Breaking Into Sports Photography

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Photo by Steve Cannon/AP

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When Scott told me that I would be a guest blogger today, I was floored. Given the many incredible folks that have preceded me, I’m flattered to join such a select group. I only hope that my ramblings below provide you with useful information.

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Sports photography is an exciting, challenging endeavor producing images that blend art with a defining moment frozen in time. I’m convinced that success is the result of 1/3 luck, 1/3 equipment and 1/3 skill/expertise. Let’s face it – you can be the most talented photographer on the sidelines, but if these three factors don’t come together for that one brief split second, there’s a good chance you won’t get the shot. What separates the good sports photographers from the rest is the consistent convergence of: 1) anticipating what may happen; 2) having the right equipment in hand; and 3) a bit of luck. Unfortunately, luck is something that you cannot control. You can do your best to take luck out of the equation, but I’ve taken way too many shots where I was in the right place, I had the right camera and lens, I was all over the play and then the referee ran right in front of me as I fired the shutter. If bad luck rears its ugly head, resign yourself to the fact that it happens to everyone and move on.

If I had to identify my numero uno rule of sports photography it would be – get the face and the ball in the frame. That is not to say an image can’t possibly be of use if doesn’t contain one or both of the above criteria; however, images with the athlete’s face in full view, accompanied by the ball in the frame, are typically going to be the images of choice.

But I may be getting ahead of myself. Many of you would like to know how to get on the sidelines, on the court or inside the ropes to shoot. In a moment, I will give you the road map that I followed to break in, along with a few suggestions that will hopefully be helpful.

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Before coming back to professional sports photography, I was just a dad with a point & shoot camera. The extent of my photographic outings was limited to family snapshots. In 2005, I dove back into photography after getting a Nikon D50 and a couple of inexpensive lenses for Christmas. I soon added lenses to the arsenal and got to shooting anything I saw. I called local high schools and offered to photograph games for free. Living in Tallahassee, I attended Florida State games, matches, tournaments and events and shot them from the seats. Anything I could do to build a portfolio of images, I did. That included upgrading camera bodies and lenses. Finally, I felt that I had enough quality images to show what I could do. I created a web site (baselineshots.com) and posted my images so I could conveniently display them.  I was now ready to take the next step to fulfill my goals – obtaining credentials and getting paid for my work.

The end of the 2004-2005 FSU basketball season was approaching but there were a couple of home games left on the schedule.  I went online and obtained the contact information for the Sports Information Department at Florida State. I called and talked to the Director (known as SID’s) in charge of basketball, introduced myself, and gave him a brief rundown of who I was and that I wanted a chance to shoot a basketball game from the floor.  I gave him the URL for my web site and told him if he would be so gracious as to give me a floor credential, I would provide him with a disc of images from the game for free. He called back and told me that my credentials would be waiting for me at Will Call.

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One of the very first images I submitted to FSU

I shot the game from the floor and afterward, I determined that a grand total of five images met the standards I had set for myself in terms of crispness and composition. I put them on a disc and turned them in. I called back a few days later and asked if I could shoot the next game. I was offered credentials, shot the game and managed to get ten images I deemed to be of sufficient quality. After I turned those in, I saw that a couple of them were used on the FSU Athletics web site. The door was opening.

After basketball season ended, I contacted the SID’s for some of the spring sports, introduced myself and went through the same discussion I had gone through with the basketball SID. Now I had the advantage of my work product having been seen and used by FSU, so obtaining credentials was much easier. I found out later that Sports Information Departments have regular meetings where they discuss a variety of topics, including photography and photographers. My name had come up as someone the FSU folks thought could be of value to them. As I continued to provide them with usable images, my standing in their eyes apparently grew.

After two years, I felt that my services were of sufficient value to justify being paid for my work. It’s one thing to temporarily shoot for free, but if your work measures up to professional standards, you should insist on being paid a professional wage for your efforts. I felt I had reached that point as my photos were being published routinely in all forms of media by or through FSU. The relationship had served both our purposes well – I got the chance to build a solid portfolio by going through FSU for credentials and FSU received free, quality work product as part of the bargain. But now it was time to reach the next level – pay for play. FSU saw it the same way, and I was elevated to one of FSU’s paid sports photographers. A second opportunity came down the pike shortly thereafter when the Seminole Boosters hired me as one of two Featured Photographers for their publication, Unconquered Magazine.

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In the meantime, my portfolio naturally grew and included images from more and more sports. With more shooting opportunities, I replaced many images with better ones as the blind hog found acorns here and there. My status as a photographer for a major college sports program gave me valuable credibility when trying to secure credentials for professional sporting events. I simply went to the internet, looked up who was responsible for issuing credentials and either called them directly or e-mailed them. For any such contact, I went through a basic discourse, which goes something like this: “I am a sports photographer for Florida State University. I would love to shoot your event. I have a web site which features my work. Please take a look when you have a chance, and if you think I can be of service, I’ll shoot your event for free and provide you a disc of images. In doing so, I hope to prove to you that my work product is good enough that perhaps next year you will consider hiring me to shoot for you.” I got very few refusals and this paved the way for many opportunities to photograph a wide range of professional sports such as golf, tennis, cycling and stock car races.

Here are a few more tidbits that may be of help to you.

Do not turn in any images that are not top notch (soft focus, noise, etc.). It is far better to turn in a small quantity of really good shots than a disc full of marginal ones. The same goes for images posted on your web site or used in your portfolio. Favor quality over quantity any day of the week.

