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Shot Breakdown – Shooting Cowboys and Cacti in the Arizona Desert

What goes on inside my head during a shoot?  A few people have asked me that question recently so I though I would share.  Just remember… you asked for it! Recently, I posted a few shots on Facebook from a trip to the Tanque Verde Ranch just outside of Tucson, Arizona. A lot of folks had questions about how I approached these shots – especially since I usually shoot in the studio – so I thought this would be a great opportunity to walk you through every aspect of how the images came to be.

Sunset at the Tanque Verde Ranch
Sunset at the Tanque Verde Ranch just outside of Tuscon, AZ

So let’s begin the brain dump . . .

The scenario

My reason for visiting this very cool dude ranch that is situated on the edge of the Saguaro National Park and the Coronado National Forest was to attend this years Olympus Visionary Summit.  The summit is an event where Olympus brings all of the Visionary team together for a few days of meetings, education, team building and of course shooting.  This was my first summit and honestly I was like a kid in a candy shop having the opportunity to hang out with 10 world class photographers for a few days.  My goal was to spend time with folks that shot genres other than my own just to see how they approach their craft.

We all arrived in Tucson on Monday and attended meetings both Tuesday and Wednesday mornings.  Each afternoon – after lunch was reserved for shooting opportunities.  We weren’t told what they were until a few minutes before they began.

Our coordinator at Olympus gave us a gear list of suggested items to bring and we were also encouraged to bring any other gear that we desired.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X body:  https://amzn.to/35hkIRH
M.Zuiko 12-100mm F4 IS PRO:  https://amzn.to/2tqAkF2
M.Zuiko 40-150mm F2.8 PRO:  https://amzn.to/35j5ewu
M.Zuiko 17mm F1.2 PRO:  https://amzn.to/2uemINJ
M.Zuiko 45mm F1.2 PRO:  https://amzn.to/2toorQ2

I also packed the 7-14mm F2.8 PRO Zoom and the 60mm F2.8 Macro along with spare batteries, chargers, Delkin 64gb POWER SD cards, lens cleaning materials and brushes as well as extra eyeglass wipes because I knew that shooting on location, I would use the viewfinder much more than the LCD which frequently will smudge my glasses.

Also as a backup body I packed the new Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark III.  The Mark III has become my new backup camera when traveling because it’s a 20 megapixel camera in an incredibly small body with all of the important features of the E-M1 Mark II and even some of the more advanced features of the E-M1X

All of my gear traveled in a Think Tank Photo Airport Essentials backpack which is my bag of choice for most of my travels.  It holds more than enough gear and fits under the seat even on commuter flights.

Overall my plan was to have fun.  Given that I’m primarily a studio shooter, I had no expectations of creating portfolio images.

Tuesday Shooting

Tuesday afternoon we were given free time to shoot so I asked two great landscape photographers – Peter Baumgarten and Frank Smith if I could tag along with them since they had decided to hike and shoot in the desert.

Saguaro Cactus
Olympus Visionary Peter Baumgarten photographing a Saguaro Cactus

I left my backpack at the ranch and took both camera bodies with the 7-14, the 12-100 and the 60mm Macro along with some spare batteries.  I had the E-M1X with the 7-14 on an Olympus barbershop sling strap and the E-M5 Mark III on a Peak Design Capture Clip and Pro Pad on my belt.  I wore an oversized coat with large pockets to hold the extra pieces.  I also wore a vest and a baseball cap since it was the coldest week of the year so far in Tucson, which meant that the desert wasn’t that warm – even during the day.

In preparation for the trip, I made several visits to the ranches website so I had a basic idea of what kinds of things I might be seeing before I arrived.

We headed out from the ranch into the foothills and began on a path that took us up and down over several cactus filled ridges.  If you’ve never seen them – the Saguaro cacti are incredibly tall and majestic.  Our hike began around 1:30pm which meant the sun was high in the cloudless sky and since its winter the vegetation was really lacking color.  In other words it was a very gray landscape with harsh light.

Being a city boy, I will admit that I had to pay extra attention to the many loose rocks that we were hiking over as we went up and down the ridges and there was the nagging concern about the hundreds of holes that I saw which could have been from small rodents or currently occupied by snakes.

The most colorful aspect of the scenery in front of me was the blue sky and the most striking aspect was of course the cacti.  So I took two different approaches to shooting these scenes.  I tried to look for spots where the cacti were dense and close together.  Then with the sun behind my back I would shoot low and show the cactus against a deep blue sky.  For these shots I went with short wide angle focal lengths and small apertures for lots of depth of field.  To get as much richness out of the colors as possible – I did tend to underexpose slightly.  If I were shooting this type of work more often – a polarizer would have been ideal for these shots.  But I found comfort in the fact that my fellow shooters weren’t using filters either.

