Sunday, October 20, 2013

A Shot with the World’s Top Golfers

The ups and downs of covering the 2013 President’s Cup and the lessons learned in the field

THE PHOTOGRAPHER, or how does one become an accredited sports photographer

From the time the movie The Bucket List came out in 2007 I've been working on putting together my own bucket list. Photographing a major sporting event as an official photographer is one of the several photography items I have included in the list. In October of this year I finally was able to check off this item on my list by photographing the President's Cup in Dublin, Ohio as an accredited photographer for Canadian Golf Magazine.

I'd like to point out that I am not a professional sports photographer by trade, so this article is not about the A to Z of sports photography. Rather, it's about my journey towards becoming an affiliated sports photographer. Here, I’ll share the efforts I’ve made to get the ball rolling for me, the planning I’ve done to prepare myself for the assignment, and the execution on the event itself, including how I managed the ups and downs of covering the 2013 President’s Cup.

The Sports Photographer

I originally joined the United States Press Agency (USPA) based on the belief that it would grant me press access to any event. And since I currently live in Dublin, Ohio, home to the annual golf tournament hosted by Jack Nicklaus, I thought it would be a great opportunity to use my new press pass. But how wrong I was, especially to major sporting events!
Unfortunately, there were stringent rules about who could and couldn't get a press pass. As I learned the hard way, different sporting events would have different rules on accrediting photographers. Being a member of a media organization does not automatically grant you press access to a sporting event.

Aside from having an extensive portfolio of established work in the relevant field, you must also be affiliated with a reputable sports media organization that is willing to vouch for your good standing and professionalism if you want to get press credentials for any major sports event.

After reading the rules, I learned that I could only bring my camera in during the two days of practice rounds, which also meant that I had to buy my own tickets for the event. Not a promising start.

During the two days of practice rounds, I talked to as many people with professional-looking cameras as possible. But all of them were in the same boat as I was, hoping to be a photographer during the event itself.

At this point, I remembered the comments I got when I did my research online on how one becomes an accredited sports photographer. “It’s impossible”, "it's extremely hard", or "you need to know someone" were the common daunting remarks I got. But I did not let my hopes be dampened by these thoughts.

Less than 24 hours before the event itself, and still without a press pass, I kept on shooting just as I planned. On the second day of practice rounds, I found a good spot to shoot where I kept myself busy taking photographs of Rory McIlroy. After he left, I started a conversation with a man who asked about my photos. Later, I discovered that he was the editor and owner of the Canadian Golf Magazine and was interested in using my photos.

Right after the tournament, I uploaded my photos to my website, and he purchased a few of them to use on his site. We exchanged emails a while later, and a professional relationship was born that led to him asking me to photograph the President's Cup for the Canadian Golf Magazine. Ultimately, all the stars and planets aligned in my favor, and the bucket list became one item shorter.


Careful planning and preparation are essential for any sporting event. I would say especially so for a golfing event, where you will be on your feet from 8 to 10 hours, depending on the type of tournament, and if you plan to walk the course a lot, or stay in one position. Surviving takes more than just having the right equipment. You need to think about the weather, water, food, facilities, environment, and schedule, all while remembering that you're probably going to be on the move a lot of the time.

Getting the lay of the land

It’s important to familiarize yourself with the territory of the sport you are covering. Whether, you’re shooting on a wide field, an arena, or a court, knowing the territory will help you understand not only where your limitations are, but also where great action usually takes place.

In May this year, I photographed the Memorial Tournament, which was held on the same golf course as the President’s Cup. When I was about to cover the tournament, I arrived early and was lucky enough to see one of the caddies, Michael J. Downey, walking the course.

Politely, I asked if he would mind if I walked with him and asked some questions about the course. He was very gracious and allowed me to walk (outside the ropes) around the course with him and helped me understand some of the more interesting parts of the course that he thought would make for good photos.

Caddie Michael J. Downey walking the course to get the lay of the land for his player

The media center for the event was also helpful in providing me with any necessary information about press facilities and limitations of where we could or couldn't go. In my case, I was limited to being within one or two yards of the rope.
President's Cup Media Center

Since we were outdoors, photographers were at the mercy of the changing weather. Thus, light was a constant struggle to keep high enough shutter speeds. Also because of the bad weather, I kept in close contact with the media center to know about any changes in schedule.

Gear Up

Essential pieces of equipment in shooting sports are the long focal length lenses for player shots, and the normal zoom lenses for crowd shots. I can't afford to buy Canon long lenses, which range from USD5-14K each! And so for major events, I'll rent a lens for my Canon 1Dx, and then use either my 24-70mm or 70-200mm on my Canon 5D mkII.