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Post-process all images carefully and properly in Photoshop, including color balance, saturation, brightness, contrast, shadows, highlights, sharpness and noise. Crop them to enhance the images. First impressions are critical. If you turn in or use marginal images, you will be deemed a marginal photographer and your chances of being asked to come back decrease significantly. Also, you’d be surprised as to how many folks turn in their images right from their cards, without any processing. When your images are compared to those (and they will be), yours will surely compare favorably to those that are not processed.

When you’re on site, identify photographers who shoot for entities that might use your services in the future (AP, Getty Images, etc.). Introduce yourself, tell them that you’re trying to break in, give them a card and hang out with them so they can get to know you. Ask them if they can put you in touch with their editors so you can hopefully fill in for them if they have conflicts. Make contact with those editors and give them your web site. Sell yourself. The next time their company needs coverage in a pinch, you might just get a call to cover an event – credentials and some extra money. This is how I broke in with AP and now I’m one of their stringers, shooting sporting events for them when time permits.

Determine ahead of time where you are allowed to be and where you are not allowed to be. The quickest way to have your credentials pulled is to traipse into an area that is off limits. For example, at football games, there are dotted lines around the field of play, outside of the sidelines and the end zone. You are not allowed to cross these lines. Do so, and you will surely be admonished. Do it repeatedly and you will be headed for the car and you won’t be back.

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Go through issues of Sports Illustrated, The Sporting News, ESPN The Magazine and the sports section of newspapers. Another good reference source is past Media Guides for the event or sport that you will be shooting. Look at the photos that are published. Good, tight action shots will appear, but so will wide angle and art shots. Most photographers concentrate on the tight action shots to the exclusion of wide angle or artistic shots. Magazines, newspapers and Media Guides routinely include photos that depict the pageantry of the event/sport and wide angle/art shots that capture it.

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Photo by Steve Musco

Use every ounce of your imagination to find interesting angles and subject matter that does not necessarily depict action. I was told that the main reason I was received so favorably by FSU in the beginning, was because I made a concerted effort to shoot wide angle or art shots with a unique perspective as a compliment to tight action. My photos gave them something they needed but didn’t get often enough. Anything like this will serve to distinguish you from others.

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All schools travel to play away games, matches, etc. and very seldom do they bring a photographer with them. Most love photos of their players in their away uniforms for media guides. Check the schedule for any given sport (I check FSU’s home schedule) that you want to shoot and find out what teams are coming to town to play. Then go to those schools’ athletic web sites and identify the SIDs for the sport. Make contact with them and offer to photograph their teams for a reasonable sum. If they take you up on your offer, either you or they can then contact the local school and obtain credentials.
Contact your local paper’s photo editor. Give him/her your web site. Tell him/her that you would like submit an occasional photo for publication in the paper in exchange for photo credit. After a few are published, inquire as to whether the paper would consider using you as a stringer, filling in when their photographers are otherwise tied up. After you prove that you can deliver quality images under deadline pressures, not only can this be a source for credentials, it’s a means of getting paid for your work so you can pick up extra cash for that new lens you are dying to have.

If you don’t have a laptop and a card reader, get them. The first question I was asked by AP when I solicited an opportunity to shoot for them was whether I had the capability of uploading photos from the venue I would be shooting. Had I not owned a laptop and a card reader, it would have been the end of the discussion. Load your laptop with the tools of the trade. I have mine set up with Photoshop, Lightroom, Noise Ninja, Genuine Fractals, Microsoft Outlook and FTP Surfer. If you’re going to take advantage of opportunities such as shooting for a wire service, you must have the capability of immediately downloading images from cards, processing a set of images, and uploading them to the designated FTP site before leaving the venue. These entities have deadlines and they can’t wait for you to get home and upload at your convenience.

Have the right equipment. I’m not talking about Nikon versus Canon (although we all know which is better, right?). I’m talking about nothing but f2.8 (or faster) lenses, camera bodies that will shoot at a minimum of 5 fps, rain protection, monopod, etc. Don’t think that you will be able to get by with inexpensive lenses that are slow, even if they reach out to 300mm, especially if you will be shooting indoors or when light begins to fade. Sports photography requires shutter speeds that dictates the fastest possible lenses so you can keep the ISO as low as possible. The higher the ISO, the more noise, and at a certain point, you cannot overcome the noise no matter how good the composition of an image might be. I buy almost all of my equipment used from KEH Camera Brokers in Atlanta or from B&H Photo in New York. That has saved me a bundle and has allowed me to buy lenses and bodies that were otherwise out of my price range. I also stay away from anything but Nikon lenses, as I have found (the hard way) that Sigma, Tokina and Tamron lenses will not hold up under the repeated use/abuse that sports photography demands.

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Be mindful of the other photographers around you. The worst thing you can do is inadvertently step in front of another photographer who is all set to fire the shutter and your head ends up in the shot. The fact that you didn’t mean to get in the way is no excuse. It’s up to you to look behind you to make sure you’re not in anyone’s way. The sidelines are a crowded place and many make their livelihood with their photos. Everyone works together to get what they need without interfering with others. If you mess up someone’s shot, you will get an earful. If enough complaints get back to the person that issued your credentials, your days on the sidelines will be over.

There’s a lot more that I could write on this subject but I think I’ve worn out my welcome. If any of you have any questions, please feel free to drop me a note at mike@baselineshots.com and I will try to answer them.

Thanks to Scott for giving me a chance to appear on his blog and to all of you for taking the time to read this. Last but not least, never forget – one only fails when one fails to learn from failure.

You can see more of Mike’s work at his website, baselineshots.com.