Photo by Al Golub
When watching professional football on television, you might catch a glimpse of phalanxes of photographers on the sidelines. I remember one of the first 49er games I shot. I was shoulder to shoulder with other photographers on the sideline. A guy on my left had a dinky little point-and-shoot camera, and I figured he got a sideline pass from some friend who worked for the ’Niners. Sure enough, when a great play happened right in front of us, the guy let out an earsplitting cheer that caused me and every other photographer nearby to wince. The photographer to my right, who looked like a seasoned veteran, turned to him, pointed back toward the stands and said: “If you’re going to do that, you’re going to have to go back there.”
Most people think that being a photographer at an NFL game is great fun. You get in free to see the pros play up close and personal. But it’s a lot of work, and you don’t have time to watch the game like a spectator.
Several years ago we stopped sending a staff photographer to the San Francisco 49er and Oakland Raider games because of budget and staff cuts. We relied on wire services for those photos. In 2007 we made a deal with veteran photographer Al Golub to shoot the home games for us so that we can produce photo galleries for our online edition, Recordnet.com. Golub would get the credentialing and backing from the Record, and we would get a package of up to about 20 photos. He’s been shooting ’Niner and Raider football for us each season since 2007.
Golub is one of the most experienced photojournalists in Northern California. He’s one of those guys who has forgotten more about photography than many photographers will ever learn in their careers. Golub started his photography career in the military in 1963. He moved onto the Modesto Bee in 1966 as a staff photographer. In the 1980s he was made chief photographer and spent his last 20 years at the Bee as the director of photography until he retired in 2005.
Golub, who has shot everything from high school football to the pros, says there are two main differences between the two: access and speed. First of all, many pro teams restrict where and how photographers can be on the sidelines, while high school games have pretty much freedom of movement. San Francisco and Oakland are atypical in that moving up and down the sidelines is more or less unrestricted, but all the photographers have to be down on one knee while they shoot (but they must be able to get up quickly in case a player runs out of bounds during a play). This allows the fans to see, and, more importantly, it gives television cameras an unfettered view of the field.
The second difference is speed. The pro players are so much faster than the amateurs. College players are about 2 times faster than high school players, and the pros are about twice as fast as the college level, which makes pro athletes about 4 times faster than your typical prep player. Golub says being on your toes and concentration are keys to getting a good shot.
Golub says he likes to get to the games a minimum of 2 hours before their start. After a long drive from his home in the foothills to the Bay Area, he likes to take an hour or so to rest and relax before the game, and it takes him another hour or so to ready his equipment.
Golub usually shoots with two Nikon D3 DSLR cameras. One is on a 400mm f/2.8 lens with a 1.4 telextender for those long telephoto shots, and the other is equipped with a 70-200mm zoom for the action that happens closer. He used shoot with a 3rd camera with a wide angle lens, but it just got too be to cumbersome to handle.
Golub says that one has to really know the game to anticipate where the action is going to be. While some shooters like to root themselves at the end zones and shoot down the field toward the opposite end with super long lenses (600mm or larger), he prefers to follow the action so that it is almost parallel to his position. Only when the teams get down to the end zone does he move there to get the action coming toward him.
For Golub, what makes a good football photo is getting in close to the action. “I like to get the runners and defensive team’s faces. A really great picture makes the viewer feel like they’re right there.”
Once the game starts, the fans, cheerleaders and TV cameras become distractions. This is where arriving early and resting comes into play. Being rested and ready helps him to stay focused on his tasks at hand. Network television cameras are omnipresent. Not only are they behind the still photographers, but there are also camera crews that have free reign up and down the field in front of the photographers, as well. “The NFL video guys can get right in front of you and block you. Because I’m a professional I stay focused and sometimes a little hole will open in front of you.”
For the photographers who cover the games on a regular basis, there is a fellowship that develops on the sidelines. “In the early days when I was a kid from the Valley … the SF types were like ‘what are you doing here? This is our team.’ I kind of developed a protection attitude, so I shot from the opposing team side. But after a few years they got to know me. Some of these guys I’ve known for more than 20 years now … there’s an enormous amount of camaraderie.”
At the same time there is a friendly competition among the photographers as well. In the old days of film, they would try to one-up each other in fish-story style on getting a shot of a spectacular play, a sort of photographic “liars poker.’” With the digital age, one can easily call the other’s bluff with a simple “chimp” (viewing the picture on the camera’s monitor).
At 70, Golub, an accomplished photographer who still shoots with the enthusiasm of a much-younger man, has nothing to prove to anyone. “There are guys who are really good shooters … but the competition is within myself to try to get something better than the last time.”