In an NFL game on Nov. 30, New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. made a spectacular one-handed, fingertip catch of a 43-yard pass at the goal line over Dallas Cowboy’s Brandon Carr. A photo of the play went viral on Twitter not just because it was a shot of a great moment (which it was), but rather because of what was in the background.
The photo, shot by Associated Press’ Kathy Willens, shows photographer Andrew Mills with NJ Advance Media at NJ.com on the sidelines with the play happening in front of him. He had one camera hanging on its strap around his neck, another with a long lens on a monopod tucked in the crook of his left elbow and a third camera with a shorter telephoto lens held in both hands at chest level away from his eye with a startled look on his face just at the moment of peak action. It looks as if that he’s missed the shot and that’s what most people who viewed it on Twitter thought. Many tweets ridiculed Mills and even suggested that he should be fired for missing the shot.
I think that many non-photographers believe that if you’re shooting a sporting event, you always get a shot of every single play. That’s simply impossible. Sports Illustrated knows this. They will send several photographers to a big game and even then they’ll use photos from wire services if their own shooters miss a big play. Sometimes it comes down to as much luck as it does skill.
There are a number of factors for why you can’t get every shot. In most sports there are a any number of bodies, from players to referees, that are running around on the field and they often get in the way at the best, or depending on your perspective, worst moments. Quite often there are other people on the sidelines that, if you’re shooting downfield at a certain angle, can also obstruct one’s view.
Then there’s field position. Often in pro or high-level college football games the photographers are restricted on where they can stand. Usually they can’t be were the players and coaches are, typically between the 25 yard lines. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to run back and forth from one end of the field so many photographers only change sides at the quarter breaks. If a play happens at the opposite end of the field where a photographer’s stationed, then he/she has missed it, blocked by the aforementioned sideline traffic.
Then there are all the distractions that go along with an big game. From the cheerleaders, to the fans, to other photographers to TV camera operators there are a lot of things that vie for your attention.
Even if you’re vigilant the luck of the draw may be against you. For every photographer that is fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time, there’s another one who’s out of position. It can be at best very difficult to determine where the ball is going to be thrown or in what direction a runner will head. That’s just the way it goes. If you’re lucky the best you can hope for is to capture a couple of big plays or something that’s representative of the action in the game.
Getting back to Mills. While it may have looked like he completely missed the opportunity, he actually didn’t, at least not entirely. Mills posted a story on NJ.com titled “How everyone thought I missed the photo of Odell Beckham Jr.’s amazing touchdown catch … but I didn’t.” In it he says that at the start of the play he was using the long 500mm telephoto lens to photograph Giants QB Eli Manning throwing the pass. When Manning released the ball Mills quickly switched to a camera with a shorter 70-200mm telephoto zoom lens.
At first he had trouble finding which receiver the ball was thrown to then he spotted Beckham speeding down the sidelines towards him and began tracking him. But Beckham was closing on him too fast. Mills considered switching to a third camera fitted with a wide-angle lens but it was too late, the peak moment was about to happen. Shooting “from the hip” he fired of the camera with the moderate telephoto lens.
The look on Mills’ face wasn’t that of a deer frozen in the headlights of a semi truck, but rather that of someone in deep concentration. In videos you can see Mills tracking the action with his camera although he’s not looking through it. He did get the photo though. It isn’t the best one. In my opinion, that goes to Al Bello of Getty Images who got the shot from the closest end zone (which was published in Sports Illustrated). Mills’ picture is a little too tight with most of the ball out of the frame and all you see are the backs of the Beckham and Carr, but it’s in focus and at least he didn’t miss the shot.