I thought I was a pretty good photographer till my eyes were opened in 2007. I had met a Sports Illustrated photographer Manny Milan. He was impressed by my indexing and storage of over 100,000 slides in my collection. Nuts! Me. Nonetheless, he remembered me and invited me to the US Open (tennis) and I learned what a difference in work from myself to real professionals. Nope. I’m strictly amateur. Anyone can take a picture. It’s not anyone who can capture action. No, motor drive will not help you. We take it for granted because impossible images are all around us. Professional photographers get it done every day. There were scores of photographers from all different agencies. My lesson and goal for the several days I was present, get the ball. The image should have the player and the ball in the same frame. That would be the “money shot.” Do it! It ain’t easy. My poor Nikon D70 was woefully inadequate. I got the “shot.” And I realized that there is a better way. I learned. Anytime you learn a new trick, it’s great!
It was pretty cool! Justin Henin, Belgium, Svetlana Kuznetsova, US Open Tennis 2007 finals… Manny Milan, a well-known Sports Illustrated photographer, invited me as his assistant. I got to access the venue from as close as you can get. It was exciting! And it was an education in shooting sports. Manny told me the shots that the photographers were trying to capture. Then I had the opportunity to get them myself. Lighting is artificial because the finals are in the evening. Most photographers prefer daylight. Everyone tries to capture the moment when the champion collapses in joy on the court.
The preferred action shot always has the tennis ball and a look of total concentration. Where you’re stationed in the stadium determines whether you are trying wide angle or telephoto images. The cameras are fast and the lenses fast and heavy. The preference is overwhelmingly Canon. The “glass” ranges to the biggest fastest lenses, which are more than a handful. You don’t carry them as much as you “lug” them. Thanks Manny.
In thousands of images there is only a small fraction, which get the player, the expression, and the ball in the same frame. And after all of that, the editors take only a few to illustrate the story of the event.
Even the award ceremony is scripted. Photographers are assigned positions from which to shoot the champions. It helps if you have connections.
To this I say to my kids, “Thank goodness you mother never had you in ballet class.” I was, and also in tap dancing. It didn’t last long. And the tennis lessons lasted for a few weeks one summer. But for Manny my Sports Illustrated mentor, here’s where I got my start. The key in tennis photography as Manny taught me is to get the ball, the racquet, and the players expression in the same frame especially as the ball is on the racquet. It was a few lessons later (about 20 years) that I got my call to the US Open Tennis Championship. Ready? You bet!
Like Walter Mitty, I had two magical experiences as a Sports Illustrated photographer (credentialed!) shooting the semis and the finals. Wow! And thanks Manny!
I suppose I have to revisit my trips to the US Tennis Open. I store my slide collection in a set of custom-made drawers. I have more than 100k. That would be a lot of drawers. Anyway we had a party and Manny Milan, a senior Sports Illustrated photographer, was there with his wife. Our wives worked together. Mine mentioned that I had a lot of slides and Manny was pretty impressed by my storage solution. This led to an invitation from Manny for me to attend the US Open. I had a Sports Illustrated ID and wandered the grounds shooting the ‘semis’ and ‘finals.’ I learned a lot. First of all most all of the serious sports guys are shooting Canon. Nikon is in the minority. Forget equipment. It ‘s about getting the shot. That is generally defined as getting that image where the ball, racquet, and player are in the same frame. And it’s even better if it’s just the players face, racquet, and ball. Try this a few times. You think motor drive will do it. No! You will miss just about every time. Things are just moving too fast. And try to focus. So I learned to pre-focus and to time when to press the shutter. (Go ahead, get the ball just coming off the racquet!) And for all that you only got the image a small percentage of the time. And then there are the classic positions. Shooting from the baseline you want a face on view with the ball in the frame. From the sideline there is another goal. And the same can be said for being high in the stands with a full view of both players and the entire court. Time of day…. And so it goes. With digital cameras the images are taken off the memory cards and uploaded online even as the match is being played. Then there are the images that will not show up anywhere in the media. I will be discrete and not name names. At the baseline there is the ‘dugout.’ It is an area at the level of the players’ feet where photographers sit and shoot. The assigned seating is like a pecking order of importance. I got a back row view. I’m nobody. The male photographer in front of me nudged his female colleague as he showed her his LCD. She gave him a disgusted look. I couldn’t see the near court player nor could I see his image. I just stuck my camera up and out, fired off a couple images, and took a look at what there was to see. I have to laugh. It’s almost pornographic. A thong, and the pants are pretty much transparent (presumably sweat). But what puzzled me were the suspenders holding up the thong. Anyway this image would never get published. It no doubt falls in the outtake bin. By the way she’s still playing.
For a little lady Justine packed a heck of a punch. She was focused. By that I say she never really smiled at all during play. Up in the stands, one can walk around the court from above. It allows for a different perspective. One such signature shot is a full court view in late afternoon with the players casting large shadows as they face one another. I like this shot because of the tension and energy you feel.
One of the ‘moments’ is when a player wins the match. As the points and scores change, the inevitable becomes obvious and every camera trains on the winner. And at that decisive moment hundreds of cameras click from all vantages – the sidelines, the dugout, and the stands. It will continue as the winner makes her/his celebratory display. Some will fall to the court in joy. Other times the winner will climb up into the stands to hug family and supporters.
On every point, cameras all over the tennis court follow at least two critical moments. Those are the serve and the return. I learned how to set my camera to focus and then to wait for the critical moment to press the shutter release. A motor drive does not save you. More often than not the motor drive will fire before or after the critical moment. The desired image is caught when the ball is in the frame. It’s even better if the ball is on the racquet just as it is leaving for the return. You spend all day shooting every point and come up with a handful of frames like this. Mostly you have action shots without the ball. A memorable shot that Manny took was one of Nadal. Nadal was looking into his racquet as the ball was hitting the strings. It was a close-up shot full of emotion. I will always admire that shot.
At the US Open there is an area at the baseline where there are cutouts in the wall. TV viewers pretty much never notice the openings. Photographer positions are there with the vantage at eyelevel with the players’ feet. The TV broadcast cameras are on one side and the assigned photo positions are on the other side. Sports Illustrated rates, so they get an assigned position. I don’t rate so I got to stand behind the first photographers and get what I could. This was mostly looking across the net and catching a photo of the opposing player’s serve. Photographers sitting here call it the dugout. So, here I am shooting across the court and working hard on my timing. Two photographers sitting in front of me are clicking away. Runners collect their compact flash cards to take for immediate download and upload to the internet. The male shooter on the right sticks his elbow into the ribs of his female colleague on his left. She gives him a disgusted look and I realize something is up on the near court but I don’t have a viewpoint. Sticking my arms out, letting autofocus work, I click off a few frames. Pulling my camera back and looking down at the screen, I grin too. I realize that this photo of a well-known ranked player will never be published – not politically correct. And, what’s with the suspenders above the thong?