What's it like having access to a major sporting event?
Let's be honest: it's a surreal experience.
Let's be honest: when you first pick up a camera, you never expect to find yourself on the sideline of your favorite college football team. When you first pick up a camera, your main thought is: "I just want to take cool photos that look nice...Maybe other people will like them too...."
This past weekend (thanks to the generosity of my friends over at Indiana Sports Coverage), I was provided with Media Credentials for sideline access coverage to an NCAA Football game featuring the Northwestern Wildcats and the Purdue Boilermakers. Even though both of these teams have been less than stellar for the 2019 season, it was still something that will hold a special place in my mind when I think back to where I was a mere seven years ago: I was like the average fan; sitting in the nosebleeds section as a college student who hadn't a clue in the world that one day he would even want to pick up a camera (other than the one on the back of his slider-phone that barely even had text messaging at the time) to take epic photos from a high-action football game.
Now if you hadn't already guessed via all of the various sports photos within my website portfolio, my favorite college team (& alma mater) does happen to be the Purdue Boilermakers. Fun Fact: during those good ol' college years at Purdue, I had aspirations for making the football team as a walk-on player as a kicker / wide-receiver. While I unfortunately never made the team on any official level, despite doing well at various try-outs, I had always dreamed of what it would be like to perform on one of the largest stages in front of thousands of people playing the game I loved and held dear. Since that opportunity never came to fruition in college, and I did not pursue an official career in sports related medicine or coaching, I never thought it would be possible to have the opportunity to return to the field in any sort of capacity (other than rushing the field with the entire Purdue fanbase after witnessing the game of a lifetime that was the decimation of Ohio State ending in a score of 49-20). Then the unexpected happened, and here we are.
Many of you are probably wondering what the actual process is to go about getting a media pass or how you happen to make connections with groups that can make these kinds of opportunities come to life? Long story short: you typically have to know a guy who knows a guy that happens to be part of a media outlet or sports blog. In this particular case, I didn't happen to really know anyone with those kind of connections other than following certain people within the media on Instagram and Twitter. Simply Put: I was fortunate that someone with these connections happened to come across my Twitter account and offered a volunteer opportunity to cover a football game at some point during the 2019 Purdue Football season to gain exposure for their work. Better yet, this group happened to have affiliations with USA Today as a growing online sports media outlet. (For all you spiritual people out there, yeah....it was definitely a "but God" kinda moment).
Don't be fooled though. This wasn't just an overnight "BOOM! Someone found me!" kinda thing. You still have to put your work out there in the first place for people to find you, often times it's work that never earns a single dollar or never gets any exposure whatsoever. The more you can try to put quality content out there in the social media universe, the more likely your chances are for these kind of opportunities to arise. Even after you have a high level connection established, it's always good to keep producing images and post often in the event that you need to find other contacts for other events.
OK! So. Now to the actual game coverage...
Since football games typically require some decent amount of focal range, I decided ahead of time to go & rent a telephoto lens for this event. In the past, I've typically resorted to something in the 70-300mm range for several fan shots from the stands (if you're lucky enough to be in a stadium that allows you to bring in a lens that large), but this time I decided it was time to go big or go home with something special.
Enter the Sony 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 G OSS Super Telephoto Zoom Lens.
This thing is a beast! Just look at it!!
Pair this lens with a Sony a6400 APS-C camera and you get a collective long-distance range of 450-900mm. Needless to say, getting close to the action was not gonna be a problem going into the game. The question now becomes: will I be too close?
The Answer: Eh....Kinda/Sorta/Maybe/Not Really. Bottom Line: I made it work for me.
Now, full disclosure, this was not the only piece of glass that I managed to bring with me, so I was still able to give myself a little bit of flexibility with the choices of a 16-55mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens, a 50mm f/1.8 prime lens, and the handy-dandy everyday work-horse of the 24-105mm f/4 zoom lens. However, the big dog prevailed in getting me what I needed; when I needed it. With that being said, there were still several obstacles to overcome that kept me busy throughout the duration of the game.
Obstacle 1: Ok you made it to the event....Now What?
Depending on the details provided to you from the venue at which your shooting, it's either a cake-walk or a nightmare trying to find where it is you need to go. In this particular case, the on-site event staff at the stadium made it where it wasn't a total nightmare, many of which had a super-friendly approach and were very amiable in guiding me to where I needed to go. Even though it took quite a long while to find out where the correct parking was for someone with reserved parking credentials (due to the limited amount of details provided by the venue in the permissions email), I was finally able to talk with someone at the main gate and sort out where everything was and where to go for picking up my field-pass. If I hadn't asked, I would still be circling the stadium looking for the right entrance. But, we found the right gate and were able to obtain our passes with time to spare before the game.
Typically, you're provided with a lanyard with your credentials, or have an elastic band on the front that hangs from your neck from all the world to see. That or a vest is provided that lets the world know that you are part of the media and you have been granted access. Yeeeeeah.....not this time...
The pass was simply a long 3"x 18" printed paper cutout with a sticker placed on it stating who I was and whom I was working with for the event. There were no frills or fancy decorations; no elastic band or fabric lanyard; simply just a piece of cardstock that was intended to be worn and seen by others (with no directions as to where to put it on you; just.....on you -- needless to say, was asked several times by personnel on the field to present said credentials, but overall, I was happy they asked). All in all; it really didn't matter that much to me, as long as I could get close to the action.
At the end of the day, I was able to be my friendly self and ask my way around the stadium to get down to the field and get down to business.
Obstacle 2: Aw, Crap!! I totally forgot that piece of equipment! How will I live?!!
