Got a chance to hit up The Swamp for Sports Illustrated this past weekend as the Florida Gators took on the FAU Owls as a college football playoff underdog candidate. I can’t remember the last time (if at all) I was asked to cover a game up in Gainesville, so hitting up a huge college venue cold is always exciting for me. I love traveling and shooting in new places – even places that are just a couple hours and an iced caramel macchiato away. The game was kind of a blip on the college football playoff radar, but while I could go on and on here about the game itself, I’d rather give a little insight to maybe some college students looking to cover their school’s games in a different way.
Here’s a mental checklist of how I approach a game day assignment for a magazine…
- Get assignment. Toughest part, right? Not so much. Sometimes it’s just calling a mag or newspaper and asking if they need someone to staff that game. I don’t do this enough, but there is something to be said for the squeaky wheel getting the grease. Other times it is just being in the right place on the call list after working your ass off for years. Either way, appreciate the call and rock your assignment. It’s the only way to ensure you get a second one.
- Research. That may seem weird for a game day assignment, but it’s honestly one of the most important. This can take various forms in just learning where you are going, directions, parking passes, credentials, etc, but what I’m referring to is learning the team – even if you haven’t covered them before. For instance, I knew very little about the Gators beyond what ESPN/SI has said. I knew a couple names, but I always take to Google the day before and read as many of the most recent articles on the team and who’s important on the squad. Ask yourself “Why does this magazine care?” and you’ll find out immediately what to shoot and how to explain that in photos the next day. Learn who the QB, WR, RB, DEF studs are and read about the coach. What kind of team are they? Defensive? Offensive powerhouse? Do they run a lot? Who leads the teams in TDs? Even if you don’t know football, you can gain a lot of knowledge really quickly and know who to watch once the football is hiked. If you know they throw to 81 deep a lot, you can set yourself up for a killer photo.
- Spy on Your Competition. This isn’t a Patriots jab, but it’s good to expand your research from just X’s and O’s to how other photographers have covered games there. The easiest way is to scour wire services like AP/Getty, the school’s PR site, but also Google Image searching to find out what kind of photos have been shot in that venue and how you can make something unique. You can learn a lot about where you can stand, where the team runs in and out, and what the key people look like so you’re not scrambling once you arrive. Other reason is to learn the names of the other photographers you are going to work beside and be able to possible befriend them while destroying them visually (that’s a joke).
- Make Friends. That may sound a little kindergarten, but trust me being a jerk on the sideline is the easiest way to ruin yours and others’ game day experience. Some of these photographers have been shooting on the sidelines you are parachuting in on for years and years, so take what they say to heart. Shake some hands, meet some folks and ask questions – most are willing to help. All is takes is for someone who hasn’t shot there before to do something stupid to ruin it for all the people left behind once you leave and go back home. This game in particular I chatted up the local newspaper shooter, got a little tour from the college’s photog, and had breakfast with the AP photog – all were able to give amazing tips from shooting positions, to bathroom and workroom locations, and just general traditions and things that happen on game day to be aware of. It was essential in taking the stress out of being the new guy on this particular shoot and can’t thank them enough. I’ll pay it back with a beer down the line.
- Be Early. Most games you can pick up a credential 3 hours early before kickoff. Use every minute of it. You never know what traffic will be like, where you have to lug your gear from, or how long the process of getting in and settled is going to take. Being late sucks and I have a horrible story about that but I don’t even want to think about that day. Be early. Be early. Be early.
- Take a Walk. I walk the entire stadium on game day before the players get there. Sometimes with just a single camera. I’m looking for shooting locations above, possible feature photo locations, and just looking how light hits a venue. Take a lap around the field, sure, but then take a lap around the concourse level and then the nose bleed seats. You’ll see things most won’t while they are shooting game action from the same spot. I can’t stress how important it is to go away from the pack. It’s essential sometimes, but if you can take a quarter and shoot it with a long lens from above, you’ll provide variety to an editor and have a different angle than everyone else standing on the sidelines. I always shoot above when I can in the 3rd quarter – it’s usually not a make-or-break quarter in a game, I can climb up during halftime, and I can safely work my way back down to the field for 4th quarter when stuff starts to get real. Spend as little time in the work room as possible.
- Gear (kind of) up. Here’s the normal advice: charge batteries, bring two bodies outfitted with a long telephoto lens and a wide angle or medium telephoto. Here’s the other advice: Sharpie the numbers of key players on your arm – it’s always right there and you don’t have to dig in your pocket. Shoot with three cameras if you can, plus have a backup. I lost a 1dx to a a fatal Err in this game in the first minute of the game. While that was stressful, I had a backup and was able to make my pictures. If you show up with one camera, trust me, it will someday bite you in the butt. Rent a cheap backup if money is a worry, just have something. I like to shoot with a 200-400mm and a wide angle like a 16-35mm or 24-70mm usually. If it’s a huge game I’ll have a third body with a 70-200mm or just a 50mm to play around with and make “my” photos. All that being said, I almost always shoot looser than comfortable. The best sports pictures have context and show the scene when something huge happens. Being stuck with a 600mm while the play is happening 10 feet in front of you is like hell on earth. I stopped making that mistake. Also, rain gear is a must. Little things for comfort like a snack, sweat rag, hand warmers and fingerless gloves (if you’re in cold weather) are all things to carry.
