From the Classroom

Picture the future: the changing world of sports photography

How technology, social media, and evolving expectations are transforming sports photography.

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They take the perfect shot, but they’re not in the NBA. They get thousands of hits, but they’re not in the MLB. They have millions of followers, but the average sports fan doesn’t even know their names. The sports photographer is a skilled player on an ever-changing field where new technology and social media have dramatically altered how fans interact with sports.

New technology is “definitely” changing the sports photography industry, professional sports photographer Troy Taormina said. Gear such as drones, automatically triggered remote rigs, and mirrorless cameras are being used now more than ever. Drones allow for new, unique perspectives of the game, from any angle imaginable. Remote rigs give the photographer the ability to shoot from multiple places at once and still get that perfect moment. Mirrorless cameras capture crisp images, firing up to 30 pictures per second.

Scott Rovak, a team photographer for the St. Louis Cardinals and St. Louis Blues, said that the biggest change for him was the jump from film to digital to mirrorless cameras, which added breathtaking speed to a photographer’s bag of tricks. Rovak, a 40-year veteran in the industry, shared a story about the lengths hockey photographers went through in order to get the perfect shot before remote shutters were invented.

“Back in those days, one guy put a camera in the net. And because they didn’t have radio triggers back then, basically, the ice people, they melted a line in the ice and he put down a wire and then they refroze over it and so you can actually hardwire a camera in the net,” Rovak said. Since then, net shots have become a staple of hockey photography and a technique that Rovak himself has utilized in his work with the Blues.

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Net shots aren’t the only way photographers are using new technologies. Photographers are creating innovative shots by mounting cameras anywhere from the top of the rafters to down on the floor, and even onto drones to catch a perspective no human has ever seen.

As technology advances, it also becomes more accessible. “Anybody picks up a camera and gets, you know, a good picture. They think they’re a sports photographer,” Rovak said.

Rovak recalled letting his uncle try out his camera at a ballgame; after explaining how he tries to capture the emotion of the moment, Rovak challenged his uncle to snap the pitcher at the release point. “Oh, you mean like this,” Rovak’s uncle said. He looked over to see that his uncle, “Kind of nailed it,” Rovak said.

“I looked at him and I said, ‘Yeah, do it again.’” He couldn’t.

Camera technology isn’t the only innovation revolutionizing sports photography. The current direction of sports photography is “more social media driven,” Rovak said. In a world where print news and magazines are receding, social media is transcending.

Miki Turner, a renowned photojournalist and USC professor said, “I think that social media has definitely enhanced a lot of careers…we’re able to see who’s shooting what and how good they are.”

Not only has social media changed the way sports photographers find exposure, it has also changed their role. Rovak believes that professional sports photography has traditionally had two sides: the editorial side and the commercial side. When team photographers take pictures, they’re not trying to show the players in a bad light. Even if a team or player underperforms, the team wants the content they put out to be encouraging and optimistic because they believe there’s always another story to tell.

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Editorial photographers, however, try to capture the story of the game. They don’t care about how one specific player or team looks. But this puts the spotlight on the athletes and is just a small sliver of the kinds of stories a photographer might want to tell, which could include displaying a wider variety of emotion in the athletes. Alex Subers, a photographer with an active social media presence who formerly worked for the Philadelphia 76er’s and currently works as the content manager for Fanatics Inc., says when photographing games, he looks for the “quiet moments.” Subers looks for moments that show detail that a fan wouldn’t otherwise see, such as how exhausted players listen to their coach during a timeout, or the anticipation on an athlete’s face during the national anthem. These shots may not serve a team or publication but still intrigue an audience. To get these pictures out to fans, many photographers have their own personal pages where they share the broad spectrum of their work, showing more of the stories they want to tell as they simultaneously market themselves. In some cases, the sports photographer becomes the focal point, obtaining a greater following than some of the athletes they cover.

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But while social networks have endowed some photographers with new artistic freedom, the same platforms have flooded the market with new photographers who work for free. “The industry has kind of flopped,” Rovak said. Jobs that were once available to print photographers fell with the rise of social media. Despite social media making sports photography more accessible, the professional industry has become more exclusive, with only the top photographers receiving the remaining paid gigs in a publishing market that has essentially stalled. Additionally, the immediacy of social media has forced professional photographers to race against millions of smartphone-clicking spectators to get exciting live photos out quickly. This competition leaves photographers feeling rushed and that they are putting too much effort into speed instead of doing their best work.

“The fact that people want to see stuff right away, kind of changes how we shoot a lot of the time,” Rovak said. He isn’t a fan of the change. “To me, it’s like just tell the story of the game, don’t miss anything, and then after the game, send the pictures.”

While technological developments have imposed some logistical and financial challenges, many sports photographers believe that they have endless creative possibilities. Those opportunities are seen as the emergence of new technology shifts the culture towards the new generation, who some photographers look to for inspiration.

“What really influences me is looking at what kids are doing now,” Taormina said. He enjoys seeing ideas come to life on camera through innovative angles and shots. Despite the industry changing, Taormina said he “[doesn’t] know where it’s gonna go.”

In a world that is constantly changing, there’s one thing that’s certain. Although the art form of sports photography continues to evolve with technology, the raw emotion and excitement that sports photographers share with fans will never change.