Freelancing for Newspapers–Part 3

Deconstructing a Sports Assignment


Baseball was not my favorite sport to cover. Bases can be loaded inning after inning and no one scores. Then out-of-the-blue, all hell breaks loose and a collision at home plate occurs. Thankfully I wasn’t asleep here. Picture taken with a Nikon F4 triggered by a foot pedal. 180 f2.8 lens prefocused at home plate. Fujichrome 100 1/2000 @ f2.8 . Angels Stadium, Anaheim.

So let’s assume you’re in and you’ve gotten the nod to shoot your first sports assignment.

Sorry, those professional baseball, basketball and Big 10 college football games will be covered by the staff photographers because they’ll appear on the cover of the section.

Don’t despair, as you get better, you’ll get to the front page of the Sports section. If you have a really good picture, it may run on the front page, but  let’s not get ahead of ourselves yet. So this will likely be the typical assignment you might get.

  • High School football, basketball or volleyball
  • Kick off, tip off (whatever the term is for the sport)  7 pm (earlier if you’re lucky, gives you more time to shoot)
  • Coverage of Cougars’ season opener against Rams. (substitute names for your local high school mascots)
  • Deadline for picture 8:45 pm


Get to know the route to and from the stadium. Arrive early enough to figure out how long it will take to get to the nearest area where you have WiFi or an ethernet cable which you can plug into your laptop for internet access.


Not my favorite football picture because of that horrendous background. See all that distraction? This picture was used because it was a big play in the game. Canon F-1 with 400 mm f4.5 FD lens. If you know cameras, you know this picture of a USC game dates me.

Grab a team lineup or roster for both teams.

magic_johnsonIf you can’t get a copy to take with you, photograph the roster so that you can quickly bring that up for captioning when you’re editing.

If you’re lucky, the Athletic Director of the school may make his office available for you.

But let’s assume you have to drive to a Starbucks.

Let’s say it will take you 5 mins.

That means you have to leave the stadium no later than 8 pm if they want one picture.

You may be thinking that’s more than enough time.

Don’t forget you have to set up your laptop which you should be “sleeping” and not turning on from a cold start.

If you’re not going to be near AC power, make sure to charge up your laptop’s battery beforehand.

Be careful where you park

Be sure you are not going to be blocked by another vehicle because you will be leaving earlier than everyone else. This is also a safety issue. Have your gear ready to go once you arrive. It’s not a good idea to be digging in your trunk. Opportunistic thieves will see this.

Watch your time

As you gain experience, you can push those time limits more.

A lot depends on how much you shoot and how fast your laptop is.

If you shoot too much and at too a high a jpeg resolution and if your computer is “older,”  it will slow you down.

Large files take longer to download. Those files will take Photoshop more time to open, render and save.

If you plan on shooting a lot of sports and are on the Mac platform, consider the faster real world speed of Firewire card reader (pictured on the left) instead of USB 2.0 interface.
Also consider investing in faster memory cards. SanDisk and Lexar make ones for professionals that “read” and “write” faster giving you higher performance for quicker bursts and faster downloading. Currently there are also firewire 800 interfaces for card readers.

A few seconds here and there may not seem like much, but over a 100 or 200 images, that will become significant.

The majority of  professional sports photographers do not tweak their images very much. They check sharpness, dodge and burn, caption, crop, save and they transmit.

Don’t forget you will be sorting and deciding on one  picture where you will need to identify all the players in it. So when you’re shooting, everytime you think you have a good action sequence, be sure to photograph the back of the jerseys of the players involved in the “play” to help you id them later.

Football and ice hockey players have an annoying knack of looking alike once they don their gear, or don’t you know that? If  that never occurred to you, don’t feel bad. I made that mistake when I was a rookie.

I ended up driving to the coach’s house with a wet print in hand at the eleventh hour. And mind you that was in the days when we shot film and made prints.


  • Expose well so that you don’t have to do much dodging and burning in Photoshop.
  • Stealing a peek every now and then to see how the histogram looks is fine, but don’t  make it a crutch.You might be draining your batteries or you might miss something you should be capturing in the camera.
  • Keep track of your memory cards by numbering them so that you know what order they were used.
Capturing a moment like this will be expected of you as you get better but correctly identifying all the visible faces in this picture is what makes readers appreciate your efforts more.
Canon F-1 body with 200 mm lens TriX BW 400 ISO film pushed to 3200 1/250 @f2.8

In photojournalism where deadlines are critical, the most recent pictures tend to be more important.  Game winning plays and post-game jubilation are such examples. Later, as you’re editing, you might find another player had a very good game with outstanding statistics, then go back and look for extraordinary images of that player.

