Demystifying the world of sports photography

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Get ‘em young I say, get ‘em young!

Matt and I, we both get occasional emails asking us how to grow a nice moustache.  Strange, yes as Matt has the worst moustache I’ve ever seen on a human being.   But even more occasionally, we get asked how one becomes a sports photographer.  In most cases we tell people to go through the entire library of BLFS first and if we haven’t answered your question by the time you’ve listened to them all, only then come and ask us for our advice.  We firmly believe that after 50 episodes of BLFS and our blog posts, there is enough information for you to decide whether or not becoming a sports photographer is actually not a stupid idea.

But sometimes we get questions that require us to actually write a blog post about it.  About a week ago, my friend NL (he’s not Dutch, but to protect his identity, I’ve cleverly came up with this acronym) who is 12 years of age, asked me how he can become a sports photographer.  Just so people don’t start speed dialling their local authorities, NL and I met about 2 years ago at my friend’s wedding which I was shooting, of course.  An intelligent chap and we’ve kept in touch since.  I don’t think I have had any influence on him wanting to become a sports photographer, but he sounded serious enough.  So maybe he’s the odd one here.  What was interesting about his question is that he wanted to know which classes should he take at school to help him become a sports photographer.  Interesting.  I then asked him to give me the list of classes available at the moment.  They are as follows:

Art
PE (Gym for some)
History
Music
Science
French
Modern Studies
Geography
Home Economics
Technical

I.T.

Therefore if you are an aspiring sports photographer between the ages of 10-12, here are the classes Ryu tells you to take:

Art

I think this is a no brainer.  What we teach at BLFS is for you to come up with your own distinct style.  We don’t want you to become a cookie cutter sports photographer.  The only way you can do is to look at other people’s work, but in a much broader sense.  If you have been paying a bit of an attention to the world around you, photography is not the only art form out there.  Painting, sculpting, dance, music, video, fashion, whatever.  Art is sometimes unnecessarily everywhere.  I’m assuming this “Art” class will concentrate on a traditional definition of art so painting, sculpting, installations, and other fun things like art history.  As a sports photographer, to have interest in other forms of art is very important.  You don’t know where your next inspiration can come from.  Looking at beautiful things and learning the process behind it will help you through your creative processl.  So yes to art and try not to fall asleep when you’re forced to remember when van Gogh detached his ear off his face.

PE

I called it PE in my school as well, so we are cool.  In this profession, you need to be fit.  So definitely yes to PE.  Because in some cases you have to run to your shooting location ahead of the others.  It’s usually first come first served so you should even start raining by running with 20kg of gear on you.  If you don’t have that much gear near you, carry your classmate around your neck and run around.  That might help.  In any case, keep fit and strong.  Exhaustion in any form will ruin any concentration and you’ll need plenty of it during the course of a match.

History

I’m not into history much, even if it involves art and dinosaurs.  But this is about whether this class will help him with his pursuit of a career in sports photography.  I say no.  I don’t remember a single moment when I thought “God damn it, had I known the day Berlin wall fell, I’d have shot that football match better”.  Therefore, no.  But in general you should know a bit of history.  Says my wife.

Music

Same as Art.  Music can inspire you, unless you don’t like music.  Which is fine.

Science

If we lived in an age of BW photography and you needed to know the chemical reactions that occur in a developing bath then yes.  It’s better to know these things because when you do, you can become a mad scientist in the dark room. But we live in the 21st century and I have feeling that most schools don’t even have a dark room. I don’t think quantum physics and molecular biology will help you come up with a better composition and lighting for the coming cricket match.  Unless someone comes up with cell football.

French

My wife will say yes (she’s French) and surprisingly I’ll say yes as well.  Not necessarily French, but learning another language.  If you are not a dumb American, Australian, or Anglo-Saxon, you need to learn how to speak another language.  This is to prevent you from being ridiculed when you leave your country.   The reason is that if you want to become a sports photographer, it will be very helpful if you have good communication skills.  I don’t want you to just end up shooting in your own country, but to travel around the word shooting sumo and sepak takraw and jai alai.  You should aspire to become an international sports photographer.  Therefore if you can blag your way around in Spanish, French, or whatever, you’ll be that much better than the other monolingual sports photographers.  Combine that with charm, you’ll get into places no other sports photographers dare try.  Since so much of sports photography hinges on location, if you can sweet talk a Belorussian security guard into getting a position where you are normally not allowed to, you’re golden.

