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|| News Item: Posted 2009-06-25

Sports Photography: The Perfect Exercise for Shooting Disciplines
By James Pinsky

It's 1st and ten and the University of North Carolina offense is set to begin another drive deep in their own territory against the West Virginia Mountaineers during the 2008 Meineke Car Care Bowl in Charlotte, N.C. And as the ball is snapped the fans, the players, the coaches, and the media are all focused on the 22 men battling each other's will. The linemen square off against each other; the linebackers watch the linemen, the running backs, the receivers and the quarterback. The defensive backs watch everyone, including their own defensive players, and sometimes even the sidelines to gain an edge in stopping the play. The quarterback reads his players, the field, the defense and his own abilities. The coaches on the sidelines watch what they can, they anticipate, they guess.

The sports photographer must study them all so that he can be in the right place, at the right time, with the right equipment, exposure and framing to capture a split second moment that may define a drive, quarter, half, game or - lifetime.

Here in Norfolk, Va., I have the honor to work with some of the bravest and smartest men and women in our military at a unit called Combat Camera. Like any photographic team, we use a variety of opportunities to develop, inspire and hone our skill sets. And while the dynamic nature of actual combat situations can never fully be recreated, the same skills needed to succeed as sports photojournalist translates well as a training tool to develop and practice the quick-thinking, broad-ranging techniques they'll need to be able to produce in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

The light is often bad. The subjects never do or go where you think they should or would. You never get to stand or be where you know the best shot should or could be. And everything happens way faster than you'd like. But more than these things, the subtleness of sports and uncontrolled action in general lends itself to perfecting the skills and thought processes that any aspiring storyteller needs to possess.

After all, the sports shooter knows his gear better than your casual photojournalist. He has to. His intuition must work through his gear. No really. It's not just a "Zen" saying. It's a matter of fact. Fumble with your gear on a sports shoot and you'll miss the shot because so many other factors other than your camera matter in getting one storytelling image. And unlike many other photo professions, you don't get a second chance. Ever.

We all know these things as sports photographers. But what some of us may not realize, or maybe better yet should often remember and teach is that more than any other medium sports photography is one of the best honest photojournalistic exercise we can do to shape, enhance and perfect our skills as storytellers. And this is especially true for people who don't consider sports photography their chosen profession.

My photojournalists learn from sports photography so much more than how to capture a great peak action moment. They learn to anticipate through studious observations. Like the good sports shooter, they learn to look for more than the obvious slam dunk break-away by watching for the spacing on the floor, the match up of the players, the coaches, even the fans, the tendencies of the people on the court, when mistakes happen, when strengths lend themselves to events and when events lend themselves to great imagery.

Great sports photography - consistent great sports photography, is deliberate. And sports are quite simply uncontrolled action so its lessons can be applied to a variety of areas within our profession. The first time you do it you lose yourself to the chaos of sports. And in time, with patience, confidence and authentic skills, you slow the game down. You decode the chaos. You not only see the moments happen but become prophetic to their occurrence.

And for me, as a mentor to my shooters anything I can do that lets them concentrate better, gain confidence and learn to decode what others sees as chaos means more than just a pretty picture. It can mean a safer operator in the field because the rigors of sports practices can help that much more to make their skills intuitive and occupy less of their attention so they can be more aware in the field about things that aren't interested in their well being.

So, one of the many tools I use, as a mentor is the simple sports assignment.
And in the military there are plenty of opportunities for sports at the gym, the ball fields, and on the track. And they shoot that. But to throw a twist on things and tickle their photographic fancy I try to send them to college and pro sports in the Norfolk are as often as I can.

Thanks to the very cooperative sports media departments at the College of William and Mary, Old Dominion University, The Norfolk Tides, Admirals and even the New York Yankees, I have been able to sometimes very covertly challenge my photojournalists beyond their comfort zones - and they thank me for it.

What starts out as a fun-filled trip to shot some sports ends up often times being a lesson, or two or three. Think you know how to use long glass? Shot sports with it and see. Think you understand your auto focus system? Try tracking that point guard from half court through the paint and to the hoop. Think the peak action only happens where the ball is? Think again. Learn to see beyond the obvious - the expected.

Sports are a great litmus test for your skills as a photojournalist. And I use it to boost confidence, humble egos, open minds, and practice the fundamentals in a safe, fun and demanding way.

On several occasions I have taken quite comfortable, successful photojournalist to their first sporting event like a women's basketball game at the very well-lighted College of William and Mary in nearby Williamsburg, Va., only to watch them curse their autofocus, stare at their state-of-the-art camera and lenses like they're unicorns, and scratch their heads at what seems to be very mundane action.

The truth of the matter is, as we all know, that things are simply happening too quickly. The pace of the event, the uncontrolled nature of the game, might shake their confidence. It's a lesson best experienced than told.

So, we talk things out. We slow the game down. We start to understand why Nikon invented dynamic focus. We learn about the beauty of the athlete and how subtle their gestures can be leading up to that furious dunk, foul or play. We learn to see in uncontrolled situations. We learn to think with our minds and not depend on technology. We learn that that it's ok to pre-focus because sometimes even the D3 isn't fast enough. We learn to be patient even when things are screaming for excitement.

All of these skills, all of these lessons are things we take with us onto the battlefield where we can't control the action, the light, the players or the direction of the events. And sports let us practice.

So the next time you need to practice for the big news event, a wedding or hell, going to war, head out to your local baseball or basketball court and give it a go.

After all, where else can I safely overwhelm their senses, test their camera skills, anticipation, foresight and even assertiveness with as much fun and eagerness as the sports shoot?

You can't fake your way through a sports shoot. And that makes it a mentor's best friend.

(James Pinsky is a Navy photojournalist currently stationed in Norfolk, Va., and avid freelancer in the Northern Virginia region where his wife, Wendy and their children, Chris, and Courtney, eagerly await his transfer back to the Washington D.C. area.)

Related Links:
Pinsky's member page

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