Contributed article by Darren Carroll
I used to tell people that I thought golf was one of the hardest sports to photograph–but when their laughter got to be too much, I started to ponder their reaction.
Maybe they had a point. I mean, the player isn’t exactly moving very fast, like, say, in hockey. You don’t have to make any split-second decisions about which player to follow like you might at a football game. There’s not really a ball to follow like there is in basketball, and the game isn’t very cerebral (at least for a photographer), like baseball. It’s all pretty much right there in front of you–player stands there, people get quiet, player hits ball, player walks to ball and does it again.
So I began to reconsider. And I arrived at the conclusion that I still give people who ask today. And it’s this:
Golf is, in fact, the easiest sport to shoot. But the very reasons that make it the easiest sport to shoot make it the hardest sport to shoot well.
Now, I’m not saying that I have all the insight into photographing golf well, nor do I have the market cornered on it. What I’ve attempted to do below is provide a bit of information that will lay the groundwork for shooting golf–the easy stuff, if you will. Once you’ve digested that, you’ll be in a better position to take the stuff I can’t give you–your eye and your talent–and apply it to your work out on the course.
Anybody can photograph golf. Really. It’s very simple to just stand there and shoot people doing the same repetitive thing over and over again, pointing a lens at a guy swinging a club and firing off a salvo of motor-driven frames as soon as he wraps the club behind his head. I see lots of people doing just that every time I cover a golf tournament.
It’s another thing entirely, however, to shoot golf well,
I’m going to start off with these to get them out of the way, because everything else that I say is going to be predicated upon your following the “rules” of golf photography. They’re pretty straightforward, and when you think about it, they all boil down to one thing:
Do not distract a player. Ever.
That’s it. Simple as that. Golf is a much different sport to cover than just about anything else–it’s rather solitary, as the player is really battling himself more than anyone else, and he has no teammates to rely on; the crowds, while large, are generally quiet, and the players expect to be able to concentrate without distraction.
If you can remember that one simple concept, the rest is all common sense. But there are some things we can put down in writing to help illustrate the point.
First, stay close to the ropes. An “arm’s length” is the accepted standard, and generally speaking that works pretty well.
Next, don’t move until after each player has hit. There’s always a tendency to forget that there’s more than one player in a group with, say, Tiger Woods, in it. As soon as he hits, gallery and photographers alike want to head to the next shot, forgetting that there still may be other players in the group who haven’t hit yet.
Stay out of what’s known as the player’s “line.” If you can draw a straight line between yourself, the hole, and the player while on the putting green, you’re in the wrong place.
Maintain some situational awareness on the course. Lots of times tee boxes and putting greens are right next to each other, and the noise from your camera or your moving around while following one group can distract someone in a group nearby. So be careful.
And finally, there’s something that I like to call “minimizing your presence.” In other words, do as little as you can to remind the golfer that you’re there, while still being able to do your work. Don’t call attention to yourself. That means, for example, that you don’t shoot during a practice swing. It also means that if a golfer is lining up a putt, it’s okay to squeeze off a frame. There’s no reason to rattle off ten in a row.
There is one rule, though, that I feel the need to separate out on its own. In fact, I think it needs its own section devoted to it.
The rule is this: Do not fire until the player has made contact with the ball.
Again, pretty simple. And as with everything, not as simple as it sounds. Which leads us to…
There. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s move on…
I’m a Canon guy. For all of the amazing things a Nikon D3 can do (and there are a lot of them), there’s one thing a Canon Mark III (or II, for that matter) has that a Nikon doesn’t: The “S” setting, where the shutter doesn’t advance until you let go of the trigger button. This is a very good thing to have when covering golf.
But it’s not the be-all and end-all. If you have Nikon, that’s no reason to switch. It is, however, a reason to be a lot more careful about when you shoot on the backswing…At the same time, Nikon has a 200-400mm lens that I would kill for–but again, I don’t think that’s a reason to switch.
