The Addiction of Sport Photography: After the Whistle
“Win, and win with speed” is the mantra of Noboru Itoh, a former colleague from my time in Tokyo. That advice has served me well, especially as a sports photographer. Sports are all about speed.
A good sports photographer translates speed into an image. And a good sports photographer must also produce that image with speed.
For example, USA Today requires that photographers of football games post images after each team has had one possession in the game. And in the NBA, the photographer’s camera is tether to the internet so images can be instantaneously shared with NBA headquarters in New York. These extreme efforts are taken because there is a large financial benefit to being the first with the photo.
As hard as you’ve worked to take the picture, your job is complete only once that image is produced. Here, we’ll offer some ideas on how to approach that in a smart way.
Before the Game
The use of metadata is probably new to the beginning sports photographer. Until now, the images you generated have been for your personal use, and you probably remember the story behind each photo. That all changes when you begin to take photographs for others.
Metadata helps you protect your work, organize your images, and describe what is occurring. The International Press Telecommunications Council (IPTC) sets the industry standards for metadata. Most all photo editing software provides a metadata template that complies with these standards.
I create the metadata before each game. This includes basic information like photographer contact information and copyright restrictions, and the beginnings of the captioning. Doing this beforehand automatically applies the metadata to each image as it is downloaded from the camera to the computer.
The captioning of images is definitely new to the beginning sports photographer. I suggest using the Associated Press captioning format, which contains these elements:
- Describes, in present tense, who is pictured and what is going on within the image.
- Identifies the players from left to right, or by jersey number.
- Names the city, state and location where the game was played.
- Provides the date the photo was taken, including the day of the week.
For example, before a recent game I create this generic caption that was applied to all downloaded images:
… in the American Hockey League game between the Texas Stars and the Toronto Marlies played on Monday, March 2, 2020 at the HEB Center in Cedar Park, Texas… (Andy Nietupski / Texas Stars)
After the game, I completed the caption (bold section) for each image. The final caption of one image look like this:
Joel L'Esperance (11) slips behind the net and stuffs the puck past goaltender Joseph Wolf (35) in the American Hockey League game between the Texas Stars and the Toronto Marlies played on Monday, March 2, 2020 at the HEB Center in Cedar Park, Texas. The Marlies defeated the Stars 3-2. (Andy Nietupski / Texas Stars)
During the Game
Your ability to quickly process images begins by culling images during the game. I find that fewer than 10% of my shutter clicks end up as edited final images. It is important to separate those images from the 90% you will probably never use.
Most cameras give you two ways to identify the keepers. You can either protect the image or you can rate the image.
Protecting an image prevents it from being deleted while in the camera, and also identifies it as a keeper. I prefer to rate my images rather than protecting them. Rating the image indicates how good the keeper is.
Some cameras have buttons that are programed to protect or rate the image. Other cameras allow you to reprogram a button to do this action. Still other cameras have this ability embedded in the camera’s menu of options.
I use a zero to five rating system on my camera in my editing. These are my rating criteria:
· 0 – Default rating. May not be properly exposed, focused, poorly composed or doesn’t capture anything of potential interest. This shot receives no consideration for edits. These are 90% of images.
· 1 – An image that is properly exposed, sharply focused, captures the player’s face, and contains reasonably interesting content. This shot is a keeper that I will go back to after the game. These are 7% of images.
· 2 - An image that is properly exposed, sharp-as-a-tack focused, captures the player’s face, and contains a significant game event. I will edit these images between periods, at the half or immediately after the game. These are 3% of images.
· 3 to 5 – I save these rating for post-processing on my computer.
I strongly suggest that you do not erase or delete images on your camera during the game. Erasing an image is permanent. You never know if you might need the image that you just deleted.
As discussed in the opening chapter, sports photography is very different from other genres of photography by way of technique and level of preparation. These differences extend to post-processing, with the biggest
difference being the volume of images to be processed, and the speed with which those images must be turned-around. This has implications for the selection of post-processing software.