Modern Studies

I have no idea what this class entails.  I guess you talk about modern things.  But for some reason, it will probably be much less important than math, which is conveniently lacking from this list.  Most of photography is based on math.  So you should definitely take it.  No, you don’t need to have AP-Calculus under your belt to get a better angle on your remote cam at a high school basketball game, but you need to know basic math.

Okay, just googled it.  This is a class very specific to schools in Scotland.  From what I’ve read on wikipedia, no, you don’t really need it to become a sports photographer.  But if you’re a Scot and in need of separation from those pesky English at some point in your life time, then yes.

Geography

Yes.  At the very least you should know where 90% of the countries in this world is located and whether how many transportation options are there for you to travel from Barcelona to Madrid (Answer: 4 bus, train, car, and plane).  If you do not know where your own state is located (hint hint Americans), it’s bad.  I overheard a conversation last night with an American trying to describe to a Madridista where he is from. “Yes, I live hour and a half from Buffalo”.  As if someone in Madrid knows any other cities in USA besides New York and LA.  By learning about each country in a geographical sense, you won’t be caught wearing a down jacket and leggings boarding on a flight to the Australian Open.

Home Economics

I’ve never taken one, but I’m assuming you make things, right? Unless you are going to start your kickstarter campaign to fund a underwater housing for your Polaroid camera, I wouldn’t bother.  Some people like to concoct things on their own to make their job easier like that guy who invented the monopod socket to put an umbrella or that guy who invented a monopod socket to put a tray for your laptop.  To date I have not invented a single gadget to help me with my sports photography.  Maybe I should.

Technical

I have no idea what this is.  I’m assuming it’s something technical which makes me think it’s the same as Home Economics.  Which means NL wrote it down twice or I’m too stupid that I have no idea what this is.  I first thought about basketball when I read it.

I.T.

Oh come on now.  It’s 2015 and you still have I.T.?  I mean, that shit should be in your life by now.  Unless you are so shit at using computers or anything with dials and knobs, you should take it.  But then, who uses dials and knobs now?  Okay, forget it.  Don’t take it.

There you have it NL.  I’ve made my recommendations.  In the future, take a business class.  Remember that if you want to become a professional sports photographer, treat it like a business, not like a hobby.  But if you want to do it as a hobby,

treated as a hobby.  And a photography course?  Definitely yes.  If it wasn’t for the photography courses I took in high school, I wouldn’t be here right now.  I also hope that you will be able to process BW film.  Because that shit is magic.  I’m not guaranteeing that you are well on your way to become a rockstar sports photographer after taking these courses, but at least these classes will put you on the track to a better sports photography life.  And I’m definitely not guaranteeing that you will be popular with the ladies if you ever become one, but you know that already. :)

Ryu

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*Please Read Below*

Big Lens Fast Shutter is funded solely from the pockets of Ryu Voelkel and Matt Cohen. If you think the information we give you about sports photography is making you a better sports photographer and as a result a well balanced human being, please show us your appreciation by clicking on the “Donate” button and send some of your hard earned dollars/euros/Brixton pounds our way. People who donate will be mentioned on our next show unless you want to remain anonymous. Thank you for supporting us and may the force of sports photography be with you, always.
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Training Ground: January 2015

Here is the January 2015 Training Ground video.

Please don’t forget that Training Ground will be posted in the middle of the month and it will not come out at the same time as the podcast. Therefore, the next deadline for submission is mid-November.

If you want to participate in Training Ground, please go here: Big Lens Fast Shutter Flickr Group

Enjoy the pain. :)

*Please Read Below*

Big Lens Fast Shutter is funded solely from the pockets of Ryu Voelkel and Matt Cohen. If you think the information we give you about sports photography is making you a better sports photographer and as a result a well balanced human being, please show us your appreciation by clicking on the “Donate” button and send some of your hard earned dollars/euros/Brixton pounds our way. People who donate will be mentioned on our next show unless you want to remain anonymous. Thank you for supporting us and may the force of sports photography be with you, always.
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Matt: Top 10 + 2 of 2014

I spent a lot of time at the beginning of 2014 thinking about my rodeo work and how I would take advantage of finally getting my PRCA card, and with it the ability to shoot from the arena dirt. I looked at lots of old pictures that showed kamikaze photographers with wide lenses, seemingly under the bucking horses and bulls they were shooting. This, in stark contrast to the rodeo “photographers” of today, sitting on their stools and Pelican cases 40 yards away.

