I'm humbled to make another appearance on Guest Blog Wednesday. I can't fathom what in the world Scott was thinking when he thought to have me return for a third time, though. When I think about the giants of photography who have shared their knowledge as Guest Bloggers, the pressure of trying to articulate something that will be worthwhile overwhelms me. I've gone to the well twice now and I'd like to think that I did so without completely embarrassing myself. Maybe I should have quit while I was ahead, but here I am, this time writing about golf photography and how I shoot the sport.
Golf photography is really no different than any other type of sports photography, or really photography in general. Each genre or sport has its ins & outs, nuances and idiosyncrasies that aren’t necessarily difficult to grasp, but it sure helps if you're aware of them before you head out to shoot. Here are some preliminary thoughts, followed by a more detailed discussion on equipment, positioning and the types of shots I look for when I shoot the sport of golf.
One thing I have discovered is that golf is one of the most physically demanding sports to shoot, at least the way I go about shooting events and tournaments. I'm sure you're sitting there, scratching your head when you read that since golf is not typically thought of as a physically demanding sport. But when I shoot a PGA golf event, it's almost always as a Tournament Photographer or for a wire service. Therefore, my job is either: 1) to follow an assigned group for most of a round, occasionally catching up with or dropping back to follow other groups on the course; or 2) to photograph players in contention and the "name" players. That means I don't hunker down in one place and photograph the golfers as they come through that spot on the course. My photo obligations require that I do a lot of walking (and running).
Consider that most any PGA golf course is approximately 5 miles in length. Add to that going from greens to tee boxes, constantly moving from one side of the fairway to the other to get into position, etc., and it is not unusual for me to log in some 6 to 7 miles on any given dayâ¦with approximately 40 pounds of camera gear attached to my body in some fashion or another.
I also make it a priority to capture images from unconventional vantage points. This requires a lot of extra climbing, squatting, sprinting, wading or other forms of physical exertion. For example, in order to capture the image above of Jim Furyk teeing off on #18 at Augusta National, while Furyk's playing partner was putting out on the 17th green, I sprinted to the CBS TV tower which is located behind the 18th tee box. I climbed the 40 or so rungs to the platform above, took several shots of Furyk, and climbed back down. As soon as I hit the ground, I sprinted up the 10th fairway which parallels #18 to catch up with Furyk before either he or his partner hit their approach shots to the green. Whew.
Despite being worn out by the end of a tournament, I enjoy shooting golf the way I do. Because I spend so much time with any given group of players each day, and have done so for several years, my face has become familiar to many of them. The same goes for network commentators and other media personalities who cover PGA tournaments. By avoiding certain faux pas and going about my business in a professional manner, I have developed an amicable relationship with many players and media types. That goes a long way towards making my job a lot more pleasant than it might otherwise be. Just as with any type of photography, gaining the respect and friendship of people with whom you have to work only serves to make life a lot more enjoyable.
A couple of years ago, I took a Flip video camera with me to the Tavistock Cup in Orlando, Florida, a PGA sanctioned golf event I have had the pleasure of shooting as a Tournament Photographer for several years. The idea was to create a video that would provide a glimpse of what it's like inside the ropes as a credentialed photographer and to briefly touch on topics such as equipment, vantage points, and the types of images I look for when shooting. In the process of shooting the video clips, I unintentionally digressed and engaged some players and commentators with lighthearted conversation. Our exchanges illustrate just how much more fun it is to do a job when you're on good terms with those around you. Before I begin to provide you some additional thoughts on shooting golf, feel free to take a peek at the video.
Let's shift gears and take a look at equipment that allows me to get the job done.
I typically carry at least two camera bodies, and most of the time three. In the photo of Matt Kloskowski and me (above), I have a D3S with a Sigma 15mm f2.8 fisheye on the left strap of a Black Rapid 2-camera strap and a D3S with an 80-200mm f2.8 on the right strap. A D300 is attached to a 200-400mm f4 lens, mounted on a monopod. This is a very typical outfit for me when heading out on the course in terms of lenses and camera body configuration unless I want to go light; then, I'll drop one of the camera bodies. The upside of going with two camera bodies is less weight to carry; the downside is having to swap out lenses on one of the camera bodies when the need arises.
