The idea of being a sports photographer to many enthusiasts seems glamorous and exciting. Free and seemingly unfettered access to major league games with a view just meters away from live action. Akin to a soldier on a battleground armed with the latest gear, carefully and methodically (yet rapidly) shooting his subjects with the aim to make a publish-worthy photograph in the midst of chaos.
But what is it really like out there in the trenches? Is it all it’s cracked up to be? More importantly: in a society where the almighty dollar is king, is it a viable source of income for a professional photographer?
Thomas Campbell is an up-and-coming Houston-based photographer who, among other things, specializes in shooting major sporting events. A Texas A&M Journalism graduate, he initially spent time doing non-profit marketing photography after college, which took him as far east as Africa and India. Eventually finding his way back home, Campbell dabbled into the world of sports photography.
“Shooting sports allows me to still be involved in some way, despite not being all that athletic,” he told me, on the topic of how he’s managed to find himself on NFL sidelines.
We were interested in knowing more about the ins-and-outs of how a sports photographer does his job:
PetaPixel: What sort of gear and other tools that help you do you bring with you to the games you shoot at?
Thomas Campbell: My equipment and software for an average NFL game would be:
1D Mark IV
5D Mark III + grip
5D Mark III without grip
400mm 2.8L IS
300mm 2.8L IS
70-200mm 2.8L IS
24-105 4L IS
16-35 2.8L II
Black Rapid double strap
LOTS of memory cards (I change them after each quarter so I can keep my captions straight)
Think Tank Airport Security 2.0
MacBook Pro with dual hard drives
Lexar FW800 Card readers
FileZilla FTP software
PP: Can you describe your workflow during an NFL game?
TC: Before I arrive, I download the rosters from CodeReplacements. These are not always right, so I double check them with the rosters in the Media Room.
I also set up my folder system. On my Desktop, I will have a folder that I name MMDD-Home-Away. So that could be 1223-HouTexans-MinnVikings. Inside that folder I will save my .xml file that has the IPTC information (headline, caption, copyright, etc) and the code replacement .txt file. That way, if I ever need to go back and re-edit, I will have the correct information for that game at my fingertips.
I will also have six folders. Pre, 1, 2, 3, 4, and Post. One for each quarter, plus pre-game and post-game. I use a separate memory card for each camera for each quarter to keep everything straight. I will also create a folder for Images captioned and ready to send, images already sent and images for second edit. The easier it is to get to each image, the better I can label – and the easier it will be for me because it’s easy to forget exactly where you are and what you still have to do. You don’t want to get in a situation where you have sent the same image twice or where you don’t send the correct image that you wanted to send.
While shooting, the 5D Mark III has a feature where I can rate images with stars that will show up in PhotoMechanic. I rate everything that I want to send on a second edit with two stars and everything I will send immediately with three stars.
When I insert the cards back in my computer, I sort by rating. I cull through the three star images and will either caption them, downgrade to two stars, or delete if they are out of focus. Once an image has been captioned, I upgrade it to four stars. I then do a batch save process with Photomechanic so that every image is about 1.5MB and it saves into the ‘Captioned’ but not ‘Sent’ folder.
While PhotoMechanic is saving, you cannot do anything else with the program. But you can open up already-saved images and work on them in Photoshop. I don’t do much work to images that are going on the wires, but some will need a little dodging, burning or exposure adjustment. Once the saving process is completed in Photomechanic, I re-rate all those pictures as one star, so I know they have been sent. Once all images are in that folder, I will transmit to a designated FTP site using FileZilla. Once that sends, all the pictures get dragged into a ‘Sent’ folder so I know I don’t have to send them again. I try to send photos in groups of about five to ten images.
I generally get to an NFL game about three hours early. That allows me time to get some shots of the stadium, fans and players warming up. I generally transmit twice before a game. Once after the first two quarters (making sure I have a good action shot of each quarterback and whatever player is important in the story lines at the time (like a player injured or getting back from an injury, a player arrested recently, etc.). Then I send at halftime, and after the game. If something that is a really big deal happens and I get good shots of it, I will hustle back and transmit it immediately. This would be something like when Tom Brady blew out his knee.
PP: How frequently would you say you’re on the job? Which teams do you primarily shoot?
TC: I shot 45 sporting events last year. The majority of it was Texas A&M football, Houston Astros, Houston Rockets and Houston Texans.
PP: Does your sports photography job require you to travel often?
TC: No. I love to travel, but there are generally not a lot of photographers that travel unless you are big time like Sports Illustrated staff photographer Bill Frakes. You have to be an incredible talent people to send you to games all around the country or world. I’m still pretty new so I am not there yet. Maybe someday.
PP: What do you typically look for in your attempts to make a great image?
TC: I am looking for images that tell a story. I want to see the eyes of a player and I want to see emotion. If you look through all the great images in sports history, they generally have 1. Emotion 2. Eyes 3. The Ball (when applicable). If you can capture all three of those things and the photo is composed well and exposed well, you probably have a winner.
PP: What’s the most difficult part about shooting a game?
TC: I think the most difficult part of shooting is trying to capture something different. Now, when you cover an NFL game, you are going to have dozens of people on the sideline. How are you going to get something different that stands out? Anyone out there can get the boring stock photo of a quarterback dropping back to pass. How can I shoot 25 football games a year and come up with unique, compelling images for each game? How can I shoot it differently and better than everyone else out there? Just covering a game is pretty easy once you have done it a few times.
PP: Do you ever feel overwhelmed on the job?
