Access Granted: Access and Positioning in Sports Photography
October 20, 2014 | Updated: September 27, 2019
In the world of photography, we have a saying: “Access, access, access.” While it may not be a common phrase, it does emphasize the point that without access you can’t shoot a sporting event. As one might expect, the bigger the event, the tougher it is to gain access. You’ll also find more volunteers “stepping up” with offers to carry your cameras and bags just to stand on the sidelines with you. I hear the same question all the time — “What game are you shooting this weekend?” — almost always followed up by, “Need any help?” My answer is usually, “I always need help,” or “Nice try.”
I get it: There’s a fan inside everyone, and the bright lights and big stadiums are a heady mix. The excitement of being close to the action and famous athletes is undeniable, and I must admit, it’s pretty darn cool to do just that. In particular, I love football game day, whether pro or college. There is something really intense about the day, and I’ve always enjoyed prepping for game day: getting all my gear together, packing knee pads, cold or hot weather apparel, and even the drive to the game. Music selection is key. It always differs and just has to do with my mood. I love the moment when I pull up to the stadium, then making my way to the photographers’ workroom, greeting all the familiar faces. Pulling my computer out and getting things set up for captioning and filing my photos. It’s also fun to sit down with the other photographers and reporters for a pregame meal. But once I’m on the field to shoot warm-ups and game action, a switch goes off and I no longer want to socialize. It’s game time.
Unlike all those folks who want to tag along to hang on the sidelines and watch the game, I’m there to work. I focus on storylines and the flow of the game. This isn’t special to football. I am the same with all sports.
In high school, I was an athlete and aspiring photographer. I ran around with my camera most of the time and shot for the yearbook. One night I was at our high school basketball game as a fan when my photographic idol, Fred Comegys, showed up to cover the game for the local paper. I got up the nerve to introduce myself to Fred, a big burly guy with long curly grey hair and a bigger personality. He was so cool and gracious. He handed me one of his giant professional cameras and a roll of film and said, “Go shoot.” It was amazing. I have no idea what I got that night or what happened to that roll of film, but I’ve never forgotten that moment. It wasn’t about me asking him to get me on court to shoot a game. It was about making a connection. I have always let that memory guide me in how I treat my career and other photographers. It was the beginning of me making meaningful relationships that ultimately helped me gain access to different events.
These connections led to me to study photography in college, which led to an internship, which led to assignments to shoot sporting events, which led to access to different venues. It was a process. I channeled my passion, made connections and worked towards my goal. I started small, shooting high school games and constantly asking editors to let me shoot college games, which eventually put me on the sidelines of some small Division 1 college football and basketball. My next internship was at a different publication in a major college football town. I was able to use the paper’s extra credential on my days off to shoot major Division 1 football. It was huge, unlike anything I had ever been around, with 80,000 people cheering for their school. Eventually, editors noticed my effort and images and started assigning me to the games. This had me hooked. I knew that I had to keep working at my craft and working on relationships until I was at a publication in a major league sports town.
My last internship was in Cincinnati, and I was eventually hired to the newspaper’s staff of photographers. As the newest hire among a staff of veterans, I worked nights and weekends and shot all the high school and college sports. Occasionally I got to the big show, covering a Major League baseball game or NFL. Persistence and hard work payed off as I became the primary photographer for both sports while still shooting high school and college. It was fantastic. I was shooting all of the games I had been dreaming about.
When I was starting out, I would go to photography conventions and “access” was always a topic for young photographers. Many people would suggest gaining access by contacting schools and teams and offering to shoot for free or offering your images in return for a credential. This is still common advice. However, I find this problematic, because when you offer images or services for free in return for access, you make it difficult for them to want to pay for services in the future. Similarly, when charging for your services, if you start low it’s really difficult to raise your rates.