The Black rapid straps allow me to quickly grab either camera body and swing it into a shooting position due to its unique design. Another feature of Black Rapid straps is the very effective way camera bodies hang while walking or shooting with the monopod mounted camera - they are completely out of the way when not in use. If your photography requires quick access to strap mounted camera bodies and/or moving around with camera bodies on straps, Black Rapid straps are the bomb.
The photo of Matt and me also depicts another piece of gear that I can't live without - a Think Tank modular belt/lens pouch system worn on my waist. I usually attach three lens pouches to the belt and another one designed for personal items, lens caps, extra batteries, and snacks. I carry two lenses in the pouches - a 17-35mm f2.8 wide-angle lens and a 35-70mm f2.8 lens. A Nikon SB 900 strobe sometimes goes in the other lens pouch for shooting late afternoon images with fill light after play has concluded, during awards presentations, or other such moments. Otherwise, I'll carry a bottle of water in the third lens pouch.
There's no getting around the fact that in order to shoot golf, a long lens is essential. Long lenses allow you to set up down the fairway from players and still shoot tight. Just as with any sport, tight shots of athletes with the ball and their face in the frame are very desirable as they capture the athletes' facial expression in the heat of the moment. A long focal length allows you to get those shots without any chance that shutter noise will bother the players.
In order to capture the golfer’s face and the ball in the frame, it’s all a matter of timing. Fire the shutter too soon and the club head hasn’t made contact with the ball, which to me results in a blah image. Fire too late and the ball is long gone, even at 11 frames/second. Sometimes it takes a hole or two to get into a rhythm but after a bit I tend to find that rhythm and get a feel for just when to start pushing down on the shutter.
I try to position myself on the opposite side of the player’s hand dominance so that as he swings, his face will be visible. For right-handed golfers that means positioning myself to the left of the player and the opposite for lefties.
It should go without saying that the last thing you want to do when shooting golf is to disrupt a player's swing with a burst of shutter clicks that they can hear as they swing. Even when I'm positioned down the fairway far enough away so that my shutter will not be audible to players, I still refrain from starting my burst of images until just before the club head makes contact with the ball.
Over the past couple of years, my long lens choice has shifted from a 400mm f2.8 lens to my now favorite, daytime, long sports lens – a Nikon 200mm-400mm f4. I often use a 400mm f2.8 lens for sports, but for golf I prefer to go with the 200-400mm. Golf is shot in plenty of light so I don’t need the extra speed of an f2.8 lens and the 200-400mm is significantly lighter than the 400mm f2.8. That’s important when you have to walk/run/sprint over 6-7 miles of golf course during the day while carrying equipment.
If I need to go really long, I'll attach the 200mm-400mm to my trusty old Nikon D300, a DX-sensored body that has a 1.5X focal length multiplier. That effectively turns the 200-400mm lens into a 300-600mm lens at f4, which is as long a focal length as I ever need. Even though the D300 is several years old, at the ISOs I use during the day (usually ISO 200, and hardly ever above ISO 400), the noise level of the D300 is unnoticeable. If I feel that I can get by without needing to reach out with a 600mm focal length or when heavy overcast conditions force me to shoot with an ISO above 400 in order to maintain a shutter speed of at least 1/1000 second, I'll attach the 200-400mm to a D3S camera body and goose the ISO to whatever setting is necessary.
I like a slight bit of blur on the club head and ball to create the feeling of motion in an image, but not too much. 1/1000 second shutter speed is fast enough to give me just enough blur. A shutter speed slower than that will often result in the club head or the ball being too blurred for my taste.
"Pose" shots add to a collection of images. I refer to the shots above as “pose” shots – images that depict the golfer at the very end of their swing as they watch the ball’s flight. These can be full frame of the golfer or tight, depending on the look I am after. They’re the easiest of all the shots to capture but are a great addition to an image set. The "pose" can be photographed many ways, and the possibilities are limited only by your imagination.