A monopod for the big lens and a good comfortable strap for the other camera are critical to surviving the day, while extra batteries and lots of spare memory cards are the other essentials.

Press conferences are typically held inside a special media interview area and will require a flash for the camera, even with the lights that are provided by the event. In this case, we also used flashes for the team photos to fill in the shadows caused by the golf hats. You can get away with not using a flash, but you’ll need to shoot in RAW and post-process them in Lightroom or Aperture to lighten the shadows.
Jack Nicklaus at the first day of practice giving a press conference in the media center

Under the weather

The weather drives a lot of decisions, about what clothing is most appropriate, whether I need a hat, some sunscreen, long or short sleeves, a jacket, sun glasses, waterproof clothing, and so on.

The Memorial Tournament in May was held during a fairly hot spell. So appropriate clothing, sun hats, and sunscreen (especially for my complexion) were critical. I found a perfect second use for my arm covers that I use for golf, they work perfectly for keeping the sun off my arms when shooting also. I also always wear long trousers for three reasons: to keep the sun off my legs, to stop little critters from making a meal from me, and for extra pockets. I have both lightweight and heavy-duty trousers that I choose from depending on the temperature.

Quite differently, the Presidents' Cup was held in early October, which meant being prepared for anything, which, as it turned out, was rain and a lot of it!

If you're going to be out on a golf course (or any sporting event) for a whole day, then carrying something to protect your equipment from the rain is critical. You don't want to get caught 20 minutes away from the media center in the rain with no protection—not only will your equipment get wet, but you'll also miss any action that happens while you're trying to protect your gear.

Good protective gear can be quite expensive. However, there are cheaper options that work fairly well. If you're as cheap as I am, you'll take the $0.10 option and use see-through bin liners with one hole for the lens fixed with a rubber band and one hole for the eye piece. This may not look professional, but it works really well in all but the heaviest rain. For those times, I have a spare bag (with no holes) to cover the cameras completely. By then, there will be no action happening anyway. :-)

The environment and facilities

The local environment will affect what shoes I wear. If the ground is wet, I'll wear walking boots. And if it's dry, I'll wear cross-training shoes. The other thing I'll bring along is a small bottle of bug spray in case the little critters are hungry and feisty, which is why I wear long trousers and arm covers so I only have to spray my face. But I was surprised that the event organizers actually provided bug spray and sunscreen for the media, which I thought was a very nice touch.

Depending on where you are in the world, local facilities will vary. Two things I always plan for are toilet paper (for obvious reasons) and parking distance to the entry gate, which will help me decide if I will take everything with me or will leave some things in the car that I can come back and get later. Fortunately for the President’s Cup, the facilities were excellent and lockers were provided free of charge to keep your things in. As there was a bus service from the press car park, I took everything with me and stored in the locker as necessary.

Food and water

Most events don't allow you to bring in any drinks from the outside. The media center had free drinks for us, including water, coke, and beer. So I typically took one or two bottles of water with me on the course. Similar to water, we were provided with free meals and snacks.
Food was provided for free at the PGA Tour event.

In the event that there are no free drinks or snacks, bring enough money to buy water and food. But be prepared with extra cash, as food and drinks in these events can be expensive. Stay away from drinks that dehydrate, like coffee and alcohol. In my case, I pack a small bag of nuts and cranberries to keep hunger away and to keep food purchases down to a minimum.

Time check

In shooting major sporting events, it's important to know what is happening and when. The schedule for golf events typically includes practice times, tee off times of individual players, and any special events during the event. There is a media schedule, which also includes special events, such as interview schedules, team photos, and awarding ceremony. So make sure you secure a copy of the schedule, and as they say, don’t leave home without it!
The opening ceremony was held in down town Columbus and required a separate media pass to get to.


Being affiliated to a recognized media outlet is the first step in being able to cover a major sporting event. It's just as important to getting the logistics of the event right, such as picking up the credentials, finding your assigned seat in the media center, picking up "Inside Ropes Access" passes, and making sure that you have the latest events and schedule details and what changes have been made to the schedule for each of the days.

Coverage of a major event like the President's Cup requires a “divide and conquer” approach if you want to cover everything. This is due to the number of different things happening during each day. As I worked by myself as a photographer, I needed to pick and choose the events that I attended.
The drawing of players for the first day of competition took quite a while.  I took this towards the beginning and left shortly afterwards to find other things to shoot.