Some people swear by a 500mm for their long lens. I think that’s a little too tight, and prefer to go with a 400mm. Besides, I love to shoot back-lit, so I appreciate the extra stop a 2.8 lens gives me without having to sacrifice shutter speed or a higher ISO setting.
When out on the course my kit generally consists of the following:
Believe it or not, the above gear works for about 90% of my needs. But that other 10% of the time there are a few things I don’t want to be without, and so I carry the following using a Think Tank belt system:
AND…if that’s not enough, depending on the course, time of day, assignment, etc. I might also bring the following with me:
Nikon 500mm f8 mirror lens adapted to a Canon EF mount
Canon 15mm, and a 6-foot remote trigger wire (for mounting the camera on a monopod and shooting over the gallery)
Canon 300mm f4, (particularly for match play, when I’m concerned more with the reaction of the players than I am with making stock action images.)
When I have the luxury of working with an assistant, I’ll also bring along another Mark III with a 600mm f/4.
THE EQUIPMENT SECTION FOR NON-PHOTO GEEKS
There’s more to it than camera gear, of course. Golf is different from many other sports in that it’s played outdoors, under varying conditions and over uneven terrain. Not to mention that it’s a hell of a long walk, and that your day on the course can last all day long without a chance for a break.
With that in mind, there are several other things I always have with me that help make life easier: waterproof, Gore-Tex shoes (the grass is usually wet early in the morning, and there’s nothing worse than walking around for an entire day with wet socks on. Buy shoes that are meant for long treks–I find that those made by Salomon and Montrail both possess a good combination of wearability, breathability and comfort.
Rain gear is a must-have as well–and don’t skimp on it. The best-made camera rain covers out there, made by Think Tank and Aquatech, can withstand hours of steady rain . All it takes is one drop in the wrong place, or a leaky seam, to ruin your day. When it comes to this critical piece of gear, you get what you pay for. So spend the money.
Also spend the money on good Gore-Tex outerwear for yourself. Yes, a good set of rain pants and a jacket will run upwards of $500.00, but there’s a huge difference between working in the rain when you’re wet and miserable, and working in the rain when everybody else is wet and miserable but you’re bone dry. Pack-Lite materials crumple up nicely, and I have no trouble, on days when rain is imminent, carrying a full jacket and pair of rain pants in a belt pouch. Otherwise, I always bring a lightweight, water-resistant shell (one I normally use for running) with me, just in case.
Other things I like to keep with me: A small screwdriver, water, and either some trail mix or an energy bar or two. And one other absolute essential: Sunscreen. You’re going to be outside for a long time if you cover golf. Regular exposure to the sun means you need to protect yourself. This is another thing you shouldn’t skimp on.
AND NOW MORE OF THE PHOTO-GEEKY PART. HOW TO SHOOT IT.
Generally, the ball and the club can’t be frozen below 1/2000th of a second. That’s not, however, to say that you need to shoot that fast all the time. In fact, I prefer a little motion blur on the club and the ball. What you have to watch out for, though, is the speed at which a player’s head moves as he follows through. Especially with the more sensitive sensors in today’s digital cameras, motion blur is a lot more prevalent at shutter speeds we would normally think of as “safe.” I’ve seen heads begin to blur with movement at as low as 1/640th; as a rule, then, I try not to go below that when shooting with long glass.
Here’s the problem, though: Thanks to the vagaries of different camera and sensors, I can’t tell you what they are. Mine are going to be different from yours. Mine are generally 1/800th at f2.8 backlit, 1/1600th at f3.2 side-lit, and 1/2500th at f4 front-lit all at ISO 200, but that’s no guarantee your cameras will behave similarly. Play around a bit. Watch how the sun falls on your subject. The more you experiment, the more I think you’ll find that it all boils down to those three consistent exposures.
Of course, there are several things that could affect your exposure one way or another. For example, a bunker often acts as a giant reflector, with the sand kicking up a bit of fill light into your subject’s face. Always be on the lookout for subtle changes in the quality of light around your subject, and compensate accordingly.
