My First Event as a Professional Sports Photographer
Shortly after hanging up my shingle to become a full-time sports photographer, I was contacted by Skate Canada, the governing body for figure skating in Canada, to see if I would be interested in being the official photographer for their upcoming Canadian National Adult Figure Skating Championships. Of course, I immediately said yes. Fake it ‘til you make it I always say.
Skate Canada asked me if I had photographed figure skating before. I said that I had not. They said that they had assumed that because I had no figure skating images on my website, however they were confident that I’d be able to thanks to the work they saw on my website. My website is my most important marketing tool. That will be the subject of future blog post.
Getting Ready for the Event
In preparation for the event, I created a plan and tried to think through all of the things that I would need. What I lacked in experience I tried to make up for by being thoroughly prepared. Before the event, I:
- Hired 3 photographers and one desk staff
- Contact Nikon Professional Services to borrow an additional camera
- Sign-up for service to receive credit card payments
- Create sign-up form for people who were purchasing images
- Create a price list and print plenty of copies
- Design and have a sign made to display at the event
- Purchase an external hard drive to store all of the photographs
- Set-up Lightroom folders for the event
- Purchase a case to case all of the gear I’d need to transport
- Make sure I had enough business cards
- Go to the rink a week in advance to lock in camera settings and site inspection
When the Competition Started
After we set up the desk, connected to the Internet and put signs and price list up, we were ready to get started. There was a significant line-up at the desk of people asking questions and signing up to purchase photos. Positive start.
I quickly realized that I needed a good way to identify each skater. I took a whiteboard and wrote the event and skater’s name, for example Junior Women’s Bronze – Kathy Barnett. I’d photograph the whiteboard and then photograph the routine. Then repeat for four days.
Photographing figure skating was physically demanding. The rink was cold and I was on my feet shooting for 16+ hours a day. I got a 10-minute bathroom break about every 3 hours when they flooded the ice. I was able to shoot Thursday through Saturday, but Sunday I was literally too exhausted to do much shooting and am thankful that photographer Colleen Yates was able to do a great job of shooting on the final day of competition.
After the Competition
The day after the competition was used to catch up on sleep and back-up the photos.
It took me 3 weeks to simply sort the images. In Adobe Lightroom, I’d look for a photo of a whiteboard, then look up the correct spelling from the program, create a folder for that skater and then drag the images into that folder. That was monotonous and slow. Every now and then I would find that I was out of synch because a skater didn’t skate their routine, so I had the wrong name written down. I spent about half of the 3 weeks simply troubleshooting who was who.
“Failure is success if you learn from it.” – Malcolm Forbes
The biggest reason that I immediately jumped at the opportunity was that you never learn unless you try something. I calculated what my loss would be if I sold zero photos and decided that the experience would be worth the cost simply for the lessons I would learn.
These are the high-levels lessons that I came away from my first event event with
- I Needed on-line forms
I could not read the handwriting many of the people that did purchase the photos. Many of the people completing the paper forms were not native English speakers (the two official languages in Canada are English and French), so they often did not provide the information I asked for on the form. A mom would give me her own contact information, for example, but her daughter would have a different surname. In this case, I’d have no association between the buyer and the skater. I was worried about producing quality photographs so being unable to read somebody’s handwriting really through me for a loop (no pun intended).
This event made me realize that I needed to move to online smart forms. I now use Wufoo forms that are integrated into my SmugMug website. That will be the subject of another blog post.
2. Not every professional photographer is created equal
When I started my company, I had intended on building a team of photographers and then photograph events like soccer and hockey tournaments. It was a challenge to find 3 photographers willing and able to work the meet with me.
Finding and retaining other skilled photographers would become a recurring challenge. I would find somebody who was great to work with, only to have them not be available when needed. Good photographers will always be in demand, so it is unreasonable to expect that their calendar will always align with mine.
What I learned from this event was I could not simply ask other photographers to shoot for me and shoot in a similar style to mine. I needed to provide sample images and instructions on exactly how to photograph the sport as I wanted. Lesson learned.
3. Need an efficient workflow
My initial Lightroom settings were wrong. I was shooting RAW and was creating 1:1 previews. The imports were taking forever so we reduced the previews to minimal and had to start shooting in JPEG in order for the computer to keep up with all of the images being processed.