You may have noticed that I carry a couple of wide-angle lenses in addition to a long lens. I do so because I like to supplement tight action shots with pageantry, artsy fartsy, and wide-angle action images.
On at least one or two holes, I will position myself behind players and shoot with a wide-angle lens, sometimes at a slight angle to the players and sometimes directly behind them. These vantage points produce something different from the typical out-in-front stuff and add variety to the collection of images I turn in. I may sit on the ground and shoot up (as in the image above) or stand/kneel while I shoot (as in the image below).
Don’t be fooled by the images above as they give the appearance that I am some distance away from the payers. As with rear view mirrors, objects are much closer than they appear when using wide-angle lenses, so you MUST be careful not to fire the shutter until after the players have hit the ball – unless of course you dream about being yelled at by the golfer or his caddy. If you don’t believe me, fire your shutter within earshot of Robert Allenby or Bubba Watson, or God help you Tiger Woods, during their backswing. I’ve seen them and their caddies humiliate photographers to the point of tears.
Another use for the wide angle set up is picturesque shots of the golf course and panoramic shots of the players and galleries (as shown above), which gives viewers a feel for the ambiance of the event.
If I could only get one image during an entire day of shooting it would have to be the bunker shot. To me, these golf images are just this side of Elvis cool. I mean, what’s not to like? The ball is typically easy to capture in the frame as it doesn’t travel as fast a tee shot or a fairway approach shot, the cloud of sand adds drama and action to an image, and you have many options when it comes to composition - you can shoot from the side of the player, directly in front, with a horizontal orientation, a vertical one, you name it, and the images always look great.
Any time a player hits an approach shot to a green, I am secretly rooting for a big splash in the sand. As soon as I see that, I boogey for position while thinking through the kind of image I hope to get. This is where the 80-200mm lens comes in handy as it gives me great flexibility in composing the image. My preference in vantage point is in front of the player so the bunker shot is being hit almost directly at me. Having said that, bunker images can also look pretty sweet when shot from the side and the sun highlights the sand. I try to vary focal lengths and position as the day progresses for the sake of variety, shooting tight, medium and wide. After all, isn’t variety the spice of life?
Let's move on to the putting green. My go-to lens on putting greens is the 80-200mm because its focal length is great for variety in the shots I can take. There are many kinds of images you can shoot once the players make it to the green, such as players placing their ball on their ball marker, reading the green (alone or with their caddy), or actually putting.
To finish up, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a few other things I look for during a tournament. At the end of the day, the obligatory trophy presentation and celebration shots are a must. These are usually straightforward, grip & grin type shots but they’re part of the gig.
Every now and then I get lucky and a unique moment presents itself, as it did after Webb Simpson received the Payne Stewart salver for being low medalist at the 2013 Tavistock Cup. While all of us photographers were busy scurrying around to get shots of the winning team with the Tavistock Cup trophy, Simpson walked over to the gallery off the 18th green, unnoticed by the gaggle, to find his wife and kids. I had already gotten my shots of the winning team with the trophy and was about to head to the media trailer when I saw Simpson walking towards the green, salver and family in tow, and a huge smile on his face. The wind was blowing his wife’s and kids’ hair, which made for a perfect Kodak moment that no one seemed to notice. Thankfully, I was still locked and loaded and got what I think was one of my best images of the day.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention one last category of images that I always look for. Art shots, or as I refer to them artsy fartsy shots, can be found all over the golf course. They can be as simple as a scenic shot of a player teeing off (above), the Golf Channel's David Feherty trying to extract co-commentator Gary McCord's head from the rear end of a bull (below), or golf bags lined up and ready for play (also below).
I believe I've now beaten the golf photography horse deader than a doorknob so I will wrap up. I hope that the information provided is useful, and as always, my thanks to Scott and Brad Moore for being kind enough to have me appear on Guest Blog Wednesday one more time. Stay thirsty, my friends.
Mike Olivella is a professional photographer based in Tallahassee, Florida. Mike specializes in sports, outdoor and studio photography and is on the photo staff of the Florida State University Athletics Department. Mike also shoots sports for two wire services. You can see more of Mike's work at BaselineShots.com or follow him on Google+.