Editing & Writing


Use the team roster

Open the picture you took earlier of the team rosters. Minimize it and keep that handy. You’ll be referring to that for correct spellings and jersey numbers.

Don’t sweat the color

Most photographers don’t try to fine-tune the color because they are not in the most “ideal” locations when working on their pictures.

Pick the picture you like

If you’re told they need only one picture,  pick the one you like the most. Remember, the editors at the paper weren’t there.

From the sidelines of a LA Raiders game.–yours truly, listening to the game on radio holding a Nikon F3 with a 400mm f2.8 on a monopod.
On the ground next to me is a F4 with a 300mm f4 and around my neck another F3 with 85 mm f1.4 lens.
So how many rolls of film did I blow through in a typical game?
Strangely if I shot more than 6 36-exposure-rolls of film, it usually meant I didn’t have a good game. That was my magic number. When I went through too much film, it meant I wasn’t getting into position and anticipating well and was getting desperate instead of concentrating and being in the right spot for a big play.

They may ask if you have this and that, but in the end, it’s your name that goes underneath the picture. You should feel good about your choice. In all my years at the paper, I lived by that motto. It has always worked  for me. The trouble with giving in to what the editors want is this: they have a picture in mind and that’s a tainted, it’s not necessarily the best picture. You were there, only you can be the judge of that.

Identifying people

Whenever possible, identify people in your pictures left to right.

Names with ages and the city they live in and other facts which might add to the picture. In the case of a soccer game, the name and the player’s position e.g  AC Milan midfielder Ronaldinho (left) celebrates with teammate Kaka after scoring the equilizer in the dying minutes of the game against Barcelona.

There may be more to this but generally speaking, after you hit click the mouse to “Send” or the “Return” key to transmit your picture, you can relax.

Call your supervisor/photo editor to make sure they receive it after a few minutes and go grab a cold one.

You’ve deserve it. Making deadline may not seem like a big deal but sports photographers are constantly juggling how much time to spend shooting and how much time to leave in order to make deadlines.

If I’ve left out anything or haven’t explained something well, leave me a comment and I’ll be glad to explain further.

7 thoughts on “Freelancing for Newspapers–Part 3”

  1. Hello Nick,
    You’re being too kind to a stranger with your words. I’ve gone ahead and filed away your suggestion on “Things that can go wrong or disasters”

    It’s an excellent idea.

    Beautiful work on your website by the way. I wish it had more info about you. I understand the need for privacy and all, but it’s nice to include something so your visitors can learn about the person behind the imagery.

    I’ll be contacting you as soon as I finish that post. Thanks again for your time and comment.

  2. Peter, pretty cool writing there! I’ve been a pj for quite a while and I still find it entertaining to read others outlook on our biz. You should think of writing a pitfalls article on all of the things that can and DO go wrong for us… wifi crash, computer malfunction, dead battery, oops I forgot my… and so on. I have so many people approach me after games and ask also how to get into what I do. I always tell them that what you see me doing is only a tiny percentage of the work that goes into sports photography. They all seem to think that we shoot, submit and SCORE!!! (Sorry could pass that one up) Anyway you did touch on a few things that can go bad. I remember the first time I made it to the “Big Leagues” and after an hour into it all I wanted to do was go fetal in front of 70,000 fans. It was my first big opportunity and EVERYTHING that could possibly go wrong went not just wrong but terribly wrong. The only good thing that came out of that was it set the standard for bad days SO high that everything since has been easy money. I don’t want to discourage people from doing what we do I just want them to be fully prepared and have total disclosure that as fun as it looks, just know we’re all sweating bullets underneath the calm

  3. Hello Michael,
    I’m so pleased you took the time to add a comment. As I write this, I realize more guys are interested in sports than gals. I hope you tell your friends about my site. If you have questions and if you’d like to share your pictures, that will be great as well. I can then use your pictures to illustrate what I think might work.

  4. Excellent article. It’s very helpful with a lot of practical information. I’ll now have to look for parts 1 and 2. I think that I will be spending a lot more time on your site. Thanks for sharing with us.

  5. Steve,
    Best advice I can give you is to work your way up. I would start with high schools. Befriend the booster club or parent/coach and offer your pictures in exchange for access. As you get better, make prints and keep them handy to show the Athletic Director of local community colleges and so on. Access is the most difficult aspect of being a sports photographer or any sort of photography in general.

    In the beginning when you have no work to show, you’ll have to do work for free. But once you’ve establish your ability, getting credentials will be easier.

  6. I’m curious how you can get close enough to shoot the action as a newbie? What is your secret to getting on the field or better access?

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