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|| News Item: Posted 2006-09-05

Covering Football: Prep football is more than a sport
By Bruce Ely, The Oregonian

Photo by Bruce Ely / The Oregonian

Photo by Bruce Ely / The Oregonian

Wilsonville's Mike MacLennan is congratulated by his friend Lindsey Neilson following their 3A semi-final win against Vale at Hillsboro stadium.
I'm now about 8 years into my career as a photojournalist and have photographed at the high school, college and NFL level. Don't get me wrong, I really enjoy the atmosphere and energy of the college/pro games, but I would argue that the best photojournalism will always come from high school football.

Your chances of getting published in ESPN The Magazine or Sports Illustrated aren't going to be very good. You won't get to rub elbows with famous photographers or athletes. And you probably won't get a free meal.

What you will get is access. And in today's world of photojournalism, access is often the hardest commodity to come by. I'll tell you where you can get some...

Your local high school football stadiums.

Every Friday night in the fall, these stadiums are full of stories waiting to be told. Football is more than a sport, it's a culture. What better combination is there for a photographer than culture and access?

With the proper equipment and some basic photography skills, most people can walk away from a football game with publishable pictures. What can we do to separate ourselves from the guy with a nice camera? We can do our homework. Talk with the locals. Get to know the stories behind the game. Call the coaches. Talk with fans.

One of the easiest things you can do right now is to pick a team in your community. Approach them about following their season. Most teams would love the attention. Get to know them. Find the stories that they have to tell. If you are with the team for an extended period of time, doors will open. If you earn it, the team will trust you and let you into their world. This is the world that the average photographer never sees. They will tell you about the little things that make their team interesting -- and will most likely make a telling photograph.

Photo by Bruce Ely / The Oregonian

Photo by Bruce Ely / The Oregonian

Beaverton High School Freshman Kevin Riley waves the school flag as the bonfire is lit to celebrate the High School s 100th anniversary homecoming week. The fire was lit in the grass at the North side of the school.
You'll never get there with your head stuck behind a long lens on the sidelines every Friday night. Don't get me wrong - there is a place for a great action shot - but don't they all start to look the same? I think some of the most memorable pictures I have seen in sports come from before/after the game and off the field.

Now, I probably wouldn't do this for the state championship game, but try taking just one lens to a game. Leave the long glass at home (or in the trunk just in case you really NEED it.) This will force you to get in close (physically) and look at the same scene you have been looking at in a new way. I like to take my 80-200mm and 17-35mm (mostly at about 28mm) and just roam the crowd and sidelines during the game. I walk right past the pack of photographers with the lenses stuck on a monopod. It's hard not paying attention to the action. We're so used to it -- that is where we have always been expected to be for a game.

This approach won't fly at some newspapers. They need the action shot they know and have always had on their cover. Give it to them. Shoot action until deadline, which is often around halftime and then put the long lens away and try a new approach. Take your picture back to the office the next day and show it around. If it is good - they will like it. Maybe you can convince them that there is a "different" way of telling the story of football in your town. It's always better to have something in hand you can show them as opposed to just telling them about this great idea you have.

These are a couple of the things I have tried to do over the past few years to try to improve my craft and keep myself from getting bored. Hope it helps someone else out there.

(Bruce Ely is a staff photographer with the Portland Oregonian. To see some samples of his work, check his member page:

Related Links:
Bruce's member page

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