Thursday, November 12, 2009

Football is football is football. Right?

Football at all levels, from high school to the pros, is reaching a pinnacle right now. Professional football is at the halfway mark. The Minnesota State High School football tournament starts today around the state, and the Minnesota State University football team will host a NCAA tournament game for the first time Saturday at Blakeslee Stadium. It's an exciting month for football.

In general, football is football. The basic rules are the same at all levels. Score touchdowns and field goals while keeping your opponent from doing the same. Certainly this is true, but the game is obviously made different by the level at which it is being played.

Over the last month I've photographed football at all three levels: Professional (Green Bay vs. Minnesota at the Dome Oct. 5), Division II college (Minnesota State) and high school (Mankato East & West, among a host of others). Each game at each level presents unique challenges for me as a photographer, and my approach to the game is different for each one.

I was fortunate/unfortunate enough to photograph the Monday Night Football tilt in October between the Green Bay Packers and the Minnesota Vikings, a fairly rare assignment for the Free Press. Those of you who know me know I'm a Packer fan at heart, but live in a Viking world, so the whole Favre-drama-playing-his-old-team-who's-gonna-win thing was certainly not lost on me. It's a rare thing for the Free Press to send me to such an event, so I certainly wanted to show up with my A+ game, so add that to the level of nerves flowing through me at the time. Add to that the more than 100 credentialed photographers, the VIPs, the on-air TV talent roving the sidelines and you have a crowded house full of restrictions to navigate, on deadline.

Just a few photographers trying to get a picture of Vikings Brett Favre at the same time.

Again, while the basics are the same (I use a similar equipment setup for all three), shooting the much faster and more crowded professional football game takes a different approach. I spend more time in the back of one end zone or the other so I have clearer sight lines past all the other photographers, VIPs and guys carrying big parabolic dishes. Being on deadline, I chose to sacrifice much of the third quarter to transmit photos back to the paper, then return to shoot the fourth quarter and post game.

Busy sideline.

Minnesota State football is a much different game, and I take a different approach to it. While I like to shoot from the end zones at Blakeslee Stadium too, I tend to move up and down the field with the play a bit more. Since they are a team I cover more often, I do my best to get to know who the key players are and the style of offense and defense so I can be watching the right people at the right times. I also have more freedom to move in among the players if I need to for brief periods to get pictures of coaches or specific players, something that would get me promptly thrown out of a Vikings game.

Shooting from the back of the end zone gets players like MSU running back Ernest Walker coming right at the viewer.

Photos like this one of MSU receiver Chris Nowlin are made easier by knowing the team's tendencies.

Shooting the Mankato East vs. Mankato West football game is an even more different matter. Weather not withstanding, high school football offers the ultimate freedom. Freedom to move up and down the sidelines at will, mingle with players while looking for photos, go on the field after the game. That freedom often comes at a price, however. Most high school football games are at night under lights that don't quite light the field evenly or adequately (I often describe a field or gym that has some light, but not anywhere near enough as shooting in "available darkness"). I tend to shoot with shorter lenses and a flash and move up and down the sidelines with the play much more than while shooting college or pro football. The payoff, for me at least, is the raw emotions that come from high school players that seems to diminish as they move up in level.

The raw emotion of West football players after defeating crosstown rival Mankato East is a common thread in high school sports.

Photos like this one of a lineman's feet in the mud are more difficult to get when access is limited.

I find it funny that the photographers I know who regularly shoot professional sports, with few exceptions, say high school sports are their favorite things to photograph, while those that regularly shoot only high school or college sports say they'd love to shoot the pros.

Photographers that have to deal with the circus of professional sports regularly say that the access granted by high schools and most colleges allows an unmatched flexibility and creativity. This is very true. Those that don't deal with it as often find the circus atmosphere of the big game alluring.
I tend to live in both worlds, to some extent. While I don't photograph professional sports frequently, I am in the ring often enough to appreciate the big-ness of the event and be annoyed by it at the same time. I also do it often enough to realize how lucky I am to get to work with the great high schools and colleges of this area, who, with few exceptions, are willing to bend over backwards to help me do my job to the best of my ability.

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