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Guest Blog Post By Chris Humphreys
In late 2010, an old high school friend contacted me asking if I’d be interested in shooting sports. He worked for USA Today Sports Images and they were in need of more shooters out in Denver. Up to that point, my business had been focused almost exclusively on weddings and I had virtually no experience shooting sports. However, the idea of trying something different appealed to me, so I made the leap by purchasing a Canon 400mm f2.8 and bravely entered a whole new world.
To say the experience of going out to shoot sports is different than shooting weddings is, well, quite the understatement. In both activities you attach lenses to cameras, you dial up exposures, look through your viewfinder, and hit your shutter to take pictures. And while there’s also the pressure to perform, knowing that you don’t get a second chance if you miss a critical moment, that’s about where the similarities end. Whereas at weddings you are constantly interacting with the bride and groom, family, wedding party, and guests, at a professional sporting event interacting with a player is likely to get your credentials revoked. I’m always amused when folks ask me if I “know” Peyton Manning once they find out I photograph Broncos games from the sidelines. (The answer to that question is a resounding “No.”)
Further, at weddings you of course want to dress up nicely, in order to look professional and blend in with the crowd. On the other hand, with sports, it’s safe to say that I’ve never exactly worn a suit and tie to a game. In fact, I have an old tattered ripped up pair of jeans I refer to as my “football jeans.” I only wear them for football since I end up kneeling in the grass on the sidelines at a lot of Broncos and college football games and I would never want to subject a good pair of jeans to the punishment those take over the course of a season.
Despite all the differences between weddings and sports, I wholeheartedly profess that shooting sports has made me a better wedding photographer. Here are some of the things that I’ve learned (or become much better at) since shooting sports.
Without a doubt, this is probably the biggest lesson you must learn when you start heading out to professional sporting events. If you only expect yourself to be able to react to what is happening instead of anticipating it happening ahead of time, you will almost always be a step behind the action. Professional sports simply move too fast to expect yourself to react to what’s happening. You have to be constantly thinking ahead to what is most likely going to happen and where you need to be, before the play even begins. For instance, if I’m shooting baseball and there are runners on bases, I don’t usually follow the ball once it’s hit. I move my lens to where the final play is going to be. The speed of the game is simply too fast to try and follow with your lens.
With football, if it’s 3rd down and 20 yards to go, I’m thinking like a defensive coordinator and am probably going to follow the best wide receiver on the field with my lens because I know there’s a very good chance the ball is going to him. If I try to keep my lens trained on the ball from the time the quarterback has it to the time the wide receiver catches it, I will miss the play 95 times out of 100.
It’s amazing just how many times I’ve applied this lesson to weddings. When I’m photographing toasts at a reception and I’m listening to a funny story the father of the bride is telling to the crowd, I begin to anticipate at what point in the story everyone is about to laugh. And when that happens I’m already focused on the couple’s faces to capture that moment.
Or when the bride is walking down the aisle and I quickly move my camera to capture the groom’s reaction to seeing his bride for the first time, I’m also out of the corner of my eye looking to see if the mother of the groom is reacting to her son because there’s a very good chance the groom’s mom is probably more focused on her own son at that moment than the bride walking down the aisle. Who knows, if you’re lucky maybe the mom even gets out of her seat to give her son a hug as he tries to control his emotions.
These aren’t hard things to do, but they take practice, and more than anything they require a photographer to always be aware of what’s going on around him/her and thinking several steps ahead.
Stop Complaining About the Rules
I’ll admit as a wedding photographer I’ve privately rolled my eyes after getting a lecture from the “church lady” who tells me that I can only photograph from behind the last pew, that I can’t use flash, or that I can’t even be at the bottom of the aisle for when the bride comes down the aisle. After all, I want to provide the best photographs I can for my client and these “silly” rules keep me from doing that. If you start photographing sports however, particularly at the professional level, you’ll realize that you’re constantly restrained by rules. Rules about where you can shoot from. Rules about where and when you can move. Rules about what you can do with the images on the internet (and particularly social media). Rules about how some photographers from some agencies can shoot in specific sports, and photographers from other agencies can’t. Each league has it’s rules and beyond that every venue has certain rules as well. Some make total sense, others seem very arbitrary.
