Thursday, February 1, 2018

Fast Photography: An Interview with Photographer Bill Slader

(c) Bill Slader Photography

Fast Photography: 
An Interview with Photographer Bill Slader
Archived from the January 2018 Issue of @Florida Equine Athlete 
No duplication without permission.

From Columbus, Ohio, welcome Bill Slader, a seasoned photographer who travels the local barrel racing circuit, capturing the thrills and spills of the sport. Catching up with Bill this evening, we take a look into fast photography - snapping amazing images of fast horses, talented riders, and all the emotions...

Welcome, Bill!

GM: Barrel racing is a lean and mean sport, requiring stamina and charisma from both horse and rider. Your photography captures the essence and spirit of participants. Of all the sports to choose (and you are a pro at action photography), why barrel racing?
BS: Well, too be honest I believe God chose barrel racing for me. I consider my photography a gift from God, and I pray for guidance on how to use this gift wisely. Since picking up a camera, I’ve been blown away so many times by the emotions I’ve felt from a photo, or the emotions someone else has shared with me because of a photo that I’ve taken. It really is a blessing, and I never stop thanking God for this gift and the joy it brings to me and others.

So, here’s the story on why barrel racing. A few years ago, I was at the Hartford Fair in Croton, Ohio, looking for the next food stand to visit, and happened upon a barrel racing event. I watched for a few minutes, thought it might be something interesting to try and photograph, and then headed off following my nose to something that smelled very appetizing.

Over the summer of 2016 I started hearing this nagging little voice in my head saying barrel racing. Again, I thought that would be something interesting to photograph, but I didn’t know any barrel racers, and other than at a fair, where I could go to watch and try and photograph a barrel race.

Then one night I was wandering around a KOI Dirt Drag Race taking photos of trucks and ATV’s racing down the dragstrip. As I was heading back to where I had parked, I noticed the parking area along the dragstrip was pretty empty, but someone had parked right next to me. That someone turned out to be Bri Keeton, a young lady hanging out watching a friend race his truck. We started talking and I think I mentioned that I would like to try and photograph a barrel race, but didn’t know where to begin. And then the miracle of divine order, it turns out Bri’s a barrel racer! She gave me the names of a couple arena’s in the area and told me about a couple events coming up.

The first show I went to was at Rodeo Run Stables in Canal Winchester, Ohio. I was just amazed at the action, and quickly fell in love with the sport, the environment, and the people.

GM: That’s a great story! How do you account for extreme lighting (or no lighting) and elements - such as weather, etc.?
BS: In regard to the elements/weather, I’ve only photographed one outside show and fortunately it was a sunny day. The equipment I use is somewhat waterproof, but I don’t like to take chances and have a rain cover that does a pretty good job of keeping the camera and lens dry.

As for lighting, I don’t use a flash when I’m photographing inside an arena, so I need to position myself where I can take advantage of any available light sources. Those sources could be facility lighting, sky lights, or a large door being open. Once I find the right spot, I then adjust my camera settings to try and get the best exposed photo possible.

GM: I always wondered about using a flash, and if it would alert the horse/rider. So, the key is to use the arena lighting! You travel extensively to shoot riders. Where is your favorite venue? 
BS: I’m still pretty new to photographing barrel races and have only been to four different venues.  Henderson’s Arena in Jackson, Ohio, is a fantastic facility. I love the drive there, it reminds me of where I grew up in New York. And of the four locations I think they have the best hot dogs.

Ross County Fairgrounds is where I photographed the Ross County 4H Speed Show, and it’s the only outdoor venue I’ve photographed at. In the distance there’s this small mountain range. I love the look of the photos when I was able to capture the rider coming around #3 and the mountains are in the background. It kind of gives the photo an out West look and feel.

As I mentioned earlier, Rodeo Run in Canal Winchester, Ohio, was the first arena I photographed at. They had this unique lighting there, and with a little editing some of the photos looked like there was a spotlight on the rider, which gave the photo a nice dramatic effect. The lighting has recently been replaced at Rodeo Run, and I’m looking forward to getting back out there to photograph more shows.

Crazy Woman Ranch is where I photograph the most, and it’s really a great facility. The combination of lighting and sky lights make it an exceptional indoor arena to take photos at. The hot dogs there aren’t so bad either. And I can’t thank Joyce Hanes and Kim Hill McCutchen enough for all their help, support, and opportunities that they’ve given me.

GM: All of these venues are amazing! We do have great arenas in Ohio for equine events. Where in the arena is the best spot for the best photos?
BS: When the lighting is right, I like to go between barrels #2 and #3 because it gives me the opportunity to get a variety of action shots. From there I can capture the rider coming out of the alley, coming out of barrels #1 and #3, getting a good close-up of the rider going into and out of #2, and then a good profile shot of them heading home.

After that I’m torn. I like having my back to the alley, but I haven’t decided what I like better, being on the side closest to barrel #1 or #2. A lot of that has to do with the action shot of the rider running home. On the side of #2 I can get a good head on shot, but some riders have their eyes closed, or they’re making a funny face, so I don’t use the photo. On the side of #1, the run home shot is more of a profile shot, so the keeper shots are more consistent because I don’t get as many funny faces. The downside is the action shot isn’t as intense as the ones when the rider appears to be heading right at me.