So for this game, I checked, double-checked, and triple-checked my bag to make sure I had everything before I left from Detroit to head to Evanston for the game. I thought I had absolutely every based covered:
I packed enough warm clothes (It's Chicago in November...dress in layers for lots of cold and lots of wind)..
I packed extra batteries and chargers (don't want to miss the shot)...
I packed extra memory cards (don't want my camera to forget the shot)...
I packed rain gear (just in case)...
I packed EVERYTHING...........except my MONOPOD!! DOH!!!!
Now, normally this would not be a big deal. In most situations, you would just hand-hold the camera and make sure that you had your shutter speed set to a higher setting above 1/1000+. But when you're hand-holding over 5 lbs. of quality Sony Alpha gear over the course of 4 hours, this becomes a big issue. So despite my initial panic when coming to this realization, I sucked it up and had to make do with what I had with me. (I believe I even uttered the phrase: "Well....I guess it's an arms day today")
I won't lie though... forgetting something like this eats away at you throughout the day and makes it where you're subconsciously paranoid that you have accounted for everything in your kit when going on and when coming off the field. It can definitely make you feel scatter-brained if you let it affect you.
Obstacle 3: Adapting to the Field Conditions
When you have this kind of focal range at your camera disposal, you have a lot of versatility. However, you discover very quickly that you can't switch lenses in time if a player ends up coming too close on a big play. As someone who was rather green to this kind of venue, I realized that the other professionals around me had at least one, if not two, additional camera bodies to switch between (I think I even saw one guy who had three Nikon D5's strapped to him plus several large zoom lenses for multiple scenarios -- assuming upwards of $20k worth of photography gear).
It makes sense as to why you see this: it is an epic pain to have to swap lenses if you don't have a lot of time to get the shots that you want with the right lens at the right time. Thus, you end up resorting to the one lens attached to your camera that you think will get you the majority of shots that you want. Hence why the 200-600mm lens only got swapped out twice throughout the entire game and I ended up positioning myself on the field at a distance further away if I wanted to get the closeups. There were several times that I wish I had something that could cover the mid-to-low focal range for endzone shots, however it faded quickly when I realized I could get portrait-like closeup images from 50 yards away. So in this sense, I was too close with the gear I had for ideal conditions; however, I wasn't too close for other shots. I realized that if I moved my vantage point to another area of the field (sometimes higher or lower in elevation), I could still capture the shots the way that I wanted to without sacrificing too much. While this is not as ideal as having the optimal focal length for the exact conditions and took some additional leg work on my part, it was still well worth bringing and, I must say, created some stunning images in my opinion.
My View For the Day:
**TL/DR Summary** -- Lens swapping sucks mid-game. Bring an extra camera next time (One for 25-100 yards away; one for 5-25 yards).
Obstacle 4: Gear Envy
When you're shooting a professional event at this level, it's very easy to fall in to the trap of being discouraged if you don't think you have the ideal gear for the scenario you're shooting. This especially kicks into high gear when you see life-long veteran photographers showing up with upwards of $20k worth of high-end sports-photography gear, and you think/know that you're going to have to compete with them for specific shots. This is where you have to work smarter and harder; not more expensive. If you're new to photography, this is going to be something you're going to face throughout your career until you find yourself at a point in which you realize that it's not about the gear; it's about the photographer's eye and image taking skills that makes a photo excellent. Now, I won't sit here and tell you that it won't make your life that much easier to get the images that you want and won't require as much work later on in post. However, I will tell you that you don't NEED to have these things to get the shot; if you really want it, you got to work for it. That means, taking a different approach to the average professional photographer, and be unique in capturing your vistas. This will take some creative willpower on your part, as this differs for every photographer, but ultimately this is what you can do to set yourself apart.
Obstacle 5: Containing Your Excitement
When you're a fan, you used to getting into the game (both mentally and vocally). You're used to standing, yelling, and cheering any time a big play is made. When you're a photographer or member of the media (whether on the sideline or in the press box), it's a much different story.
You have to remember that you're there to do the job and not be a fan. That means that you have to fight off your emotions to the best of your ability and be as impartial as possible. Of all the obstacles I faced that day, this was hands down the hardest to overcome (it was particularly hard in conditions where it's a close ballgame that comes down to a field-goal kicking battle by both teams in the final two minutes of the game). When your favorite team scores or makes a key play, your initial reaction is to get excited, cheer, and celebrate with the players. As a photographer, you have to remember that those moments of celebration are the times when you have to resist those temptations the most otherwise you miss the best images that are the celebrations. Players' and Coaches' emotions after the big play provide some of the most iconic images you can produce as a sports photographer, as you're capturing the key frames that tell the story and emotion of their experiences. If you're too busy pumping your fist and cheering, you're not only making yourself look like a somewhat unprofessional idiot to other professionals around you, but you're taking your focus away from the thing you were brought to the sideline to capture in the first place. If it's your first time covering an event like this, it's a very valuable lesson to learn; however, like many valuable lessons, you typically have to learn it the hard way...
I'll admit, I was intimidated at first, but the more I kept shooting the more confident I felt to the point that I knew that my images met my own goals and criteria for image quality and creativity. All in all, once you're able to acknowledge and get past any of your shortcomings, it's a heck of an experience. If you ever are fortunate enough to capitalize on an opportunity such as this, I highly recommend that you do so, as it will teach you many valuable real-world lessons that are more valuable than you know in making you a better creative.
If you're interested in seeing how more of the final photos turned out, head on over to https://www.indianasportscoverage.com/purduebeatsnu/ to check out the published gallery of final images from the game. Unfortunately, due to NCAA rules and user agreements, none of the images are for sale. If you are interested in hiring Shipwright Photography to cover your next sporting event, please feel free to reach out to me via the Contact link at www.shipwrightphotography.com.