On the road. On assignment. Sounds romantic, right? Well I’m here to tell you — it is, actually! But probably not the way you think.
And probably only if you are a photographic nutcase like me. And since this is Scott Kelby’s blog I’m pretty sure that you are, in fact, a nutcase like me too! So it will be a pleasure to do a little bit of preaching to the choir, and I’m honored to get the chance to do it here.
I thought long and hard about what might be of interest, and went back over recent stories I’ve shot for National Geographic (I’ve been working for the magazine for more than 25 years now.) Somehow I kept coming back to one moment which seemed to boil down the whole experience of shooting a recent story. And I thought I’d take you along on the journey.
Gateway Arch, St. Louis
That moment came as I was driving down I-70, somewhere west of Kansas City. Already I had driven over 3,000 miles on this mega-jaunt in pursuit of a story. I was looking out the windshield for clear skies, but the weather app on my iPhone was giving me bad news. Chicago, my destination tonight, was socked in. No way that I was going to shoot the nighttime aerial of the city I had planned for that night. But maybe the cloud cover over the whole midwest would make something interesting in St. Louis. So I diverted. I made the decision: I’d drive to St. Louis instead of Chicago and take my chances.
That moment of decision has come to symbolize for me what I love about shooting stories. One way or another, I have the freedom to go wherever the pictures were. That’s my job, chasing great pictures.
In many ways taking chances to get great pictures was exactly what this story on light pollution was all about. It was an obscure story about an obscure subject. Most people I told about it had no idea what I was talking about. But then I’d remind them how they used to be able to see the Milky Way before all the city lights got so bright, and they’d nod and tell me some tale about how they remembered seeing the stars on grandpa’s farm when they were kids. Exactly! They didn’t know it, but they were experts on the subject of light pollution. It was my job to make that all graphically real.
And which was why I was taking my chances driving to St. Louis that night. I was looking for places where I could see and photograph the effects of our ever-growing, world-wide hunger to light up the night. I had taken a chance telling National Geographic I could make interesting pictures out of this story. I’d convinced them it was an important story in my initial proposal but I’m not sure everyone really believed the pictures would really sing. And actually, neither was I. But it’s a lot like performing in the circus: if you don’t go out on the tightrope, nobody cheers.
I did have a secret weapon, however: I’d decided that I would drive everywhere for the shoot. The logistics had been driving me crazy. How could I arrange flights to all these locations, never being sure what the weather would do, how to adjust when I screwed up the first night of a shoot and had to go back? Finally, it came to me that I’d be shooting at night (no duh!) and so I’d have all day to drive. I could shoot a few hours from sundown until midnight. Get six hours of sleep and then drive for a good 10-12 hours the next day if I had to in order to get to the next location. Every night I’d be in one of two kinds of places: in a city which had light pollution and I’d photograph that, or in the countryside where I had dark skies, and I’d photograph that. Brilliant. In thirty days I could cover the whole United States, from coast to coast. And I did.
So that night, I got lucky. Pulling in to St. Louis by 5:00 pm I got a couple hours nap before heading out to the nearby Gateway Arch. Wonder of wonders, the heavy overcast that had quashed my shoot in Chicago that night put a layer of clouds just above the top of the arch. Sodium vapor lighting from the city streets turned the clouds a weird salmon color, and incredibly, the spotlights on the arch cast arch-shaped shadows on the the clouds, something like the Batman spotlight calling the caped crusader, straight out of the comic books. I shot it every way I could think of, and most of it looked pretty good. The wide angle shots created a sinister face look and the telephoto shots (like this one that we used in the magazine) were just abstract and intriguing. With five second exposures on my Nikon D3 the sky just glowed. And I went to sleep that night thinking I’d done something I never expected to do.
But that was halfway through the shoot.
Back to the beginning, driving west to Las Vegas:
The Luxor Hotel, Las Vegas
I had planned to start the whole shoot with something I was pretty sure would work: the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas.
As a National Geographic photographer, I often focus on animals that are out of the spotlight. It could be a rare stream fish, a tiny plant or even an insect. I choose things that are in trouble, often at the hand of man, in order to help them out; my photos are often the only national attention these things will ever get. So, I’m really on a mission to let the world know about “the least among us” before it’s too late.
A couple years ago, I did a story for NGM on the Endangered Species Act. From that came a book called Rare: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species. While all the images in the book have a story behind them, two stand out in particular.
