In light of public criticism of what appeared to be student photographers not photographing the crucial moment of the 2018 College Football Playoff game in Atlanta, I'd penned a missive about my experience as a college yearbook photographer and the importance of being gracious to students covering a collegiate event.
Then, I realized, ain't nobody got time for reading that, despite how eloquently my point was made.
Nope, in lieu of adding my protracted opinion, I'm just going to give some tips I'd like to have known as a grad student who shot football while earning my degree that had nothing to do with photography.
(These items are listed in order of when they came to mind and by no means comprehensive because Heaven forbid anyone should post a list in 2018 without such a disclaimer.)
Dear Student Sports Photographers,
1. Only wear team colors/logos if you’re shooting for that team. Otherwise, be neutral and practical in your attire. I prefer black myself, but you do you. Neutrally.
2. Shoot instead of watch, even when you think you don’t have a shot at first—you may get something if you keep firing as the play/celebration develops. Don’t assume you won’t get a shot and not even try. (I was never one for cheering, so if you are, stifle yourself.)
3. Use continuous high mode for sports. Know how to adjust your autofocus and frames per second settings on your camera; getting started, I liked using the highest rate. Having 800 frames of a play isn't the goal; it's about giving your newbie self a better shot at one of those being in-focus and meaningful. As you become more proficient at photography and sports knowledge, you'll become more selective. Hopefully.
4. Also, yes, I said meaningful. Just because a photo is sharp, doesn’t mean it should be published. Does it reflect the story of the game? Does it work with the rest of your images to illustrate what happened at that day's event?
5. Know your camera so that it's second-nature to use and adjust settings. For instance, I prefer back-button focus. Check that out, see if it works for you. Google it if you aren’t familiar.
6. On that note, make Google and YouTube your new BFFs. If you don’t know, look it up. If you already know, dig deeper. Stay updated. Look at others’ work, find a style you like, and emulate it. You already know how to be a student, just apply that to photography. It helps to be a nerd here.
7. Check your horizons in photos. Football fields and all other courts/field/pools should be, well, horizontal. If a point of reference for horizon isn’t visible or you're working on a non-horizontal competition area (I'm looking at you, slalom skiing), check for trees or posts to find a vertical point of reference and shoot/crop accordingly.
8. Watch what the pros are doing and where they are during game action if you're unsure about where to stand. Until you learn to track the action and position yourself, this is a great cue, especially during football. If they’re all shooting from one area of the field, you should probably be there, too. Not in their way, but in their vicinity. Pay attention to where their lenses are pointed, even during timeouts. If five big lenses suddenly shift to one point, it's worth seeing for yourself what the fuss is about. It's like when your dog spots something in the woods that you can't see—look where she's looking. Seasoned photographers are better at finding squirrels (i.e., critical sports moments) than you.
8a. Make connections. Those sideline pros can be the best photo teachers and networking community, if you let them and if they're game. Once you've introduced yourself and inquired about who they shoot for, with tact and good timing, ask about their camera settings in between plays to learn what you should be using. Most are pretty cool with sharing, and polling experienced photographers is so clutch on those sunny/cloudy/sunny again days. Also, when there is ample time to chat, ask about how they got into photography. It's never the same story twice, but it's always enlightening. I was fortunate to have professors like Butch Dill, Julie Bennett, John Reed, Todd Van Emst, Hal Yeager, Vasha Hunt, and others to answer my questions and provide good examples on the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium during my student photographer days.
9. Never block another’s shot. Keep your awareness level up as you're traversing the sidelines and during postgame; there are a lot of videographers and photographers working when you may be in transit. Either go behind the lens or get a clear “ok” from the operator before passing.
10. Leverage your credential. You already know it's against the rules to post photos of your credential online (at least, you do now), but there's a lot you can do with it. You’re credentialed to be in the stadium on game day, so get there earlier than you have to, check your phone less, and shoot more. Coaches, fans, bench players, details, overall shots—make the most of the time and vantage point, and know where you can and cannot be before someone on the field has to remind you.
11. Learn to edit well, and fast. Speed is your bread and butter in this industry. Figure out your workflow and continue to refine it; learn keyboard shortcuts, research your software. Photo Mechanic is an amazing program with a lot more than meets the eye. Photoshop is great, too, but never use HDR. Ever.
*Alright, I'm not a professor, but as a graduate assistant, a student of mine did call me Dr. Lockwood once.
If you want to get for real about learning sports photography, check out the Sports Shooter Academy founded by USA TODAY photographer Robert Hanashiro: