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Taking The Shot! - Photographing Cowboy Action Shooting
This article by Mr. Quigley appeared in 2003 SHOOT Magazine and is reprinted here with their permission.

It was a long shot. The horse and rider were approaching fast and the rider was already shooting his pistol. Aiming carefully, stock firmly against my shoulder, waiting for the right shot. That moment came and I gently squeezed the trigger. "Click". No explosion no recoil. The camera captured a moment of time now known as our past.

Let me introduce myself. Mark Quigley, (by the way that's my real name), of Mr. Quigley Photography. I specialize in Cowboy Action Photography. Our company slogan is "We never miss the long shots". As I travel around the country photographing Cowboy Action Shooting events, people are always asking me questions. How do I take such good photographs? They want to know how they can take better photos of their friends and family participating in CAS shooting. That's not a simple question to answer, but let's break it down into several parts.

Camera safety
Photographing Cowboy Action Shooting (CAS) is very different from all other types of photography. It can be very challenging. It can also be a very costly type of photography. By this I mean most CAS events are held in very dusty environments and dust destroys cameras. I recommend always keeping your camera in a zip lock bag in your shooting cart or some place safe when you are not using it. One of the biggest hazards in this type of photography is flying lead. Realize that photographing along the front lines were the action is, increases the possibility of your camera getting hit by lead. We have all been hit by lead in this game, but a flying piece of lead into your cameras front lens element will permanently scratch or break the lens or will degrade the quality of your final image. I use lenses that cost more than $2,000 dollars each and a hit like this can be very costly. For this reason, I strongly recommend using a UV or a polarized filter on the front of your camera's lenses. Using a polarized filter will also give you much more colorful images. Some of the new point and shoot APS, 35mm and digital cameras will not allow the use of screw in filters. You can buy commercial adapters at professional photographic stores or use an extra large filter and rubber band it around the cameras lens and body. That way if the lens gets hit by flying lead you replace only $200.00 filter instead of the entire lens. Let me also suggests that until you are ready to take the photograph always point the camera in the opposite direction of the shooting range. I use my body to shield the camera and lens when photographing on the firing line. Lastly be aware that flying lead might crack cameras made of plastic. My camera bodies are built of all metal construction and if you look them over you'll see little dings and dents in them from flying lead. Okay with this said let's move on.

Digital cameras
More and more people are using digital cameras these days. They are fun and self-gratifying because the photo is instant and you can see it moments after you have pressed the shutter. It makes it easier to see if you have actually captured the moment and made a good photograph. Digital cameras also have drawbacks. Some magazines will not accept digital files, or if they do, they want only professional level digital camera files of 6 to10 mega pixels or more. Another drawback with digital cameras is what is called shutter lag. In other words when you push the button to take the photo, especially in action photos, the camera does not take the photo right away. Instead it takes it a few seconds later after the shutter button is pressed. This can be very frustrating. The only way around this is to anticipate your shots a few seconds before they occur. So when you're taking group photos and you tell everyone to say cheese press the button first wait two three seconds and then tell everyone to say cheese. Every digital camera is little different, so you'll need to learn how much shutter lag yours will have. The other drawback is you now become the processor rather than the photo lab. You used to drop off the film to be processed, you now need to do this step. That means downloading cleaning up and adjusting each photo and printing each photo. All digital cameras photos need this processing step to give you better prints. Many people complain about the quality of their digital camera prints, but when I quiz them a bit I find they have skipped the processing step. This can be a time-consuming process. This also requires that you gain some expertise in computer imaging software. If you like doing this kind of thing, this can also be a fun part of the process, but again time-consuming. This is one reason why film cameras are still more popular.

Film and shutter speeds
One of the most ask questions, after what kind of camera do I use, is what kind of film to use? That all depends on the type of lighting each day is giving off. What I recommend most is a fast medium grain film around 400 speeds to stop and capture the action. Sometimes you'll need more than this. If you're using a digital camera 400 ASA is a good place to start.
Most people let their sophisticated cameras make the photographic decisions for them. I do not recommend this. Always tell your camera what kind of conditions you are photographing under. The camera does not know this is a fast-paced action photograph or a portrait unless you tell it. Modern cameras have made this process much easier. Most good quality cameras these days have little icons on them that you can set the dial to and then the camera knows what kind photograph you're trying to take and it compensates for you. In other words, if you are trying to capture fast action, dial in the little running man icon on your camera. For portraits dial in the little portrait setting. For the overall photograph of the stage the landscape setting might be best. Just by doing this, you'll see an overall improvement in your photographs. If you have an older less sophisticated camera, keep your f-stops small and your shutter speeds at 1/500 hundred of the second or faster. I usually try and shoot at around 1/1000 of a second to completely freeze fast-paced action and choose slower speeds (1/60) for other kinds of images.

Most people never think of using flash during the day. Because cowboys and cowgirls always wear that huge thing on their head called a cowboy hat, a shadow is almost always cast upon their face. You'll need to fill in this shadow with what is called “fill flash”. This means that you will fill in that shadow area with the cameras flash and see details in the face. Again, with most cameras these days you'll need to find out how to turn on this feature, because these cameras will not automatically flash under daylight conditions. Refer to your owner's manual for this. If you are placing a flash unit on top of a 35mm camera, set your flash unit to about 1/2 its normal power, so it will not over flash the face. Your goal is just enough flash to see facial details. A little experimentation might be needed here with all the different kinds of flashes out there.

