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|| SportsShooter.com: News Item: Posted 2008-12-02

Building Trust (and No Fear Of Heights) Key To Gaining Access
By Pouya Dianat, Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Photo by Pouya Dianat / Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Photo by Pouya Dianat / Atlanta Journal-Constitution

2007 SEC Championship game from the catwalk in the Georgia Dome.
Where were you?

I know you can’t fly!

How did you do that?

After spending three quarters on the A-ring catwalk at the Georgia Dome, I received nearly 30 e-mails from readers of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asking how I got photos of their beloved Falcons from overhead. Some wanted them for Christmas presents, some just wanted to know how I did it. Well most if not all of you know I was standing on a catwalk. Quite a few of you have navigated catwalks for basketball, setting up remotes, et cetera. Standing about 200 feet over the field of play for four hours is slightly different, however, and requires additional precautions.

First things first: You must gauge how comfortable the facility's management is with the idea. Most places are used to people setting up remote cameras overhead, and most have at one point given access to photographers to photograph from catwalks. And even if they are comfortable with people up there, are they comfortable with you? That depends on the relationship you and your publication have with the facility. You will need to go through the stadium's facilities management to gain access, not necessarily through the team. The team often won't understand what you're trying to do, so they will simply say, "No." Find the facility manager and talk to him or her. Be nice. You’re not entitled to diddly, so don’t think it’s your right to go up there.

Once you know you can go up, you need to anticipate what you will get out of it. How is your stadium set up? The Georgia Dome has three catwalks -- the A-, B- and C-ring catwalks. The A is highest and allows you the best opportunity to shoot straight down on the field rather than from an angle. It runs over both end zones and puts me in a good position to best capture the game's most important plays.

Being directly overhead gives photos a graphic quality that seems to draw people. Even at a slight angle they lose that edge, I find. But that is not always true. Lens selection hinges not only on your stadium’s setup but also the gear with which you are shooting. When I was shooting Canon equipment and had a 1.3x crop, I went with my 400 and found it too tight (again, it depends how high up you are and where the catwalks are positioned). On the Nikon D3s, the 400 was pretty good most of the time. With several photos, proper use of dead space and field markings served as a nice accent. I also enjoy including hash marks and yard numbers in some photos. It breaks up the green.

The next time I go up, however, I might take a 600 and an extender to see if I can get some interesting photos. I also always take a fisheye to get an overall shot for the paper, which is good to have. If I know there’s a big halftime show like last year’s SEC Championship, I’ll take up my 70-200 to shoot the show.

The key issue when working this position is safety. There is a landing right outside the C-ring catwalk here at the Georgia Dome where I leave everything: my laptop, keys, wallet and extra lenses I won’t need the whole time. My card case is latched onto my belt loop, my pockets are all completely empty and I take off my credential too. (Who the hell is going to check up there?) These are all the basic rules I learned when I started using catwalks five years ago, thanks to the guidance of people like Bob Rosato, Bruce Schwartzman and Greg Fiume.

Photo by Pouya Dianat / Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Photo by Pouya Dianat / Atlanta Journal-Constitution

John Abraham of the Falcons sacking Drew Brees from the catwalk.
You’ll most likely have to sign a liability form to head up there. And as if the thought of falling wasn’t scary enough, my main shooting position has a photo memorial to a Georgia Dome worker who plunged to his death from the catwalks – a constant reminder of the possible danger.

On the catwalk, I have a few segments of rope that I have attached to carabiners (you can use safety cables, but I like these because they are slightly longer). One rope goes to the camera, one to the lens. I also use a yellow body harness the riggers keep up there. I hook myself in and shoot from one spot for the majority of the time, but if I need to move, I detach and move on the rail. I’ve done that several times to get over a certain team’s endzone during a blow out or directly overhead the awards platform after the game.

I recommend a mesh bag of some sort for holding the gear you need to have by your side. You can find remnants of burlap/fabric on most catwalks to lie beneath you in case you drop something, in our case a memory card. The first time I shot from the catwalk I shot through a mesh laundry bag that didn’t obstruct my view with its webbing but was a nice precaution in case the lens detached from the camera or a lens element, oddly, falls out.

So in short, take measures to be safe. You do not want anything to go wrong. A mishap could seriously injure somebody, and any problems would likely close access to the catwalk. Quite frankly, if your behavior is risky enough to warrant shutting you out, it’s for the best.

Now that the safety talk is over…

The first time I tried this, the photos didn't run in the paper. The paper used a tight shot of one of the coaches hoisting a trophy with confetti falling down. This time around the photo ran five columns and was given it’s own web gallery. My e-mail was flooded with compliments from readers. A co-worker told me that several area radio affiliates were gushing about my photo of John Abraham sacking Drew Brees. Abraham and the Falcons liked it too.

I try to go up there once or twice a year, and I try to align the trips with important games. Last week, for instance, the surging Falcons played a divisional rival they upset (got lucky on the upset part). Last year I went up for Falcons - Panthers and the SEC Championship.

At Philips Arena, I try to save the overhead spots for when the Thrashers and Hawks have grand entrances. I run that by the Philips Arena facilities manager and give a heads up to the team photographer, the always-helpful Scott Cunningham. In short you don’t want to blow your load on a unique angle if you are covering a game that won’t matter.

Photo by Pouya Dianat / Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Photo by Pouya Dianat / Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Whether in a helicopter, setting up a remote or just sitting in a stadium seat be careful when shooting from an elevated position. You could seriously injure somebody.
Now one of the most important parts of this process is having some pretty kickass co-workers that back me up. Not only does the paper not need to worry about missing a great shot on the field because I am being backed up by significantly better football shooters on the field BUT the guys usually help me out. The first time I spent all four quarters on the catwalk, my co-worker Brant Sanderlin selflessly navigated the labyrinthian Georgia Dome to come up and grab my cards for an editor. He also pushed for the website to make the overhead shots a separate gallery. This last time Curtis Compton (the Falcons beat photographer) and sports photo editor Ben Gray gave me the blessing to go up.

The week after I shot the game I used our department’s Epson photo printer and made a few prints of the sack photo. I gave a couple to the Falcons so they could hand them off to John Abraham. I gave one to a security guard who is always very nice to me. I will also be sure to send one to the new facilities manager of the Georgia Dome, who was very kind in helping me set this up on short notice. It’s good to have the people who pull the strings to access know you appreciate their help, and the next time I go up, I am confident they will have fewer doubts.

I also used the prints to leverage a spot behind the tunnel the week after, a position where the Falcons rarely allow photographers to stand for some reason. Regardless, the tunnel shot turned out decent as well and will be a unique photo for the team because they are very restrictive on which photographers can shoot from there.

That’s all. I wrote way too much. I hope I answered some questions… I have to be at Thanksgiving lunch in 30 minutes now. So on that note… Happy Thanksgiving to all! I am thankful for being able to practice photojournalism -- even if the industry is bombing. Good times.


(Pouya Dianat is a staff photographer with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. You can see his work at his SportsShooter.com member page: http://www.sportsshooter.com/pouyad and at his personal website: www.pouyadianat.com.)

Related Links:
Pouya's member page

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