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Peter Read Miller on Shooting Football for Sports Illustrated

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Photographer Peter Read Miller discusses some of the aspects of shooting football (and sports in general) that are specific to Sports Illustrated: how SI has adapted to changes in technology, what makes a picture work (or not work) for the magazine, and how SI covers the big games.
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San Francisco 49ers Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice grabs a deep ball for a touchdown in the Niners’ 1995 NFC Championship Game win over the Dallas Cowboys. This is a great example of a scene-setting photo that captures not only the action, but a sense of the game. The inset image shows how the shot ran in SI. One of the magazine’s trademarks is the ability to blend a great photo with a clever headline; another reason why art directors like wide shots, such as this one, is that there is plenty of room for copy.

Analog SLR, 50mm lens.

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My first digital photo to run in Sports Illustrated. Arizona State was playing at Nebraska in September of 2003.

Canon EOS-1D, Canon EF 400mm f2.8L lens, f2.8 @ 1/800, ISO 1600.

In the previous three chapters, I covered shooting football. In this chapter, I’ll discuss some of the aspects of shooting football (and sports in general) that are specific to Sports Illustrated: how SI has adapted to changes in technology, what makes a picture work (or not work) for the magazine, and how SI covers the big games.

Sports Illustrated Goes Digital

Sports Illustrated came late to the digital party. We didn’t feel the need to go digital as soon as the first pro DSLRs were available. Being a weekly publication, we had an extremely refined system for moving film to our offices in the Time-Life Building in New York City, processing and editing the film, and publishing the images in the magazine. When shooting a Sunday game on the West Coast, all we had to do was get the film to an airline counter-to-counter office an hour before the 10:00 P.M. red-eye flight, and it would be in New York by 6:30 A.M. Monday morning. Then it would be picked up at the airport, driven to the SI office, processed by the Time Inc. lab (conveniently located in the Time-Life Building), and be ready for editing by 9 A.M. when the editors came into the office Monday morning.

What if we couldn’t make it an hour before the flight? Well, we’d jump on the plane with it! Then we’d have lunch in New York City and fly home Monday night—those were the days! For an even tighter deadline, we’d charter a Learjet—those really were the days!

We started using digital mainly because the shots looked better at night. As television drove the scheduling of major sporting events deeper into the late afternoon and evening hours, we at Sports Illustrated struggled to find ways to shoot sharp, well-exposed photos under ever-worsening conditions.

When I started at SI, we shot on Kodak High Speed Ektachrome film. It had an ISO of 160, but our lab pushed the film to ISO 400. (“Pushing film” means developing it for a longer time or at a higher temperature to increase its sensitivity to light.) The only lens longer than 180mm with an aperture of f2.8 was the 300mm f2.8 lens made by Topcon. Technicians like Marty Forscher in New York or Rudy Ling in Los Angeles would cut down the mount to adapt it to our cameras. The Topcor was a great lens; at f2.8 it had a beautiful bokeh (the way the lens renders the out-of-focus areas in an image) and surprisingly pleasing vignetting (a slight darkening of the corners of the image). The problem was that the focusing mount turned backward relative to any other lens we used, and those were the days of totally manual focus.

  • We started using digital mainly because it looked better at night. As television drove the scheduling of major sporting events deeper into the late afternoon and evening hours, we at Sports Illustrated struggled to find ways to shoot sharp, well-exposed photos under ever-worsening conditions.

Our film choices evolved from Fuji 400 (pushed to 800) to Kodachrome 200 (pushed to 640 but with great quality) and then to color negative films from Kodak and Fuji, ending up at around ISO 2000–3200. Prints or contact sheets were never made from the color negatives because there was no time. Instead, our editors edited directly from the negatives; of course, all the colors were reversed, and the negatives had an overall orange cast so nothing looked right.

Finding a great shot or even getting the right team while editing a game shot on color negative film was truly an amazing feat of editing. When I pull out an old take of mine on color negative film, I marvel that anyone was able to make any sense of it at all—not to mention pulling out the key plays and action under extreme time pressure. This is yet another tip of the cap to all the picture editors who plowed through my takes over the years.

SI’s current workflow has come a long way from those days of color negative film and Learjets (I miss the latter, but not the former). Now each SI photographer is issued a laptop computer equipped with proprietary software developed at Time Inc. called Opus. To use Opus to transmit an assignment, the photographer first creates a small XMP file containing the basic caption for the assignment. This includes the photographer’s name, the assignment, the date, the location, and a number (referred to as an “X” number because the first character is X) that is the unique identifier for each assignment.

The photographer then sets up the computer to ingest image files. Opus can ingest directly from memory cards through card readers, which is the most common and straightforward way to use the system. It can also ingest files from an external drive or from a folder on the laptop. As Opus ingests the RAW image files (see the next section, “Why We Shoot RAW at SI”), it creates a small JPEG file from each image and adds the caption data from the XMP file. It also renames the RAW file to match its JPEG counterpart.

By this point, the photographer hopefully has his computer connected to the internet with a reasonably fast connection. Media room wi-fi, hotel room internet, 4G cards, airplane wi-fi, and Starbucks—SI shooters have used them all with varying degrees of success and failure. At the end of the day, wherever you are, you need to get those JPEGs uploaded to the SI servers as quickly as possible.

Once the JPEGs are on the server, SI picture editors make their selections. Opus will then retrieve the RAW files of the selects from the photographer’s laptop. Smartly, this avoids moving the tons of data that make up a complete take of RAW files, which for a football game shot with a pro camera like a Canon EOS-1D X can be upward of 50 GB.

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