- Know what is Going On. The easiest way to cover a game is to “follow the ball” – everyone always says that. I would recommend to instead predict where that ball is going and get ahead of it. This game went to overtime and knowing where The Gators had to get and when is a lot more helpful than chasing them down the field. I love sitting in the end zone in the corner or on the pylon on my knees, but so do a lot of others. I try to take some chances and shoot with a 24-70mm and try to capture the entire play and reaction in one with a different lens that most have on. It doesn’t always work, but predicting what will happen comes hand-in-hand with knowing what is going on on the field. If it’s third down and long and they are in field goal range they’re going to the endzone for a shot at a TD and using the field goal as backup. If they only need 2 points, then they’re running it to get better field position for the game-winning kick. It’s little things like that you’ll pick up on and need to know in order to get yourself in the position for the shot. That being said if I’m covering the Gators and need a shot of the defense, I’m behind the play where everyone else is not. Situational awareness doesn’t just apply to players, it applies to us. One trick I’ve seen others do is to have one earphone in with the radio play-by-play going. I don’t like having my senses taken away because I don’t want to get nailed, so I watch the game and know what MIGHT happen and try for that.
- Keep Shooting Before + After the Whistle. This goes for action too, but keep firing for reaction – if it’s clear you are over or under lensed for a shot, a sound guy blocks your shot, quickly find something like the QB reaction or something to shoot. Moreover, once the play is dead and you’re itching to chimp and look at what you got, turn around and shoot fans, go find the cheerleaders, work the bench are for details of the game. There is a time limit for every game and I really try to make sure to use every second I can making pictures. I’d much rather have more than less to look at later.
- Push It. Resisting the urge to say “Push it Real Good” here, but the key to making good photos is to find the one thing – the ONE thing – that makes it a cool photos – light, moment, color, whatever it is and push that to the fullest. If it’s a ray of light trickling into a stadium, try shooting it really loose and letting that takeover the photo. If it’s a bloody gash on a head, shooting it super super tight as a detail. If it’s a colorful wall, filling the frame and letting bodies come and go in front of it. Just grabbing a shot and moving on is fine, but I really try to push everything to an almost awkward and uncomfortable construction and that requires working a scene a little at different parts of the game when I can.
- Post is Part of the Process. Now, this is where I may catch flak for saying this, but for me post-processing an image is just as important as shooting that image. It’s one thing to be able to say “Hey, that is kind of cool” and making a picture and sending it off, but it’s another to see something fun at a game, shoot it, underexpose it, play with the toning, and make it rock later in Lightroom. I think about my vision. I think about how I want my photos to look overall in an edit. I shoot with my post-process and toning in mind. I am NOT removing objects or moving balls or going beyond ethical standards, but I am making photos sing. I want color to be punchy, I want it to almost hurt to see. I want to be me and I want it to leap off a screen and be different. Cropping to my anal sense of composition helps frame up what I want in post, but then I really want colors to mimic what my eyes see and not what a newspaper or magazine page washes them down to. I always shoot RAW and I (almost) always shoot horizontal, although I’m being broken of that because magazines like cover images. Working from properly exposed files is great for batch toning, but I do take risks and that leads us to the next one.
- Errors = Education. Every single sports photographer on this planet has missed something. We all miss something every game. You can’t be everywhere at once unless you have 27 remotes and 10 assistants. It’s mostly you and what happens through your viewfinder. So you missed the game winning touchdown. It happens, and it’s not going to bury you in this field. It will certainly make you look good, but moreover as time goes on you start getting hired for you and how you see. That is important to remember. I can certainly go to a game and shoot straight game action all day and come away with some decent stuff. Where I am comfortable is where I’m excited about seeing something different and seeking out images that may surprise an editor as they right-click through my take – even if they don’t ever use it. It’s not just a clump of grass on a field. It’s part of the game and part of who I am to see stupid things like that. Images of The Game (with a capital G) rather than just “this game” (with a lowercase g) are so much more valuable and fun for me to shoot. I have to sneak these shots in like this game when action is somewhat higher on the totem pole from an assignment editors, but I’m unhappy if I just shoot for what is expected. Accidents and making shitty photos are a part of that. Try spending 10 minutes shooting at 1/4 of a second and see what the blurring does. Under expose a backlit cheerleader and see what happens when just the highlights are rendered. Lay your camera on the ground and shoot straight up as a player nearly runs you over. Experiment and play around with your photography, because making mistakes is how we learn to not make them and how we make money when they pan out for the better.
- Have fun. Best seats in the house? Envy of your friends? Sweet vest? Free hot dogs? Oh yeah. Live it up. Just remember the second you become complacent or stop having fun at these games is the second someone comes in and flattens you for a sack and takes your credential away. Make the most of it and have fun!
Hope that helps one or two of you out there. Email me with any other questions. See you on the sidelines!
For the full take from this game, go here: http://chiplitherland.photoshelter.com/gallery/Florida-Gators-vs-FAU/G0000JgALnw5RyKg