austin

Young Texans, Rodeo Austin

The light turned more ideal as we entered the peak of the golden hour where the light becomes warmer and softer — fantastic for portraits. I saw this great looking group of young Texans and I asked if I could take a portrait. I’ve done these street portraits more often lately. People are, of course, a key part of any event or place and I want to document the people just as much as the man-made objects around me. To Mike’s surprise, I’m actually shy about asking people for their photograph. I guess I’ve done this more lately and Mike assumed that this came easy to me. Not at all. But like anything else, with practice, stuff gets easier and more natural. I fight the fear of rejection and ask more and more people if I can take their picture. And more often than not, most people seem happy to have their photographs taken. My equipment of choice, the Olympus with the Panasonic Lumix 20mm f1.7. It usually allows me to frame a small group and still get some decent blurring of the background. My 45mm f1.8 is more often than not, used for a single person.

Ashley, Taylor and Rose, Rodeo Texas

Ashley, Taylor and Rose, Rodeo Texas

As sunset approaches, the light rapidly changes. I captured this Fire Ball ride at sunset with my wide-angle lens on the NEX-5. This thing reminds me of the teleportation device in the science fiction TV show, Stargate. Wouldn’t it be interesting to step through this thing and get teleported to another planet? Yeah maybe. But who knows if my digital cameras will work on the other side?

Fire Ball Sunset, Rodeo Austin

Fire Ball Sunset, Rodeo Austin

As the light dimmed, I broke out the tripod and attached my Sony NEX-5 with the 16mm lens and wide-angle adapter. The Sony wide-angle adapter is designed to attach the 16mm pancake lens. The 16mm lens is really a 24mm if you account for the crop factor. The wide-angle adapter has a .75 multiplier which makes it a 12mm but if you, again, consider the crop factor of the sensor, this setup is equivalent to a 18mm lens. Did you follow that? I took the Fire Ball with the adapter for a 18mm equivalent view. I took the Freak Out line below with the adapter off at a 24mm view. The adapter attaches and detaches easily and without exposing the camera’s sensor, it’s very nice and convenient. I might do a review of it in the future. The lens maintains a maximum aperture of f2.8 even with the adapter attached. Though at f2.8 the extreme corners are very soft. I you shoot at f11 or so the corners become decently sharp.

Freak Out Line, Rodeo Austin

Freak Out Line, Rodeo Austin

As it got darker, I was in search of color, lights and long exposure blur. Nothing like a carnival to get great looking color and the nice thing about shooting in the evening is you get the additional twinkle of lights. Sometimes you can get away without using a tripod by resting your camera on something solid. I took that image of the spinning ride by resting my camera on the metal barrier that surrounds the ride.

Hover Crafts, Rodeo Austin

Hover Crafts, Rodeo Austin

Blue Hour Blur, Rodeo Austin

Blue Hour Blur, Rodeo Austin

Freak Out Color Explosion, Rodeo Austin

Freak Out Color Explosion, Rodeo Austin

My favorite long exposure of the night is the one above, Freak Out Color Explosion. This Freak Out ride is the same one that is pictured a few photos up, with the line of people waiting to ride. Part of the reason I like long night exposures is you’re not entirely sure how they turn out. The color and shape of this ride was particularly interesting. It was taken at the tail end of blue hour, the time after sunset when the sky turns a bright blue before turning completely black. The peak blue hour in Austin only lasts at most 15 minutes so it is actually fairly challenging to get nice long exposures of these rides during this time. First, these rides always take longer than you expect to get loaded and running. The rides themselves only last a couple of minutes. Given these factors, you only get a couple of opportunities per night to get blue hour-long exposures of these rides. I much prefer a bright blue to a black background so once blue hour passes, I’m generally less interested in getting these kinds of shots. Unless the ride itself has a particularly nice and colorful pattern.

