Luck or Skill?

After shooting the Kansas City Chiefs game against the San Diego Chargers recently, another photographer and I were discussing the differences between luck and skill. Those are two things every good photographer has experience with.

End Zone Leap

End Zone Leap

Dropped Pass

Dropped Pass

Punt BLocked for TD

Punt BLocked for TD

After shooting the Kansas City Chiefs game against the San Diego Chargers recently, another photographer and I were discussing the differences between luck and skill. Those are two things every good photographer has experience with.

We got into this conversation while talking about the state of camera equipment these days. Years ago you had to understand ISO, shutter speed and aperture, as well as develop a skill at manual focus, to be able to shoot quality photos. Today, thanks the the tremendous advances in camera technology, anyone can make high quality photos by simply pointing and shooting. That’s had a negative impact on many working photographers, as they’ve found themselves competing with uncle Jim or aunt Gail. Those photographers who’ve remained successful have done so by showing added value in what they do.

Dave Black, one of the world’s best sports photographers, recently told me, “My grandmother could make good pictures at an NFL game if I gave her a Nikon D3 and 600mm lens.” And he’s right. The technology of auto exposure and autofocus has gotten so good that just about anybody could. And that’s where luck comes in. Anybody at any sports event with a good camera can get lucky and make a great photo. It’s just a matter of having the camera pointed in the right direction and happening to hit the shutter at the right moment. I’ve been the benefit of that myself many times, and am grateful. But good sports photographers have more than luck working for them. They must, because they always seem to be in the right place at the right time.

Those photographers use a combination of things to make them better than the others around them. First, they know the game and the players. They anticipate what’s going to happen, and that’s 90-percent of being in the right spot and prepared to make the shot. They think ahead. They play the odds. They put themselves in a position to make good pictures. That’s how I was able to get the shot of the blocked punt and resulting touchdown by San Diego. I was in the right spot and ready.

They also know their equipment. They know how to massage the autofocus settings to make the system perform the way they want. They keep a close eye on the amount of light and their shutter speed, adjusting the ISO when needed. They use pro-level bodies and lenses to have fast frame rates, fast apertures and dependability and toughness in cold and rain. At this game I used a Nikon D3 and 200-400 f/4 zoom, and despite a steady downpour during the second half, was able to keep shooting. Mainly because rain was forecast and so not only was I dressed properly, but I had Thinktank Photo’s excellent Hydrophobia rain cover protecting my camera and lens.

Most important, they pay attention. If a team’s got a good chance to score, they’re near the end zone with several cameras, at least one with a telephoto and the second with a wide-angle. That way they’re ready to make the shot whether it’s ten or one-hundred feet away.

For twenty years I covered every season of the Buffalo Bills for my paper in upstate New York. Now most of my time is spent teaching and writing, and I shoot much less. Thank goodness for autofocus! I still know where to be at a game, and still have a fair amount of luck working for me. Those great sports photographers rely on skill and a bit of luck. Me, I rely on a lot of luck now. As an old friend says, “I’d rather be lucky than good!”

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