The first concerns our only federally endangered fly. What good is a fly, you ask? If you eat fruits and vegetables, and have heard that bees are in steep decline these days, you would know the answer already: flies are very important pollinators. Besides, if we’re pushing even flies to extinction, what does that say about the health of everything else we share the planet with? When we save endangered species, we’re actually saving ourselves.
Logistically, this fly picture was quite hard to get. The animal is quite rare. In fact, it took 4 1/2 months just to get a federal permit for a biologist to catch one so I could photograph it. Once we got our permit, I waited for the call that some had been spotted on one of the last vacant lots where they live in southern California and then drove a mobile studio from my home in Nebraska all the way out to Los Angeles. We were allowed to catch only one, by the way, so if it got away during the shoot, too bad. Neither the biologist nor I slept a wink the night before. Despite our nervousness, we got our fly pictures.
The second image that stands out for me is of an animal that’d I’d known of and wanted to meet since I was a little boy; the California condor.
I’d read about the condor back in the 1970’s while in grade school. The largest flying bird in North America, it hovered close to extinction for decades. At its lowest, it numbered fewer that 20 individuals. It was the ultimate endangered species.
Through captive breeding, biologists have now pulled this bird back from the brink. Though still quite rare, today it numbers more than 300 individuals, with many flying free again in California and the Desert Southwest. Talk about life and death, this was high drama indeed.
Getting access to such a high-profile species wasn’t easy though. I’d been doing studio portraits at dozens of zoos around the country for many years when I got a call from a friend at the Phoenix Zoo. Seems a condor had flown into the Navajo Bridge and had broken its wrist, meaning it would be unable to fly again and would either be kept as a breeder or an educational bird. It was being kept in a recovery pen there for a few weeks with its broken wing wrapped, so if I could get there, the zoo folks said I could photograph it. I went right away.
I set up a couple of softboxes and a piece of black velvet in the back of its pen and spent about 20 minutes with him. The bird was enormous and ancient looking. During the shoot, the condor looked this way and that, confident, not scared, and not really that interested in me or the camera in my hands. But he did give me one moment, a few seconds where he looked into the camera lens and stared intensely. Perhaps he simply saw his reflection, but that look, and the fact the bird had a beautifully-colored head that’s really unusual, made this one of the most popular photos in Rare.
For me, the opportunity to photograph the bird was both a thrill and a great life experience — I’d finally gotten an audience with the most famous of all endangered species, the bird that I’d been thinking about literally since childhood. It doesn’t get any better than that.
You can see more of Joel’s work at JoelSartore.com, follow him on Twitter, find him on Facebook, and keep up with him on his blog. Signed copies of Joel’s book, Rare: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species, are available here or by calling 402-474-1006.
[Note from Brad: This is the first in a series of guest blogs from National Geographic photographers. Check back over the coming weeks for more stories about shooting for the prestigious publication!]
Crossing the Yellow Border
Kudos to Brad and Scott for devoting blog space to a series of posts by National Geographic shooters.
I’ve been shooting for “the yellow magazine” since 1987, and that land beyond the yellow border is indeed a wonderful, and strange, place. It contains and defines the entire realm of shooting experiences—impossible odds, magnificent occurrences, unprecedented access, nearly unbelievable bad fortune, outright danger, the exhilaration of the hard won chrome or file captured, and the devastation of bad days, or even weeks in the field.
The Palomar Telescope fires a laser 60 miles into the heavens.
That place, “in the field,” can be the urbane and sophisticated streets of Paris, or someplace literally so remote as to have never felt the footprint of man. It can be the ultra-sacrosanct tombs and structures of societies time has all but forgotten, or the blinking, humming computers that power our most modern technologies. The magazine’s official mission statement is “to increase and diffuse geographic knowledge.” “Geography,” for the editors there, generally encompasses both physical and cultural geography. People and their places. People in relationship to the planet. The planet itself, in all of its’ magnificence, and wreckage. The earth, sea and sky, and all the organisms those elements nurture, and occasionally, punish.
Over the Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. I found that my fingers didn’t work so well trying to load a 617 Pano camera with 220 film in an open door chopper at 14,000 feet.
In short, everything. Trust me, I know this first hand. I was once given a story to do called “The Universe.” Yikes. (To my editor, I was like, “Okay, how long do I have to shoot this?”)
