Gators

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.

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

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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: 

Dirty Football - looking beyond a single frame by Steven Johnson

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This past weekend, I shot the Florida Gators playing Georgia Southern in Gainesville, Fla. It was supposed to be the usual FBS blowout game for a big division one program. Instead, it turned into one of the most embarrassing losses in Gator Football history.

By the looks of the photographs, the Gators were not too happy they were losing to what was intended to be an easy win.

I tweeted a single photo of a Florida defensive back, Marcus Maye, in what looks like an intentional gouging of a Georgia Southern player's eyes.

Now, it is not fair to say this was an intentional act. That is for readers to decide, but the role of a sideline photographer is to tell the story of the game, and, in this case, bring the viewers content that they might not see on television.

Georgia Southern fullback, William Banks, was not happy with the officials after no foul play was called.

Georgia Southern fullback, William Banks, was not happy with the officials after no foul play was called.

Now, gouging can be both intentional and unintentional in football - especially when a helmet is removed during a play.

After going back to do another edit, I noted that the player, Maye, was getting up, looked around and then went back down and put his hands on the face of the Georgia Southern player.

The Georgia Southern player, William Banks, was not happy with the result of the play and brought it to the attention of an official.

No foul play was called.

This is a prime example of how speculation from just one photo can be further explained in a series of pictures and how a single picture can often mislead.

As always, it is our job to document the event, but we often think of single pictures to describe an incident or play. In this case, it took three (and there are more, but they get redundant) to tell the story.

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Shooting More Than ‘Just a Game’ by Steven Johnson

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It’s mid-November and the football gods have all but decided who are the chosen ones. BCS, AP and USA TODAY Coaches Polls are burning holes in sports sections across the country and bouncing from social network to social network millions of times faster than any paper boy could imagine.

Each organization is experiencing their own set of triumphs and troubles – particularly the have-nots of the bigger conferences.

But when the hundreds of photographers dawn on a college town to cover some of the most impressive and sometimes least impressive games of the season, what exactly is going to tell the story.

I tell my journalism classes time and time again that a good story goes far beyond “it happened.” In this case, these stories are far greater than “just a game.”

In the case of the Florida Gators, no one expected that the Vanderbilt game could be the defining moment of the season, but much to the Gators’ dismay, it was.

Going into the Florida-Vandy game there were a number of storylines making the rounds – head coach Will Muschamp’s job status being the loudest with offensive coordinator Brent Pease’s job being the second-loudest.

This goes into the first lesson of shooting mid-season or any game for that matter: Homework.

Researching each team prior to kickoff fundamentally changes how you tell the story of the game in pictures. In this case, the storylines were loud and clear on the Florida side of the ball, but for Vanderbilt it was a chance to finally prove themselves worthy in the Southeastern Conference – particularly with their passing game and a versatile quarterback (see fourth-down conversions).

In this case, grabbing photos of Pease was a must; along with shooting the ever-shrinking fan base that Florida has been attracting this season.

What wasn’t expected was just how far Vanderbilt was going to pull away in the first half of the game. Multiple times, I found myself running to the opposite endzone to grab a touchdown photo because it was suddenly a critical moment of the game.

Florida could not score in the first half, and every potentially blocked kick could have turned the game around.

This makes for a lot more work to tell a story of the game.

Sometimes, blowouts are just easier. This was not the case.

Other times, you just get lucky.

That takes us to the second lesson: Get Lucky.

See Florida-Georgia for example.

After suffering one of the most embarrassing losses of the season, Muschamp was headed back to the locker room at EverBank Field in Jacksonville.

I prepared myself to shoot him walking into the tunnel. I got on the ground and framed a shot.

As I began to shoot the series of pictures, Muschamp began replying to a disgruntled Gator fan – this became one of the top stories of the game. A multi-millionaire football coach arguing with a (probably) intoxicated fan is just comedic. Walk away was the lesson not learned here, and it made for a fairly iconic moment in the season.

It was a lucky shot. I had to crop heavily since I was focused on the tunnel shot, not yet Muschamp, who was to the far left of the frame.

While you get lucky once in a while, Planning Ahead always ensures a better story by the end of the game.

Simple things like where the sun will be and what shadow will be cast during the game can help you position yourself for success.

The story of a game is never set at kickoff or even as the clock strikes 00:00, but it does develop.

This was the case as Florida showed it could not fight back to catch Vanderbilt in the second half, and, like clockwork, athletic director Jeremy Foley, came onto the field in the fourth quarter to watch the last moments of the game up close at his designated spot, leaning against the goal post in the South Endzone.

He was not happy.

Position myself in the right spot, with the sun to my back, and enough light to get Foley to “pop” as a shadowy stadium in the background – help set him apart was my goal.

This is exactly what happened with just a few minutes left in the Homecoming game and proved to tell a large part of the story. Foley, one of the most successful athletic directors to have ever worked in college football, walking into a half-empty stadium with a shadow over his head.

These are the stories we write with pictures.

You can run hundreds, even thousands, of yards covering a football game, but it is important to shoot smart. It’s not always needed to run to get the kick just in case it is blocked unless it could change the momentum of the game.

Knowledge of the game is key. If you can referee the game, you cannot tell the full story through pictures. Being able to know when to quit shooting action and focusing on the details – people leaving, athletic directors, injured quarterbacks watching the scoreboard – are all skills that come with years of covering athletic events.
It is much more than “just a game,” it is a complex story that experts tackle to tell each and every week.

I have the utmost respect for my friends who write game recaps and analysis – this is something I would struggle with, even with years of experience working in stadiums. They have a craft that often goes unappreciated, because it is expected to compile a recap/analysis almost instantly after the game ends.

So as the haves and have-nots continue to fight it out for the rest of the season, take a close look at those articles, photo stories and galleries that flood the Internet, sports pages and Twitterverse, and think about the bigger picture.

I can assure you the story will be more than just a won-loss record for Will Muschamp.

Shooting into the sun by Steven Johnson

Mom said to never look directly into the sun, right?

Wrong.

Sometimes the best photos are made shooting directly into the sun. In this case, Florida Lacrosse was up more than 10 points before the first half was over, and because of the time change, the sun was setting at 7:40 p.m. just around halftime.

Most would think that shooting directly into the sun would drastically underexpose your subject. This is also a myth. If properly exposed, you can get that deep orange glow of a late sun and your subject still exposed.

Here are a few examples from the game:

Nikon D3s (120mm, f/4, 1/800 sec, ISO500)

Nikon D800 (14mm, f/4.5, 1/160 sec, ISO50)

Once the light was lost after halftime it was a waiting game for twilight - arguably my favorite time to shoot.

While the action may not be the best, the sky proved to be worth shooting at 14mm.

Nikon D800 (14mm, f/2.8, 1/160, ISO800)

So the next time you find yourself shooting around sunset make sure to always look up - despite what mom says.