Shooting golf is all about timing. Sure, today’s fancy cameras can get up to 10 frames per second. But none of that matters unless you can time the moment of impact (or, perhaps, a similar moment in time that you’re trying capture during the player’s swing). Just mashing the button down and praying is more likely than not going to result an a couple dozen poorly-timed pictures. So here’s my advice:
That’s right, lose the motor drive. If you think about it, there are really only three things you need from a person hitting a golf ball: impact (or shortly thereafter), follow-through, and reaction. Inbetween those things are a lot of wasted frames, an abundance of ones and zeroes, and, if you’re an editor wading through a take of 3,000 images when there really only needed to be about 500, an immense waste of time. Look at the sequence of Michael Allen below.
Instead, head to the driving range, where the rules can be a little looser about shooting before contact. Watch the players. Practice shooting, one frame at a time, until you’re confident that you can time a shot at just after impact. There are several things that you’ll need to take into account, not least of which is the lag time on your own camera, but also the swing speed, which varies from player to player and club to club. But with enough practice and observation, you’ll get to the point where you can confidently estimate exactly the point at which you need to depress the trigger button to stop the swing exactly where you want it.
WHERE TO SHOOT FROM?
There are generally three things I look for when evaluating where to shoot a golfer from, in this order: 1. Backgrounds. 2 Light direction. 3. Position relative to the golfer. Those are listed in order of importance, so let’s take them that way.
BACKGROUND: Is it clean? If so, proceed to step 2 and evaluate the light. Is it messy? Is there a big, white blob of a tent back behind the golfer? A marshal with a “Quiet” sign? An unoccupied bright red canvas lawn chair? Or, conversely, is it so barren that you’re just shooting into a dazzlingly bright white sky? Then it’s time to move somewhere else, all the while keeping in mind…
THE LIGHT. Where is it coming from? And what time of day is it? Late afternoon or early morning front light can be magical, but the higher the sun gets the more a player’s cap or visor will cast a shadow over their face. The way to alleviate that is to try and keep the sun behind them once it gets too high to be of any use.
Photo by Darren Carroll
RELATIVE POSTITIONING. Imagine a golfer in your viewfinder. If your goal is to keep the golfer, the club, and the ball in the frame, where does he need to be? Assume you’re shooting a right-handed golfer, and imagine the swing. The ball, and the club, move from the left side of the frame to the right. Not only that, but when the player follows through, his arms will move higher on the left side of his body as he brings the club around. In all of these instances, it is much better , then, to be on the left side of the golfer (as you’re looking at him) than the right. Look at the shots of Tiger below, and you’ll see what I mean. In the photo on the left, staying on the left side kept the ball and the club in the frame. If you shoot from the other side, the ball moves toward the left side (you can barely see it against the edge of the frame)–and it moves quickly, since it’s spending half the “time” in the frame as it would from the other side. Notice, too, how and his face is partially obscured. Later on (although you can’t see it in this particular image), his arms will come across his body and block the face on the follow-through.
So putting those things together, my favorite place to be would be: Dark, clean background, backlit, shooting low, from the golfer’s right-hand (or my left) side. Of course things don’t always work out that way, and if I shot everything that way it would all look the same now, wouldn’t it? But keeping those things in mind is a good place to start. Once you’ve seen how isolating your subject by cleaning up the background and using the light, and your position relative to the subject, to your advantage works, you’ll be more than ready to take some chances with different things.