Generally, sports organizations only credential working media, which eliminates “super fans” from gaining access. I preach to up-and-coming photographers to be passionate, work hard, make connections and foster relationships. Start small and aim high. Shoot for high schools and find small publications and blogs that will hire you to shoot games. Ask other photographers to look at your work, but grow a thick skin and be prepared for their opinions as to what you're doing wrong and how to improve. Go to workshops and seminars. We now live in the social media world where it’s so much easier to be noticed than ever. Post images, tag photographers, editors, publications and wire services. As you improve, you’ll find it a lot easier to take the next step up.
Now that you have access, you have to know the lay of the land. This means where you can go but more importantly, where you can’t go. Nothing will get your credential yanked faster than breaking rules at a major sporting event. I do miss those days of walking into a high school gym, field or court and pretty much having the run of the place. They’re just really happy someone is covering their game. It’s always helpful to check in and talk with the athletic director or officials prior to a game and make sure there are no special rules. Otherwise, use common sense and remember safety first. At high school soccer games, for instance, you can go anywhere around the field except for in front of the team benches and directly behind the goals. In Major League Soccer, you can only stand on the end lines and sideline across the field from the team benches.
At soccer games, once you pick your spot and the game starts, you’re pretty much stuck there until halftime. The same goes for international soccer games. College football and professional stadiums are even more strict. There are multiple lines painted on the field designating where you can stand. There is the prominent yellow game boundary line, the line for television and for photographers. It’s pretty simple, once you know your line: Don’t cross it, and do not shoot from behind the players’ bench in the NFL — you can pass quickly from one end of the bench to the other, to move to the opposite end of the sideline, but never stop and even try to look through your viewfinder from behind the player’s bench at an NFL or major college football game.
I’ve shot high school golf where they gave me a golf cart to chase down players, but at PGA events, you must stand or kneel within arms’ length of the ropes in front of spectators, unless you’re at the Masters, where you have to shoot from within the general population of spectators. When shooting alpine skiing and other World Cup ski and snowboard events, you must be behind the airbag, while at auto racing, you shoot from outside the fence on the outside of the track.
Most rules are set to keep you safe, and despite security guards telling you to back up or get your foot off the line, you are still on the field of play and you still have the opportunity to make great pictures. While being right on the field is exciting and makes great pictures, sometimes it’s worth changing your position altogether. When you shoot a lot of games and you feel like you’ve been making similar pictures, change it up. Look for a different spot to shoot from. At high school games, it’s really easy to run to the top of the bleachers and shoot from up high. This is true for basketball, football, soccer, volleyball and even wrestling. I’ve done it for all of them.
For indoor games, I’ve found there’s often a running track around the gym and use that a lot for my different angle. I once had a photo editor that told me he always wanted at least three different looks from a portrait assignment, and I tried to do the same thing for games. I’d give them the shots from the floor and then from up high and maybe look for a different angle of the players taking the field.
Bigger stadiums make it more difficult to go for the different angles. Some arenas and stadium have stairs to run up high and some you have to go back in the tunnel and up and elevator and down a concourse…it’s like an obstacle course. It’s not impossible, you just have to plan for it. You have to know where you’re allowed to sit or stand. Many stadiums won’t allow you to sit in the general seating bowls where you may interfere in any way with fans — especially if you’re working with long, professional-looking telephoto lenses. Once again, ask stadium staff, media relations staff or other photographers where you can go prior to the game. Most people are willing to answer questions and some will even give you an escort to show you around.
When planning your positioning for sporting events, think about the camera angles you see on television. Networks spend a ton of money to cover events and make it look great for spectators at home. There are so many positions for making great photographs, and if you work hard enough to hit the different spots you’ll actually get lucky and the action will come to you.
Whether you’re shooting your kid’s soccer game or a major sporting event, remember to think about the access you’ve obtained, be mindful of why you’re there and considerate of what you’re going to do with it. Make the most of your experience and choose your positions on or off the field with intention. Think about the kind of photographs you want to make, and keep in mind backgrounds and position of the sun. Most importantly, make some great pictures and have a great time doing it.
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