Spring Into a Varied Approach / by Steven Johnson

McKethan Stadium at the University of Florida

Now that we have hung up our shoulder pads, licked our wounds from the Cardinals and obsess over recruiting, we have a new season of competition to focus on – spring. While spring to many is about the smell of clay on a baseball diamond and the squeaking of shoes on a wooden court, it is also about an entirely different regimen for covering Gator sports.

Most think that fall is the busiest time of the year. If you count miles traveled, yes, it is. This past season I traveled over 5,900 miles (5,000 by car) to cover road games for the Gator football team. That is more than 85 hours on the road criss-crossing six states in the South.

Gator Football

Football is an interesting beast to tackle. You have 12 games to tell the story of a season. You have 48 quarters and roughly 36 hours of shooting players on the field. The limited access we get as the media off the field makes this task of visually telling a story daunting. I shoot between 30,000 and 35,000 photos every football season. Why so many? Well, in the age of digital photography you can hold that shutter down for a few extra clicks to make sure you have the perfect shot – or a few shots to work with in a sequence of a play.

All of this has to come together as my MacBook Pro is whirling through thousands of photos and crunching data to color correct, crop, render, export and upload hundreds of photos and gigabytes of video online each week.

So how can spring be any more difficult, especially when we don’t cover road games?

Well, just like any other workout, you can get into a pretty comfortable routine. You pack the same gear, you shoot from similar places on the field (but still try to get something a little different each time) and you know what you’re looking for in the game. This season, I chose to shoot with a 400mm and 600mm lens in the endzone and move around less. It paid off. Shooting with the longer glass allowed me to get clearer photos that were straight on as opposed to moving down the sidelines and shooting the plays at an angle.

So now that our spring sports have arrived, it is like taking your regular workout routine and switching to cross training. Throw your favorite lineman on a baseball mound and see how well his curveball reacts.

Gator Baseball

This will be my fifth spring shooting Gator sports, and, luckily, experience helps with this transition. But each year there is still a little re-training to remember just which way to react when there are two men on base and the ball is hit on the ground to left field. What do you shoot first?

Basketball is no different. Reading the plays in sports is vital to your success in telling a story, and sometimes, it takes a few missed shots and curse words mumbled behind your camera to get back in the game.

At a school like Florida, there are really two sports in the history of the campus – football and everything else. The interesting part about everything else is just how much fun it is to cover.

Year after year, I am approached by eager young photographers, much like myself when I was getting started, that ask me to take them along to a shoot. Almost always they ask to shoot football, and almost always I politely decline. The funny part about this awkward denial is that spring is the better season to learn how to shoot.

Gator Track and Field

While you can get pummeled on the sidelines in The Swamp from a play getting too close, more often than not the ball is being snapped and handed off 30 to 40 yards away.

In basketball you are less than 20 feet from the free throw line and a few inches away from the paint. You are constantly trying to keep your head on your shoulders in a baseball or softball photo shoot as a foul ball comes racing by. You might as well call lacrosse a contact sport with the not-so-soft rubber ball. And I could almost swear I have been close to getting a foot to my face while covering gymnastics.

Spring sports are some of the most exciting to shoot because you can get close to the action and have the freedom to try something different.

Football has become so routine that the most exciting part of your day could be going up to the top of the stands to take a few crowd shots and maybe shoot a few plays at a different angle – only if the team is winning by a huge margin.

Gator Gymnastics

As a visual journalist you have to bring people to places that might be exotic in location or subjects that may have never been seen in a certain way. These sports allow photographers to bring readers below ground level in a baseball dugout or on the end court of a Kentucky-Florida basketball game or eye level with the balance beam.

So next time someone is complaining about the lack of excitement because we still have months left until the 2013 football kickoff, ask them how exciting a shot clock can be with a tied game or what a bunt in the bottom of the ninth can do to a stadium filled with fans.

I would argue that the excitement of college sports for the fan and the photographer certainly lives on after The Swamp is silenced.