Five reasons why I love photographing college football
The 2016–2017 College Football Season officially ended on Monday with a thrilling National Championship Game. Many photographers armed with giant camera lenses were on the field hoping to capture the quintessential play of the game. And what an incredible fourth quarter.
I’ve been photographing Stanford Football from the sidelines for the past 8 years. Each year is different: there are new players, new schemes, new challenges, and hopefully, I keep improving. But I feel the anxiety each and every play of each and every game.
Sports photography is very intense and I absolutely love it. Here’s why:
There are a lot of variables. At any given time, there are 22 players and 7 officials on the field in a particular formation. Then, the ball is hiked and all hell breaks loose. Giant men in full football gear move fast — pushing and tripping over each other. The head coaches and the players on the bench consistently react to the plays as they happen. This doesn’t take into account the complex substitutions, the lighting changes as the sun sets behind the press box, and how the unruly fans react to a play.
Where you are matters.
Unlike a normal ticket holder, a photographer is not constrained to a row and seat number; you have the freedom to roam the perimeter of the field. For every play, you get to choose where you are and in between plays you decide where you can go to next before the play starts. As the team advances down the field, you advance down the sideline. Effectively, you are placing a bet with your position: “I will have the best shot of the next play from here.”
The pros vs. the amateurs.
I’m not a pro, but I aspire to be one. The pros have all the right tools; the pros are prepared.
First, the pros have the latest technology. Here’s an example: Aside from the large lenses, pros have their camera connected to a router that does two things: 1) sends images up to the press box so their assistants can categorize and tag the photos in real time, and 2) sends images to an iPad on the ground next to them so that they can quickly review photos between snaps.
Second, the pros have a folded sheet of paper. On this piece of paper, key players and their numbers are identified along with very obscure, but relevant statistics. These are highlighted. Here’s a simple example: how likely will the Stanford QB throw to the right side of the field vs. the left side of the field. Every data point matters.
High tech meets low tech. Like I said before: the pros have all the right tools; the pros are prepared.
You only get one shot (or 9 shots per second, if you are using burst mode on your camera). There are no do-overs in football unless the referee determines that the teams must replay the down. You can’t stop the action on the field or ask the players to run the same play again. This isn’t a staged photoshoot. There is a lot to keep track of: the settings on your camera, do you switch cameras as the action gets closer to you, is your focus right, are you framing the photo correctly, what do I do if the side referee comes running down the sideline? It’s not easy; it’s chaotic; and you can only control so much.
Luck. You need it.
Even if you are fully prepared, you still have to rely on luck. You wish that your hard work and preparation pays off. Even the most prepared photographers can be out of position for the ideal shot. When things aren’t going your way, there’s a lot of regret: “If only I was at this position at this moment, I would have had the best shot ever.”
But when you are feeling a bit lucky, you hold your breath and firmly press down on that shutter button. You might be surprised with what you capture.
My favorite football shot of the 2016 season.
It was only fitting that at the last game of the season (Rice University @ Stanford on Saturday, November 26th, 2016), I captured my favorite football shot of the year. Finally, all of my preparations, thousands of “practice” photos taken, and with a little bit of luck, I got this shot:
Christian McCaffrey (Stanford RB #5) caught a pass from Keller Chryst (Stanford QB #10), broke a tackle, ran towards the end zone, was sent airborne by the Rice players, and landed in the end zone for a touchdown.
I was lucky—it all happened right in front of me.