So at my first rodeo of the year I switched my 400 out for a 70-200 and set up around the bucking chutes. The second bull of the day, after throwing off his rider decided to charge me. This was almost the last picture I ever made:

Ned Kelly

Obviously this is not one of my top 10 pictures of the year, but it is a very visceral depiction of a moment that made me reconsider the whole year’s plan. I ended up making it to the wall, turning sideways just in time to feel his horn on the back of my shirt. The adrenaline rush was quite something, and after shooting the remaining bulls from the other side of the fence, I got back in there…

…for the bronc riding. Horses are different than bulls in that they will usually avoid running into people if they have a choice, whereas most bulls will go out of their way light you up. So when Snake Oil carried Cole Neeley towards me, I had some extra time to decide to keep shooting or bail. As they got closer, I could see that I wasn’t going to get hit, so I was able to get this picture, from less than 10 feet. This picture is basically everything that current rodeo photography is not:

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One of the things I absolutely love about rodeo is 7am slack. Timed events in rodeo generally have too many contestants to get through while the fans are there, so they run many of them before the performances. Some start at mid-day, but some start very early, and slack at Clovis is at 7am. Provided they start on time, you get a hour of beautiful light that comes in very low against the chutes. This is light you can use in a variety of ways, and here I shot across the arena, and as Seth Brockman brought down his steer, the light hits him and the dirt in the air:

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Panning during barrel racing, while not the easiest thing in the world, is not that hard. You can usually get the timing down pretty quickly for each arena, and the horses do more or less the same thing. But panning for roping events is much harder because the horse has to follow the calf/steer which is much less predictable. In addition, they are accelerating from a stop, so there is much more up and down movement in addition to the side to side movement. Here I managed to get down to 1/40th for a nicely blurred background, but I still have Riley Pruitt’s face and hat frozen:

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Many people can’t believe that I would choose to shoot a rodeo over an NFL/MLB game every time. One of the reasons is the access. This is a picture of 2013 World Champion tie-down roper Shane Hanchey tying a calf, made in Colorado Springs last summer. I’m shooting at 14mm, close enough that his rope was bouncing off of my lens each time. I got sprayed with dirt and calf turds the whole time, but it’s a deal I’d make any day to get pictures like this:

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Again, the next two pictures take advantage of access to get as close as possible. A bull rider gets some help from another competitor pulling his rope. I’m inches away, showing all the detail possible of a scene that fans rarely get to see:

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Trying to have a conversation and shooting at the same time don’t often mix, but here I got lucky by massively underexposing this picture of team roper Derrick Begay working his saddle into place:

Derrick Begay

This is one of my favorite roping pictures because you have the intensity on Jim Ross Cooper’s face, the coil in one hand, and the rope going around the saddle horn for a dally. I don’t think you need to know anything about roping to understand this picture:

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I tried to go easy on the wreck pictures, but still ended up with three of them on this list.

I don’t think this one of Steve Woolsey needs any explanation:

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Every once in a while, a bull will take out the barrel with the barrelman in it. Both times I have seen this, the barrelman was Mark Swingler, and both times resulted in great pictures. This is why you need to be ready to keep shooting even after the ride (or play) is over:

Snake Eyes

Rounding out my top 10 is the picture that generated the most attention/chaos. Generally barrel racers don’t get bucked off their horses. These are well-trained speed horses, not the same kind that buck in the roughstock events. The barrel pattern at Livermore comes pretty close to the fence, so I was very close shooting my 85mm 1.4 when I saw this horse losing it and dumping its rider right in front of me. This picture (along with the others in this sequence) got me kicked out of the rodeo after the “cowgirl” complained, caused a sensation on social media via the #NoCryBabyBuckoffs hashtag, crashed my website, was mentioned on the radio by 3x world champion Tuf Cooper, and sold a ton of my books. It was surreal to say the least.