I was already an established “New York” shooter, with covers of Sports Illustrated, LIFE, Time, Newsweek, New York, etc., by the time I came to the attention of the yellow border gang. Strategizing to get an assignment, I turned down a go everywhere credential to the Seoul Olympiad for Sports Illustrated to honor a commitment to a week long freebie speaking tour called The Flying Short Course, sponsored by the NPPA. Sounds unbelievably stupid, right? A freelancer turning down a month of day rates to keep an obligation to do a series of free lectures.
On the face of it, yes. But the method to my madness involved being on the same touring faculty as Tom Kennedy, then DOP of Geographic. I had the opp right then and there to show my portfolio to Tom, five days in a row. I gulped, said no to SI, didn’t’ go to Seoul, and instead went off to lecture. At the end of that week of touring and talking, Tom looked at me and said, “You should come down and start shooting for us.” That was 1987. Still shooting for them. Finished my last assignment this past summer. Almost 25 years, and lots of yellow boxes, and pixels, later, I’m still out there, trying to increase and diffuse.
For a story on Global Culture, i needed a global storyteller. Who better than George Lucas? I wanted George Lucas to simply be part of the tableaux I created outside this old theater, but it didn’t quite work out that way. George is front and center, surrounded by his creations.
That longevity was not a given, to be sure. It never is in the world of freelancing, and I did my best in my first few efforts for NG to ensure my career with them would be truly short lived. I made big time screw up after big time screw up.
It was a different type of shooting, you know? I was used to the New York method. That kind of played out like this: Get a phone call from an editor at a weekly publication in Manhattan. Say yes. Never, ever be able to reach that editor on the phone again. Make all the arrangements, Go shoot the job. A week was a long time. Six pages was a big story. Get in, get out. Process film. Deliver it in a breathless rush. Not hear anything. Call three weeks later. Finally get the editor on the phone. “Oh, hi. Yeah, Joe! It is Joe, right? That story that you shot? Oh, oh, yeah. Oh, yeah, uh, it was good, we liked it. Thanks. Gotta go to a meeting.”
Have phone ring back, almost immediately. It’s a call from that very same editor you were just talking with. That editor who now all of a sudden remembers you, and realizes you are standing there, somewhere, with enough time to make a phone call and this qualifies you as a warm body with a camera, and potential availability to solve a problem the managing editor just threw on his desk like a big, steaming turd. “Hi, yeah, uh, by the way, are you busy in the next two hours?” (more…)
As always, it’s an honor to contribute to Scott’s blog.
Photogs. We’re storytellers, right? So, if you will, permit me a story. (It’s occasionally been a saga, and maybe, every once in a while, an opera.)
Like many New York based shooters, I had a bit of a love fest with the World Trade Centers. What was not to like? These twin exclamation points at the southern tip of Manhattan provided a sense of place, majesty, and graphic balance to your snaps, all at once.
In a moment of youthful exuberance, I climbed the antenna on the north tower, and became instantly and forever intoxicated with the notion of obtaining unique, not to be repeated vantage points on one of the most photographed places on earth, New York City.
Get your camera in a different place. I think some photog wrote that once, but he could well be a lunatic.
I’ve climbed to the top of the antenna on the Empire State Building, driven by the notion that I could impart a different spin on the mundane task of changing a light bulb. But do you know via this pic that you are absolutely on the Empire State Building? Is there anything utterly, definably New York in the cityscape? Not really. Not till you get to—you guessed it—the Twin Towers, way far away, but still absolutely recognizable.
And then, they were gone.
The aftermath of 911 was rough for everyone. Like most, I paced, thought, raged, anguished and prayed. I was at home, with the kids, and the irrational photog part of me was screaming inside my head: Get your gear and go.
Truth was, there were already hundreds of shooters down there, documenting events with astonishing courage, tenacity and integrity. I could contribute nothing significant, or different, beyond what they were doing.
Instead, I pondered. I had, at that time, one shooting experience with the world’s only Giant Polaroid camera. I had become intrigued with this balky, cumbersome, historically important camera that lived at that time on the lower east side of NY. I gave myself the assignment to shoot with the camera, and I asked Jenny Ringer, one of the truly amazing principal dancers with the New York City ballet to pose. She remains, I believe, most likely the only ballerina to ever be photographed in this format.
