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Gene Lower is the team photographer for the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals. Gene turned 39 last Sunday, and he chose (voluntarily) to spend his special day with me — a self titled nutjob football fan, and someone he’s never met in person before. Ok, so Gene needed to be in New Jersey that day for work, because his Cardinals were in town playing the New York Jets. But when the 2012 NFL schedule was released, Gene reached out and invited me to assist him for the day, on the sidelines, for Sunday’s game. (Gene also owns or manages no less than *eight* different PhotoShelter accounts, including an account he has for the Cardinals photos, his personal account, and multiple accounts that he manages for individual athletes’ private photos as well as corporations, which is a service Gene provides on the side.)
I jumped at the chance to join Gene for two big reasons. 1) Since my promotion to CEO of PhotoShelter earlier this year, I’ve tried to take every possible opportunity to dig deep into how our members operate their photo businesses, both on and off our platform. This would be amazing on-the-job exposure to see how Gene gets it done. 2) Having attended more than 100 NFL games throughout my lifetime, I’d never once had the chance to be on the sidelines. As adults, I think we can all admit that there are less and less things that make us ridiculously giddy with excitement anymore. So this was one of those rare, “we’re going to Disneyworld” type moments. I knew that getting up close and personal on the field for a real NFL game would be an immense treat, and having learned that I was a big football fan, Gene extended the invitation.
Gene has been shooting for the Cardinals for over 12 years and there’s a good chance you’d recognize many of his best images, but none more than this iconic photo of Pat Tillman, the standout Cardinals safety who became a US Army Ranger following the 9/11 attacks, and was sadly killed in action. The Cardinals actually immortalized Pat by making a statue from this photo, which now stands outside their stadium in Phoenix.
Now Gene’s invite wasn’t simply “come hang out with me while I work.” He was looking for a grip to be at his side for the away game. His instructions were: “Wear comfortable shoes because we’ll be moving the whole game, and you’ll probably be carrying some equipment, calling out plays in my ear, and writing down codes throughout the game.” So, I promised myself not to get too starry eyed, play it cool, and try to make Gene’s day a little easier.
I arrived at MetLife Stadium two hours before gametime, picked up my media credentials (Yes, it did feel super cool to say “I’m with the Arizona Cardinals” as I asked for my pass.) And then I picked up my NFL “working vest.” While the media photographers were given beige vests, the visiting team photographers we were given fluorescent green ones to identify that we had a bit more access to the team in key locations on the field. You couldn’t miss us.
It turns out, gear-wise, Gene travels pretty light for away games. He had a Canon 5D Mark II with his 400 mm f/2.8 lens, which is pretty standard for shooting the action of a football game from the sidelines. In addition, he had his Canon 1D Mark II with a fixed 28 mm f/1.8 short lens for capturing individual player features and stories as they unfolded up close, like players praying before the game, emotional high fives and dancing players after big plays, and other drama that played out off the field. The short lens was also useful for capturing game details like equipment (i.e. balls and helmets) that could later be used in marketing materials and as stock.
I deliberately left my own camera at home, because as the assistant, I didn’t want my own gear to interfere with Gene’s job. But I couldn’t resist the opportunity to snap a few iPhone pics for Instagram before the action started.
During pre-game warmups, Gene captured a few shots of players getting ready for the game, and it was a great chance for me to get to know him better and work out my own rookie jitters. I allowed myself a few minutes to appreciate the sheer size of these guys on the field. Even the quarterbacks are really big dudes. And then I started riddling Gene with questions. The first “client” in line for Gene’s game photos is the Cardinals team website. The website is updated throughout the game with fresh photos. As such, Gene must review his images at every break in the action and be prepared to hand his memory card off to a runner from the team. I helped by keeping notes – writing down the file number and player featured in the best shots. This helped the web team zero in on the right images to post quickly online. By halftime, Gene would have highlighted about 20 to 30 images ready to go online. Beyond this immediate need, Gene must be thinking about upwards of 50 different types of usages for his images following the game — from programs and other souvenirs, to Cardinals marketing, to stadium signage and environmental decor. Following the game, Gene will do a full edit via Photoshop on the plane ride home, and he then places the selects on the team’s PhotoShelter account in a new gallery, where all of the various Cardinals departments who need access to the images have permission to download the high res originals.
The game moves really quickly – we would shift mostly from the endzone to the 20 yard line on one end of the field, then when the ball changed hands we’d quickly move to the 20 yard line and end zone on the opposite end. Watching Gene work, the number one talent that was obvious was his knack for anticipation. It’s the same reason NFL players and coaches watch film while preparing for a game — knowing the players, their habits, and knowing the game *incredibly* well enabled Gene to position himself properly and key in on individual players before the action unfolded. With the 400 mm lens, you’re pretty much committing to a tight shot of a specific player or expecting a play to unfold in a certain way, because it’s very hard to also keep track of what’s happening outside your field of view and shift quickly to elsewhere on the field. That’s another spot where I was able to help a bit — Gene asked me to continuously call out the play to alert him to shift his focus elsewhere. For instance, if Gene was focused in on, say, the Cardinals star wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, and the pass went to the opposite side of the field, calling it out would help Gene pivot in an attempt to capture the action.
I was very interested in how Gene approaches the game and how his perspective as the official team photographer varies compared to the editorial sports photographers I’ve spoken with in the past. It turns out, there are a bunch of very real differences. Because he travels with the team, Gene has developed close relationships with many of the players. They know when he’s around and clearly they like to entertain for the camera. He also gets special access, like being the only photographer permitted inside the team’s pregame huddle.
Another key difference was Gene’s chosen positions. For example, on a goal line play when the Jets were threatening to score, all the editorial shooters were clumped together near the endzone. Rather, Gene was in position on the opposite side of the play, in hopes of capturing a brilliant defensive stand by the Cardinals – the team certainly has no use for images of opponents scoring touchdowns. Also, for Gene, there really wasn’t any break in the action. Even when plays would end, Gene would frequently move back and forth from the sideline to the bench, equally as interested in the off-field interactions and antics. He was also deliberately mindful of other in-game storylines, like capturing photos of the Cardinals brand-new center starting his first game for the team.
Now, the game itself wasn’t exactly a barn burner — the final score was 7-6 in favor of the Jets and both teams suffered from less-than-stellar quarterback play. The crowd was small and relatively quiet too, many having given up on the hometown Jets. But despite this lack of intense action, Gene was able to produce some outstanding images showing the emotion of the day – from the pregame hope, to celebrations of big plays, to the disappointment with the outcome.
And if you look carefully, no matter what the score was, you can see in my eyes the unmistakable giddiness of a little kid on the sidelines of an NFL game for the very first time. And for this I’m especially grateful for the chance to have spent the day watching my new friend Gene Lower do his job.