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|| News Item: Posted 2005-01-31

Loving the Prep Life
By Trent Nelson, The Salt Lake Tribune

Photo by Trent Nelson / The Salt Lake Tribune

Photo by Trent Nelson / The Salt Lake Tribune

Magrath beat Cardston by double digits in front of a full gym. For these small town kids it meant everything. Can't believe the call: offensive foul.
If you're a newspaper photographer and you're in it for the long term, you had better love working Friday nights. That's when the high schoolers play. And you can bet you'll be covering more high school sporting events that you ever imagined.

I know most of you have your sights set on the major leagues. Your current job is just a temporary stop en route to your being assigned to photograph the Super Bowl, Final Four, Stanley Cup, NBA Finals, and World Series for one of those glossy sports magazines. And I know you really will make it there someday. You've got talent. And if I remember right, there are about forty courtside photo positions at the NBA Finals. You'll fit. If we all squeeze tight there should be room for everyone who wants to shoot the NBA Finals, including you!

Back to reality. You're going to have to start out shooting the preps. In fact, you're going to be shooting a ton of preps. You'd best learn to like it. Because if you can't get a good shot- no, a great shot- at 125th of a second and 3200 ISO in a vintage high school gymnasium, what kind of a photographer are you?

I love shooting high school sports. I love the technical challenges, the imperfect play of student athletes, and the atmosphere full of youth. For me it comes down to this: I'd rather watch an independent film like "Ghost World" than a Hollywood blockbuster like "Armageddon."

Sports are the same. Your average NBA game has a ton of special effects and chiseled actors but very little soul. The three prep games I shot this week each had more hustle than the NBA game I shot. It was a sloppy type of hustle at those prep games. But in case you hadn't noticed, sloppy is great for action photos.

The undeniable advantage to covering high school games- the one part of this article you can't simply write off while laughing- is access. The access at a high school game is great. Photographers covering the big events would die for the kind of access I can get covering the Beaver High Lady Beavers vs. the Jordan High Beetdiggers. At the big events, photographers are trapped in small, taped off squares. Do you want to live you life inside a 2x2 foot square?

Photographers at most sporting events are told where to stand and where not to. Hundreds of people in the United States are paid- actually make careers -out of keeping photographers "where they're supposed to be." They corral us into our squares leaving our choice of lens the only creative decision to make.

I don't know about you but I like to move around. I like to try new things and new angles. Sometimes I like to shoot basketball like it's football and football like it's basketball. At a high school game I can shoot anywhere and anyhow. There are no business cards reserving the best spots, no squares taped onto the floor. In fact at most high schools tape is a banned substance.

Photo by Trent Nelson / The Salt Lake Tribune

Photo by Trent Nelson / The Salt Lake Tribune

You had better love working Friday nights. That's when the high schoolers play. Alta High School fans. For kids like this, every basketball game vs. their rival schools is a serious battle.
I've been working a series of photos during the pre-game moments of high school basketball games. Last week a team was headed into the locker room for a pre-game team meeting. On the spur of the moment I asked the coach if I could follow them in and photograph his pre-game pep talk with the team. "No problem," he says. I couldn't believe it. While the shot wasn't great the access was to die for. And I'd pay money to see you ask Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan if you could photograph candids of him pre-game in the locker room. I'd pay good money.

Of course there are some technical issues that require some serious attention in high school environments. But if you want to grow as a photographer you've got to embrace these challenges. You've got to master bad light. You've got to figure out what to do when the black uniforms of a team in a dark gym turns your "auto-focus" into "out-of-focus." And you've got to find your own roster- no one is going to hand you one here.

Tonight I photographed a prep basketball game at a tiny school in southern Alberta. There are only about 300 students at the school and, "Probably half the boys in the senior class are on the team," my uncle told me. He's been to four of the Magrath High School Zenith's games this year so he gave me the scoop: "There's #10: he's got a 44 inch vertical leap. And #11: he's 6' 7" but he's such a nice guy he's sometimes easily frustrated by physical opponents."

The game was far from finesse. Turnovers to fouls to rebounding the kids often showed more emotion than talent. But Magrath beat Cardston by double digits in front of a full gym. For these small town kids it meant everything.

The true beauty of high school sports is the competitive spirit of the players themselves. For most of them this is it. This will go down as the high point of their athletic life, their moment. There is no college career, let alone a pro career in their future and they know it. They play with heart because this is short and this is the end.

So until you get that job at Sports Illustrated, make the most of what you're shooting now. These kids deserve it.

(Trent Nelson is a regular contributor to the Sports Shooter Newsletter as well as a faculty member at the Workshop & Luaus. He and his new boss Scott Sommerdorf are probably at this minute sitting in the Blue Iguana enjoying the chips & guacamole and a cold beverage.)

Related Links:
Trent Nelson's member page

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