When it comes to sports photography, Athlon Sports knows what they’re talking about. The media company has published a monthly publication as well as preseason annuals covering professional and college athletics for 43 years, and Tim Clark has been the photo editor for 13 of them. I sat down with Tim to figure out what a sports photographer needs to stand out from the rest and get hired for a game these days.
Photography is integral to Athlon Sports’ publications and website. What exactly are you looking for?
Our publications are very heavy on photography — all the magazines are photo dominated and we want a lot of full-page pictures in all the annuals (preview magazines with regionalized custom covers). The print publications require high quality imagery. A lot of images can be made to look good on the web, but the same cannot be said for print.
When collecting images for the publications, do you use staff photographers or do you hire freelancers?
We hire a lot of freelancers to shoot athlete portraits and game events. We probably hired for about 150 assignments last year. That being said, there’s a pretty good mix between hiring freelancers and buying stock photography. In a perfect world we’d shoot it all on assignment, but there are budgetary constraints.
Who makes a good hire for an Athlon assignment?
A photographer’s location is vital because I want to spend money on the photography, not on travel expenses. So if photographers are in the right place, it helps. If the assignment is critically important to me, then I want to hire someone I know because I’m confident that they’re going to deliver 100% of the time. Also, when photographers are out there on assignment, they’re representing Athlon Sports, so if I don’t know them then I have to make sure they conduct themselves professionally. They have to be legitimate and honest, and represent our company well. So I try to find recommendations, either on sites like SportsShooter or LinkedIn.
What about a photographer’s portfolio catches your eye?
Most of our assignments are game assignments, so I need someone that can produce 20-25 outstanding shots from one game. I’ve found in the past that looking at someone’s book might not tell me what I need to know because they collect photos from 30 different games. So I tell them to send me 20 pictures from any one game or event. That tells me what I need to know.
Also, it’s not who you shoot, it’s how you shoot it. I don’t care if you shoot Division III college sports. People think that you have to get into pro games, but that’s not really true. I’m a professional photographer too and I spent many years shooting high school football before I ever shot a college game.
And what about a photographer’s website?
I want to see pictures without having to click five times to get there through a bunch of subcategories. I also don’t like websites that load super slow. I want to see a good selection of pictures that are well displayed and easy to move between. I don’t like automated slideshows where I can’t stop and see what I want to.
How do you handle emails from unknown photographers?
My version of a perfect email from a new photographer will have my name, not just “photo editor”, and spell Athlon Sports correctly. Otherwise it makes me think that they don’t pay attention to detail. They should tell me where they are located, and it should have a couple of well-crafted sentences about what they want to do and their availability. If you just send me a link to your website, then I’m probably moving on to the next email. But if you can send me a picture that wows me, then I’ll go to your website to see more. You have to have a picture attached to it, and it has to be something that I want to look at twice and say, “Hey, that’s special.” Not that I expect you to produce that at every game, but it’s going to make me investigate further. I don’t want to see your portfolio right away; I want to ask for it first. I’ll call or email back if I like the photo and ask you to send me 20 pictures from one game.
Do you use social media or other networking sites to find new photographers?
I use LinkedIn to see who photographers are connected with and who else they know in the business. With new photographers, there’s always the worry that they’re going to do something to embarrass you. It’s a boost of confidence to me that they know how to handle themselves on a shoot. Obviously what’s most important is quality photography, but if they know someone that I know, then I’ll call or email them to learn more.
What are some red flags that a photographer is not a good choice?
When I have time, I read the message boards on a bunch of different photography sites. People who are rude and obnoxious online are probably going to be rude and obnoxious in real life. Another thing that immediately tells me that I don’t want to work with someone is if they say, “Give me a pass and I’ll shoot you a game for free.” That may seem odd, but if you offer to work for free, that tells me that you’re not professional. It shows no respect for their photography. If you’re looking for practice, go s hoot some high school games.
Does anyone use direct mail to get noticed anymore?
Direct mail is not dead. If I get a really cool one, I’ll stick it up on my wall for a while. But the vast majority of mail I get is not relevant for what I do. I also don’t want to see a postcard with 20 tiny pictures–I want to see one good picture. If you’re going to go through the effort to have something printed, then make it look professional and nice. A bunch of images on a 4×6 postcard are not going to get my attention.
If you had to give one piece of advice, given what you’ve seen in your career, what would it be?
It’s all the little things that matter more than people think: Are you polite and courteous? Do you deliver on-time and as promised? Did you listen to what I told you I wanted and did you produce that? Did you send a bill with the pictures and meet the budget we discussed? That’s how people get rehired.