Thursday, January 10, 2008

Where to find Old West & cowboy photos

South Dakota's Old West heritage is one of our biggest draws for travelers in my mind. I'm guessing a lot of photographers would love to make some nostalgic cowboy images, so here are some suggestions for where to do that.

Rodeos are held statewide through the summer months, and even indoors in the winter. All are great for cowboy portraits and a different kind of "sports action" than many people are used to, but the outdoor events make photography much easier. Some of the bigger rodeos are the Fourth of July events in Mobridge, Belle Fourche and Fort Pierre, and the Days of '76 in Deadwood at the end of July.

You will want long lenses and fast shutter speeds, just like for shooting soccer, football, etc. Here's a bareback bronc rider going vertical in Fort Pierre.

And some women's breakaway calf roping, also in Fort Pierre.

You will find that the cowboys and cowgirls at rodeos tend to be very patriotic folks, so images like this are fairly common if you look for them.

Several festivals also provide opportunities for good western imagery, including the Fort Sisseton Historical Festival near Lake City in early June and the Spirit of the West Festival in Sioux Falls in September. More information on all of the events mentioned above can be found at or in several of the other links in the right hand column of this blog.

Along with the events, there are places where western images are always abundant, especially in the "West River" part of the state. While there are some actual ghost towns and abandoned mines in the Black Hills, many are on private property and/or not safe to explore. However, the stereotypical movie western towns are represented well at the 1880 Town near Belvidere on Interstate 90 and at the Four Mile Old West Ghost Town west of Custer. (That would be four miles west of Custer in case you weren't paying attention.) Both are recreated towns made up of buildings moved from their original location. Not only do they look pretty darn authentic, but at times costumed reenactors roam the streets adding to the feel.

The 1880 Town,, even has costume rentals so you and your traveling companions can dress in authentic duds and shoot photos in and around the historic buildings. Evening and sunset light really makes for some great photos here.

For an honest-to-goodness western town, check out the infamous Deadwood in the Northern Black Hills. The entire town is a national historic landmark. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean it looks like a perfectly-preserved museum piece, but it does have good potential for photos. Modern casinos and hotels occupy most of the buildings on Historic Main Street now, so neon signs and other much-too-modern intrusions are hard to eliminate from your pictures. Working the angles and finding willing reenactors to pose for you can help capture Deadwood's ambience.

The real Wild Bill Hickock was killed in the Saloon No. 10 here, and the murder is reenacted several times a day. When he's not busy dying over his poker cards, Wild Bill can usually be found wandering the streets along with several other unsavory characters from Deadwood's past. They make great environmental portrait subjects.

This is only a sampling of where to find cowboy subject matter. To me all of the landscape in South Dakota west of the Missouri River and particularly the Badlands, typifies "western." Putting cowboys and cowgirls into it just makes for even better photos. And of course there's always a chance you will be just driving down the highway, and the perfect western scene will appear over the next hill like it did for me here, just east of Midland.


Anonymous said...

Nice rodeo pictures.

I would ad that the long summer days in South Dakota make for great light in the evening rodeo session. It might be too dark to shoot with stop action shutter speeds by the end of the rodeo, but the light you get as the sun goes down makes it more than worthwhile to stay late.

Anonymous said...

I've been to the "1880 Town", and it is amazing how once you step through the doors of the big round barn onto the main street of the town, how you feel like you've gone back in time and that you are truly the the 1880s. Walking through the town you seem to forget about the world and imagine being back in the old west. I truly enjoyed my visit and plan to return.

Chad Coppess said...

Thanks for the comments. Evening light is great on almost any subject, but especially so on western stuff for some reason.