How To – The Birth of the “Bull-Cam”

(Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

Growing up in the greater Los Angeles area, my exposure to rodeos and the cowboy culture was limited to a handful of Clint Eastwood movies and watching late night telecasts of PBR rodeos on ESPN 2. Nevertheless, the cowboy culture is such an ingrained part of Western American Culture that at one point all of us have played the part of the Lone Ranger or Tonto. Luckily, as a photographer I’ve had the opportunity to shoot a couple of rodeos, and most recently was in search of a small rodeo to work on a feature picture idea that I realized one night watching quite possibly one of the ugliest creatures in the animal kingdom on the Discovery Channel.

A couple of months ago I was kicking back with a bowl of ice cream watching a very late night session of Discovery Wild featuring the mole rat, a vile and repulsive little rodent capable of burrowing miles of tunnels underground with his huge incisors. After getting over the initial reaction to his grotesque appearance, I found myself wondering how the D.C. film crew captured all the incredible angles of this sub-terrainean atrocity. They must have buried the cameras! Then for some unknown reason my mind drifted from the very small foul rat to a very large angry bull.

After Googling rodeo schedules for 2005, talking with a couple of rodeo aficionados and plastic fabrications shops on the telephone, I set out to construct my brain-child, the bull-cam. Over 1,500 lbs of standing force, hard hoofs, and an unpredictable subject were a few of the things I started to consider. I decided that a lexan polycarbonate bullet-proof glass device that would be anchored into the ground, absorb shock, and house a Canon 1-DS (I wanted to utilize a full-frame fish-eye to get the widest angle possible) would be my best bet. After drawing a couple of different designs, I brought my sketches to MGM plastics in San Marcos and they fabricated the different pieces I needed to construct the bull-cam.

After weeks of testing its design and strength (including driving my truck over it a couple of times!) I was satisfied with its reliability in protecting the camera but more importantly in its safety for the cowboys and livestock. Then I began my search for a small rodeo that would serve as a nice setting for the bull-cam. Again with the help of Google, I came upon the website for the Woodlake Lions Rodeo (http://www.woodlakelionsrodeo.com) which boasted “America’s Most Beautiful Rodeo Grounds”. I immediately contacted the head of the grounds crew at Woodlake, the governing officials of the rodeo, and the rodeo’s main sponsor to tell them how interested I was to come out to cover their rodeo with my new device. Everyone I spoke to was intrigued and excited by the idea of the bull cam, but said they had to reserve judgment whether they would allow the device upon further inspection when I arrived. (I immediately got a flashback to February of this year while at the Lake Placid World Cup of Bobsledding, the FIBT and USA Bobsled tried to pull the plug on my Bobsled mounted camera 12AM the night before its first run after over a month of preparation. But that’s another story…)

So I packed my truck with my camera gear, my pregnant wife Lauren, and a newly purchased cowboy hat and shirt (you can shoot from the inside of the arena with a cowboy outfit) and we began a long road trip from San Diego to Central California. Seven hours, three fast-food stops, and four red bulls later we found ourselves checking into the Best Western on the edge of the Sequoia National Park. That night as we tucked ourselves into our stiff bed in the dingy room, I prayed that the rodeo gods were on my side for the big day tomorrow.

My new white cowboy shirt was practically sweated through after I finished digging a hole next to one of the release gates, a location I thought was logically my best chance of actually getting a bull in my frame. I buried and anchored the camera and its protective housing, ran a buried zip line from the camera to a pocket wizard attached to the top of a pole on the bull pen, and prepared to give the rodeo officials a demonstration. Luckily the people at the Woodlake Rodeo were some of the most accommodating and friendly folks I’ve ever met at a sporting event. I got a full spectrum of reactions from them and some cowboys like,”I’ve never seen that before” to “All you’re going to get is a shot of the bull’s balls!” to “Boy, you’ve got some balls!” to “You’ve got to patent that thing!” But to my delight, they all agreed to allow the bull-cam during the rodeo.

A day later, as I was packing my very dusty camera gear and scratched lexan box windows into the car, I felt a small sense of accomplishment that the 1st ever rodeo bull cam worked. It ended up being much harder getting a picture that worked than I thought – I missed a lot of bulls as the 1DS was slow at two frames a second (I couldn’t get my hands on a Mark II 1DS in time), some frames had too much bull and not enough cowboy, the hoofs and dirt easily scratched the lexan, as well as other compositional and lighting problems I ran into. However, I did come away with a couple of photos I was satisfied with, but realized that the maiden voyage of the bull-cam was a good launching point and left much room for improvement for my future attempts. And with any creative job, sometimes it’s not the final product that makes it worthwhile but the process that goes into it.

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