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|| News Item: Posted 2009-04-23

Sports Shooter Academy VI: Advice: 'See things differently and not be afraid to take risks…'
Shooting sports is something James Diego Robles has always wanted to improve.

By James Diego Robles

Photo by James Diego Robles

Photo by James Diego Robles

Athletes participate in the steeplechase in Costa Mesa, Calif., on Friday, April 10, 2009, during the Coast Open Track and Field Classic, in Orange Coast College.
I love watching sports, Lamar Odom of the Lakers will decide the NBA finals this year, and even playing, but shooting them is something I've always wanted to improve. When I heard the Sports Shooter Academy VI was tuition free for students thanks to a grant from Nikon, I could hear the voice of my mentor and former photography/video editor at Democrat & Chronicle, Christina Dicken. She once told me, "James, I want you to shoot sports the way you shoot everything else." Her sincere and constructively critical internship review had a resounding influence on my career and made me realize that a free SSA VI in my home county was something I could not pass up.

Before I stepped foot in California, Robert Hanashiro sent all participants over a dozen e-mails with the latest updates, deals, directions, suggestions and helpful comments. As a first time participant, I felt really lucky to be able to read and see, through threads and videos, what other talented students and working professionals did in previous workshops. At the end of every Hanashiro update, a fresh roster of participants appeared at the bottom and this made it incredibly easy to get to know every shooters' habits and style. Another terrific surprise was seeing familiar names from such reputable programs like University of Missouri, Western Washington University and others.

My first big surprise came when I attended the early-bird session on the first day. The large room was packed, full of eager photographers ready to get a head-up on the competition. No one did, I should think, as everybody was there!

My second surprise was the caliber of instruction. I knew Hanashiro is a no drama, no non-sense type of guy and that he hand picks the cadre, but all these heavy hitters were not only incredibly talented and accomplished, but also very approachable and forthcoming. Famed sports lighting master, Dave Black did an outstanding job explaining the simplicity of his lighting techniques when it comes to his complex and sophisticated photographs. Things only got better and more interesting when his microphone stopped working and let his true voice and humor rise to the top. Orange County Register's Michael Goulding's editing advice was extremely valuable and made me feel I was doing something right when we had a similar edit.

The workshop began with an informational meet-and-greet followed by the highly anticipated open judging of the Sports Shooter Newsletter Annual Contest. The judging was very insightful and surprisingly funny. Matt Brown, freelance photographer and team photographer for the Big West Conference, ousted several images in a row while barely blinking and with one quick "out," after another.

Once the field was narrowed, the experienced veterans discussed the remaining images deliberately and with exceptional care. I happen to be sitting directly behind them and found it saddening when they "outed" my friends' photographs. Then it hit me, "I'm in this thing too." It was the weirdest feeling to have somebody look at your photographs in a matter of seconds and not only decided whether they are in or out, but discuss why...with you half a foot away! I am not religious by any measure but caught myself trying to send the judges good vibrations, while my friends sitting next to me, are wondering why I look insane.

Photo by James Diego Robles

Photo by James Diego Robles

Beach volleyball players and fans gather in Long Beach, Calif., on Saturday afternoon, April 11, 2009.
The venues were superb and the access was on par with that of a veteran staffer. On the second day of the workshop, I found out the hard way that horse racing is ridiculously challenging for a first time shooter. The horses are very finicky and act like big divas. I am eternally thankful to Los Angeles Times staffer, Wally Skalij, because he patiently showed me the ropes at Santa Anita Park and gave me some great shooting tips away from the obvious horse frame. I knew I was doing something right and getting intimate when I was the only one surrounded by hardcore gamblers and people who looked like they were going to be in trouble if their pony didn't perform.

Other venues worth mentioning, far too many to list all, were track and field, boxing and beach volleyball. When the throngs of photographers arrived in Orange Coast College, I really felt we would outnumber the athletes on the field. Lucky for us, there tens of dozens of amazing athletes from all over Southern California. With all the Nikon glass and borrowed Pocket Wizards, thanks again Wally, there wasn't an event or situation out of reach. I took a huge gable and many cold showers by shooting the steeplechase in person and sans remotes; the verdict is still out on the success of that one. The boxing event, at a small La Habra boxing club was intimate and the athletes were extremely friendly, not to mention photogenic. The caliber of sparring was great and during a small and much deserved break, Matt Brown shared with me his thoughts on the universe and whether or not the Internet will be its demise. Beach volleyball was one of the last venues I attended towards the end of the workshop. We photographed the athletes performing two on two and then took their portrait directly afterwards. Working these athletes was extremely rewarding because they were great at following directions and doing the same thing over and over. I want to personally thank all the students who helped me execute my portrait idea and threw a dozen volleyballs at my subject and then some.

I learned a great deal at SSA VI. I was also able to apply and test some other things I had previously learned as well. Los Angeles Times videographer, Myung Chun, who also fought for one of my photographs and will never know how much I appreciated it, told somebody early into the workshop, to see things differently and not be afraid to take risks. This resonated with me and I tried to this throughout the academy.

On the last day of shooting, an event was canceled so many shooters took advantage of the long glass and headed towards Huntington Beach; hoping to get some surf photographs at Orange County's most famous beach. I decided to go my own way and photograph Long Beach. There were maybe three people for every square mile of beach and the surf was non-existent. I trekked the beach with a 400mm and plenty of short glass, looking for anything moving or remotely interesting. I made the best of it and took some frames I liked and had to work hard to come up with. However, the story of the day was Huntington Beach and many of my friends made incredible surf and feature pictures. I learned you can not be afraid to fail and try different things.

This experience and the people I met exceeded all my wildest expectations. The connections themselves are worth the money, except that SSA VI was free for students. I sincerely hope I get to do this again as I already know what I things I need to do differently to be more competitive the next time around. However, with free tuition and an even wiser Hanashiro, I hope I even make the cut to get in. The Sports Shooter Academy VI is by far, "The coolest sports photography event of the year."

(Diego James Robles is a student at Ohio University. You can see his work on his personal website: and his member page

Related Links:
Diego's member page

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