Photo Mechanic was one of the first products developed for digital photography, primarily for editorial photography. It is renowned for its ability to import and browse images, and manage and automate metadata.
I like Photo Mechanic for the speed with which it can import (they call it “ingest”) images. Photo Mechanic saves time by allowing you to import just the protected or rated images from your memory card. For example, assuming that 10% of your images are keepers, you only download 100 images rather than 1000. Additionally, the tool allows you to review the images during the import.
It is very easy to configure the metadata fields using Photo Mechanic. The product automates the use of metadata using a very simple scripting tool. A game-changer for Photo Mechanic is a component called Code Replacement, which allows you to create captioning using a shorthand.
Photo Mechanic also has the ability to export to an FTP server for delivery to your customer.
While Photo Mechanic supports simple image edits, it is usually used with other photo editor products like Lightroom, Photoshop or Capture One.
Lightroom is probably the most popular photo editor used by photographers. But Lightroom is much more that a photo editor. It does importing, viewing, organizing, tagging, editing, publishing and sharing of images.
I began using Lightroom greater than ten years ago because other products could not scale to the number of images that I work with. I maintain an active catalog of greater than 100,000 edited images in more than 1200 folders. I especially like Lightroom’s file management capabilities, easily allowing searches across the entire database and building collections based on the metadata.
I originally used Lightroom for my end-to-end photo processing needs, until I noticed a small number of images were lost on large imports. Ultimately, the Lightroom developers acknowledged this was a known problem. I then
moved to Photo Mechanic for the import and metadata set-up, and Lightroom for the photo editing and file management. I am very pleased with how the two products complement each other.
Not all the changes made by Lightroom were for the better, in my opinion. Adobe moved from a perpetual license model (i.e., the user owns that version of the product forever) to a software-as-a-service model (i.e., the user rents the software on a monthly basis). For example, the one-time cost of a perpetual license was about $200, but the monthly software-as-a-service (SAAS) subscription cost is about $10 / month. The SAAS model is more expensive if you use the product for more than 20 months. Again, in my opinion, the incremental functionality you get with the SAAS model is not worth the additional expense, but you don’t have a choice.
Adobe also moved to a bundling model, where in some case you are required you to purchase a more expensive collection of products instead of just Lightroom. Again, in my opinion, you don’t get the value from the bundle for the additional cost.
Adobe Photoshop is the reported industry standard for raster graphics editing and digital art as a whole. A raster is simply a grid of pixels,
commonly referred to as a bitmap. Images from your digital camera are one form of raster graphics. A raster graphics editor allows users to create and edit images interactively.
Photoshop has two modules that provide the capabilities as Lightroom: Adobe Bridge and Adobe Camera Raw (ACR). Bridge imports the images, and Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) edits the images. Bridge can see some images, like pdf files, that Lightroom cannot, but does not have the file management features. ACR is nearly identical to Lightroom, but without the friendly user interface.
I have friends who are long-established sports photographers who use Photoshop in conjunction with Photo Mechanic. I, however, use Photoshop only on the rarest of occasions, like when using layers to create special effects (e.g., creating action sequences).
Photoshop is significantly more expensive than Lightroom, when it was available under the perpetual license model. Now, it is only available as a SAAS subscription bundle at a more reasonable price.
Capture One is a tool that has gained greater visibility in the marketplace. I do not used it and my only source of information is the literature.
Capture One appears to be a tool focused on high-end editing, primarily designed around RAW processing. It has workflow and organizational tools like Lightroom, but Lightroom is said to have a broader set of tools.
Capture One appears to have good editing abilities using layers, something found in Photoshop, but not Lightroom.
The game is over. The fans are leaving the arena. But your real work has just begun. It’s time to produce edited images.
The most unproductive time you will spend is downloading images. The best way to shrink that time is to download only those images you intend to edit.
I prefer to use Photo Mechanic because it gives you the ability to download only those images that you flagged for edit. This saves 90% of your download time.