The camera at its’ core is a Polaroid. Make an exposure, 90 seconds later, you have a positive image. But it’s a Polaroid the size of a one car garage. While you direct the picture outside the camera, there are two people physically inside of it, working the guts of it. To make an image, you have to shuffle your subject delicately into a plane of focus that is only half an inch deep, and ask them to stay there, very still, while the camera is spooled up and ready to make a shot.
Not easy to do. But very worth the degree of difficulty. What results after the 90 second chemical processing is a life size, virtually grain-less image of your subject that, when framed, is 4’x9’. When you confront the picture, it’s very akin to actually meeting that person. And the cumbersome, formal nature of the process imparts to the subject a certain stature, dignity, and presence. They literally have to stand for their portrait, much as they did in the old days of flash powder and glass plates.
I shot 246 Giant Polaroids, all done within 5 weeks of 911. I lived at the studio, sleeping in a loft bed over the camera, rarely venturing very far from it, as we took crews from the pit at 2am, 9am, 10pm—in short, whenever they showed up. The result was a traveling show, and a book. These efforts combined with others made by Time Warner, the principal sponsor of the project, and helped raise about $2 million dollars for the relief effort. Then, these behemoth images went into storage, and have been barely viewed for ten years.
Last week, we put them on the floor of the Time Warner Center, with the help of 25 off duty NYC firefighters, all of whom volunteered to come in and help out. The building is amazing. 75,000 people go through it every day, and the show is drawing in additional folks, so once again, during its’ nearly 20 day run, 1.5 million plus people will pass by these images. Related, the company that owns the building, stepped up big time and offered to host the show, which was amazingly generous.
The thing about this edition is that 24 of the original Polaroid portraits have been updated with new portraits, shot in the last 3 months, on D3X cameras, and video interviews shot on D7000. This show is very much about the photo community at work. Nikon is the major sponsor, pitching in with funding and gear. Adorama donated the prints. Johnson & Johnson came on board as a corporate sponsor as well. J&J was very much an unsung hero back in 2001, working behind the scenes, donating equipment, medical supplies, corporate support and funds. They have stepped forward again, a decade later, on behalf of this group of pictures.
(But you know, I kind of regard J&J support as photo related, really. It was my bud, fellow photog, Mark Krajnak, the original K-Man, from Jersey, who appealed to his management to assist us. He got it done.)
We have other assistance, such as JP Morgan Chase, our friends Marea and Marlan Downey, and others, all of whom chipped in with an assemblage of small gifts. But our major corporate sponsors walked. Go figure, but more on that definitely tk.
We found ourselves out in the breeze, so there was nothing to do but keep plunging in. Really, really proud of my small studio.
Ellen Price, the non-stop curator of the collection, who has worked on it largely pro-bono for nine years, marshaled every resource she could find.
Lynn DelMastro, our studio manager, kept things spinning, handling the phone, the invitations, and the myriad of details launching a show of this size in NYC incurs.
Drew, Cali and Grippi built websites and videos.
And Lynda Peckham poured her formidable attention to detail, and her video virtuosity into the preparations. It turned out to be a family operation, as her brother Russell edited the video. Lots of late nights.
And, just when we would get to a point where we thought it was over, and we were out of oxygen, and just had to abandon this, someone would step up with another gift, another reason to keep going. Which we did. The show is on the floor. In a video interview the other day, Chief Jay Jonas of FDNY, called me “a pit bull.” I believe he meant that in the best possible way.
Here’s the reason we kept pushing. At the end of the day, this is simply a collection of pictures of some very good people. Many of them I count as friends. The folks in these pictures saved many people on that day, and in a very real way, they also saved all of us. In a very dark hour, they reminded us all of the decency of the human spirit.
Mike Wernick. He survived, despite being blown out of the building and out onto West St. Mike also worked and survived the ’93 bombing attempt at WTC. His look at the camera reflected what he had been through that day.
I’ve stayed in touch with Mike, and his wife, Nuri. They are amazing people. The pictures I’ve made of them as a couple are among the favorite pictures I’ve ever shot, because they’re pictures of two people who strongly, deeply, love each other.
John Baldassarre. Referred to around the firehouse as “Baldy,” John was the first person to step in front of the Giant Polaroid. In 2001, he was a firefighter with Ladder Nine, Engine 33 on Great Jones St., a house that lost ten men on 911. I walked into the house to ask them to come over to the camera, and I had nothing to show them except a huge picture of a ballerina in a tutu, which I rolled out onto the floor, to, well, predictable commentary. Still, they came to the studio, and the project was started.
