Cattlemen’s Ball 2018 – the Photographer’s View
When I was first asked about photographing the Cattlemen’s Ball 2018 back in August of 2017, I really had no idea what I was getting into. I didn’t know much about it, other than a few details about being a fund raiser for cancer research and that it would be in our area in 2018. By the time I was done with the event, I was VERY familiar with many aspects of it!
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For those that don’t know what the Cattlemen’s Ball is all about, here’s a short description. It has two main goals, the first is to raise money for cancer research projects at the Buffett Cancer Center in Omaha. The second goal is to promote beef as part of a healthy diet. The first goal is huge, millions have been raised in the 21 years this event has been held. 90 per cent of all money raised goes directly to research projects, while 10 per cent is kept for local health initiatives. The Ball is a two day event with a lot going on, including concerts each night, an art fair, a rodeo, an air show, meals from a breakfast buffet to a fine prime rib dinner. There is so much going on that it’s hard to explain, but I’ll try to cover most of it in this post.
For many photographers, they might find that shooting a fashion show is a good way to spend a couple of hours. For photographers at the Cattlemen’s Ball, that is just the tip of the iceberg. I shot a lot of the setup during the week before, but on the weekend of the event, I shot these events: fashion show, concerts (2 nights), golf tournament, 15k run, dinner events with speakers, live auctions, opening ceremonies, air show, art show and just a lot of random crowd shots and other smaller events and happenings. There was even a rodeo on Saturday, which I couldn’t shoot as it coincided with the fashion show.
If the list of events seems daunting, you also need to consider that these events took place inside and outside. Inside events were held in big tents, and some of them were red and white striped ‘circus’ like tents. This meant I had to be on my toes for settings between each venue and event, so ISO, shooting mode, white balance and other settings were constantly changing as I ran from on spot to the next.
In summary, I’ll say this: Shooting the Cattlemen’s Ball 2018 was the hardest two days I’ve spent as a photographer – both physically and as a photographic challenge.
Before the Ball
Before the Ball started, my first shots were of a visit that many volunteers took the Buffett Cancer Center in Omaha. About 150 people filled 2 buses and made a full tour of the center. It was great to see what the coming month’s of work would be all about. We had a lot of work cut out for us, but it was nothing compared to the daily battles taking place at the Center.
After the big tour, there were some meetings and some head shots (for the program) to take of the people who were in charge of various aspects of the Ball. This was all easy and spread out, like the calm before the storm.
About two weeks before the ball, the tents started going up! Now it was real, now it was serious. Set up progress moved fast and every day saw new things to shoot and video. Excitement was in the air (and so was my drone)!
During the first week of set up I visited the site every day or two, and then the final week before the Ball, I was there almost every day. It was inspiring to see the work of the many volunteers who were setting up the landscaping and other features.
Here’s one of the short time lapse videos I made to show the progress for use in the Cattlemen’s Ball Facebook page:
And here is a drone video shot the evening before the event:
The Main Event – Friday
With all of the planning, all of the setup, and everything in place, the weekend of the Cattlemen’s Ball 2018 was finally here! First up was the Golf Tournament. I hadn’t shot one before, but photography is just shutter speed and aperture, so I made my choices! I first had to get all of the team photos, and that went smoothly. Then I moved up the 18th tee to get people driving in front of the prize car. This also allowed me to get some putting shots as well on the 17th green. The lighting was harsh early morning light, so shadows were a pain to deal with. This was also the first of my many, many lighting issues to play with for the next 48 hours.
Friday wasn’t a full day, so I was able to shoot for a couple of hours, then head home for a break. I also had to prep a photo for each of the teams in case they wanted to insert a shot of the winners into the evening program. I got those uploaded, then put my feet up for a couple of hours.
I was back at the Ball site before the gates opened to the crowds, and although I had been at the site all week, I really didn’t know what to expect once a few thousand people showed up. I spent most of the day walking around and shooting a wide range of subjects, and then got ready for the “Trail Boss Reception” and the evening’s program.
As a photographer, I had been wondering how the light would behave in a big tent like this. During the week, it reflected the green grass, but now it was more evenly toned. I still shot with a mix of available light and stage lighting for the speakers (and bright light coming from the sides).
It was a long night, and although I had a copy of the schedule for the evening’s program, I had to be on my toes as new speakers came up, or special guests were mentioned and stood up in the crowd.
So there were a few speakers, some awards given out and then the entertainment began. I’ve always enjoyed concert photography so this was a welcome part of the day. The lighting on the main stage was pretty good, and I was able to get some shots and tweak some settings during a short set before the headliner.
Tracy Lawrence was the headliner on Friday night and I was able to get a few good shots in. Like most concert contracts, photography was ‘officially’ allowed for the first three songs. I say ‘officially’ because there were a lot of phones out for most of the show. Still, I shot up front for a bit, then got some overall shots with the crowd as well.