The method of photographing a whiteboard with the skater’s name was dreadfully inefficient. Organizing took more time than editing, so I needed a better way to organize the images.
I had looked at Photo Mechanic from Camera Bits before that first event, however, I didn’t see the value. I had thought that the functionality of Photo Mechanic was already found in Lightroom. Boy was I wrong!
Photo Mechanic is purpose-built for exactly what was lacking in my workflow. I simply didn’t understand it when I first reviewed it. Photo Mechanic is the industry standard for sports photographers and photojournalists. Immediately following that first event, I looked again at Photo Mechanic and found it to be one of the most important tools I use, second only to the camera in my hand.
What took me almost 3 weeks for that first event is now essentially zero thanks to the automated workflow I have built using Photo Mechanic. That will be the subject of another blog post.
4. Shooting on spec is unpredictable
Shooting photos and hoping that the images would be purchased afterwards is referred to “shooting on spec.”
At this event, Skate Canada required me to have photographs of every skater. I had planned to take lots of photos of people who pre-paid and just a few photos of the people who had not, but quickly realized that there were very few who would pay in advance. Given that I had not photographed figure skating before, I could hardly insist on paying in advance, so I was effectively shooting on spec.
Shooting on spec is tough. Since I did not yet have a body of work to demonstrate the level of quality parents could expect, shooting on spec was reality I had to deal with.
The other challenge with shooting on spec is that you either set up stations where people can browse the images on-site, requiring numerous devices, or you have to post the proofs on-line. Once your images are on-line, people can simply screen grab the images. You can post with watermarks, but watermarks are often not much of a deterrent. I have had too many people to count proudly show me on their phone their favourite photo of their child, “DO NOT COPY” watermarks and all.
I have since largely moved away from shooting on spec to only photographing athletes that pre-pay for photographs. But that takes time to build the body of work to gain the confidence of people to plunk down money before they see their photos. Shooting on spec is fine if you are shooting pro sports and all you need is to have one newspaper buy a photo to pay for your time, but in general shooting amateur sports on spec is not a sustainable model in my experience.
5. Don’t forget to eat
I found at this and subsequent events that I tend to get so focused on photographing that I forget to eat and drink. At the end of longer events, this can result in fatigue, headaches, muscle cramps soreness and extreme (so I’ve been told) irritability.
About a year after that first event, I met the best assistant that ever I worked with, Roxanna Nazarowicz. Roxanna was not only awesome at everything I had asked of her, but she was great at reminding me to eat and drink. Roxanna is a talented photographer in her own right. Please take a look at her work here: www.instagram.com/rx_xo
6. I needed more education and experience
While the skaters, parents and Skate Canada seemed pleased with the photos I produced, I knew that I would benefit from additional training. I had a lot to learn about marketing, sales, photographing, workflow, and editing. In other words, pretty much every aspect of being a photographer needed improving. It still does. I am a big believer in continuing education. Each of these topics are enough for a detailed discussion and will be the subjects of additional blog posts.
After the Competition
The day after the competition was used to catch up on sleep and back-up the photos.
It took me 3 weeks to sort, edit and deliver the images. In Adobe Lightroom, I’d look for a photo of a whiteboard, then look up the correct spelling from the program, create a folder for that skater and then drag the images into that folder. That was monotonous and slow. Every now and then I would find that I was out of synch because a skater didn’t skate their routine, so I had the wrong name written down. I spent about half of the 3 weeks simply troubleshooting who was who.
I put in approximately 400 hours of work for this event between the planning, shooting and then delivering the final images. I made, in total, about enough to buy a hamburger and a small soft drink. I had gone into the event thinking that I could lose about $3,000 between paying the staff and associated fees. Breaking even was a win in my mind because the experience was priceless. Following the event I sat down and tried to write down the lessons learned and set out to tackle them one by one. My first event as a professional sports photographer was a tremendous learning experience.
At the end of the day, I learned that I had a lot to learn.
Special thanks to Skate Canada for entrusting me with my first big event as a professional photographer. I was grateful for the opportunity.
Future Blog Posts
I will expand on how I addressed the lesson learned in future blog posts. If you have suggestions for topics you’d like me to write about, send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org