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My rodeo assignments kept me busier than normal in 2014, and I shot fewer non-rodeo events than ever before. I tried to make as many non-action pictures as I could, and here are a couple of those:

I have been trying to use the liquid nitrogen fog to do different things since I started shooting Cal football. Shooting the players running out onto the field before the games provides several chances per season, but for safety reasons (100+ football players sprinting into a low visibility situation) the positions are severely limited. For this game, I set up low behind the goalpost support to work in a lot of the fog plus the blue sky and the top of the stadium. Milliseconds later, a video guy and his cable puller came crashing down in front of me…they stepped out a little too far and were trampled by a few players.

NCAA FOOTBALL: OCT 18 UCLA at Cal

I shot a lot more postseason baseball than I had planned on (or wanted), but the start times of some of the games meant that batting practice took place in some interesting light. This picture of Pablo Sandoval wiping sweat off of his face took advantage of that light. But since Sandoval left via free agency, it’s also obsolete.

MLB: OCT 07 NLDS - Nationals at Giants - Game 4

If you want to see more, you can check out my Best of 2014 slideshow here.

Ryu: Top 10 of 2014

Happy new year.

First of all, I’m really sorry about people not receiving my pinkest book ever “No Hands”. For some reason (I do have my suspicions), the delivery is taking a very long time.  I really apologize for it.  Most of Europe has received it and hopefully the goodness will reach out across the pond to the Americas and across Siberia to Asia.

Second, blog posts.  I must admit that from my end, there isn’t much more to write about in terms of sports photography.  Don’t get me wrong.  We have enough topic to discuss about it on the podcast, but perhaps not write about it to the extent we have been writing all these years.  That doesn’t mean we won’t have anymore blog posts, but most likely only for special occasions.

Which brings us to the third and final point which is the top 10 of 2014.  I thought about it and looked at my results from last year.  All I can say is, “Well, I tried”.  Trying isn’t good enough.  Matt and I said that if effort added value to the quality of your photo, more people would have graduated from BLFS long time ago.  But alas that is not the world we live in.  My work from 2014 reflects just that.  I tried, but I didn’t succeed in some cases.  Sad, but that is the reality of sports photography.  You have to fail first to at least get a chance to create something unique and great in the future.  I hope to redeem myself in 2015 with what I’ve learned in 2014.