GM: Your photos are amazing! What type of equipment do you use?
BS: For cameras I use either a Canon 1DX or a Canon 7D. My lens is a Canon 70-200 IS II.

GM: Describe a day in the life of an action photographer...
BS: I usually start the night before an event by making sure my batteries are charged and all my memory cards are formatted. I then get all my equipment stowed away in my backpack and travel case.

The day of the show, before I leave I double check to make sure I have all my equipment loaded and then pack up the car and head out. When I arrive, I check in with whoever’s running the show and then start walking around the arena to evaluate the lighting and see where I’ll be able to position myself for the best shots.

Once the racing starts I’m in my position photographing until the crew does a big drag in the arena. At that point I hit the snack bar for a hot dog and bottle of water and then get back to my position before they start racing again. I’ll try and stay at a show for as long as possible, usually somewhere between 8 and 10 hours and then head home.

The next day I start uploading and organizing photos to my computer and website. This process is pretty time consuming and can go on for a couple days as I usually come out of a show with somewhere around 10,000 photos. After that I start working on photo orders and post photos to my Instagram accounts @afewmorecowgirls or @billslader.

I’d be surprised if the description of my day will inspire anyone to want to grab a camera and head out to start working on becoming an action photographer. It’s a long, physically demanding, and sometimes boring day. But there’s these moments within the day that are so exciting, it makes me feel like I’m the luckiest person in the world to have just witnessed that moment. Like when a rider and horse come blasting out of the alley and attack their run. I start leaning forward, clicking away. My heart rate picks up, adrenalines pumping, I have this front row seat to watch an awesome horse and rider at their best, and the challenge of trying to capture them in a photo.

Then when I’m home, I get to relive those exciting moments, and others that I may have missed when I go through my photos. It’s like when you were a kid Trick or Treating on Halloween. You’re stopping at each house, getting a handful of candy, but you’re not sure what you have until you get home and dump your bag out on the floor to reveal its contents. It’s the same with the action shots. You get your terrible shots that you delete because they’re like those pieces of candy you throw away, or give to your parents when they come asking for something. And then you get the shots that are like the few 100 Grand bars or boxes of Milk Duds in your haul of candy. These are the shots that make it all worth it, and why you keep going back to do it again.

There’s also the human side, seeing friends and making new friends. Supporting and cheering on the riders whether you know them or not through their trials, tribulations, and personal victories.

GM: I love the comparison to Trick or Treat! What is your secret to winning photos? 
BS: I have a couple secrets I’d like to share. First is the photo itself, I like to see the rider leaning forward, have an intense look on their face, eyes open, and if they’re going around a barrel I like to see their inside elbow up, or arm extended forming a triangle between their arm, the reins, and their body. Of course, the horse also plays a big part in a winning photo. I like photos that have the horse either looking at me, or looking in the same direction as the rider. I love catching the horse exploding out of a turn with their front legs up and hooves off the ground. I also like to see dirt flying, lots of dirt getting kicked up.

The other secret is I edit my photos in Adobe’s Lightroom. Using Lightroom I try to make the image really stand out by adjusting the exposure, color, vibrance, and sharpening the photo.

GM: Your passion for your art shines through. Do you have a favorite photo?
BS: Oh boy, for me picking a favorite photo is like picking a favorite daughter. There’s so many, photos that is, I only have three daughters. Anyway, I love the action shots, especially when all the pieces to the puzzle fall into place, and the photo just screams of Badassery!

Then there’s other favorite shots that on their own look like ordinary uneventful photos, but are part of a larger story, or captures the essence of the rider’s character. For example, I have a series of photos showing a young rider who’s maybe 13 coming out of a turn halfway off her horse, getting close to clipping the wall, and hanging on for dear life. She’s slightly past the halfway mark when she manages to pull herself back up in the saddle with the horse still moving at full speed, and then in the next photo she’s sitting in the saddle, not holding onto anything, horse is still moving full steam ahead, and by the look on her face you’d think she’s probably wondering what’s for dinner that night. Totally calm, cool, and collected. Along those lines, I have another favorite photo. This photo is of a youth class rider who was having trouble getting her horse to enter the alley. Some time goes by, she’s still struggling, and then three riders come alongside her to escort her and her horse into the arena. It probably happens all the time, but I thought it was such an awesome display of good sportsmanship and camaraderie it gave me chills. Anyway, the favorite photo is right when all four riders come together and start heading towards the arena.

Other favorites of mine show riders coming to the end of a clean run and they’re just beaming with excitement. They overcame whatever obstacles they faced, and they had a great run.

GM: Do you have advice for novice photographers?
BS: Yes, don’t get discouraged, not every shot is going to be a winner. Keep practicing, keep learning, experiment with different camera settings, and review all the photos you take. Try and figure out what’s right and what’s wrong with each photo. I would also suggest learning how to photograph with your camera set in manual mode, especially if you’re photographing indoor action shots. Most importantly, have fun with your photography!

