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|| News Item: Posted 2009-03-10

Sports Illustrated's Al Tielemans talks about his regimented work ethic that helps when Lady Luck smiles down on him.

By Al Tielemans, Sports Illustrated

Photo by Al Tielemans / Sports Illustrated

Photo by Al Tielemans / Sports Illustrated
They call you lady luck, But there is room for doubt, At times you have a very un-lady-like way, Of running out
Luck be a Lady, Frank Sinatra

I love Branch Rickey's famous lecture title, "Luck is the Residue of Design." As a photographer I desperately want to believe that I can plan or hustle my way into position for a great picture in every situation. As we all know, however, luck is a fickle mistress!

When Robert Hanashiro asked me to write about preparation, anticipation, and the role of luck relative to the Sports Illustrated Super Bowl cover shot of Santonio Holmes' catch, I had to address the reality that so much of our job, shooting game action anyway, is dictated by luck.

I definitely have an approach to shooting football that has nothing to do with luck. I was very regimented as a film photographer.

I stayed primarily downfield from the offense and got to the side of the endzone as the offense made their way near the red zone. I shot with a 400, 600, and 50mm pre-focused on the sideline. I had the 50mm mounted on a lightweight T-90 around my neck and used a very short strap; the camera sat right on my chest. I just felt that bringing that lens up from any lower just took too long.

I gave up the dead zone from where the 400 was too tight to where the 50mm became effective, because I believed less-was-more when it came to lens selection. Ideally you want to be making the exchange from long to short lens during that dead zone between the 400 and 50.

There was a certain comfort in this system, not just for myself, but for my editors; they came to almost expect me to be in certain positions, but still allowed me to take chances if I felt inclined. I worked primarily with John Biever and Damian Strohmeyer during that time and we developed a system between us that worked, whether it was two, three or more photographers.

There was a balance between the consistency of our approach and the willingness, or need, to take risks. That doesn't mean we didn't occasionally get caught "flooding the red zone" when a pass was intercepted and run back the other way. It was just a matter of playing the percentages.

Then digital threw me for a loop. The Canon 400 effectively became a 520mm 2.8; a great baseball lens, but just a little too long for the red zone from the side of the endzone. And the 300, effectively a 390mm, just didn't cut it in the far corner of the endzone. I started moving to the back of the endzone and toying with the 70-200. But this flew in the face of my less-is-more game plan, and slowed me down as I moved up and down the field.

I felt like every game, every series, I was trying something new. Not only could I not find a comfortable focal length from the side of the endzone, I couldn't resist the temptation to use the auto focus on the short lens around my neck. Instead of guaranteeing that pictures right in front of me were sharp, I now gambled on my ability to land that AF cursor on a high contrast uniform number. (I always did of course, though sometimes the guy wearing the jersey was in section beer-thirty.) That neck-camera was also fitted with a 24-70mm zoom, a huge weight increase from the T-90, and with a zoom ring that would stray…and taping it down seemed so 1980's!

This past September I switched to Nikon and suddenly I was back in my football comfort zone with a true 400, 600 and a lighter weight 24-70 zoom. Unfortunately I almost never ended up at a relevant regular season game; it was just one of those years. But as we all know, the odometer sets back to zero when the playoffs start. I've walked around enough golf tournaments for four fruitless days to know that you really only need some luck on eighteen to make that one memorable image.

Photo by Robert Deutsch / USA TODAY

Photo by Robert Deutsch / USA TODAY

See Al Tielemans making his cover image while kneeling behind the pylon on the left. Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Santonio Holmes (10) gets his toes down to score the game-winning touchdown.
First, before we get back to luck lets make something clear: Shooting a Super Bowl is not the same as shooting a football game. At a football game you don't negotiate with a panicked security guard to stay in position to shoot the final play of the half.
The Super Bowl is an event. They just happen to play a football game within that event.

Second, shooting a Super Bowl for an agency or for Sports Illustrated is also unique in that there is a team of photographers surrounding the field with set positions. You know where they are the entire game. Bob Rosato and I worked opposite sidelines again this year, and I tend to know where he is and position myself accordingly, but there are nine other shooters and we all have each others backs.