Chess Boxing
It was my first attempt at shooting chess boxing and as you can see from the result, it’s a step in the right direction, but there is much work to be done.  The point here is to shoot chess boxing and not to shoot boxing.  When it comes to a sport which isn’t a major sport (yes, football counts as one), your photos need to who what it is all about.  Maybe not all of it, but at least a glimpse of it.   To include an element of chess into every single boxing image was not an easy one, but in the end I sort of kind of got it.  But I feel as though this is a sport that I will revisit more in the future as I don’t think I have exhausted all the shooting possibilities.
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PSG v Barcelona
Lomography lent me a Petzval lens and I used it.  I HATE manual focus and I LOVE auto focus.  I have no idea how my predecessors faired without auto focus.  I really don’t. I digress.  I used one of the aperture blades that had stars on it as that gave it the starry feeling.  The bokeh on this one is interesting, but every condition has to be met for you to achieve one.  I’m always looking out for an interesting lens, so let me know if you know any.
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Standard v Panathinaikos
I’m going to keep on losing my Greek fan base as I continue to complain about how to spell Pantahanaikos.  Or Panthanaiakos or whatever.  Anyway, I went to this match for an assignment and came away with an image I was fairly happy with.  Since I’m not a good action photographer (really, I’m not), I rarely pay attention to the action scenes.  Nor do I put much effort into taking one.  But this one I got lucky as I was shooting the goalie and I was equally lucky he jumped the way he did.
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Germany v Ghana
Yes, the world cup.  I am finally starting to miss my adventures there because before it was nothing but one month of continuous “No, not another match…”.  But I do want to talk about the fact that this light business is something I really got into last year.  Due to our shit long winter, most football in Europe is played in perpetual darkness with flood lights.  Seldom do we get to play with lights.  But fortunately, most of the world cup happened during the day and that gave me an excuse to do what I wanted to do with lights.  I had no idea Lahm would call it an international career after 2014, but I got the El Capitain in this light.  Just so you know, if you want to get an image like this, you’ll need to make sure that the ray of light is only hitting that particular area and that you underexpose it to a point that everything else fades to black.
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Chelsea v PSG
I have obsessions.  Thank god it hasn’t led me to any jail time.  Yet.  Mourinho is one of my obsessions and I’m glad I got this image, because to me he’s a well coiffed man with a notepad and a pen.  Always.
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Bayern Munich v Hoffenheim
Or anything multiple exposure.  I still haven’t figured out a great way to use this technique, but it’s kind of going somewhere.  Where exactly I don’t know, but it’s going somewhere interesting.
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Holland v Costa Rica
Penalty shootouts are very rare during a normal football season.  I was overjoyed and overrun with emotions as I got to shoot more than enough extra time matches to last me until the next world cup.  I basically shot 2 extra matches when combining all the extra time.  Honestly, WTF.  There are many ways to shoot penalties and the most interesting bit is at the end.  Because, you know, someone wins and someone loses.  I decided to blur this one as the orange was strong enough to show the jubilation against the disappointed Costa Ricans sitting still and miserable.
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Baseball in Curacao
If you must know, I’m typing all this with my newly born daughter stretched over each of my wrists as she dreams of Ronaldo and some Hollywood actor who’s hot for being hot.  No, she’s never going to have a boyfriend or a girlfriend. New father obsessions aside, my annual trip to the baseball nations in the Caribbean took me to Curacao last year.  It was fun.  It always is.  And very educational.  And hot.  Will keep it rolling in 2015 as well.  This year? Somewhere I’ve been dying to go for a long time…
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Sassuolo v Milan
Lights lights lights.  Someone once told me that the general rule of thumb for photography is to shoot into the light and not away from it.  I agree.  Backlit lights are always beautiful.  I also think Japanese football is going down the drain.   This image and others on this top 10 are good examples of images that will not be used in most publications. But they will get you noticed.  Why?  Because they are different.   It’s a bit of a catch 22.  If you want to break into this business, you have to shoot in a horrendously boring fashion.  But then you will not get noticed because you and the other 1 pillion other sports photographers have shot the exact same image.  My advice?  Always be different.  Even if it won’t get you that first job, it will give you a better chance of landing a much much better job that is not your first job.  So maybe a second or a third one.
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Manchester City v Barcelona
The dark side of Messi. If I ever become the official photographer of said wee man, I would like to shoot him as a villain.  I think he has more villainous quality than a superhero one.  Yes, that’s a compliment because my favourite Star Wars character is Darth Vader.  Here I played with the light again and underexposed it to the point that you can’t see his face anymore.  Dark Messi.
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Arsenal v Spurs
Details.  The more details you can capture in a scene, the more it will draw you into the image.  The smallest of details, when captured interestingly, will forever be more interesting than a goal scoring scene.  Trust me.  Here, I saw a bird and I wanted the bird.  But not just the bird, but a bird with someone in the background.  Remember, you always need at least 2 interesting things in your image for it to be actually interesting.
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Somewhere in Rio
One of my favourite images from the world cup in Brazil.  I think my goal from this world cup was to capture the everyday football life of a Brazilian.  And I believe this one did the job.  My only regret is that I didn’t get to shoot enough everyday stuff in Brazil.  There were matches I shot which I can now safely admit that it wasn’t worth my time, but they had to be shot because I was there to shoot matches.  Sigh.  For future world cups, I might shoot less matches and concentrate more on the everyday football people.  Good god I miss Brazil.
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Aerochrome
I think I didn’t quite master it.  I like the image here, but it feels like it’s a work in progress.  I went to Brazil with about 15 rolls of Aerochrome and I only shot 8 of them. Not good.  I should have shot more.  But for some reason I didn’t.  Part of me wanted to play it safe and part of me thought I needed to conserve the film for future use in the tournament.  If I was only shooting film in Brazil, I wouldn’t have had this problem, but when you mix 2 mediums, you tend to favor
one over the other.
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That’s it.  It’s definitely more than 10, but hey, it’s 2015.  I have no idea what the meant, but here’s to all the BLFS people for their continued support and further advancement in your sports photography skills.
Ryu

Podcast: Episode 43 – Catch a Catch

Podcast: Episode 43 – “Catch a Catch”

Listen and download links here:

– Subscribe and listen via iTunes (We’ve re-published our audio feed, but you may need to unsubscribe and resubscribe. Technology is fun!)
– Get RSS feed
– Get MP3 (Click to listen or right click to save it to your computer)

News

Matt talks about shooting football, and Ryu complains about shooting Messi v Ronaldo, tells us about chessboxing, and explains why he has been shooting less.