Ten years later, John is a lieutenant with FDNY.
Recently, I asked Jenny to come to the house and pose with the guys. She never really knew her picture, rolled out on that firehouse floor, got all this started a decade ago.
Louie. I photographed him in the immediate aftermath of 911. As he stood there in the lights, you could see WTC dust floating off his bunker gear with every move he made, however slight.
Ten years later, he could and should run for mayor of NYC, as I have said many times. We’d all be better for it. His gregarious nature and embracing personality are testaments to the resilience of the human spirit.
Here’s the thing about being a photog, which we sometimes forget when we get too involved counting pixels. When someone agrees to have you make their picture, even a quick snap, there’s an exchange, or the beginnings of a relationship, however cursory or fleeting. The subject is out there, in front of a lens, which is a very vulnerable place to be. Effectively, they give you, at the camera, a gift. It’s up to us as photographers to take care of it.
When someone comes to your studio during a time such as 911, everything ratchets upwards. Their vulnerability. The amount of trust they place in you. Your responsibility to them.
The flash of the light speaks a language beyond simple exposure. You trip the shutter (or, as with the Giant Polaroid, you pull the cap off the lens) and you have made a pact with that person out there on the seamless. You are effectively saying, I will do my best to make this a good photo. I will do my best to try to make sure you don’t regret coming here. And, just as importantly, you are promising to be the good shepherd of your image.
Ten years ago, when someone came to the camera, I made a picture and a promise. This show, ten years on, is part of that promise.
The show is at the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle in NYC, and is free and open to the public from 10am to 9pm daily, through Sept. 12th. There is more info at FacesOfGroundZero.com
Should anyone care to contribute to the ongoing maintenance and costs of the Giant Polaroids, you can do so by logging onto Artspire.org
The collection is under the auspices of the New York Foundation for the Arts. The Artspire link above is their donation mechanism. All donations are tax deductible, and will go to cover and reimburse the costs of the show and the collection, the transfer of the Giant Polaroids to the 911 Museum, as well as framing, maintenance, staging and transit.
Wow, what an honor to be guest blogging for Scott Kelby! When Brad called me up to see if I would like to fill this Wednesday’s guest spot, it was a no brainer – Of course I would! Later as I reread the posts of previous contributors it started to sink in, this talent pool ran deep, one could easily drown in there. As anyone who has read a guest post on Scott’s blog before will attest, it is not the usual cut and dry photo or lighting shtick. People really bare it all here. On top of that I’m following Dave Black whom I’d only just met earlier this year, but who had me on the verge of tears while telling his life’s story of toil and triumph at the Photoshop World closing ceremonies. (Does anyone have that on video somewhere?!)
This is really just a round about way to describe a feeling most photographers encounter a lot. Or maybe it’s just me, but I’ve heard the sentiment whispered in the halls before. It can be downright awe inspiring, intimidating and depressing at times to look around at the raw talent in this big & small photo community of ours.
Just browse a few websites or a couple magazines and you’re bombarded with some awesome imagery. It’s daunting to think that that’s the level your competition is at. It could be enough to make you think about throwing in the towel some times. Once we overcome that though, our peers quickly become our greatest assets in this life behind the lens. Every one of these guys has a history of bad images behind them and are still making more everyday; everyone has to put in their 10,000 hours of sweat equity.
I guess what I want to write about is community, and how it is especially necessary for a creative. As romantic the notion is of the isolated artist toiling away in obscurity, I don’t think I could live like that for longer than a short weekend. It’s awesome to be able to look to our massive online community of photographers from around the globe and to be inspired by how much great work is being created everyday.
I’m entirely self taught as a photographer. By that I just mean I didn’t have a scholastic community to help rear me, but rather a tight knit community of friends and family. They posed for me endlessly, helped me lug light stands and weren’t afraid to share with me what did and didn’t work for them as subjects. Then there was my small ragtag group of photographer friends, without which my photography might not have developed from avid curiosity into the obsessive pursuit of learning and taming light that it did. I’m a people shooter after all, and I can only talk to and about a still-life for so long before losing interest.
There have been two moves in my life where the need for a community really hit home, and it snuck up unexpectedly the first time. I had just moved back to the beaches after a number of years away and was experiencing my first bout of creative isolation. I didn’t know any other shooters in town that I could call up on a random afternoon to try out a new piece of gear with, or talk shop, or borrow a light stand from – it sucked! So when I heard about the Help Portrait event happening at a location down the road I figured it would be a great way to spend the weekend, giving back and possibly meeting some like minded photographers. (Help Portrait is an event where for one day a year photographers find someone in need and give a portrait rather than take one. By the way it’s coming up soon so check it out).