At this point in the night, I was also carrying my gear with me, and leaving it in spots to take photos. This was two bags (3 cameras, a few lenses) and two tripods and couple of flash units. Thankfully, this was a crowd I could leave a bag unattended for a few minutes and know that I would see it when I got back.
After Tracy Lawrence was done, I went backstage to shoot the “meet and greets”. This was a combination of people who bid on the auction for a meet and greet as well as some special guests and the co-chairs of the event. This part of the day’s shoot was likely the most controlled part as I had time to take some practice shots, had my flash and a spot ready for the shoot.
The day ended with the concert by Lucas Hoge, and this was on the side stage. The lighting wasn’t nearly as good as the main stage and had a lot of purple in it. So some colour correction was needed, like almost every other shot I took this weekend, but it was only going to get worse on Saturday.
The first day was in the books. It seemed like a huge success and a great way to start the weekend. Everyone was having fun and Saturday I would have two more photographers joining me. My feet were sore, I was already tired, but I knew I had a long day coming. A quick dinner, then sleep. And I slept well.
The Main Event – Saturday
I got up early to prepare for shooting the “Rawhide Run” – a 5k and 15k run along River Road near Hebron. I knew I would have just enough time to get the starts of each run and then would be racing back to the Cattlemen’s Ball site. It rained the night before, but I hadn’t noticed how much until I was driving along the gravel road to the start of the run. Even then I had no idea what was in store at the Ball site!
I shot the 2 starts and got short videos of each and made my way back to the Ball. I soon found the grass parking lot was closed and much the area was flooded. I arrived a little before 8:30, but volunteers had already been on site for 2 hours working on the problems. Endless buckets of wood chips were being carted around and dropped, then shoveled and raked to absorb and contain the mud. It was along the roads, inside the tents, and pretty much any place you would expect people to walk for the next 16 hours! The photo on the right show the main entrance just after opening.
The day started slow, with a breakfast buffet and a few speeches. This gave me some time to shoot the art tent and artist’s booths, the history tent and the General Store vendors before the crowds blocked my shots. I still had time to wander in and out of the main tent and get back to shoot the morning’s speakers.
Once the Breakfast was over, I walked about and got some general crowd photos and prepared for the Opening Ceremonies. Once again, I knew where and when, but not really ‘what’ would be happening until I got there and asked a few people. Still it was outdoors and the sun was shining, so other than harsh overhead light, the shots would be quite straightforward.
Although there was a choir, Legion members raising the flag, Legion Riders and a lot going on with the Opening Ceremony, this shot on the left is one my favourites. Three young volunteers paying their respects as the Legion members left the grounds. It was a quick, unexpected shot.
Right after this, the airshow started and ran for about 1/2 hour. I didn’t bring a big telephoto and knew this would be one part of the Ball I couldn’t shoot as I would normally. So a few airshow shots, then wander around for crowd shots, into the tents (out of the sun) and find more things to shoot. I had a little time to kill before the Survivor’s Style Show began, so I got there early to make sure I had a seat.
I had asked the organizers to reserve two chairs for us photographers, as I was told from the beginning that the Style Show was one of the ‘must shoot’ events of the Ball. I’ll admit, this was the one event that was causing me to worry a little. I knew it was a top event, and I hadn’t shot a fashion show before. I got to my seat and the midday lighting through the red and white circus tent was horrendous. I started off by trying to get a custom white balance for the shoot, but the camera couldn’t do it. I tried for about 10 minutes and gave up. I talked to one of the local press photographers and he had the same issue. I went back to where my gear was stashed and grabbed a couple of flashes. I saw our other photographer, Haley, down at the other end of the runway with flash firing, so I knew we were in the same boat.
Below you will see how my images came out of the camera (before) and how they looked after some editing (after). In hindsight, I could have shot at a more powerful flash setting, but that would have resulted in harsher shadows, blinding flashes for the models and a slower recycling time. I opted for TTL and lived with what I shot.
So shooting the fashion show was a great experience in spite of the lighting. Each model was a cancer survivor (or soon to be!) and their stories were truly inspiring. If there was one event at the Ball to bring the focus back to the true reason behind all of the work – this was it!
While the Style Show was happening, the Ranch Rodeo was happening. This was the one event I completely missed, but thankfully Annette of Out on the Range Photography was there to shoot her specialty.