The moment
This is what I believe to be the most important part of photography. It's one of the elements that makes my photography so successful. Some people refer to this short piece of time as a Kodak moment. Everything comes together for usually one of five seconds and you must be quick to capture it on film. If you got the shot this Kodak moment also refers to another photographic cliché, "a good photograph is worth 1000 words". These Kodak moments are very spontaneous and not set up (posed). They make the best photos. So how do you capture them? First, you have to be ready for that moment of time to happen. As a photographer you watch for it. You preset your camera settings to match the lighting and other existing conditions, so that when it happens all you need to do is frame and shoot. For some people it takes a special eye to see these moments and some people naturally have this keen sense. This unique sense of seeing can be developed. I like to teach my students a little saying: "Eyes that look are common-but eyes that see are rare.” Like anything else, practice seeing these moments any time during the day with anything you're doing and you will develop this unique sense more and more overtime.

Light always makes or breaks a photograph. In CAS photography there are basically three types of light. We have overcast days, harsh contrasting middle-of- the-day light, which is the most undesirable. The third and best light is found during the morning or the evening. All good photographers shoot during these times and so should you. So if you have a shooting event you want to submit a article and photographs for, plan on taking your photographs during these two times. Plan your posse or group photos also at these times. The light will be much softer more pleasing and colors will be much brighter. The photographic magazine editors will be more likely use your photographs.

Backgrounds composition and focus
By leaving backgrounds neutral, your photographs will look uncluttered and professional looking. To get this look you need to place your subjects in an area that has a beautiful background or one that is appropriate to the photograph. If you're not able to do this, look through the lens and find a pleasing angle. If you're not sure, take a few photographs from different angles. Also using small f-stops will blur the background and cause viewers to focus more on your main subjects. Always focus on the person’s eye rather than anywhere else on the person, unless something else is your point of interest. The first place people look when they are viewing photos is always the human eye. The eyes should always be in focus.

Documenting your shooting event
Now with what we have learned so far we will combine all of the above and document your shoot for your scrapbooks, friends and family, websites or magazine articles. To do this you'll need to start thinking like a reporter. You'll need to go back to the cliché a good photograph is worth 1000 words and start taking certain types of photos. Let me give you a few ideas on how to do this.

1. Stand back and take overall photos of what the event looked like.
2. Take photos of your groups and attendees.
3. Don't forget to photograph the winners.
4. Look for that Kodak moment.
5. Includes some of your best-dressed attendees.
6. Includes some good action images.

Making prints
I recommend to most people to just take your print film to Wal-Mart or Walgreen’s. I realize I'm recommending a certain chain here but these two stores do a very good job at processing film for reasonable prices. If you're not happy with your prints, they will also redue their mistakes. Now if you have a good photo and you want to make a large print, I strongly recommend that you use a professional photo lab in your town that does their own printing. These labs will always do a better job for you on enlargements than Wal-Mart or others. Yes, you'll pay more for their work, but you'll also be much happier with the results. It's one of those times “you get what you pay for” things. Protect your prints by placing them behind glass and framing them. Always place your prints in areas where the sun will not directly shine on them. All photos fade overtime, but this will delay the fading process.

Submitting your work to magazines
Most magazines will want your submissions to be, transparencies (slides), negatives, or high-quality high-resolution digital files usually in this order. Never send prints made from your home inkjet printer or 4x6's made from Wal-Mart. If the editor wants digital files from your slides or negatives you can take your slides to your local lab and they can create high-quality digital scans in order to meet this requirement. Have your scans put on a photo CD ROM. Also anticipate that you will not get your work back. Make sure you label everything carefully by the name of the shooting event as well as your own name as a photographer.

Brands of cameras
In the beginning I told you that one of the most asked questions of me is what kind of camera do you use? Really, when you come down to this question it is the least important question in photography. It matters much more if you combine the above suggestions rather than the brand of camera you use. This can also be a Ford, Dodge, Chevy argument, which basically means, what you like or prefer. Okay you still want to know right? I have been photographing since the early 1970s, and have used Pentex, Nikon, Minolta, Hasselblad, Mamiya, Leica and Cannon. In the mid 1980s, I switched to Cannon because of better technology in their focusing systems, and have stayed with them because of the quality and many choices of their lenses, as well as better technology right now in the digital realm. Now, I'm talking only high-end cameras. If you're looking for a non-pro camera I recommend to people the following brands. Canon or Nikon for 35mm, both build excellent systems. I do not recommend the APS format to anyone because of the quality, and magazines will not accept it. For digital cameras, I recommend Cannon, Nikon and Fuji. Cannons are known for their ease of operation, quality sensors, while Nikons can be little more sophisticated. Fuji’s are the good all-around choice. All of these brands have excellent glass in the front.

If you're in the market for a new camera buy some photo magazines and do some research on your own. Then go to a professional camera store and try some out. You can ask the salesperson specific questions at these stores and you will get better advice than you will from Wal-Mart or Kmart salespeople. If you want more specific information feel free to write me and I will send you that information if you include a self-addressed stamped envelope.

Well of course there are a lot more issues we could talk about when it comes to CAS photography, but by applying the steps we've talked about you will become a better photographer. I always recommend to people who want to learn more about photography to take a basic or advanced photo class at their local community colleges. Lastly, take lots of photos because film is the cheap part of photography. Don't forget to experiment with your camera and have fun. Remember to be a straight shooter in life as well as with your camera and guns.

About Mr. Quigley
Mr. Quigley has been photographing people in the outdoors since the 1970s. He uses 35mm, 6x7 centimeter and digital formats for his work. Mark is a self-taught photographer and his work has been published in many different magazines and calendars throughout the world. He specializes in Cowboy Action Shooting both horse and ground as well as ranch, firearms, hunting, fishing, portrait and nature photography.

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