For instance, at Coors Field photographers can only walk on the field from one photo well to the other after the top of the 4th inning (photo wells are the on-field position in baseball where photographers shoot from – usually located next to the dugout). Any other time you have to walk up the stairs to the concourse and carefully weave yourself through the throngs of people as you make your way around the stadium, and then proceed to walk down the stairs (again dodging more throngs of people) to the photo well on that side. But why is it only after the top of the 4th inning can you make the much easier and quicker transition from one side of the field to the other? Why not after the top of the 5th? Or the bottom of the 7th? What difference could it possibly make? Other MLB baseball stadiums don’t have that restriction on photographers. Why does Coors Field find it necessary to make photographer’s lives harder?
I’ve come to the realization that these are simply dumb questions to ask. The fact is it doesn’t matter. Those are what the rules are and if you want to photograph at that venue you follow the rules. Period. (Breaking rules while photographing sports is never a “better to ask forgiveness than permission” type of situation. Always, always, always ask for permission if you think there’s even a chance you might be breaking a rule at a sporting event at the professional or collegiate level.) If you’re lucky enough to photograph a higher profile event such as an All Star game, a Superbowl, or a Conference Championship game, fully expect even more rules to magically appear. Again, just accept them and learn to live with them.
Most importantly, figure out how to create stellar images working within the rules. Because while you’re focused on complaining about the rules, some other photographer is focused on figuring out how to make great images working within the rules.
Tell the Story of the Day
Maybe this seems obvious, but for those who have been shooting weddings for years and who feel they’ve “seen it all” it’s very easy to get into a rhythm and go on auto pilot and to get the predictable shots you know work well and look good. In doing that though, you may completely miss capturing what the really important images are to the bride and groom because you’re just busy focusing on the poses and the types of images you’re used to getting.
One big misconception is that sports images are just about capturing amazing action shots. Certainly, that’s a part, but it’s not everything, You have to be aware of what happened during the game. Editors at newspapers and sports outlets expect you to know what ongoing story lines are going on with a team and who the most important players are for that game. It’s important to note that doesn’t always mean the star players. It could be the small forward who came in off the bench and managed to get a triple double. Or the right fielder who normally isn’t a star hitter and bats eighth in the lineup, but today had 4 RBIs and scored the game winning run.
Sometimes the story of the day is told in an emotional moment (either happy or sad). Capturing emotions and reactions are a huge part of sports photography and unlike at a wedding where photographers tend not to shoot the rare moment when someone is upset or disappointed (because what kind of bride wants to see images of people looking sad at her wedding), those types of moments tell the story in sports just as well as images communicating victory or triumph.
Sometimes, it’s about going a step further and trying to find that unusual image that tells the story of the day that you think other photographers aren’t capturing. This is particularly important with sports where you want to try to do something to differentiate yourself from the dozens of other photographers capturing the exact same event. Back during the 2013 AFC Conference Championship game, I captured an image of a Broncos cheerleader making snow angels in the confetti after her team’s victory celebration. There were easily over 30 photographers photographing the game, and so coming up with a truly unique image that not many other of the highly talented experienced photographers would have captured that communicated the Broncos winning was difficult, but that’s the job.
At a wedding there aren’t usually 30 other professional photographers that you’re competing with to get great images (hopefully not anyway!) but that should have no less impact on our desire to capture wonderfully unique images that tell the individual story of each couple. At one wedding I was at, the bride’s father had passed away when the bride was quite young and her grandfather was not only like a father figure for her, but clearly one of the people she was closest to in the whole world. Had I simply gotten stunning pictures of the bride and groom, but had failed to get great images of the bride and her grandfather, I would have completely failed at my job that day.
Sometimes the story of the day doesn’t revolve around a person or a specific relationship, but is instead something that goes wrong or unexpected like the weather. No matter what it is, if it has an impact on the day or is something you think the bride and groom will remember when they thing back on their wedding, make sure you have a picture that tells that aspect of the day.
Regardless of whether you ever have the opportunity to shoot sports, the important point is to step out of your comfort zone and try shooting something completely new. You might surprise yourself and discover new lessons for how to better photograph a subject or genre you’ve been covering for years.
Based out of Denver, CO, Chris Humphreys travels across Colorado and the rest of the United States photographing weddings for discerning couples who want their weddings captured in such a way as to be true to who they are.
In addition, when Chris isn’t photographing brides and grooms, he also freelances for USA Today Sports Images. Chris’ images have been featured in Sports Illustrated, USA Today, ESPN.com, CNN.com, The LA Times, The Chicago Tribune, and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon among others.
Chris is also a sought after speaker and teacher for other photographers.