The Art of Being Lucky
We photographers in general are convinced that the key to great photography is found in the equipment and in the talent of the photographer. There is great truth in this, especially when the subject is standing still. Once the subject starts moving, the burden shifts a bit, and given sufficient equipment and sufficient talent, the deciding factor then shifts to the individual’s ability to anticipate “the” moment or moments.
Baseball, because of the pace and nature of the game, probably provides more opportunities than any other sport for the photographer to predict the next moment, but for all the planning one does, there is never any guarantee that the action will be what was hoped for or expected. The action of baseball is unpredictable, and therefore, photographing it well not only requires the combination of skill, equipment, anticipation, but also possibly the most important element, luck.
Branch Rickey is best known as the man who signed Jackie Robinson to a professional baseball contract, and in so doing, changed baseball and America forever. He was not known as a photographer, but may have given us a piece of advice well worth heeding: “Luck is the residue of design.”
So – heeding Branch Rickey’s words, the best I can do is make a plan and then hope I get lucky with the results.
I’ve spent most of my nearly 64 years on baseball fields as player, coach and umpire. Now, most of my baseball work is done from the stands or photo pit with a camera. My experience allows me the ability to anticipate plays, to think ahead a bit to predict the flow of a play, to know where the action is likely to take place.
Shooting baseball is a lot like playing shortstop. You need to think a play ahead. The player must consider what he will do with the ball if it is hit to him, while the photographer needs to consider where he will aim his camera.
The questions each must consider are the same – What is the situation? The score, inning count, outs are all factors. What will the pitcher throw? Will the runner steal? Will the batter bunt? What to do on a ground ball – go for two, take the out, throw to the plate? Where will the outfielder throw on a base hit? On a fly ball? Will the runner try to score from second? These are all part of the anticipation.
My questions also have to include the contingencies. If I am positive the runner will steal, I might manually focus on second base and hope something good doesn’t happen elsewhere. From the photo pit on the third base side, I can manually focus on home plate and second base because they are nearly equidistant from me. This overcomes the auto focus problem that is caused when the shortstop cuts in front to the camera long enough to disrupt the focus from the runner to him.
Location, location, location
The photographers pits – at the far end of each dugout, are generally thought of as the best place to shoot from. Not necessarily. It is a great spot for shooting the pitcher, the action at home plate and plays at first base if I’m on that side. A down side is that since it is at ground level a lot of people on the field can get in the way. I also shoot from behind the plate, but only for batter-pitcher-catcher-umpire shots. It gets crowded around home plate, but some interesting shots happen.
For many action shots, I prefer to shoot from the aisle, about 12 rows back from the field, in the front row of the second deck, or from other spots high in the ball park depending on what type of shots I want.
I use a 70-200 f2.8 lens for most of my shots, and can add a 2x extender to shoot from upstairs. There are a couple of spots where I use an 85mm f1.8 lens to shoot batters, especially when the light gets a little iffy. Sometimes I will use a 50mm f1.8 to get action shots at first base from the pit or the front row of the seats. I mix in other lenses depending on the shot or effect I want. It helps to have more than one camera body to make the switching easier, but it’s pretty much impossible to do it in the three-plus seconds that it takes for the batter to hit the ball and run to first.
Like many sports photographers (most?) I am guilty of wanting to get every possible exciting shot. There is something distressing about preparing for a steal of second and have the better hit a home run.
So – I generally have to be content with what I have in front of me, and not moan too much over the shots I miss. An important factor here – rather than just cursing my fate for missing the batter hitting a home run, I aim for the outfielder and hope to catch him doing something interesting. Sometimes, a shot of the outfielder watching the ball leave the field is the best that can happen in that situation, but can still create an interesting photo
It’s hard not to be a fan
I have trained myself to not watch the game through the viewfinder, which is difficult. I try to watch the pitcher with one eye to get the timing of the play, then shift back to the viewfinder for the shots. This helps me to get in sync with the batter or stealing runner. As in batting, follow through is important. Even though the ability to fire seven or eight shots per second does a lot, the goal is still to get “the” shot every time, and many times the best shot is one that happens just after the main action. I have to fight the tendency to stop when the action does.
I will probably never lose the image (it’s in my mind still, but not on my camera) of a pitcher on his knees, laughing at himself for fouling up a play. I have the play itself recorded, but that was not the winner of a shot – the pitcher laughing at himself would have been.
The lesson here – keep shooting and throw away what isn’t useful during post production – not from the camera. Bring enough CF cards so you don’t have to erase from the camera – you really can’t see the shot till it’s on your computer.
An important post production tip is to actually look at the photos. I have often been surprised that in what I thought was a throw away shot there was actually something that turned it into a pretty interesting photo.
Quantity and quality
When I shoot professional baseball (mostly the AAA Syracuse Chiefs or the class A Auburn Doubledays) I usually shoot some 400-500 shots of the on field action if I shoot the whole game. Most are of the batter, since that is where most of the interesting things happen. I get a lot of the pitchers, but pitcher shots tend to be very repetitive, so there is a great deal of choice in getting the “right” photo. The shots tend to deal with grip, arm flexion and an occasional defensive gem on a ball hit back at him. I try to spend part of the game concentrating on defense – the hardest thing for me to do because of the difficulty in anticipating where the ball will be hit.
I also throw in umpire photos and away from the action photos of players, coaches vendors and fans. If I am assigned to shoot for a story about a specific player, most of my shots will be of him, both on offense and defense.
In AAA baseball, there is always the chance of catching a player in a rehab assignment. John Smoltz made a start against Syracuse last year, so I spent two innings taking shots of him. Steve Strasburg, Washington National’s star of the future is putting in a short tour in Syracuse on his way to the majors. These become news shots, but most shots are background to a story or part of a collection. There is a big difference between what is a news photo and what is simply a good photo – and most of us are really after the latter.
The inflatable man seeming to cheer the home run, the slightly blurry baseball in front of the even more blurred eye surgery billboard, the bat shattering, the batter in an uncommon position, the ball seemingly attached to the bat on its backswing – all make for good photographs and make a day at the ballpark, camera in hand, time very well spent.
-Herm Card, Syracuse, NY