Dear Student Sports Photographers

In light of public criticism of what appeared to be student photographers not photographing the crucial moment of the 2018 College Football Playoff game in Atlanta, I'd penned a missive about my experience as a college yearbook photographer and the importance of being gracious to students covering a collegiate event. 

Young Shanna attempts sports photography at Jordan-Hare Stadium on September 26, 2010. Photo: Phil Smith

Young Shanna attempts sports photography at Jordan-Hare Stadium on September 26, 2010. Photo: Phil Smith

Then, I realized, ain't nobody got time for reading that, despite how eloquently my point was made. 

Nope, in lieu of adding my protracted opinion, I'm just going to give some tips I'd like to have known as a grad student who shot football while earning my degree that had nothing to do with photography.

(These items are listed in order of when they came to mind and by no means comprehensive because Heaven forbid anyone should post a list in 2018 without such a disclaimer.)

Dear Student Sports Photographers,

1. Only wear team colors/logos if you’re shooting for that team. Otherwise, be neutral and practical in your attire. I prefer black myself, but you do you. Neutrally.

2. Shoot instead of watch, even when you think you don’t have a shot at first—you may get something if you keep firing as the play/celebration develops. Don’t assume you won’t get a shot and not even try. (I was never one for cheering, so if you are, stifle yourself.)

3. Use continuous high mode for sports. Know how to adjust your autofocus and frames per second settings on your camera; getting started, I liked using the highest rate. Having 800 frames of a play isn't the goal; it's about giving your newbie self a better shot at one of those being in-focus and meaningful. As you become more proficient at photography and sports knowledge, you'll become more selective. Hopefully.

4. Also, yes, I said meaningful. Just because a photo is sharp, doesn’t mean it should be published. Does it reflect the story of the game? Does it work with the rest of your images to illustrate what happened at that day's event?

5. Know your camera so that it's second-nature to use and adjust settings. For instance, I prefer back-button focus. Check that out, see if it works for you. Google it if you aren’t familiar. 

6. On that note, make Google and YouTube your new BFFs. If you don’t know, look it up. If you already know, dig deeper. Stay updated. Look at others’ work, find a style you like, and emulate it. You already know how to be a student, just apply that to photography. It helps to be a nerd here.

7. Check your horizons in photos. Football fields and all other courts/field/pools should be, well, horizontal. If a point of reference for horizon isn’t visible or you're working on a non-horizontal competition area (I'm looking at you, slalom skiing), check for trees or posts to find a vertical point of reference and shoot/crop accordingly.

8. Watch what the pros are doing and where they are during game action if you're unsure about where to stand. Until you learn to track the action and position yourself, this is a great cue, especially during football. If they’re all shooting from one area of the field, you should probably be there, too. Not in their way, but in their vicinity. Pay attention to where their lenses are pointed, even during timeouts. If five big lenses suddenly shift to one point, it's worth seeing for yourself what the fuss is about. It's like when your dog spots something in the woods that you can't see—look where she's looking. Seasoned photographers are better at finding squirrels (i.e., critical sports moments) than you.

8a. Make connections. Those sideline pros can be the best photo teachers and networking community, if you let them and if they're game. Once you've introduced yourself and inquired about who they shoot for, with tact and good timing, ask about their camera settings in between plays to learn what you should be using. Most are pretty cool with sharing, and polling experienced photographers is so clutch on those sunny/cloudy/sunny again days. Also, when there is ample time to chat, ask about how they got into photography. It's never the same story twice, but it's always enlightening. I was fortunate to have professors like Butch Dill, Julie Bennett, John Reed, Todd Van Emst, Hal Yeager, Vasha Hunt, and others to answer my questions and provide good examples on the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium during my student photographer days. 

9. Never block another’s shot. Keep your awareness level up as you're traversing the sidelines and during postgame; there are a lot of videographers and photographers working when you may be in transit. Either go behind the lens or get a clear “ok” from the operator before passing.

10. Leverage your credential. You already know it's against the rules to post photos of your credential online (at least, you do now), but there's a lot you can do with it. You’re credentialed to be in the stadium on game day, so get there earlier than you have to, check your phone less, and shoot more. Coaches, fans, bench players, details, overall shots—make the most of the time and vantage point, and know where you can and cannot be before someone on the field has to remind you.

11. Learn to edit well, and fast. Speed is your bread and butter in this industry. Figure out your workflow and continue to refine it; learn keyboard shortcuts, research your software. Photo Mechanic is an amazing program with a lot more than meets the eye. Photoshop is great, too, but never use HDR. Ever.

Professor Lockwood*

*Alright, I'm not a professor, but as a graduate assistant, a student of mine did call me Dr. Lockwood once. 


If you want to get for real about learning sports photography, check out the Sports Shooter Academy founded by USA TODAY photographer Robert Hanashiro: 



Silvertone and Space

My good friend Guy Rhodes (yep, the one with mad lighting skills) was in town this last weekend, and he wanted to visit Space Center Houston. Not one to pass up the chance to be a nerd, I obliged.

I'd just updated my iPhone, which I mostly regret, but the one thing I found that isn't terrible is the photo filter called Silvertone. I discovered it while standing in the shadow of the 747 customized to shuttle shuttles across the country. Now parked at Independence Plaza with a shuttle replica perpetually piggybacking, the plane is my favorite part of the museum, with Saturn V and its three-acre garage running a very close second. 