Just as I had finished setting up my lights one of the other guys grabs me and asks if I can lend a hand in bringing up some more gear that had just arrived. I said sure thing and headed down to grab what I thought would be couple more umbrellas and some background paper. In the door walks Scott, Matt, Corey, Brad and the whole Kelby crew. Plus they had brought an entire office & studio worth of gear with them. A weekend charity shoot turned into a high production event and our awesome subjects that day got the royal treatment, after all THEY were the reason we were there. Once the last lady’s portrait had been made, we all went down the road to grab a burrito and that guy who had asked my for a hand earlier turned out to be RC, who I count today among my best of friends. Plus it was pretty cool realizing that the the Kelby HQ was in my backyard all along and getting to watch those guys retouch in realtime is pretty darn impressive.
The following week RC invites me out to Tampa to meetup with his friend Kathy and their massive Strobist group. It was a blast flooding the streets with photographers and over the course of that week I went from flying solo to having a large creative community to call friends. Those friends have helped to challenge, inspire, push and prod me into becoming a better photographer and person. That’s what friends do, so thank you guys.
The second more recent move occurred when I relocated from sunny Florida to Detroit, MI‚ during the “Snowpocalypse” earlier this year. I did prepare myself for two things before the move and have been working through them daily. First, rather than wait around for serendipity to strike again, I immediately struck out to get engaged in the photo community here.
With sites like Twitter, Meetup.com, and the awesome NAPP community it’s not hard to get out there… like actually out there. I really dig the online conversations and tweet too much sometimes, but my goal was to get together in person, shake a hand, share a drink, and go shoot something. I took this same approach in establishing my business locally as well. Let’s just say the coffee shops and restaurants are loving me!
The second being a glaringly obvious issue once I walked out the door of my new home. Detroit is different. Different from what I’ve known as a shooter thus far. Gone are the sunny scenes ready-made to drop a model into. It’s been like an extended case of that traveler’s high you get when on the road; your brain is busy trying to process a new place and the possibilities are endless. Of course old habits die hard and I still love the light and colorful imagery that came naturally when working in Florida. It’ll continue to be interesting as my style evolves and I adapt.
I am a creature of habit though and have enjoyed lighting a scene to create whats there in my mind. I’ll be writing every month for the new Light It Magazine that just launched, and a lot of the techniques and tips I’ll be covering come from experiences and obstacles I’ve overcome while shooting up here this year. It’s amazing how with a couple lights and a gel you can turn a gloomy snowy day into a warm inviting afternoon, at least in camera anyway. The snow can’t keep this Florida boy down and all of the new friends and photographers up here go the extra mile to help each other get that next shot and succeed. It’s all about being there for one another with a helping hand, recommendation or referral. It takes a village.
That’s what I really love about Scott and the rest of his gang. They don’t just produce educational material.They develop and nurture a community of creatives around learning. I wish college had been more like that, I may have gone on and gotten a real job! Then again probably not :)
Thanks Scott and Brad for having me on the blog! I hope to keep shooting and sharing with you all for many years to come.
Hi, and welcome to Scott’s blog. Let me first say what a privilege it is to be asked to write an article this week. Well, as many of you know, Scott and I share a common passion and subject interest, sports photography. So it seemed natural for me to write about a sports related topic.
I’ve been on the road a lot lately and Friday was a rare afternoon at home. As I sat down to write this article I had the TV tuned to the Golf Channel’s coverage of the WGC Bridgestone Invitational. I happened to catch the interview with Tiger recapping his poor 2nd round performance. A reporter asked him if he was going to “set a lower goal seeing that he was coming back from an injury and all that has happened.” Tiger instantly answered, “No. Never have. Why show up at a tournament if you’re not there to win.”
You think Tiger has a game plan for a few more green jackets? Ya think? I have always walked into each photographic project with a game plan for improvement. It is this mindset that fuels my passion for whatever I am photographing. Passion can only motivate a person so far before improvement and encouragement is needed to continue on. During my 30 plus years of photographing Professional and Olympic sports I have applied several guidelines that have helped me improve my image making at each event I covered. Let me add that these guidelines can apply to any photographer no matter what subject they shoot. So even if you photograph weddings, portraits, wild life, landscapes or whatever, grab your seat in the front row, buy a hotdog, and enjoy the play-by-play.
