Sideline Report

Getting Lucky - Unexpected Shots in Sports by Steven Johnson

Michael Sam

Michael Sam

There are many instances that you can plan for in sports photography. Wether it’s your position on the field, what lenses you pack or how you choose to expose a photo in difficult light, you can plan for almost any situation during a game.

Yet on the editing room floor (or digital trash bin), you can be pleasantly surprised with a “lucky” shot.

For instance, months after Florida played Missouri, Marty emailed me a photo Michael Sam, the first openly gay player in the NFL, from that game. It was of Sam running out of the tunnel surrounded in smoke. We had no idea at the time how important that photo might be. 

The same could be said about all of the photos of Johnny Manziel at Florida’s opening game of the 2012 season. Texas A&M was off to a rocky start, and Manziel was not the player he is known to be today. Yet, by not deleting anything, and by chance you can come across some pretty amazing moments.

These chance shots are not saved because we never delete a photo, or because the subject becomes more significant over time, they happen because we try to cover more than just the game during a game.

I tell me students at UF over and over again, “it happened doesn’t make it a story.”

The fact that 22 testosterone-filled dudes are hitting each other on a field in front of 90,000 fans is not a story. You have to find the story. And in this case, find it through showing the reader in pictures.

It’s not until you can sit down and see the day in pictures after a game once context has been established. In most cases, that context is who won or lost or any significant event that happened during the game (see Tim Tebow concussion of 2011).

In an age where one-man-band journalists are the norm, we must find ways to take our workflow to another level and keep those extra pairs of eyes handy.

I can be 1,000 miles away from Marty shooting a game, but he can still see every frame that comes across my screen. It is this level of detail in the editing process that keeps photos like Michael Sam from getting lost forever.

So how do we get those shots?

Is it luck?

Often not.

Most of those shots are “discovered” in the thousands of action photos that are produced every game, but they are intentionally sought out while shooting.

Often times, you’ll see me with my eyes closed during a game. I know what you’re thinking, that probably isn’t the best way to take photographs. Often, we need to hear whats going on to find out what to shoot. Maybe it’s a fan yelling or the band playing or a coach chewing out a player on the bench. Sometimes it’s just a needed break from staring down the barrel of a 400mm lens for hours at a time.

Another “lucky” way to find these shots is by always shooting with both eyes open. Contrary to every mime and charades player in the world who ever acted out being a photographer, keeping both eyes open allows you to keep your peripheral vision during the game. This can not only save you from getting tackled, but it can allow you to scan the field while still focusing on the play.

Lastly, stay away from everyone else. I know, we’re all photographers and most of us are good friends, but during a game, we need to get different photos (why else would our editors pay us to be there?). Breaking away from the pack can allow a shooter to discover something different about the game. Going up to the top of the stands to shoot a few minutes of a game or just getting a different angle can be the difference in a game-winning action photo and if you will discover the next moment that can tell the story of a game.

So yes, even the most unexpected photos have their preparation involved, but at the end of the day, week or season, you can still find those gems on the cutting room floor that just might make a great story in the offseason.

Lessons learned on the sidelines by Steven Johnson

There are winners and losers.

It’s why I’ve always loved sports stories, because at the end of the day someone steps off the field victorious and the other with a new set of challenges ahead of them.

And no matter what the outcome, each team, player, coach and school learns something.

Sports is one of the most valuable place to learn as a visual storyteller.

You are constantly challenged to make something new out of a game that millions of people have already seen.

You have to stretch your storytelling muscles to the brink of failure to show people what is is like to have a 200 lb. safety knock you out cold and to get right back up and do it all over again.

You have to explain the complex stories on and off the field, because, like politics, nothing is what it seems — especially in the NCAA.

From a barely-experience high school kid to a teacher at the University of Florida, sports has been my common theme each step of my career.

It began when I emailed Bobby Bowden at 16 asking to shoot the Garnet and Gold spring practice (calm down Gator fans, UF was on a hot streak and there was no way I was getting into Ben Hill Griffin Stadium). He graciously allowed me to shoot two seasons of FSU football while I was still in high school, which got me my first job at The Orlando Sentinel and then, at 17, ESPN.

When I arrived at UF as a wide-eyed freshman, I quickly got word of GatorBait Magazine and had the opportunity to shoot for Marty Cohen. 

