Tusk to Tail: Meet the photo Hog

In the few pictures in which I appear in front of the camera, you may have noticed I am not wearing anything red or with a Hog on it.

It is not because I am old and don’t remember how to dress for a Razorback game, despite what the rest of Tusk to Tail crew says. It is because on the Saturdays that the Razorbacks play, I have to dress neutral like Switzerland because I get the best seat in the house. On those Saturdays I photograph the games for ArkansasSports360. Here I will share some of the nuances of the sports photographer on a game day.

Like tailgating, the preparation starts a few days in advance. Recharging batteries, reformatting memory cards, cleaning sensors and lenses on the camera, watching forecasts to decide if I need to carry rain gear for my camera equipment, and organizing and packing everything for the trip to and from the stadium are all part of my routine.

On game day I head into the stadium two and a half hours before the game. This seriously cuts into the tailgating experience for me, but it’s a necessity to do my job that day. First of all, it’s important to be sober. Autofocus can only do so much.

In addition, the typical photographers’ work area is usually some dark dungeon that has been converted from a janitor’s closet in the deepest bowels of the stadium. Tiger Stadium at LSU comes to mind as an example. In Fayetteville, our area is outside the stadium in Barnhill arena. Space is at a premium to set up a laptop for an area to edit pictures taken at the game. It can get extremely crowded, so being there early is important.

When a photographer first arrives at the stadium for credentials, all the equipment is checked by the ushers, which means unpacking everything that took an hour or so packing the night before.  Once our identification has been checked, we receive the field pass and arm band (which is usually worn on the leg).

In Fayetteville, I will then ride up to the press box to get the team rosters and check in with the sports writers to see if there is anything in particular they want me to shoot. If they are planning an article on a particular player, they will ask me to be sure to get some shots of him.

Next, I haul my gear back outside the stadium and over to the photographers’ area to set up. After plugging in a laptop and checking for an Internet connection, I will head back up to the press box to get a quick bite to eat and a drink. From here it’s back to the dungeon to assemble camera gear before heading over to the field.

I shoot Nikon gear, and most sports photographers use either Nikon or Canon. Regardless of the brand, most of my fellow shooters have two camera bodies. One will have a large zoom lens on it (300mm or 400mm are the norm), and the other will typically have a zoom such as a 70-200mm on it.  As the play gets closer to you, the large lens is too much unless you want to inspect the stitching on the numbers on the uniform.

You may also see several of us wearing belts with pouches and bags hanging off of them. We aren’t trying to be Batman with our utility belts.  It is just the best way for us to carry extra lenses, teleconverters, filters, and maybe a bottle of water. Carrying all of this around during the game is why we photographers have such fantastic physiques.

As far as positioning to get the shot during the game, it’s pretty easy. After years of studying the play calling tendencies of the Razorback teams and opposing coaches, I have been able to hone this complicated task down to its essence. I just go to the end zone where the Razorbacks are trying to score and sit down until the next quarter, when I will head for the other end zone. With few exceptions over the past few years under Petrino, this strategy has worked wonderfully well. Adams, Wright, Davis or someone was usually running into the end zone where I was camped. With the way this season has gone, I may have to rethink my strategy.

The end zone is probably the best place from which to shoot, in large part because you can get great shots by focusing on the players eyes as they are coming your way.

Another reason is that the schools are giving out more and more sideline passes, so that’s it’s become a struggle to move up and down the field to follow play.  Between recruits, television cameramen and soundmen, reporters, cheerleaders, pom pom squads, mascots, school officials, police, emergency medical personnel, and the big program donors, it gets very crowded down there. I’m surprised that there is room for the players and coaches.

After the game ends, the fun really begins. I download memory cards to a laptop, and then review a thousand pictures or more to get down to around 20 shots that capture the essence of the game for the articles the sportswriters are producing. Once the pictures are selected, they usually need to be cropped, captioned, and resized before I send them to 360.

This process takes about two hours or longer. The toughest part is that by the time I’m done, Tusk to Tail has already consumed the last of the beverages and any food that was available at the tailgate. They have already packed everything up and headed home. There is nothing to do but trudge back to my car and wait for next Saturday.

So, bottom line, a sports photographer will spend a minimum of five hours of work in addition to actually shooting the game. It’s a lot of work, but to me it’s still the best seat in the house.