I've learned as a photographer that you don't need to be everywhere all the time, as I am only capturing moments in time, rather than giving a blow-by-blow account of the game. This means that I can turn up for a scheduled event for half an hour, take a number of key photos, and then leave for the next event that I want to cover.

What to shoot

Ultimately, the coverage will be dictated by the people who you are shooting for. The editor of Canadian Golf Magazine gave me clear instructions for:

  • What events to cover: team photos, opening ceremony, awarding ceremony, and team selection events

The Ohio State University band played a big part of the opening ceremony and start of the event
The official start of the competition with the cup being handed over by Jack Nicklaus. Ex-President Bush is in the background.

  • Who to shoot: at least one shot of each player, shots of Graham Delaet (the only Canadian golfer in the International Team), and team captains

Graham DeLaet hitting out of the bunker on the 18th green and holing the ball
International Captain - Nick Price

  • Specific shots: President’s Cup, organizers (e.g. Jack Nicklaus and Tim Finchem), players’ wives, crowds, environment, players hitting on different tees, out of bunkers, on fairways, and on the green

Jason Day and his wife Ellie with international fans from Australia
Picture of a golf ball firmly embedded in the green to emphasize the tough conditions of play.
  • Reaction shots: reaction of players, team captains and the crowd

Graham Delaet shows his excitement about holing in a chip from the edge of the green
Both the crowd and the media enjoying the start of the President's Cup 2013

To make things easier for me, I grouped my golf shots into three categories: casual shots, normal shots, and "I'm in trouble" shots.

Casual shots include a wide range of different shots of the media, fans watching, players talking, course artifacts, and general shots that might be of interest.

Normal shots include shots of the tee, fairway, bunkers, and greens. It's important to know the etiquette when shooting golfers. Unless you are a long way off from the players (not within hearing distance), you can only shoot after they’ve made contact with the ball.

Getting the timing right takes practice, and getting the shots you want is somewhat dependent on your camera's frames per second rate. I try to get four photos for each shot: (1) striking the ball, (2) arms fully extended, (3) completed swing, and (4) reaction shot. When shooting, keep your eye on the player rather than on the ball. Wait for any reactions when the ball has landed, as well as for any interactions with the caddy or other team players. Just remember, that most of the interesting shots happen off ball.
Hitting the ball
Arms extended
Full Swing

I missed a great reaction shot of Graham Delaet who holed a winning bunker shot from the 18th green. I was so caught up in the excitement of the moment that I took my eye off the player to watch the ball go in, and started clapping with excitement. I completely missed Graham’s amazing reaction to this miracle shot. Big lesson learned—keep your eye and camera on the player, and don’t stop until you know the ‘play’ is over.
This is the best shot I got of Graham's reaction, but it was far less emotional than when the ball went in the hole!

"I'm in Trouble" are those where the player is in some kind of trouble, typically trees, long grass, deep rough, or near water. Most of these shots, by luck, happen near you. Though knowing where players typically get into trouble helps raise the "luck" factor. :-)

Brandt Snedeker in trouble on the 14th Green
Phil Mickelson in trouble at the 3rd green

In full swing: shooting strategies in the field

My shooting strategy changed for each day, as I tried to cover the different types of shots and players. Certain events, such as team photos or the opening ceremony, happen only once and at certain times, which means that they dictate your shooting strategy.
Jason Day reacts to missing a putt
Keegan Bradley reacts to holing a putt

Apart from the fixed events, I typically chose the practice rounds to get fairway shots, the opening couple of days to get tee shots, and the closing days to get green shots. Shots on the green are where you get 99% of reaction shots. Keep in mind that closing days usually mean that people are tense and more emotional.

During the practice days, I spent time getting to know some of the different photographers to learn about their trade. I found out that there were a number of well-seasoned, full-time golf photographers from large organizations, both American and overseas. There were also a large number of local media photographers who have been recruited to shoot the event for publication, but normally shot other sports or types of photography. One common thread was that everyone was helpful and respectful of each other’s trade.
Photographers from around the world

For fairway shots, I tried to place myself on the side that the player faces when striking the ball. This worked well for all players, except for Phil Mickelson, who is left-handed, which meant I had to make an extra effort to get shots of Phil.
GPS stations help you identify landing zones where they expect ball to land on the fairway.