Also, check out The Art of Photography on YouTube and Digital Photography School ( ) two resources I often rely on for information.

And please feel free to email me: if you have any questions. I may not have the answer, but I’d be happy to try and help you out.

GM: In your opinion, what does it take to be a good barrel racer? 
BS: Barrel racing is a team sport, and to be a good barrel racer I think you need to put a lot of hours in the saddle practicing to boost your confidence and skill, not to mention gain the confidence and trust of your horse. Because without it I can imagine the horse thinking… you want me to do what? Get outta here! And likewise, the rider needs to trust and have confidence in their horse, so they can push to have a fast and clean run.

GM: Your photos are incredible. Do you schedule photo shoots of riders and horses outside of the arena? If so, what is the best way to schedule a photo shoot?
BS: Thank you, and thank you for asking. Yes, I’ve started doing photo shoots of riders and horses outside of the arena.

If interested in scheduling a photo shoot, you can email me:, or send me a message on Facebook to either my personal page: Bill Slader, or my photography page Bill Slader Photography.

GM: What is your horse history?

BS: I’ve never owned a horse, and I don’t know much about them, but I have watched The Horse Whisperer a couple times.  I’ve been around horses in some way, shape or form all my life. Growing up a couple friends, or friends of friends had horses and I remember seeing my Dad get on a horse at a family picnic when he definitely shouldn’t have and was quickly bucked off.

My neighbors all have horses, and I’m always taking photos of one of them whenever I get an opportunity. Another neighbor, who was an older fella, had a Thoroughbred that he kept up in Cleveland, but would bring him home for a small vacation every now and then. One evening I was sitting outside and heard my neighbor yelling, somehow the Thoroughbred got loose and was running around the yard. Being the good neighbor, I jumped up and ran down to see if I could help. As I got down to my neighbor’s yard, the horse came around the corner heading straight for me, and at that moment I realized I had just ran to my death. I had no clue what to do. Behind the Thoroughbred came my neighbor and he was waving his arms up in the air. It all happened so fast, and I wasn’t sure if he was calling me a fool and trying to tell me to get out of the way because I was about to get killed, or wave your arms like this… Anyway, I figured if it was my time to die, I was going to go down swinging and started waving my arms in the same manner as my neighbor. Much to my relief the horse slowed, turned around, but unfortunately flattened my neighbor. No, not really, the horse turned and ran into the pasture where my neighbor was then able to close the gate, and all ended well.

At some point soon, I would like to get some basic horsemanship training. There’s been several times where a horse has gotten loose, or somebody needed help and I just didn’t know what to do. I’d like to be able to be there for people when they need help.

GM: What does horsemanship mean to you?  
BS: To me, horsemanship, is having the ability to establish and then develop a productive relationship with a horse, which subsequently leads to earning the horse’s trust and confidence in you.

Connect with Bill…

Gina McKnight is a freelance writer from Ohio USA.

 (c) Bill Slader Photography


Roland Clarke said...

Fascinating insights and advice. I've only tried photographing barrel racing once and indoors - my step-nieces are barrel racers. I'm a retired equestrian journalist and photographer so this interview kept reminding me of things that happened in my career; like the indoor lighting issue. the friendly people, the shots that get ditched, the amazing horses and riders...

My career began in the days of B&W film when we processed overnight in a VW Microbus. And my equestrian sport was eventing so primarily outdoors but fast. However, by the time I retired, I was covering other equestrian sports and using digital cameras, so I can sit back and admire what Bill Sladr is doing - furthering the art of equestrian photography.

Gina said...

Hi Roland! I've seen your amazing photography! I enjoyed your recent interview...

Your book "Spiral Hooves" is recommended reading! Thanks for appreciating Bill's interview. Photographing horses can be a challenge - a large moving animal, never knowing what they will do next! And I'm not a professional! The best photos are from professionals, like yourself.

Roland Clarke said...

Thanks, Gina, for the praise and the recommendation. Very glad to you saw Jeri's interview. And last, but not least, I wish Bill all the best for his photographic career.

Unknown said...

Hey Roland, thank you! I never had much luck photographing with film. I remember one day going to pick up my photos and all I got back from the lab was an empty envelope. I have a lot of appreciation for the action photographers who shot with film. I'd like to be able to setup a dark room one day and take another stab at film photography. Hopefully I'll have better luck the second time around.

One day I'd love to get out west to photograph some shows. With any luck I might even get the opportunity to photograph your nieces and meet you.

Thank you -Bill

Roland Clarke said...

No problem, let me know when you are heading west. My step-nieces live in Utah but compete all over the west,

Gina said...

Your interview is awesome, Roland!

And your interview with Sam Griffiths is a favorite...

Stay connected!

Roland Clarke said...

Thanks, Gina. I even notice that the Amazon links on the interview with me go to the new edition which is great. Not available through Barnes & Noble this time.

Glad you like the interview with Sam - he's a great guy.

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