Friday, May 20, 2005

Shoot sportraits

Mark M. Hancock / © The Beaumont Enterprise

West Brook High School baseball team seniors (from left to right) James Ewing, Jay Bruce, Brandon Castolenia, Pat Ford and Michael Ewing pose for a portrait at Bruins Field in Beaumont on Wednesday, May 18, 2005.
They play a series against Humble for the 5A regional quarterfinals starting on Thursday. The five have played for the varsity team since they were freshmen. They all graduate on Saturday.

There are certain universal facts in this world: The sun will rise in the east and set in the west, everyone eventually dies, and each daily newspaper needs sportraits (Sports portraits).

Most people think of high-action images when they think of becoming a Sports PJ. However, sportraits are equally important because of how sports are reported.

Why do we need sportraits?
Sports is about numbers. Sports reporters present a set of numbers after each game. The numbers describe the game in a comparative manner. Likewise, players of most sports track their numbers throughout their athletic career.

Baseball players know their batting average. Football players know their rushing yards or sack totals. Swimmers and track athletes know their fastest times per event. High-level chess players know how many moves were made to get a win.

Chess? Yes, it's a sport because it involves numbers and a winner/loser equation.

Wait, the Business page is about numbers. How could Sports be the same?

Because both Sports and Business involve money. If it has a numerical conclusion, people can place wagers (or sell short) against the numerical outcome. Chess, for instance, can have odds against the winner or loser based on the players' previous experiences. Odds can also be placed against the number of moves required to win. Obviously, if 50,000 people each bet one dollar on an infinite number of moves, someone will win big by foretelling the exact number of moves (or the house keeps it all).

Numbers aren't visual
Since we've determined Sports is mainly regulated by numbers and the human ability to achieve certain numeric milestones or limits, we realize these numbers don't make great visual content.

In the image above, five baseball players have been on the varsity team for four years each. These are the numbers which separate these players from the other players and break up the team to a reasonable number for the reporter. The numbers are the story peg.

Of these five players, one is a pitcher, one is a catcher, one is the shortstop and two are in the outfield. What are the odds of getting all five in one frame during a specific game? Unlikely to impossible would be my guess.

To accompany a strictly numerical story, photojournalists must round up the various people who represent a given set of numbers and somehow make it look cool and give the readers faces to equate to the numbers. Often, it's the only time most readers see their faces (because of helmets).

Business considerations of sports
For many businesses (including various media), sports are the road to profit. Likewise, huge industries exist to perpetuate this revenue-producing trend. Uniform and equipment manufacturers, athletic trainers, kinesiologists, insurance companies, CPAs, and countless advertisers of beer, chips, etc... all have a vested interest in sports reportage. Additionally, we've already discussed the potential income for professional gamblers as well as the casinos and various other book keepers.

Publisher considerations of Sports
Because of the general business environment, sports are doubly important to publishers. The Sports section not only generates advertising income from related businesses, it also generates circulation from all the parents of young athletes, who have a keen interest in becoming a future hometown hero.

Newspapers cover local high school sports more completely than any other media outlet. Magazines tend to cover collegiate and professional or specialize into specific niche sports. Local television might report the final scores as a list accompanied with 10-second clips from the top two or three games - at a specific time.

Meanwhile, the newspaper creates a document for the atheletes' moms to keep in the scrapbook or stick to the fridge. Dad has one in his office as well. This means at least two newspapers were sold. ;-)

PJ considerations of Sports
Because newspaper publishers value the Sports department and PJs who can deliver compelling images for this department, it's the best opening for young PJs. More importantly, it's regular business for freelancers. Each Tuesday and Friday during the school year, there is something to shoot.

Additionally, Sports is a daily section. They must fill the space with feature stories in advance of upcoming sporting events or because of significant milestones. Most of these stories are about numbers. Sportraits break up the gray on the page and fill the dead spots in a freelancer's schedule.

PJs who know how to shoot various sports as well as make interesting portraits of the players have a much easier time getting initial freelance assignments. Every newspaper in America needs sports PJs for Friday night football in the fall, basketball and soccer in the winter and track, softball and baseball in the spring.

Although staff photographers can handle most of the Sports assignments, during peak times, freelancers are required (or at least hired) at most daily newspapers to get wider coverage and make more readers happy.

The freelancers who can embed themselves into the Sports department are most likely to get sportrait assignments as well.

From there, it's not a big leap to understand that anyone who can catch a guy flying through mid-air at night can handle breaking news. Nor is it difficult to understand how a PJ who's good at sportraits could apply the same skills and knowledge to any other group of people (business, news, lifestyles, etc...). Sports PJs who can light an entire arena should be able to handle most studio assignments as well.

Consequently, any PJs (including part-time and high school PJs) who are trying to break into the industry might want to look at breaking into Sports first. Sports PJs must know how to handle fast action in low light situations as well as how to make interesting sportraits. From there, the rest is easy.

Enough for now,

1 comment:

CarmenSisson said...

Once again, you've nailed it. People ask me all the time how they might break into the business. I always tell them sports. Sports is the one thing newspapers care about above all else, especially Southern papers. If you're even halfway handy with a camera and you sneeze in the direction of a small daily in the fall, there is a chance you can get a shot at covering a high school football game. And if you can bring back something marginally better than useable from a night game, you just might spark a photo editor's attention.

Here, I find that the "sportraits" are considered special....they are unlikely to be given to freelancers. You might ask to be assigned one, or you may stumble across a promising athlete and shoot on spec, but it is a perk more or less reserved for staffers. Of course a lot of that has to do with the fact that the paper has a very, very good sports shooter who just so happens to also be a skilled studio photographer. When he combines his two loves, there are few who can beat him, leaving the rest of us to shoot Saturday afternoon bball and the "lesser" sports... yet another excellent way to keep busy and make money to buy that 300mm f/2.8 you are inevitably going to need/want/lust after if you shoot sports for very long.

Well thought-out post, as always.