Know Your Subject
I began my sports photography career as the team photographer for the men’s and women’s USA Gymnastics teams in 1980. I grew up in the sport and competed at both the High School and NCAA College level. I even coached for several years before stepping into the photography position for the US team. I knew only what I had learned in a single semester B&W photography class in college, but I knew everything about gymnastics. This in-depth knowledge of my subject, gymnastics, gave me a distinct advantage over even the best photographers in the sports magazine industry. I knew the athletes, their routines, their new skills, and all the best angles to capture the action from. It was as if I had seen a video of the competition the day before. I always seemed to be more than 1 step ahead of the photographers from Sports Illustrated, Time, and Newsweek.
So, when Mary Lou Retton landed this vault scoring a perfect 10.0 and won the Olympic gold medal she became the biggest story of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. The sport became very popular and I then became the go-to guy for Gymnastics images. This led to other major sports event coverage both Professional and Olympic, and the rest, as they say, is history. Anyone can improve their images just by knowing something about their subject. The great wildlife photographers know the habits and best season to photograph specific animals. A great wedding photographer knows the layout of the church in advance so they can move quickly into position for key moments. And the portrait photographer makes conversation and builds relationship with their subject so as to capture the mood and personality of the individual. If you want your pictures to improve, Know Your Subject, whether it’s an athlete, a bride, a moose, or the environment.
Get There Early Back in 2003 I had the opportunity to photograph Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts during the final regular season game. Sounds simple enough except that he was scheduled to only play 3 downs before being pulled to save him for the playoffs. Although I did get a nice image or two of him handing off the ball 3 times, this pre-game picture was more to the liking of my client. I had photographed Manning several times over the years and knew that he liked to come on to the field early for stretching and warm-up throws…(sound familiar? … Know Your Subject).
While other photographers were still preparing gear for the game I headed out to the field very early just to capture this image. Stylized by underexposing the image –1.3 stops and then lit using 2 Nikon Speedlights rubber-banded together, I held them well off camera in my left hand. I made a single frame of him running onto the field. Get There Early, you’ll never regret it.
Stay Late If getting to the game early helps you make a unique picture, then staying late can also be of benefit. When Troy Aikman was injured in the 4th quarter it seemed natural to follow him off the field at the end of the game, but no other photogs seemed to think so. After all, it might be his last game, and I believe it was his last game for that season. Apparently TV also thought it was important to stick around and get coverage of him in civilian clothes and a sling.
I was the last photog on the field when Aikman disappeared into the locker room. It was a small bit of Aikman history that sold and resold several times over the course of his career. My advice is this, after the game is over and your job is seemingly done, stop, don’t pack up the gear yet, and look around to see what might make an interesting picture. More often than not, something will catch your eye, and if it does, then make a picture of it. Stay late, a good picture might be waiting for you.
Think Coffee Table Book These next few images were made at Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby.
Whenever I cover a sporting event I try and make a collection of images as if I was working for a coffee table book publisher. Not because I am working on a book, but because I want to make a total package of documentary coverage.
You never know what the magazine editor or school’s sports information director will want. So why not give it all to them, from sunup to sundown, from close up, too wide angel, and from event ambiance to heart pounding action.
This allows your client to pick and choose, and perhaps publish more pictures. Yes, it’s more work, but so often my client would request a single image in advance, but when the magazine came out I would have several photos published that they didn’t request.
Think Coffee Table Book and watch how many more of your pictures get published. Besides, it’s just fun to make pictures.
“Go Big or Go Home” This is a quote from Mike Powell, one of the former owners of the All Sport picture agency, which became the sports division of Getty. What he meant by this was if the photographer next to you is using a 300mm lens, you should use a 400mm. If they are using a 400mm, then you should use a 600mm. And, if they use a 600mm, then put a 1.4 teleconverter on your 600mm. Simply said, use a longer lens to draw in your subject and make a different picture than your colleagues do.
Here is Michael Phelps winning gold at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. Swimming imagery is all about the face, but that’s a very small subject within the Olympic pool. Most photographers had 400mm or 600mm lenses, but I went with a 600mm and 1.4 teleconverter all on a Nikon D2h with DX sensor. Yikes! Some would ask why not just crop the image later, because I want to capture it in such a way that it would have impact when my editor opens the file. I want my picture to get noticed immediately, and have a chance of making the cover, or a double page spread. It takes practice and sometimes it takes courage, and sometimes you can fail, but for sudden impact, Go Big or Go Home.
