Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Balancing act

When you think about sports photography what do you think is the biggest challenge? Getting the action in sharp focus? Finding that peak moment of action in a fast moving play? Those are all good answers but sometimes it isn’t the action that takes the most work. Sometimes the most difficult thing about a sports assignment is not what I shot but who I shoot.

You would be surprised how many people think the paper is biased toward one high school over the other. Stand on a West High sideline and I field questions why Tracy High gets all the stories. Cover A Tracy High game in Swenson Gym and they wonder why I spend all my shooting time at West High. I just can’t win.

If you want to raise the “you like the other school better” stakes higher head over to a crosstown rivalry match. Today found me doing the triple play of rivalry games as covered the crosstown tennis match and water polo matches hosted by West High. Whatever I do, whatever I shoot I have to balance out the coverage or I’ll hear about it for sure.

In some ways it is easier to shoot a crosstown match or any game where two of the hometown teams are playing whether it is Little League, youth football or any of the high schools. Think about it, anyone on the field of play is a subject, it doesn’t matter if I am shooting offense or defense or who has the ball, it’s always a local player so it is freewheeling with the motor drive, or so you would think. But that is where the issue of balance comes into play, the ideal of equal coverage to both teams no matter what the score.

So being a Tracy High graduate from the early 1980’s you might think that my heart lies with the Bulldogs so I will always bias my coverage towards them. Guess again. When I’m on assignment I have a whole set of priorities and absent from them is who I want to win. I am concerned with mundane issues like rosters, shooting positions, which spot has the best light, which spot is the safest to shoot from, how much time do I have to shoot, etc. The list is long and boring but nowhere on it is rooting for one team over the other.

Honestly I really don’t care which team or player wins. I am concerned about one thing, pictures. It’s all about capturing the action. I need to get a variety of pictures to submit what we call a “package” in the business. For example shooting the crosstown tennis match I really don’t pay attention to who is winning who is crushing their opponent, I just need a couple of good action shots to accompany the story. I planned to make thing as equal as could by shooting four players, two from each school by covering the #2 and # singles matches.

It may look like I am shooting one player more than another but sometimes I get things in focus faster than other times. I stayed with each player just long enough to make sure I had a nice shot from one player before I moved to the next. A lot of it is racing the clock as all the matches are going on at the same time so it is run-and-gun. Get a good shot and keep moving. The hard part is trying to make sure all four shots look different. Four backhand return photos would be a little monotonous for the reader.

Shooting the crosstown tennis and making things equal was easy but it gets a little dicey moving up to the action of the water polo games. This is the spot where the perception of bias creeps in. It may look like one team gets more coverage than the other or I took a photo of one team doing better than the other. It’s a snake pit and you just have to jump in.

So while shooting the water polo some things are just obvious. I shot the girls game on half from the end of the pool with West High on offense and one half with Tracy High on offense although I still shoot the opposite end of the pool catching the other team on defense. So the game plan is I have West High on offense with Tracy High on defense and then Tracy High on offense with West High on defense along with any mad scrambles for the loose ball from both teams. Sound a little confusing? The real fun is back at the office with the edit.

Like any assignment I never edit in the field. Shoot everything and then make decision about what runs back in the confines of the office. So in the hundreds of photos I shoot from the varsity boys and girls games odds are one photo may not be as complimentary towards one teams performance as another. Then the question becomes why did I pick one photo over another for each of the teams? The answer is simple, it all about the action.

So what are my criteria for a good sports photo? Top feature is it has to be in focus. Doesn’t matter how good the action looks if the focus isn’t there so a sharp picture is critical. Second is the quality of the action. Is it a peak moment of the game, does it capture a sense of speed or power of the sport? And lastly is it an accurate representation of the action in the game? That is a judgment call the photographer makes and probably the one that irks readers the most. “Why did you have to show that?” readers ask. Because it was a part of the game, maybe an important part- a moment that made a change in a scoring opportunity or the flow of the game. Whatever the reason I chose the photo it meets those criteria but I still have the balancing act to perform.

As I edit I start to look at how many photos have the West High player dominant in the frame with their face clearly visible. I try to keep an equal number of photos with Tracy High players as the prominent player in the picture. If I luck out and have a photo where both players’ faces are visible and appear about the same in the image then I call that a neutral shot and that can be part of an odd number submission. So maybe in the end I might three of each school with an odd number neutral. Then I have to make sure I have the same number of submission for boys and girls teams so I don’t appear to be sexist.

You may think I am a little paranoid toward the readers reaction to my work, but I have learned from the past what people think. From parents who count the column inches of the stories and then complain when one team gets an inch more than the other to the people who still think we have it in for their high school we are fighting an uphill battle against the perception of bias in the coverage. In the end I am only out for the action, I save my rooting for the important sports teams. Go 49ers!

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