It’s straightforward to downloading protected images because it is an option on the ingest screen. Downloading rated images requires you to select the device, card and file in the contact sheet screen, filter on the rating (e.g., greater than 1 star), highlight images to be copied, and then right-click and select “copy selected photos.”
I suggest using a USB card reader that is as fast, or faster, than your computer’s USB port. Hopefully, that would be USB 2.0 or 3.0.
After download, I treat the memory card as a temporary backup copy. Don’t re-format the card until you create a permanent backup copy at your home or office.
When I’m pressed for time, like between periods, at half-time, or after the game and I want to get home, I’ll do two basic edits in Lightroom: Crops and Tonal Adjustments.
The goals of the cropping are to call attention, create pop, and simplify a complex composition. Adding angles to your crop can also create unique perspectives. The biggest sin is to over crop (i.e., select just a tiny portion of the image to make it appear magnified); it lessens the image quality.
I use only two aspect ratios when I crop, either 2216 x 3000 or 1 x 1. I do this because websites and newspapers prefer landscape layouts to portrait, unless, of course, you’re doing a true portrait. I’ll start with the 2216 x 3000 crop for a single image, and then copy that aspect ratio to all the images in my working set. The 2216 x 3000 aspect ratio is a good general frame size, especially for traditional picture prints, like 4 x 6, 5 x 7, or 8 x 10. The 1 x 1 is the closest I’ll come to a portrait crop.
The second quick-turn-around edit I’ll do is a auto tonal adjustment. This will darken the bright spots and bring out the detail in the shadows. Using these techniques, I can produce 10 to 15 images in a 15-minute basketball game halftime. This includes coming off the court, doing the edits, uploading the images, and getting back onto the court for the second half.
After the game is over, I will make minor touchups to the images processed between periods or at halftime, complete edits on all worthy images and complete the captioning. I usually publish between 50 and 100 images, depending upon the quality of play.
After the Game
After the game, from my home office, I will add key words to the edited images. Key words make it easy to search and find images taken years ago. Keywords also allows you to create Smart Collections in Lightroom.
I also download the un-protected or un-flagged images, and copy all processed and unprocessed images to my storage server. I keep two copies of the files: one on my laptop backup drive, and a second on my storage server. I’ll delete the files on my laptop and reformat the memory card only after these copies are created.
Build for Scale
Sports photography is a data monster. The number of photos you take will quickly grow, so you must build for scale.
At my home office I have an 8 TB RAID 5 wireless storage server for my working files. As that becomes full, I have transfer data to 12 TB of detached, solid-state hard drives. I always keep at least two copies of my files, of both the unedited and edited images. The RAID 5 Storage automatically creates an additional backup copy. I additional I also use Time Machine for my MacBook Pro.
The IT professional will advise that you keep at least one copy of your backup data stored off-premise. Usually this means storing it in the cloud. I do not do this because of the volume data that I manage, and the associated expense.
Give thought to how you name your folders and what terms you use for the captions, descriptions and keywords. As a starting point, I always name my folders with the date and names of the competing teams. In the metadata I include the player name and number, the league or event they are participating in, and anything noteworthy in the image.
And finally, consider how you will get the photos to your clients. Some customers have their own file transfer protocol (ftp) servers. I use DropBox when an ftp server is not available.
The main take-a-ways from this chapter are organized for speed and build for scale. If you don’t master both of these, you will become frustrated and won’t enjoy the experience.
About the Author
Andy Nietupski founded TTL Sport Media in 2015 after a corporate career of business start-ups and turn-arounds. TTL Sports Media helps sports organizations optimize their business results using the latest digital sales and marketing techniques. TTL Sports Media publishes thousands of pieces of content annually and curates a catalog of more than 100,000 items. On behalf of its client interests, TTL Sports Media annually publishes nearly 200 articles and makes 1000’s of social media posts.
Copyright 2020 Andy Nietupski and TTL Sports Media