Have an Edge I had shot very little golf coverage during my career prior to being asked by Golf Digest to do documentary coverage of the Masters. I would be part of a team of 4 other photographers who were the best in the golf business, and here I was, no one in the business of golf. I felt I needed to walk into Augusta with an edge that would help my work standout and contribute to the coverage. I had brought all my normal cameras with long lenses, but decided to include a small Nikon Coolpix 8700. Sounds crazy, but I felt I could use the silent shutter of this small consumer camera to capture a very rare moment in golf, the top of the back swing.
Clicking the shutter on a 35mm DSLR camera is highly unethical at golf tournaments. The abrupt sound can cause a golfer to loose concentration and result in the golfer’s caddie grabbing your camera and throwing it into the lake, not to mention having your credential taken away. The silent shutter of the Coolpix 8700 along with its RAW file capability was my edge. The editors were blown away when the first round of back swing images came across the computer screen. “STOP!” they said. “You’ll get us all thrown out.” “It’s OK,” I said. “The shutter is silent.” Here is Phil Mickelson at the top of his back swing making his final drive off the 18th tee on route to winning his first major, the 2004 Masters. Have an Edge, and walk in with confidence knowing you can offer your client something new and unique.
Take a Chance I don’t think of myself as a gambler. My wife would suggest otherwise and say my entire business as a freelance photographer is based on taking chances. After all, I have no daily guarantee of being hired, of making picture sales, or of receiving a paycheck at the end of the month. Well, here I am, still in business 30 plus years later partly because I do take some chances.
Most of the photographers at the 1994 Winter Olympics used fast shutter speeds to freeze the 85mph flight of the Sky Jump finalists, but not me. I took a chance and decided to use a slow shutter speed of 1/30 during the entire competition. This included photographing the jumps of the eventual Olympic medalists. Not an easy task seeing that I was using an F3 film camera with a 600mm f4 lens and a 1.4 teleconverter…hand held (a monopod tends to sink in deep snow). My editors at Newsweek applauded the risky approach and the unique images. So, Take a Chance, you might win.
Capture the Moment
If you don’t capture the key moment, you’re toast. Simple as that.It’s not going to go well for you back at the office.
This image of Kevin Barrnet serving up the winning point during the final game of the World League Volleyball Championships was one of Sports Illustrated’s first digital Leading Off images. Many of the guidelines and advice that I have mentioned contributed to the making of this picture. Although I’m not an expert on volleyball I did Know MySubject from previous competitions and was very familiar with Kevin’s perfect serving style. Once Jimmy Colton, SI’s picture editor, had assigned me the championships, I began planning my Coffee Table Book approach so that I could provide plenty of choices regarding the magazine’s Leading Off section.
I Got There Early during the practice days prior to the week of international competition and spent time with the event organizers in an effort to secure permission to do something special. My Edge would be to install my Nikon D1 as a remote camera in the catwalk over the colorful court, and use Sport Strobe Lighting to illuminate the court. I would trigger the camera/strobes using the wireless Pocket Wizard system from my courtside photo position. This would of course mean I would need to Stay Late after the court was cleared to retrieve the remote camera and shut off the strobes. In 2001 digital imagery was quite new to the magazine industry and I felt I would need to compose the scene very tight in order to have enough quality to be published as the Leading Off double page spread. Cropping the image was not an option so I decided to Go Big rather than Go Home and used a 70-200mm lens at 200mm. To Take a Chance like this is very risky, but I felt that if I could pull this off I would have an exceptional image. This image is not cropped. All my planning and careful study of Kevin’s airborne serves helped me position the camera precisely over the area of court where he achieved perfect form. Capturing The Moment of Kevin serving the final match point to win the World title for the USA was just what SI expected, as did I.
Well, there you have it, A Game Plan for Improvement. Perhaps more effort than some would care to apply, but when a photographer, regardless of their chosen genre, incorporates even some of these guidelines into each event, portrait, wedding, or landscape they photograph, I guarantee that their imagery and their clientele will improve significantly.
It’s been a pleasure to write this article for Scott’s Guest Blog. I hope you have enjoyed the images and commentary.