Swing It, Rodeo Austin

Swing It, Rodeo Austin

Arctic Blast, Rodeo Austin

Arctic Blast, Rodeo Austin

Once the sky turned black, I shifted my photography subject once again. I was now in the hunt for color and the glow from lights. I put away the Sony NEX-5 and my tripod and switched back to my large aperture Olympus cameras. It’s not just the rides that have that color and glow. The food stands compete for customers as they brighten the area with blast of color and light.

Colorful Food Stand, Rodeo Austin

Colorful Food Stand, Rodeo Austin

Glowing Food Stands, Rodeo Austin

Glowing Food Stands, Rodeo Austin

Finally as Mike and I were ready to head home, I decide to do some street photography and some portraits. “Waiting for Customers” below is one of my favorites. For pure street photography, I wanted a candid look so I used the 45mm f1.8 which is equivalent to 90mm. I was able to stand back somewhat so that I can catch the scene unnoticed.

Waiting for Customers, Rodeo Austin

Waiting for Customers, Rodeo Austin

The 45mm is also an excellent portrait lens and I decided to take a shot at some portraits at night. The lighting is far from ideal but I was hoping to catch some game operators by the light of their stands. I first took a portrait of Faith by one of those ring toss around a floating duck game. She was agreeable to let me take a portrait and I shot a few frames. The light is a bit harsh with shadows so this portrait is not the cleanest. However, I think the 45mm still did a decent job. The second portrait with Johana came out a lot better. I got some decent even light without harsh shadows. Johana was funny. I asked her if I could make a portrait but she was shy and unsure. I said that was OK and was about to leave, not wanting to force anyone into a portrait. Yet, it was clear that while she was shy, she was still intrigued about having her picture taken and it turned out she actually did want me to take her picture. I also shot this with the Olympus 45mm and given the conditions, I think it came out great. I like Johana’s expression and after I showed her the image she seemed pleased. I then got her name and her permission to post her image on my blog.

Faith, Rodeo Austin

Faith, Rodeo Austin

Johana, Rodeo Austin

Johana, Rodeo Austin

As you can see there is so much variety to photography. You can do posed portraits, street photography and long exposures. You capture sunsets or farming equipment or farm animals, all within a several hour span at the local Rodeo or Carnival. I guess you can say I’m all over the place. Taking a little bit of everything. Last year, I concentrated on the carnival rides. This year, that no longer satisfied. I wanted to reach and extend my photography to other things, other people and different styles. Certainly having a certain type of gear also helps. I’m not sure if there is one camera suited to do all of these kinds of photography but my 3 mirrorless cameras seems to work well together. It allows me to quickly change topics and styles all without changing any lenses. The small cameras also keeps the weight down so I don’t have to drag a whole lot of stuff with me. Maybe next year, I’ll think about shooting some bucking broncos, now that will bring with it a whole set of different challenges.


The photographs were taken with my Olympus E-PL1s with the Panasonic Lumix 20mm f1.7 and the Olympus 45mm f1.8 lenses and my Sony NEX-5 with the wide-angle adapter. Please make sure to click on a photograph to see a larger image and hover over the photo to see the exposure details.

17 thoughts on “Rodeo Austin — tradition, variety and visual richness

  1. Excellent coverage of the event. I still haven’t gotten my shots processed yet. You never cease to amaze me with how quickly you turn so many shots around with a long writeup to boot. 🙂

  2. Thank you Mike. Processing the shots was quick. I did that maybe the next day. It’s the writeup and all the plumbing of putting the post together that takes time these days, especially with 21 images. It’s the largest number of images in a single post, to date.

  3. The closer shot of the colorful food stand – love love love that one. I am a sucker for amusement parks and county fairs so this is right up my alley.

    BTW my 45mm 1.8 should be here tomorrow. I have been using a manual Nikon 50mm 1.8 with an adapter. Have gotten some awesome results in room light and overcast, but bright sunlight focusing is a bit of a pain. Since I will be adding another m4/3 camera by the end of the year, I think it will be money well spent.

    Thanks for all of your common sense talk and recommendations here. -Libby

  4. I didn’t think you were serious when you said you would post my picture on your blog! This definitely made my day! You are an amazing photographer!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s