Master Class
We talk about Odell Beckham Jr.’s now-famous catch and how and why there were no great pictures of this great play, despite what the New York Times claims.

Training Ground
Training Ground is now on video. If you’d like to participate (and we think you should), enter your pictures in the Flickr thread and make sure to tag them BLFSTG201412.

Training Ground will now be split off from the podcast, and will run approximately two weeks after the podcast.

You Win

Our Oct-Nov 2014 You Win “Freedom for All

No winners. Step it up.

You Win will be back in 2015, and we hope everyone will raise their game.. Goto our BLFS flickr group page for competition rules and to enter.

Cross-Counter

We continue with the theme of ODB’s catch by looking at a Andrew Mills’ picture and account of the play.

Special thanks to…
Our producer Robb Massar
Icon by Arvin Bautista

*Please Read Below*

Big Lens Fast Shutter is funded solely from the pockets of Ryu Voelkel and Matt Cohen. If you think the information we give you about sports photography is making you a better sports photographer and as a result a well balanced human being, please show us your appreciation by clicking on the “Donate” button and send some of your hard earned dollars/euros/Brixton pounds our way. People who donate will be mentioned on our next show unless you want to remain anonymous. Thank you for supporting us and may the force of sports photography be with you, always.
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Podcast: Episode 42 – Lens Length

Podcast: Episode 42 – “Lens Length”

Listen and download links here:

– Subscribe and listen via iTunes (We’ve re-published our audio feed, but you may need to unsubscribe and resubscribe. Technology is fun!)
– Get RSS feed
– Get MP3 (Click to listen or right click to save it to your computer)

News

Matt talks about the challenge of shooting postseason baseball, and Ryu describes his month as “nondescript”.

Special Gear Reviews

Matt talks about the Think Tank Camera Strap V2.0 and kicks himself for not buying some much earlier, and Ryu talks about the Think Tank Airport Roller Derby which he took out four-wheeling and liked with some suggestions for V2.0.

Master Class
We talk about the ramifications of Matt’s post Money Money Money and the ensuing discussion on our Flickr group.

Training Ground
Training Ground is now on video. If you’d like to participate (and we think you should), enter your pictures in the Flickr thread and make sure to tag them BLFSTG201409.

Training Ground will now be split off from the podcast, and will run approximately two weeks after the podcast.

You Win

Our August/September 2014 themed competition was “Closer

We didn’t really feel like anyone got close enough, so we will have to re-do this theme soon. We decided that Bashar Alshabi and Michail Bormin would share second place.

The October/November 2014 themed competition is “Freedom for All”. Goto our BLFS flickr group page for competition rules and to enter.

Cross-Counter

We skipped Cross Counter this month in favor of gear reviews

Special thanks to…
Our producer Robb Massar
Icon by Arvin Bautista

*Please Read Below*

Big Lens Fast Shutter is funded solely from the pockets of Ryu Voelkel and Matt Cohen. If you think the information we give you about sports photography is making you a better sports photographer and as a result a well balanced human being, please show us your appreciation by clicking on the “Donate” button and send some of your hard earned dollars/euros/Brixton pounds our way. People who donate will be mentioned on our next show unless you want to remain anonymous. Thank you for supporting us and may the force of sports photography be with you, always.
Donate Button with Credit Cards

Money Money Money

We’ve tried quite diligently to keep this site and the podcast focused on helping people become better sports photographers. We don’t talk much about gear because making great pictures is largely independent of that, and we don’t talk about how to make money shooting sports because (among other reasons) the process of making great pictures is often bad for business in the short term. But as some of the readers/listeners who have incorporated our methods and philosophy improve to the point where they are good enough to get noticed, I do feel some responsibility to illuminate the next part of the path.