My second approach to the cactus was to shoot directly towards the sun at f/16 with the 7-14mm zoom on the E-M1X so that I could create starbursts by allowing the sun to peak out from behind the cacti.  This also underexposed the blue sky making the colors much more rich.

As the afternoon wore on and we headed back towards the ranch we realized two alarming facts…. None of us had thought to bring water into the desert and while we had a general sense of where the ranch was – we couldn’t find our way back into the ranch.  We needed to be back by 4:30pm to photograph a release of 180 horses who would then stampede down a hill to where their dinner was waiting.

After failing to find the path that would get us back to into the ranch we realized that the only way we would make it in time for the release was to climb a few fences and cross a shallow desert wash.  So climb we did and with wet feet we climbed into the horse arena as people started yelling that we had to get out of the arena because the horses were about to be released.  So we ran across the arena to a smaller penned off area that put us behind the horses meaning they were all backlit and we had great shots of their backsides as they went down the hill.  All of our other Visionary’s who didn’t get lost were on the opposite side of the arena photographing the horses coming down the hill with front lighting.  Realizing that I didn’t really have a shot, I picked up the E-M5 Mark III with the 12-100mm just as I saw a white horse walk away from the pack about 50 feet in front of us.  It still wasn’t much of a photo but at least I wasn’t looking at the horses backside.  He milled about for a few seconds and then turned and started bucking like crazy for about 10 seconds.  That was all I needed.  I managed to shoot 4 frames.  4 single shots because I had been using the camera in the desert and hadn’t re-set the frame rate to high speed.

The moral here is that there is always a shot.  Back in my newspaper days I couldn’t come back to the newsroom and say that I missed the shot.  That was never an option.  Sometimes you can’t get the optimal shot so you look for something else.  In this case I had a bad angle, the wrong lenses and I noticed one horse doing something different – so I followed him and reacted when he decided to have some fun.

So for day one – I came away with some very average shots of cactus in the desert and a nice action shot of a bucking horse.  Honestly my two favorite shots from the day were of my fellow visionary’s Peter Baumgarten and Frank Smith – mainly because these two images represent the experience that I had with both of them.

Wednesday Shooting

For the second afternoon we had three arranged shooting opportunities.  This is a shot that I made of Marty who is one of the cowboys on the ranch.  He was actually posing for fellow Visionary Scott Bourne while we were waiting for our rides, but I liked the feel of the the desert and other ranch hands in the background so I grabbed three frames.  This shot was extremely backlit – so I imagined a great black and white shot and exposed for the shadows.

By this time we had been told that we would be shooting action for the afternoon but I had decided that the E-M5 Mark III was going to be my go-to camera for the day – mainly as a way to challenge myself without the higher frame rates of the E-M1X.  It’s been a long time since I’ve shot sports, so I thought the challenge would be fun and hopefully a way to prove to a few more people that you don’t need high frame rates to take great action shots.

I was still working out of the jacket with both camera bodies, the 7-14, the 12-100, and this afternoon I also brought along the 45 and the 40-150.

Our first shooting opportunity was was to photograph four ranch hands on horseback in a small arena along with some cattle.  This was mid afternoon so there was some cross lighting but overall the lighting was still very harsh.  I started with the M.Zuiko 300mm F4 IS PRO lens that I borrowed from fellow Visionary Alex McClure.  I wasn’t really excited by the surroundings in the arena – the light was flat with the sun behind me and there were 14 other people with cameras wandering around the arena and I didn’t want them in my shot – so I thought I would go with tight action shots to show some personality with the riders and the 300mm made that possible.

To make matters a bit more challenging, the cattle weren’t very active and just walking or barely jogging so there wasn’t much happening that was interesting until they moved the cattle into a pen.

The challenge now was that all four riders – three women and one guy were wearing cowboy hats and big sunglasses so there were no eyes to be seen – and yes – even when shooting sports or events – its all about the eyes.  So I started looking for other bits of personality or body language to help make a shot.  Most of the riders had dark hair and were pretty serious with their expressions. One of the female riders was blonde and while she looked more like a skier from Colorado she was full of personality and clearly having fun – so she became my primary subject.

I still wasn’t digging the flat light so I decided to move to the other side of the arena and shoot towards the sun which would leave my subjects backlit.  In a situation like this – I know that I need to expose for the shadows – because the riders and the horses faces are in shadow and I know that is going to blow out the sky – so as I was moving to the other side of the arena – I decided to shoot this series in black and white and switched my E-M5 Mark III over to Monochrome with the contrast at +2 so that I could see the images as black and white in the electronic viewfinder.  The +2 on the contrast setting gives the preview image a real film feel.  I am of course shooting in RAW so I still have the color image and will process it as black and white using Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 from DxO.