KNOW THY SUBJECT
The more you cover golf, the more you’ll learn about many of the personalities involved. And that familiarity is even more important when it comes to covering a tournament, as golf is (again) unique in that we, the media, are often literally in the field of play, accessible to the players and, consequently, able to affect the outcome of the event in some way. Therefore, it helps to know players’ tendencies, idiosyncrasies, and whatnot. For example:
Knowledge of a particular element of their swing helps. If you’re shooting Paula Creamer, for example, hitting a tee shot and you’re not expecting her left shoulder and her head to drop precipitously downward at impact (and therefore lower your framing accordingly), you’ll have a lot of pretty useless images where her face is cut off at the bottom of the frame. If you try to shoot a tight vertical of Justin Leonard as he habitually “flattens out” his follow through off to the side, you’ll cut off a lot of clubheads. If you observe Bernhard Langer long enough you’ll notice that his face contorts into a giant mess of unspooled energy and concentration not at, but shortly after, impact and that he does it just as he picks his head up, opening his face to the camera.
Knowing how a player tends to react can help as well. Common sense tells you to always position yourself so you can see a player’s face when putting, to get the reaction. But when Tiger Woods sinks a particularly big one, he usually spins around in a 180 degree arc. I’ve been on both the good and bad sides of that–at the 2005 Masters, I had a perfect view of Tiger’s rear end until he spun around after making his putt to win in a playoff; at the 2008 US Open I had a perfect view of his face until he spun around, giving me the sharpest frame of the back of his head I’ve ever made. It happens. At the same time, you will never get an energetic, fist-pumping reaction photo from Steve Stricker or Chad Campbell. Knowing that can help you make the decision to concentrate on other things, or perhaps look for a picture elsewhere.
So a working knowledge of the players you’re covering greatly enhances your ability to make pictures. Try to observe, and learn about, the people you’re covering.
THAT ALL SOUNDS GREAT IF YOU’RE AT A PGA TOUR EVENT. BUT WHAT IF THIS ISN’T A PROFESSIONAL GOLF TOURNAMENT?
Whether it’s your local club championship, a charity pro-am, or a high school match, everything I’ve told you above still applies–if not more so. Many non-professional matches are played on courses where backgrounds are a huge problem: houses, chain link fences, golf carts, and a host of other things that ruin an otherwise good image are in abundance. In fact, you’ll find that you need to actually work harder to make a decent image at events such as these, for precisely that reason.
Another thing you’ll have to work harder at is minimizing your presence. At a local event (or even “minor league” professional events), there’s little, if any, gallery to lose yourself in; walking around with one camera around your neck and a giant lens on your shoulder makes you stick out like a sore thumb. And the noise from your camera can be nerve-wracking–especially if you have golfers who aren’t used to having action photos taken.
Keep in mind that here are no ropes at these kinds of events, either. It’s up to you to use your best judgment as to where to position yourself. This can be both a blessing and a curse; sure, you’re not “locked in” to a well-defined range of positions, but at the same time, the players probably aren’t expecting you to be where you are. Be prepared to move if asked, as you probably will be more than once.
One other thing about positioning yourself at a non-pro event: be careful. Professional golfers practice for hours on end to be able to strike a ball with predictable, repeatable precision. As such, we tend to place a lot of trust in them–I mean, would you otherwise even contemplate standing 20 feet in front, and 10 feet off to the side, of someone using a slab of metal at the end of a spaghetti-like shaft to send missiles hurtling past your head at upwards of 150 mph?
The PGA Tour likes to tout that “These Guys Are Good,” when it comes to its players. And they are. So it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that in contrast to them, the vast majority of golfers are not. I wouldn’t be caught dead shooting a country club event from my “normal” spots at pro events. Golf at the amateur, charity, or “fun” level can be just plain dangerous. So be careful.
Golf isn’t all about tight shots of people swinging clubs, however. Sure, that’s the bread-and-butter of it all, but that’s by no means all there is to shoot.
Don’t be afraid to pull back and shoot wide–give your audience a sense of place. There are certain courses and locations (the British Open comes to mind) where this is especially true. Golf is unique in that the venue is oftentimes as important as the tournament itself, and it’s in your best interest to capture that as well.
Darren Carroll is an Austin, Texas based commercial portrait photographer who also spends a lot of time covering the major professional golf tours for Sports Illustrated and Golf Digest magazines. You can view more of his work at www.darrencarroll.com
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