The Cowboy Poet’s Way


A bit of background on the image, as originally posted for AFAR:

For the Rhythm of Cowboy Poetry

The Bar U Ranch had a hand (and a hoof, and a horseshoe) in shaping life in Western Canada, and today is preserved as a national historic site packed with interactive exhibits, immersive educational programs, and more. If you’re lucky, your visit may coincide with the famed Bar U Chuckwagon Cook-Off (annual, first weekend in June), and you and your posse will get a chance to taste a bit of the Wild West.

And don’t forget to actually enter the historic buildings (they’re not just for show), many of which are manned by period players fully dedicated to bringing the Bar U Experience to life. What looks, feels, and smells like a leather shop is actually the domain of the Bar U’s poet cowboy, and if you’re lucky, and if you’re polite, he might just recite one of his original elegies for you and your crew.

The Down and Dirty:

If this were a commercial shoot, and my one and only goal was to come back home with a brilliant portrait of the Cowboy Poet in his studio, I wouldn’t have left light to chance – I would have arrived at the Bar U Ranch with a bag full of lights, modifiers, and other lighting gear. But Bar U was just one stop on a jam-packed itinerary, and I had roughly five minutes to get in, shoot a portrait worthy of printing, and move on to the next stop. I lucked out with the way that the light came streaming in the window (left of frame), but had only seconds to recognize how that light was mixing with the ambient leaking in to the rest of the frame, and how it would look on the cowboy’s face and clothing.

If I had let the camera think for me, this would have been a mess. The camera would have tried to even out the light throughout the scene, and would have pushed the exposure high enough to brighten the background – in the process this would have blown out the delicate highlights on the face, hands, and hat. Because I was shooting in Aperture Priority – in order to control my depth of field, of course – I quickly had to roll my exposure compensation dial back –.07 of a stop (three clicks) in order to bring the exposure back down to earth. This may not seem like a lot, but it’s a big deal when dealing with lighting extremes. I also touched up my focus manually here; even when you place your Auto Focus cursor over what you think is your subject’s face, the camera can, when the lighting is tough, hunt for contrast – in this case, it hunted for the hat, which popped against the dark background. Had the brim of the hat been in focus, the eyes, at F/4, would not have been as sharp as I needed them to be.

I also recognized that even with bright light on my subject, this scene was still rather dark; I had to push my ISO all the way to 1000 just to get a shutter speed of 1/30th of a second. This was a bit of a gamble considering the cowboy poet was moving quite a bit, but I managed to freeze him decently well.

Image specs:

Camera: Nikon D800

Lens: Nikkor 24-70 f/2.8

Aperture: f/4    

ISO: 1000    

Shutter speed: 1/30    

Focal Length: 42mm


Special Thanks:

Special thanks to my friends at AFAR Magazine and Travel Alberta for sending me on an incredible assignment in the Great White North. It’s always good to go home. I’ve collected a few of my favorite highlights into an AFAR Wanderlist that you can see here: The Great Canadian Grizzly Odyssey.

Catch up with me on twitter: @FlashParker and instagram: FlashParker


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