Five years later, more than 60 football games, 75 basketball, I forgot how many baseball games and countless other sports, tournaments, award ceremonies, press conferences and more than 200,000 images — this was as hands on as it gets.

All of this came with some hard lessons learned, and I want to share a few of them with you.

First, and most importantly, it happened does not make it a story.

Just because 90,000 fans gather in Gainesville a few times a year to watch players hit each other does not make that a story. The winner and loser is not the story. The game is not the story. It happened does not make it a story — it’s the people, the players, the fans, the atmosphere, the baby gator’s first home football game, the mom who gave up everything to watch her son, who’s worked his entire life, to play on Florida Field.

Those are the stories.

Second, produce on the field not in an office.

Time is always of the essence in sports. Even the time it takes to go from the sidelines to the photo work room is a lost opportunity. So even if I have to take an iPhone photo of the back of my camera to be able to tweet out a picture, the time saved is worth it.

The most viral photo I ever shot of Gator sports was not of a player at all. It was of a sign last season that said, “We want Bama LOL JK.”

It was tweeted and retweeted more than a half a million times — easily 10x more than anything else I’ve ever put online. Why? Because it was instant. It was in the middle of the Georgia Southern game and it told the story of the anguish that Gator fans were going through at that moment. Time is of the essence when you have instant replay and live-tweeting reporters, show them what happened in the moment and produce on the field.

Third, if there is a pack of photographers, stay away from them. 

In the third quarter of the UF/Kentucky game in 2009, Tim Tebow was knocked out as cold as you could get knocked out. He sat on the sidelines the rest of the game in a daze that made Keith Richards look like a clear thinker.

There were roving packs of photographers trying to get behind the bench to shoot Tebow, then they quickly moved onto the next hot topic — how would John Brantley hold up as quarterback. I quickly made three or four images of Brantley and then stayed away from the pack to focus on the Tebow story. During the fourth quarter, Tebow was throwing up and was quietly taken out of the stadium, and we didn’t miss a moment as he was carted away (one of the most somber moments I’ve ever shot on the sidelines).

Generally, if you can shoot something different and tell a story, you will come out a winner from a game, and this is a lesson that has stuck with me for ever — even though its a blast to hang out and chat with your fellow photographer buddies on the sidelines, that is what the local pub is for after a long night shooting.

The most rewarding aspect of being apart of shooting sports is not the access to players, coaches and teams, but the friends you make along the way. We are all in the whirlwind group of roadies, stadium junkies, adrenaline-seeking, deadline-bending addicts that love to tell stories. And when you’ve seen the guts of a stadium workroom, you’ve seen them all. So at the end of the long days when you're sore, smelly and sweaty, you can always look to a good editor and fellow photographer for a cold beer.

Sports has been and will always be the training ground for my career in storytelling and the lessons that I’ve learned I can proudly share with thousands of young journalists every year.

Even in my short time covering the Gators, I’ve had assistants go on to do work for ESPN, Sports Illustrated, The Miami Herald and countless other publications.

So even as the players graduate and the coaches change and the coverage looks a little different digitally than the way it used to be…

We will always been learning on the sidelines.

When in doubt... Less is more by Steven Johnson

Each spring every major college football program hails their spring scrimmage as a pre-season-like game for fans to get a taste of the upcoming season.

At the University of Florida the Gators have their "Orange and Blue Debut" to showcase their football talent to fans who are jonesing for some gridiron.

Normally, a sports photographer would bring at least four cameras and a slew of lenses to cover the scale of a football game.

Instead, I chose to bring two camera bodies and two lenses. No gear bag, no utility belt to hold extra lenses. 

Many times at a game you can get weighed down by your own gear. I often shoot with five bodies, 400mm and 600mm lenses and find myself juggling while shooting.

My gear for this shoot included:

  • Nikon D4
  • Nikon D800
  • Nikkor 400mm f/2.8
  • Nikkor 35mm f/1.4
  • Sunscreen

This limited gear set actually worked!

I didn't miss any major action because I was fumbling for a different camera or lens and I certainly enjoyed being 40 pounds lighter than a typical game.

Primes are quickly taking over my camera bag that used to be dominated by a 70-200mm f/2.8 and a 14-24mm f/1.4.

So far, it is paying off.

Google Glass on the Sidelines by Steven Johnson

Shooting at the Univeristy of Florida with Google Glass. Photo by Tim Casey.