With the big events of the afternoon over, we could spend some time just shooting the crowd and relaxing a little. There were still speakers and entertainers in the various tents, so I was wandering in and out. Then I heard an announcement for all of the former hosts and chairs of the previous and current Balls to gather near the flagpoles. I was needed there and arrived in time to organize the groups, borrow a UTV for a photo stand to elevate me over the groups of 20-plus people and got the shots. As I never know what I would be shooting, I had two cameras (D800e & D850) with me all weekend. One was holding the 70-200 2.8 Nikkor, while the other had the 24-120 Nikkor. Thankfully, this range covered anything I needed to shoot (other than close-up shots of the airshow!).
After this shoot I wandered over to the Farm and Ranch Auction, the Beef Display and other areas I hadn’t visited much, and soon it was time for dinner. I knew I’d be busy and might have to get shots at any moment, so I asked a friend to grab me a plate for later. This worked out well, as I could get shots of the food lines, the servers and prepare for the evening program of guest speakers (like the governor to the right) and entertainment.
Now all three of us photographers were finally shooting somewhat together and spread out in the big tent. We caught the action and stayed busy through the program. I found some time to sit, relax and eat during the evening auction.
The final responsibilities to shoot were the two bands playing and the meet and greets with Trace Adkins. As I mentioned above, I really enjoy concert photography, but I was starting to feel a little burned out at this point. Both bands put on great sets, but I wish I had the energy to shoot them better. I still got some good shots, but I could have shot more and put more thought into them.
The lighting was similar to the Friday night shows with good stage lights on the main stage, and lower, purple tinged lights on the side stage.
After the Trace Adkins concert I went back stage and waited for the meet and greets. I was ready to shoot a few, but wasn’t expecting the 40+ people who came through! Trace Adkins was generous with his time and shot individual photos with the co-chairs and hosts, as well all of the backstage security volunteers. There were the auction winners and even the Sheriff’s Department got a shot.
After the meet and greets, it was over to the side stage to get some shots of Forgotten Highway. I spent some time there, then wandered out to the bar and got some more crowd shots. Sadly, this bar had the greatest selection of craft beer this County will ever see – but I worked all weekend!
I was back on site the next day to help a friend finish loading from the Art Tent. While there I was amazed at how much had changed. Tables and chair were getting loaded, tents were coming down, landscaping was being removed – it was sad to see it coming to and end. There was mix of rental employees and volunteers taking everything down and away. Lunch was being cooked, as there was still so much work to be done.
As for me, I headed home and started looking through the 2000 plus images I had downloaded from my cards the night before – safely backed up and ready for editing. Almost 2 weeks later, I’m still working through the last few albums to post on the Cattlemen’s Ball Flickr page.
Soon, I’ll be finishing a ‘wrap up’ video I wanted to make and a couple of other things I can’t mention just yet. So I’ll be re-living the Ball for a while longer!
When I was first approached about the Ball, I was told it’s an all-volunteer event, and that includes photographers. Secondly, all volunteers must purchase a ticket to the Ball at a cost of $100. This caught me off-guard, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense to me. I would be spending a lot of time (like SO many others) that in the end the $100 ‘buy-in’ really didn’t reflect what I would be putting into the event.
I also think that having volunteers purchase a ticket to a fund-raiser like this makes them a part of the event, and not an outsider. For anyone who has not been involved with an event like this, it’s a real eye opener. Over 1100 volunteers were needed to put this together. Their work paid off as a huge amount of money was raised for cancer research (final tally: $1,747,961.89), and huge amount of community pride was raised by hosting this event (which some have called the best Cattlemen’s Ball ever).
I met a lot of people over the past few months, and for each of them, I came away in awe of how much they were giving of themselves to make sure they did ‘their’ part to make the Ball successful. Whenever I felt a little tired, or burned out – I knew that I was just another one of the countless people working towards a common goal. I also knew that this much work and the results which emerged needed to be documented as well as possible.
I was also involved in a side project when I asked to produce some videos for the evening programs. This was a paid gig, and as it turned out, an amazing experience. One video I was to make was a series of interviews with local cancer survivors who would tell their story and reflect upon how much cancer research mean to them personally. I filmed eight people in one evening and at the end, I told them their stories were too inspiring not be shared more than a single 3 minute combined video could do. I offered to edit a separate video for each of them, which could be shared on Facebook to raise awareness for the cause.
In time, they all agreed to share their stories, and yes, I had just made a lot more work for myself in the process! These videos were a huge success and they played some of them at the Ball as well.
So if you read this far – thank you! If you’ve skimmed and you’re looking for a final thought, here you go:
Yes, it was a lot a of work. Yes, it was a challenge as a photographer. Yes, it was worth every second of time and every ounce of energy. I am honoured to have been a part of the Cattlemen’s Ball 2018 (and 2019).
As a final message, here is the video I produced featuring the survivor’s telling of their journeys.
Cattlemen’s Ball of Nebraska, Inc and their logo are © 2018 Cattlemen’s Ball of Nebraska