Sports photography is not a cheap endeavor. I guess you could shoot skateboarding with only a fisheye, but for everything else, it’s going to get expensive very quickly. Let’s say you’re new and you splurge on a prosumer DLSR and a 70-200 2.8. At minimum you’re $3,000 in already. There are lots of things you can shoot with that combination, and you can certainly improve your skills to the point where you’re a competent photographer. But you’re limited. Football and futbol, baseball and motorsports are going to be a problem because only so much action is going to happen close enough to you to consistently get quality high-impact pictures. You know from listening to us that given what you want to shoot, you need a longer lens and you need it quickly, either because you want to be able to make the pictures you’re missing or because clients are interested in hiring you based on the work you were able to do with shorter lenses, or both. And this is where the options get a bit scary and where the choices with the smaller price tag might end up being the more expensive ones long term.

This post is partially inspired by a discussion in our Flickr group. It’s a common mistake to think that the if 200 is not long enough, then 300 should do it. And given the price difference between 200-300-400, it seems like an easy choice. But what you don’t know is that 300 is no more of a field sports lens than 200, and you’ll end up selling it at a loss to buy a 400 anyway. So many people have made this mistake, including…Matt Cohen. It’s not fun. But take it from me, 400 is for field sports, and 300 is for tight spaces where you still want to shoot tight. Pros who shoot field sports mostly carry two bodies, one with a 70-200, and one with a 400. The question came up about buying a used 400, and that’s fine, but you should buy it from a retailer who has a used department and at least some incentive to make good if you get a lemon (KEH, B&H, Adorama), and not from a pro who is probably very rough with his gear. Still, a used 400 in good working condition is going to be expensive. And you have to decide if it’s worth it to you. Do you feel like you’re leaving money on the table that a 400 would help you get? Are you a rich guy who dabbles in sports photography? Are you gambling with your kid’s college tuition fund that you can make the money back before Jr is 18? Only you can answer this.

I however can dispel a few myths for you so at least you can make a somewhat informed decision. Photography doesn’t pay well. I imagine the income distribution in photography to be about the same as the world at large. You have a few at the top: celebrity fashion photographers aka the CEOs, high end wedding/commercial photographers and people lucky enough to have good staff photographer jobs aka the middle class, and then everyone else scraping by on crumbs. My first gigs in sports photography were shooting high school sports a few days per week for a small chain of local papers at $100 per game. While this is no way to make a living, it supplemented my income, got me real-world experience, and qualified me for membership in Nikon Professional Services. After a couple of seasons doing this, I had the opportunity to shoot pro and major college games for a sports picture wire service that fed to all of the big magazines and newspapers. They paid nothing up front and split the sales 50/50. Like everyone else at that point of the journey, I was really excited about shooting at a higher level, and wasn’t upset about the terms because I figured that the sales would more than make up for it.

Turns out I was late to that party, as the internet had already begun killing magazines & newspapers and the budgets for the ones that remained. The wire dropped prices and made deals that resulted in the pictures being almost given away. I stopped looking at statements after a while because there are only so many $1.50 sales split two ways that I could stomach. I moved away from this model as quickly as I could. The fact of the matter is that pictures are a commodity. There are far too many photographers at the average pro/college game for the pictures to have any scarcity at all. Whether you’re shooting for Getty for a few hundred dollars for 50 pictures per game or shooting on spec for next to nothing, you’re not going to finance a $7,000-$12,000 lens like that. Day rates for bigger magazines range from $750-$1,500 (in my experience) but these are tougher to come by to the point that it would still be very difficult to fund a 400.

The last stand for making significant money in the sports game is commercial photography. People who need pictures for advertisements, corporate websites, packaging, point of sale, etc will still generally pay for quality because they recognize that they are choosing a face for their product or service, and not just any face will do. Hook up with the right clients, and yes, you can fund a 400 with no problem. And this brings us thankfully back to the actual mission here, making great unique pictures. Since sports pictures are a commodity, the only way to break free of the commodity market is to make special pictures as a rule. Every time out, try to get something that no one else will think of so that eventually when editors come looking at your work, they see that there is no substitute for your eye and your brain, hence no substitute for your pictures. This is what gets you more gigs, and less dependent on sales that could be settled with coins.

*Please Read Below*

Big Lens Fast Shutter is funded solely from the pockets of Ryu Voelkel and Matt Cohen. If you think the information we give you about sports photography is making you a better sports photographer and as a result a well balanced human being, please show us your appreciation by clicking on the “Donate” button and send some of your hard earned dollars/euros/Brixton pounds our way. People who donate will be mentioned on our next show unless you want to remain anonymous. Thank you for supporting us and may the force of sports photography be with you, always.
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