Shooting at the Univeristy of Florida with Google Glass. Photo by Tim Casey.

We see a lot of interesting things during football games, we often take pictures of them and share them with our readers both in print and online. But sometimes we forget we shot them in the first place – forever to be lost in a pile is misfit photos in our libraries after a game.

We tag, we star, we rate, we post, we tweet.

But in the mix of all of this, we often forget.

This is one of the best parts about having a dual role in Gainesville.

Monday through Friday I am the visual coordinator and adjunct lecturer at the UF College of Journalism and Communications.

You can usually find me in my office working on projects and meeting with students or in a classroom lecturing about my weekend.

My weekends are often spent on the sidelines and almost always on the road.

It is the most rewarding thing in the world to take what you experience on a Saturday and bring it into a classroom on a Monday.

This gets back to our problem - losing content (photos in this case) during a game and when they are most important to our readers.

We’ve made some amazing advancements in workflow during football games. We can edit thousands of photos in mere minutes at halftime to send out before Coach finished his pep talk to the team.

Heck, I haven’t seen a darkroom since high school. Nor have I ever had to use one professionally.

What used to take hours now takes seconds.

Yet, we still miss the point of all of this technology – storytelling.

And, sometimes, parts of the story need to be told immediately.

This is where technology and storytelling meet at a critical point

Google Glass can both be a very useful tool and, at times, very distracting.

Google Glass can both be a very useful tool and, at times, very distracting.

Shooting a football game requires an immense amount of skill, focus and sheer effort.

So picking up an iPhone to tweet a photo can be the same moment you miss the most important play of a game.

But, looking back at a game routine, we are often standing around for minutes at a time waiting for a TV timeout, injury or a delay of game – these are critical moments to bring the story to our audience.

Equipped with a Verizon Mifi (allowing me to have a personal wifi hotspot) and a pair of Google Glass, I was able to keep fans up to date this season and offer a unique perspective of how I see a football game.

The Mifi allowed me to take photos of the back of my camera and tweet them out from my phone when there was a spare moment during the game. This proved to be a viral combination after one particular tweet of a sign in the stands saying “We Want Bama LOL JK” was re-tweeted more than 15,000 times. This would not have happened if I waited until after the game.

A close up view of the "glass" part of Google Glass.

A close up view of the "glass" part of Google Glass.

Google Glass brings its own technological storytelling weapons. First, it can offer a much unseen point of view perspective to what we do on the sidelines.

We even put it on the drum major of the Gator Marching Band to show everyone what it was like to take the field with the Pride of the Sunshine.

It also has the power to take photos, video and share them via Twitter without me having to take my hands off the camera. By gesturing my head I can turn it on, then I can tell it to take a photo or video through voice activation and share it on Twitter with a caption.

This starts to cut down the time it takes to share content and becomes less of a distraction during a game.

While Google Glass is certainly very useful and a cool tool to have on the sidelines, the technology is not perfect. Often I would have to repeat a gesture or say a caption multiple times before it would get it right. You have to remember that we are trying to talk to computers in a stadium with thousands of screaming fans.

While the technology is not perfect, it is moving in a direction that will allow us to share more content, faster and build a place for us to interact during a game.

Just like our writers respond on message boards, twitter and emails during a game, photographers need to join this conversation as well.

I believe tools like Google Glass will help us not only bring you to where the action is in real time, but allow you to interact with the content as well.

In just a few short years of covering Gator sports, we’ve gone from photo galleries, to post-game videos, live tweeting, Google Glass perspective and live photo galleries.
Like all new technology, it is driven by a demand. Sometimes the demand is not even known until it catches on.

As the Gators are resting and rebuilding during the offseason and coaches are drawing up new plays to bring to the field next season, I can assure you there are coders and developers working on new apps to bring you the latest content in exciting new ways.

Having some fun with Google Glass and the Gator Band by Steven Johnson

DSC_2795 (1).jpg

For the past week I have had the opportunity to test Google's newest toy, Glass. 

The UF College of Journalism and Communications' Innovation News Center has had it for about a month now and I've been working with the director, Matt Sheehan, on finding a professional use for Google Glass - that blog post will come soon.

But in the meantime, you have to have a little fun with new toys.

So I put a pair on Freddy Master, the drum major for the UF Gator Marching Band, before the big rivalry game against The Florida State University.

Here's what it looks like to be a drum major in one of the largest marching bands in the country: