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Into the Unknown: How I Reinvented Myself After 25 Years at Sports Illustrated


Over the years I’ve been contacted through social media, emails and in person by young photographers seeking advice on being a sports photographer. I never try and discourage them, but I also have to try and be honest: Sports Photography is dead as a profession… sad but true. I know very few who are scratching out a living shooting sports.

Today when I watch an event on TV I always ask myself “who are these people shooting for?” With a lot of newspapers and magazines on life support, most of these photographers must be shooting for the love of it or for free or for not much of a day rate. I find the state of the business quite sad, especially after a long and incredibly rewarding career shooting for Sports Illustrated.

I have to admit that being a Sports Illustrated photographer was nothing less than fu%#*king awesome.

But after many years on contract, then on staff, I realized it was time for a change. Time to move on. But to what? I’m a one trick pony! I only know one thing and that’s photography. After I got out of the army it’s the only thing I wanted to do—I was driven, passionate and had one goal and that goal was to work at Sports Illustrated.

I continued to shoot sports for a number of clients, shot some album covers in Nashville, but I soon came to understand my whole life was tied to Sports Illustrated! I felt lost, what next?

Many professional photographers end up at this juncture. There’s a moment when—at least for some of us—we have to start from scratch and dive into the unknown. That’s when you have to start the long and difficult journey of reinventing yourself as a photographer.

I always spent most of my free time fishing up in my beloved Boulder Jct., Wisconsin and down in the Florida Keys, and that’s where I began my reinvention process by shooting everglades landscape, wildlife and saltwater fishing images. I started to drift more and more in this direction as an outlet for my photography. This all led to a chance meeting with some folks from Guy Harvey Outpost, who offered me an opportunity to lead a workshop in the Galapagos.

That was the beginning of something new and exciting for me. I’ve now taken 5 groups to photograph the incredible wildlife Galapagos has to offer, then my good pal, singer/songwriter and photographer Ronnie Dunn, and I began what we call The Lensmen Project—shooting projects that we find interesting and fun.

All this led me to Don Smith, the team photographer for the San Jose Sharks hockey team and an incredible landscape photographer. Don saw some of the things I was working on away from sports and after a few phone calls ask if I would be interested in working with him on a Patagonia Photography Workshop. I jumped into the unknown.

For me, sports is now firmly in the rear view mirror. I watched Don, worked on improving my landscape photography, and am now as passionate about photography as I have ever been. Don and I have expanded our workshops to Scotland, Patagonia, Monument Valley, and the Galapagos. Along with Ronnie Dunn, we get to take groups up to Alaska to photograph grizzly bears, and to Nevada to shoot wild mustangs. I believe the reinvention is complete.

I’ll never forget those years at Sports Illustrated. I worked at the magazine in the years that I believe were the glory days of sports photography, but as those days faded, reinventing myself was the only way I could continue my career as a photographer. This has been a very exciting and rewarding process and I highly recommend it! If it can work for a lifelong sports shooter, it can work for you.

So for all you young sports photographers out there: don’t lose sight of the other photographic challenges available to you… I’m glad I didn’t.

About the author: Ronald C. Modra was a Sports Illustrated photographer for 25 years, he has 70 covers to his credit and several of his photographs were selected to SI’s 40 best of all time And The Centurys Best Sports Photos, he is also a 2 time winner of the Baseball Hall of Fame Photo of the Year. You can find more of his work on his website.