Photographing the Miami Hurricanes with Miami Herald Photographer Al Diaz
Let me just start this post by stating that I am not a sports photographer, have never attempted to photograph it in any way not even to capture the moments during a nice or nephew’s soccer match. But I DO enjoy watching sports.
Growing up, my dad would watch the Seattle Seahawks and NFC Division teams in an outburst of energy and enthusiasm that usually sent my mom to the other room. He’d shout at the tiny referees on our 13″ television with corded remote and called them names under his breath so that my young ears wouldn’t pick up “bad language.” He’d cheer and dance around the room every touchdown his team made, and strut like a peacock in pride for days bragging about each play to his customers while fixing their cars as they patiently waited and listened. Watching football with my dad was one of the very few things besides fishing we did together, and it was an activity that naturally ended up bringing us closer.
Now an adult, I love to blast the air conditioner and turn our Miami home to the cold and familiar Pacific Northwest temperature I’m used to, put on my lucky #3 Wilson jersey (hey you can take the girl out of Seattle, but she’ll still wear her teams colors with pride! at home), snuggle under a pile of blankets, and watch football. As the game begins, the announcers voices enchant me and take me to another time and place: my childhood. Like most mature adults, I do doze every now and again throughout second or third quarter, but am bright eyed and awake for the finale staring at the screen trying to keep up with the plays just like that little 8-year-old girl once did.
But there is something more I love about watching sports as an adult, the energy and camaraderie and how it bonds friends, families, and strangers alike:
The incredible talent of the athletes and how they dedicate themselves entirely to their craft, turn their bodies into perfect pieces of art for their vocation, and how those bodies move and dance on the field.
It is one of the most incredible people-watching experiences for any introverted photographer and when Miami Herald photographer and friend, Al Diaz, invited me to be his runner at the Hurricanes game last Saturday, I was naturally really excited and also a bit timid when admitting that I’ve never shot sports before. Sure I can set up 6 lights on location and direct 20 people for a kick-ass portrait, but I’d never been on a pro field like this and wasn’t sure if I would be the best assistant for the job. He still let me tag along and said to just have fun and watch and mentioned to bring my camera and shoot.
That being said, I thought I’d take the time to share about the differences for me in shooting sports vs. portraits, why the best camera doesn’t always mean you get the best pictures, and also show images that I personally shot with THREE cameras on the field during the game: my Apple iPhone 5s, my Nikon D700 and various portrait lenses, and Al’s Canon EOS-1D X. I’m also going to show a selection of Al’s images from that weekend that were printed in the Miami Times and their gallery online so you see how the REAL sports photographers get the shot.
I started with my iPhone at first because, well, to just let the experience sink in. When I stepped on the field and took our place “BEHIND THE YELLOW LINE!!!”* the Hurricanes were warming up and were a mere arms length away. Some of the guys practicing near me were 13″-17″ taller and 200 lbs. more than me, and the top of my head reached the bottom-lower portion of their jersey numbers. I mean come on! I’ve never felt so little in my life. (*Pro tip for newbies going on to the field: there’s a yellow line around the entire perimeter of the field similar to the dividing stripes on the road when you drive and I highly recommend you stay BEHIND the line and close to the wall when shooting on the field.)
To my surprise, just before kickoff, we got to line up on the 50-yard-line and capture the Hurricanes grand entrance led by Sebastian the Ibis, their official mascot.
My being able to photograph up-close with my portrait lens finally came in handy after Sebastian and the team ran down the field to the end zone and I was able to grab this photo of University of Miami Hurricanes right tackle Taylor Gadbois (76) kneeling to pray just moments before the game started.
Using the same lens that I photographed Taylor with kneeling and praying, I moved to my position behind the yellow line and later shot an image to compare what the lens can do up close as a portrait photographer vs. as a sports photographer. Note the time clock and score in the photo,** while I’ve taken a few days to go through these images, Al and all the other pro sports photographers on the field went in at the end of the quarters to get the images up to the newspapers and magazines in almost live-time. They’d go through their images, selecting quick solid picks, identify metadata and write captions, make adjustments, crop, and upload and be back on the field for the next round of the game in literally just 5-10 minutes. In writing metadata and captions, they would reference a shot of the score board they took during sets of plays to match up correct data with the selected shots. (**Pro tip: take a shot of the score board every once in a while during a game so that you can correctly caption your images, even if it is just to share on your favorite social media sites. Your friends and followers will appreciate and respect the informed truth!)