I had been to the space center recently, so while Guy made SLR magic with his camera, I tried to make something interesting with my phone. I wound up shooting mostly vertical frames, which admittedly, was borne of my planning to only post to my Instagram story. Less-than-noble inspiration aside, this made me think about composition a bit differently than my landscape-mode mind typically does.

A Tale of Two Firsts: Floods and Football

I have edited literally hundreds of thousands of NFL images. I’ve been to three Super Bowls. I’ve met Cam Newton, twice.

But I’d never shot a frame of NFL action until Sunday, September 10, 2017—a first bested only by my first time evacuating my home for a hurricane, just two weeks prior.

Yet there I was that Sunday morning, walking up to NRG Stadium in Houston's trademark weather of sunshine and humidity, marveling at nature's mood swings. A little before noon, the Houston Texans would take the field under the watchful, red eyes of a bull named Toro. The week before, Hurricane Harvey’s devastation had moved the final preseason game against the Cowboys to AT&T Stadium in Dallas, but almost as soon as the move had been announced, the game was canceled altogether. Players and staff wanted to return to their battered hometown, and I could relate; like the Texans, I was also in Dallas and ready to get home.

The Long Way Home

The way back to Houston had been muddled, even after the storm clouds moved on. The swollen bayou compromised roads, and damage to refineries threw Dallas into a gas-buying frenzy that resulted in a shortage courtesy of sheer paranoia. I had made three different plans to get back to Houston, and three times they had been thwarted by Harvey's wide net of destruction.

In all, for me, it turned into a two-week stay with relatives in Dallas and Alabama, splitting the time between places so as to feel less like a squatter. The Thursday before the Texans-Jaguars game, things finally cleared up enough that I could planes-trains-and-automobile it back to Houston. Driving back, a peculiar sense of awe struck me as I approached the downtown area, quite literally hitting close to home: just a few miles from my place, I was now traveling under highway signs I’d last seen on The Weather Channel with floodwaters threatening to make contact. 

Houston Strong

J.J. Watt tosses the football to fans in the stands before the game against the Jaguars.

J.J. Watt tosses the football to fans in the stands before the game against the Jaguars.

When Sunday arrived, everyone from fellow photographers to fans were equally eager to see J.J. Watt and the Texans launch the 2017 NFL season and bring back a sense of normalcy to town. In the photo room, the standard greeting was, "Hey, how was the flood your way?" The flood would serve as a frame around each moment of the day.

This game was always going to be significant for me as my first to cover as a photographer, but it quickly dawned on me how much it was going to mean to Houston, too. 

The game began as a huge celebration of Houston Strong, the battle cry of a town that had weathered its worst storm. First responders and police officers were brought onto the field and greeted to raucous applause, which only quieted down when there was a moment of silence held for the victims of Harvey.

This was my first time experiencing the impact of Harvey with other Houstonians. As I looked into the stands and saw faces awash with equal parts pride and solemnity, I felt honored to be there at that moment. 

In June 2017, I'd made the move to Houston to expand my photo repertoire, and to make a return to the metropolitan life I'd been missing. In the thick of summer, my new city welcomed me with hugs of humid air like a meteorological Stage 5 Clinger. As sweat mounted, so did my doubts about my move to a city built on a swamp.

There was one thing, however, I never questioned: the high caliber of the people in Houston. 

In reporting on Harvey, TV stations made frequent mention of the city's status as the fourth-largest in the U.S., and as a result, the overwhelming number affected by the storm. This was all the more heartbreaking to me, as every single person I had met in Houston seemed to be cut from the same cloth, each of them welcoming, helpful, and resilient. If nothing else, the people of Houston subdued my fears about the move. Now, they were faced with unprecedented destruction in their homes. Not surprisingly, their response reflected the strong sense of community I'd become so fond of since I'd relocated.

Strangely, Houston was starting to feel like home.

Feels Like Home

Another welcome sight before the game was the flight of a bald eagle named Challenger, who, like my alma mater of Auburn University, flew around the football stadium just before the national anthem.

Houston, We Have Lift OFf

The game was now minutes away, and I was ready to capture my first NFL action.

Up first, player introductions. I'll be honest: this was the photo of the game for me, and I was immediately grateful to have gotten something I felt good about, early in the day. The Texans' listless offense was met with a disruptive Jaguars defense, resulting in a game that offered few powerful moments from a Houston standpoint. I didn't know this at the time, obviously, but it's always nice to feel you're leaving the stadium later with a decent frame.

So, let's pan over to J.J. Watt's entrance.

A few players ran out before him. I used them to set my exposure and sort out where I needed to stand so that by the time Watt arrived, I was set.

J.J. stood in the shadows of the tunnel for a brief moment as the completely unnecessary announcement of his name was made. Then, plumes of flame and smoke shot up, and he raised the Texas state flag in a moment of chills-inducing triumph. A roar of cheers and shutter clicks filled my ears as I unleashed my 11 frames-per-second with abandon.

This is a man who had just raised a whopping $37 million for hurricane relief—he embodies Houston Strong in every sense of the term, and he was getting the ovation such a man deserves. 

The next day, dear friend (and exceptionally talented photographer) Kevin Jairaj let me know this photo had made the paper. My first NFL game was in the books, and miraculously, in the papers, too.

Below I've included some other photos from the game. I had a great time working alongside Troy Taormina, my USA TODAY Sports Images partner in crime. I delighted in seeing some familiar faces from the MLB games I'd covered in town. I had a blast meeting new people that I can't wait to see again at the next game.

In just three months in Houston, I've had my first hurricane and first NFL game. In both cases, the entire city showed the nation what humanity is capable of when they're Houston Strong.

And it won't be the last.