TC: Not really. I just concentrate on the task at hand. There are things you can change and there are things you can’t change. Focus on what you can do. Try things you have never seen before. Sometimes it works and it is great. Sometimes it works and it sucks. Sometimes it doesn’t work. But to stay busy in this business you have to stay creative. It doesn’t start and end when you walk on and off the field. You think about how you are going to handle a situation when you are driving to work. At the end of the day, it is just a football game. If I shoot bad, no one is going to die.
I get this same question a lot with brides I meet with and I feel very lucky that I got to begin my career by documenting the genocide in the Sudan and the orphans in India with the great non-profits EveryVillage and The Miracle Foundation. Seeing the death and suffering that other people have to live through really puts into perspective what I do.
A wedding is fun. There is cake and wine and laugher and smiles. A football game is just a game. I can be very hard on myself if I feel like I shot poorly, but in the grand scheme of things, it just isn’t that big a deal and tomorrow is another day.
PP: Any incidents or losing or breaking gear during a game?
TC: Thankfully, I have never lost any gear. I have broken gear, though. I was shooting the Rice-Houston game, which is a pretty good rivalry. The play was a screen pass to my left and I was in the end zone following the play with my 300mm. I shoot right eyed, so things on my right are all in a blind spot. A receiver and a safety were starting to push and shove and before I could react their scuffle landed on me.
It snapped my 300mm 2.8 in half and I had visible cleat marks on my back for a couple of weeks and back spasms for about a month. It was a pretty hard hit and the good men on the video cameras caught it and replayed it several times on the jumbotron. A bunch of friends in the stands and watching back home began texting me to make sure I was ok. I couldn’t get the lens fixed in time for the Patriots-Texans game coming up, so I had to take it apart and see what I could do. Lens was still sharp, but the autofocus was busted. So I had to manual focus the Texans-Patriots game. Not a lot of keepers.
PP: How would you describe your relationship with the sports photographers? Is it a fiercely competitive environment?
TC: It is very competitive, but it is also kind of like a brotherhood. Because I shoot so much, shooting sports is more or less my night out with the guys rather than going to a sports bar and drinking beer. Most people that shoot sports are fairly competitive and want the best shot, but try to be professional as well. The industry is small and word travels fast. If you are a jerk, people find out quickly and with it being such a small world, you don’t want that reputation.
I was actually shooting in Norway with some other photographers this year that knew I was from Houston and they actually asked me about people in my area that had a bad reputation to get my opinion. My parents always taught me that if you work hard and treat people nicely and with respect, you will go far in life. I believe that to be true.
Some basic rules if you are on the sidelines:
1. Don’t cross the line. When you do, you block everyone else’s shot. It is there for a reason.
2. Don’t ask who someone is working for.
3. Don’t ask someone how they got the job or how much they are getting paid to do the job.
4. Don’t chat when people are editing/captioning.
5. Have fun. Be nice. Treat people with respect.
PP: What is your worst experience on the job?
TC: The worst experience is probably getting trucked at the game and breaking my 300 2.8.
PP: Contrary, what has been your best experience in your sports photography career?
TC: That’s so hard to say. I have had so many great moments that really mean a lot to me. When someone that I really look up to and respect takes the time to tell me that I had a great shoot, it just fills me up. When I got my first picture published in Sports Illustrated, it was another great feeling.
A few weeks ago when I shot the Kentucky Derby, before we walked out at the end of the night after everyone had gone home, I walked back out to the track after everyone had left. It was raining, there was mud everywhere, but I got to just take in the majesty of the track, the grandstands and another check mark on my bucket list. I guess every time I get to do something that I never dreamed I would get to do is just a great feeling, it is hard to pick a favorite.
PP: How do your images hit the wire so quickly?
TC: I think my images hit the wire so quickly because I have developed a very tight workflow. Having the best image is the top priority. Having the first image up is the second. I really think that the only way to accomplish both is to practice, and think through before you are going to do it.
It is critical to be thinking about what you want to do – visualize the shot you want before it happens – to really create the best images. So plan your shoot, capture what you want, then have a very quick and tight workflow in place to make sure you can get it sent first. Learn all the short cuts in PhotoMechanic and Photoshop. If you are constantly doing the same things in Photoshop, create an action to do it quicker.
Be intentional about your shooting, your editing and your transmitting. Great photography is not an accident.
PP: For anyone trying to get into this type of photography, would you say it’s worth it? Any advice for those interested in terms of getting started?
TC: I absolutely love what I do. However, sports photography is not a feasible job for 99.9% of the people doing it. There are very, very few people who can support themselves solely with action sports photography. Most of the people who do are staffers at Getty, the AP, Sports Illustrated, etc. The pay rates for sports photography just aren’t there.
If you want to be a great sports photographer, learn how to shoot portraits. If you want to have a career as a photographer, learn how to shoot portraits. Portrait shooting helps you understand light and how it falls and how you can change your position to get the best light on your subject. The reality is that only a few people in the world make a good living shooting only sports. If you learn to shoot news, you will get the opportunity to shoot sports. But if you want to make a good living as a photographer, portraits are the way to go.
Although Thomas Campbell doesn’t shoot sports one hundred percent of the time as part of his photography career, he’s found success doing it. Aside from being published on Sports Illustrated, Campbell’s work has also appeared on USA Today, Fortune, and ESPN.
You can learn more about Thomas Campbell and his work by visiting his website.
Image credits: Photographs by Thomas Campbell and used with permission