Eventually the blonde rider started playing tag on horseback with the male rider – that’s when I was able to get these shots from them chasing each other and moving in random directions with quick stops and turns.

I also had to pay close attention to the backgrounds as I found the structures to be very distracting in addition to the other people who were shooting.

This is also a good time to point out that for the most part – these shots are cropped in camera.  Here are the finished images next to the straight out of the camera image.  I don’t care if you are shooting with 20 megapixels like I was or if you have a hundred megapixels – you do your composition in camera – even when it’s random fast moving action.  This is why you practice.  You don’t shoot with your subject filling one third of your frame and crop later.  That is simply wasting megapixels which means that you are wasting money and image quality.

I’ve been asked how I handled focusing with all of the action and the truth is I let the camera do the work – BUT – that also means that I understood the cameras capabilities and used them to my advantage.   My focus settings were Continuous Autofocus with Tracking.  NO – I didn’t use back button focus I simply used the shutter release.  When you have subjects moving so randomly and even headed straight towards you – back button focus is not a good idea.  The camera’s shutter release is going to get the job done much more efficiently and effectively than you as a human will.  I also did use the high speed shutter setting on the E-M5 Mark III which is capable of up to 10 frames per second.  I didn’t just lay on the button and make 10 frame per second movies.  I would always anticipate the action and then shoot a quick tap on the shutter which would give me one or a few frames.  If the subject was coming toward me – I would repeat that over and over – never leaving my finger on the shutter release so that I wasn’t keeping the autofocus active.  The camera is quick enough with its 121 cross type autofocus points that it will grab the focus immediately when I press the shutter.  Remember – these shots were done in bright sunlight so the camera had no problem locking focus – even in the backlit situations.

The second shooting opportunity of the afternoon was to photograph three of the riders walking the horses along a shallow creek bed.  By now the sun was beginning to lower in the sky and the light was getting a slight bit warmer in color.  Just like in the arena we had to make lighting choices.  If we had the riders move to our east – we had a more picturesque view, but with really boring light and not a lot of color.  So as a group we agreed to have the riders move to our west and shoot them backlit as they walked the horses towards us.

Again I exposed for the shadows because it was the riders and horses faces that I was most interested in.  As the sun was getting lower the sky, the male rider finally took off his sunglasses and asked us if we would like to get some shots with his horse in a gallop.  It isn’t safe for the horses to gallop in the creek bed but he had found a spot that was very smooth, so we had a short stretch where he could give the horse a little “giddyup” and create some action with splashing water.  For me the key was to get a moment where he lifted his head just enough to get his face.  Like the shots in the arena – I did short bursts and let the camera handle the focusing.

I varied my camera angles and went from wide angle to telephoto on the 12-100mm zoom to change perspectives.  I stuck with the 12-100 all afternoon – honestly because I had completely forgot that I had the 40-150 in my jacket pocket.  It actually made my job easier to not be thinking about lenses and accessories as much.  The 12-100 is a 24 to 200mm full frame equivalent and with a range like that – it is easy to forget that there are other focal lengths available.

As we were wrapping up at this location and the sun was getting lower – I was able to make this silhouette shot of a rider using the f/16 technique that I described earlier.

Before we returned to the ranch we made one last stop along the top of a ridge as the sun was setting and I was able to grab these two shots for a nice finish to my afternoon.  Just like my other cactus shots – I wanted color and I wanted the cacti to look majestic.  The toughest part of this shot was having to wait for the sun to get to the perfect spot on the horizon.  In my studio light responds when and how I want it to.

All of the images – both days – were shot on Manual exposure.

Wrap-up

So there you have it.  I am not going to win any awards for these photos and they are not gonna be published in National Geographic, but I am proud of them.  I am proud of them because 47 years since I purchased my first camera it was the basics of photography and understanding my gear that provided the foundation for these shots.  It was those 47 years of experience that gave me the references to help solve the problems that I encountered.  I am proud of them because they will forever serve as a memory of that time that I got to spend two days in the Arizona desert with 10 of the most amazing photographers that the world has to offer and whom I can now call my friends.

Photography is not a competition – it is a passion to be shared.

Now go pick up that camera and shoot something because your BEST shot – it’s your NEXT shot, so keep learning, keep thinking, keep shooting.

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Joe Edelman

Joe Edelman is an award winning Olympus Visionary Photographer, Photo Educator and Model Mentor. Click Here to learn more about him and view his portfolio.
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