Towards the end of the 4th quarter, Al handed me his Canon EOS-1D X with Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS USM II Super Telephoto Lens and said I could try shooting. Huh??? But I’ve never shot sports before. “Well, here’s where you get to start practicing.” What am I going to say to that? Hand ‘er over!
Whoa! It was a little intimidating handling a lens bigger than my upper torso (lol), but I’ve got to tell you, shooting sports is NOT as easy as it looks. Just as soon as you get the lens stable and the ball in focus, the play has happened and the players are crashing down on the ball somewhere else on the field. In all honesty, in the few minutes I shot with this behemoth lens, I didn’t get one photo where I had the ball and the players in the frame centered AND in focus. And although cropping is not shunned in sports photography, I did have to crop the hell out of my images below. (***Pro tip: all images are subject to cropping. Of COURSE you shoot to nail it perfectly, but in sports, things are happening in a millisecond and if your frame is a little off it’s not uncommon to crop. Newspapers like really tight shots so fill that frame! Magazines need space for copy so leave a pretty off-centered area for the editor’s text.)
You know what? Even though I was shooting with one of the best cameras and lenses on the market didn’t guarantee that I’d get the best photos ever. In fact, I got a few “acceptable” images for my personal scrapbook at home that I can share with my kids someday. Oh and images I can share with you here on my blog to make my point which is this: the best gear doesn’t always get the shot. The photographer does. And he/she does so through 10,000 of practice. So what are you waiting for? Get out there and DO IT!
Al was kind enough to grab a photo of me practicing focusing and following the ball with the 400mm lens while sitting on the ground.**** In all honesty, it was more difficult than imagined to keep it steady on a monopod and get the action, so I took the opportunity to just experience long-range focusing, calculate the play and to follow the ball, pan, and concentrate through the incredible noise/distractions/stimulus of tens of thousands of people surrounding me. (****Pro tip: when shooting football, sit on the ground and shoot slightly up. This gives you a direct line of sight to see the players eyes through their helmet guard. When standing, you can not get their eyes, but only the top of their helmets. Those little couple feet of perspective is a big game-changer in the quality of emotion and force behind the players eyes.)
Lots to practice and learn, and it was a fun to try something totally different than portrait photography. It was a real eye opener of how we each do something different and the challenges we each face every day we work with our cameras. For portrait photography, you plan and produce, storyboard ideas, set up a studio or location, connect with your subject in the eye, collaborate with their emotions and style, and create a frame in slow succession. For sports, you’ve got to know the players, their plays, the game thoroughly, and anticipate where the ball is going to be. Then move that lens quickly capturing the action, bodies flying through the air and crashing down, joys and disappointment of the players, team, and the fans all in rapid fire.
Ok you guys have looked at enough of my first try at sports photography and I thank you for sitting through all that!
Without any further ado, I am pleased to show and share with you the images that Al Diaz shot for the Miami Herald during this same game and also the Dolphin’s game the next day.
Al has been a staff photographer for the Miami Herald for over 30 years. This year Al has been presented the Humanitarian Award by the National Press Photographers Association. He is a member of The Miami Herald news team that won the Pulitzer Prize Gold Medal for the newspaper’s coverage of Hurricane Andrew and the McClatchy President’s Award for Journalism Excellence for coverage of the devastating earthquake in Haiti. In 2010 he was awarded a Green Eye Shade Award for sports and a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for portraits of disadvantaged families during the holidays in 2003.
Al’s images evoke the raw emotion and force that only a true sports photographer can capture time and again, assignment after assignment. He is respected by all of his colleagues on and off the field.
These images were all published in the newspaper and their website and gallery which would be awesome if you would check out! View University of Miami vs Florida A&M Photo Gallery By Al Diaz & C.W. Griffin HERE:
Thanks for reading and thanks for the opportunity, Al!