Matt: Letting the Air Out

“It seems that a truck got stuck at the
entrance to the Holland Tunnel. Too high for the clearance.
Well, for hours, the experts tried to find some way to unwedge
the vehicle, but to no avail. Finally, a ten-year-old girl in a
passing car suggested simply letting the air out of the truck’s
tires, thus lowering it to the clearance level, which they did.
And it worked.” – Working Girl (1998)

The quote from Working Girl was used to illustrate the story of a businessman who bought a radio network after his plan to buy a collection of TV stations proved unworkable. I use it to steer photographers towards high school sports when they complain that they can’t get credentialed to shoot the pros or major colleges.

I know from experience, as this is how I got started. After shooting my first two professional sporting events (a cycling race and a rodeo) I thought it would be no problem to get credentialed for major sports. As it turns out, freelancers don’t get credentialed to much of anything in the absence of a specific assignment from a recognized (and relevant) media organization. And assignments aren’t ordinarily handed out to inexperienced photographers. After learning all of this (i.e. getting laughed off of a few phone calls and asking a lot of questions) I spent two full years shooting almost nothing but high school sports.

This may sound like a long time, and it may sound like the photo equivalent of toiling away in the minor leagues, and those things might be true. But the benefits far outweighed the drawbacks. You can usually get permission to shoot your local high schools fairly easily by calling the athletic directors. Some will say no, but you can just call another school until you find one who will say yes. Once you get permission, you will find the access far better than anything you will get shooting the pros, and one yes will likely mean shooting all of that school’s sports. In most cases, as long as you are not on the field of play, you can shoot, and this leads to pictures that you can’t get elsewhere. The access combined with the variety of sports presents a great opportunity to work on technique and creativity while building your portfolio in a low-pressure environment.

As you are doing this, you can practice other skills that photographers need to have, selling yourself to prospective employers, and selling your work to prospective clients. When I was doing this, I networked with other photographers to get in contact with editors looking for freelancers so that I could show them my portfolio, and sold prints to parents, both directly and through a website that covers high school sports. The freelance gigs gave me experience working on deadline, and the money went into upgrading gear. After two years (actual times will vary), I had enough experience and gear to step up to shooting pro and college events.


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2 thoughts on “Matt: Letting the Air Out

  1. Something you didn’t mention is that shooting high school sports can be quite profitable. The lion’s share of my annual income comes from this-i have a middle school, two high schools and a small college that contract me for their girls volleyball-it pays the bills

  2. Great advice, Matt! I wouldn’t expect to come right out of Little League baseball into the starting lineup of the NY Yankees either. Considering that high school or club sports are generally played on exactly the same size fields/courts/rinks/pools as big league sports, lens focal lengths and other gear used will be good for pro sports too. Also, one successful contact with the school athletic office can open up avenues to shoot all the various sports played at that level. I can practice skills needed to shoot multiple sports, indoors and outdoors, all from a single HS contact. I’m betting that a multi sport photographer is more marketable to photo editors and media outlets too.

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