The Branch Rickey quote is true to a point. Hustle can put you in position to make pictures in many situations. But at a football game you can run yourself right out of a play too. At a Super Bowl, the system takes a lot of the guesswork and risk-taking out of the equation. You just need to let go of that idea that you need to make all the pictures as if you are at a game alone. It's not an easy task considering this is the only game every year that you need to re-boot your thinking like that.

When the Steelers took over for their last drive, Larry Fitzgerald had just scored his second touchdown and celebrated going away from our sideline. The play before the winning touchdown catch was a pass play to Holmes that went right through his hands, and would have been the potential game winning catch. That was across the field from me and I had nothing of that play. Though everything seemed to be going the other way, my assistant, Jon Albin and I kept looking at each other and saying "one more chance."

The play that followed happened almost right in front of me, and as close as the 50mm would allow. The 50mm focal length gave me a good range of options for a playoff game. I was about halfway into the endzone and had a clean shot at the front corner of the endzone, as well as the guy making the catch over his shoulder in the back corner.

The one spot where I roll the dice at 50mm is on the sideline right in front of me when a receiver drags his feet to stay in bounds; it's very tight, but a calculated risk I've dealt with for years. I stayed with Roethlisberger as long as I could. He gunned the ball at Holmes and I got the neck camera up, firing two un-centered frames before the frame that appeared on the cover. That frame ends right at his toes, and was my only legitimate frame of the play.

After the play, I was second-guessing myself because it was cropped so tight, thinking I should have zoomed out a hair because it was the end of a Super Bowl. But that would have left me vulnerable at other places in the end zone, and it made no sense based on the hundreds of football games I'd shot before. This is where I'd usually, as my son Xander so eloquently puts it, "…make a whole sentence entirely out of curse words," but the few ticks left on the clock gave Arizona a chance, so I let it go and went back to work.

So this circles us back to luck and staying within your comfort level. You don't know where the play is going to happen, so you need to be prepared for the greatest percentage of angles. From there you just need to make adjustments on the fly, and that only comes from experience.

Photo by Al Tielemans / Sports Illustrated

Photo by Al Tielemans / Sports Illustrated
If that previous pass play is caught on the far side of the field I'm out of luck through no fault of my own, but we have three shooters in that corner. When it comes my way I just need to be prepared as best I can for my angle. I shot that game as I've shot so many others when using those lenses.

One other word of caution: I try not to anticipate any one thing. I try just to react. If I get too wrapped up in one possible scenario, I'm at a disadvantage for all the other options. At that point in a Super Bowl, I am just trying to get a shot of the last play, wherever it is. The dream is always to make a great picture of a great moment, but really you just need to get the moment and then luck starts to play a bigger part in how "great" a picture is.

The beautiful thing about luck is when it makes you look smart at the right time. I took my teenage son Aaron to assist me at the West Virginia @ Pitt game the day after Thanksgiving. The dad vs. teenager battle is still in its infancy but I'm definitely losing ground in the Cool War.

I shot mostly long with the 600, downfield from both offenses. Late in the game with WVU ahead, and the ball deep in their own zone, Aaron started downfield and I told him we were going into the endzone behind the offense because Pitt was going to need to make a play to stay in the game.

Two plays later Pitt picks off a pass and ran it right back at us. He looked at me like I'd just agreed to pay for his iPod Touch (not!) and I gave him a simple wink back. I made a mental notch on my cool-meter, and now bite my lip every time he tells someone about his trip to Pittsburgh and how I knew exactly what was going to happen.

And one last nod to luck: At the 2005 Masters, Tiger had a putt on 18 to win facing right towards me. Our other 4 photographers were across the green from me. Money in the bank, right? Well Tiger missed it to force a playoff. The next hole he's putting to win and he's facing away from me. He drains the putt and inexplicably spins towards my side and goes nuts. Go figure. And, I nipped his toe off there too.

You might forget your manners, You might refuse to stay, And so the best that I can do is pray, Luck be a lady tonight…

(Al Tielemans is a staff photographer with Sports Illustrated. Super Bowl XLIII was his 25th.)

Related Links:
Al's member page

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