I typically stood ahead of the player, about 50-100 meters, depending on what lens I had. I found out that positioned along the fairways were GPS measuring stations at places where the ball would typically land—the landing zone. This was how the commentators on TV knew how far the ball went. They had someone who measured it, and then radioed the distance to them. This meant that I didn’t need to guess where the balls would land on the fairway for the typical good shot, which really helped get good shots for me.

A quick word of warning though, sometimes the shots don’t go where they are supposed to, and because you’re in the “landing zone”, when a player hits a bad shot you can get hit—which is what happened to me in the Memorial Tournament earlier in the year!

For bunker and green shots, I placed myself at the back, on the green, and had the flag between me and a bunker I selected. Due to wanting to minimize movement around the green, it’s not always possible to get the perfect shot, but sometimes you get it just right (here’s a photo of Phil in bunker shot).

Hole in one

If you want to make a full-time living from shooting sporting events, it seems that you also have to be willing to live out of the back of your car and eat leftovers from Jollibee or McDonalds for a number of years, as only the top sport photographers make a killing out of it.
Possible stock image of the US team with the President's Cup

In my case, I use my own website to sell my photos to magazines and anyone else who wants to buy them. To increase the audience I can reach with my images, I use Dreamstime to sell my images. As I don’t have model releases for the individual golfers, I can only upload the images as editorial images, which limits the income I can earn from them.

In the US, the average salary for a sports photographer is 1/5 of a wedding photographer, 1/4 of a portrait photographer, and just over 1/2 of a graduation photographer. However, if you love the sport or sports you are photographing, you get the best seats in the house for free, not to mention the chance to be up-close with the stars of the sport, which, to some, is a priceless benefit.

In my case, I won’t make a lot of money from photographing this event, but that wasn’t the aim. The aim was to experience being a photographer for a PGA Tour event and, of course, to check off another item from my bucket list. Overall, I got a hole in one with this incredible experience. Although I don’t intend to pursue sports photography as my sole method of income, I do intend to look for other opportunities and have already lined up for shooting the 2014 Memorial Tournament here in Dublin, Ohio in May, and the MotoGP race in Indianapolis, Indiana for the award-winning MotoGP online magazine

Before I sign off, I’d like to leave you with a number of lessons learned that I feel have made me a better photographer and appreciate the work that goes into delivering those great sports shots that we all take for granted:
  • The biggest lesson learned for me was to keep the eye on the player and not on the ball. I played many sports as a kid and had it drilled into to me to keep an eye on the ball. With golf photography the money shots are the reaction shots and to get them means that you need to keep shooting after the ball has been hit. As I mentioned I missed a great shot of Graham DeLaet because I took my eye off the player.

Getting the reaction shot means keeping your eye on the player

  • Practice timing your shot so that you can capture the player striking the ball. Remember you can only start shooting when the player strikes the ball, which makes it harder than you think. You can practice timing by shooting many different fast moving things, e.g. cars when they pass a certain spot.

Mistiming the shot means missing critical shots I was after

  • Don’t stop just because the play has. This year, there was a lot of rain each day of play, which led to many interruptions. But there were always interest shots to be had that gave the viewer a feel for what it was like to be there. In this case, this image was selected by the magazine for their online coverage of the event to talk about the rain interruptions.

  • Back button focusing. I’ve been using back button focusing for about a year now and found it critical to getting sharp shots of players, especially bunker shots. Basically, back button focusing moves the focus function of the camera from the shutter button to a button on the back of the camera. This means that when I am shooting someone hitting a ball at 12fps, the lens doesn’t waste time trying to focus on every shot.

Back button focusing helps capture sharp images like this of Jordan Spieth hitting out of a bunker

  • Find opportunities to talk to the more seasoned professionals. Learning about photography and the sport you’re shooting from the pros themselves is priceless. Golf has slow periods, and therefore it gives you time to talk. Just don’t try asking questions in the midst of action, otherwise you will quickly find yourself ignored.
Probably not a good time to ask this photographer a question!

  • Be prepared for the weather. Similar to keeping your eye on the player, being prepared means that you won’t miss the action. Being unprepared means potentially missing action, and worse, incurring costs to get any equipment fixed that may have gotten damage from the weather.

Be prepared, otherwise you'll end up hiding like this to keep your equipment dry!

  • You can’t have enough pockets. Carrying the right spares with you ensures that you’ll survive the day capturing all the action. Running out of cards or batteries means long trips back to the media center, and ultimately, lost opportunities to capture the action.

Notice the guy in the middle and how many pockets he has with his hip bags
  • Remember to have fun. In all the rain, mud and early mornings, remember to have fun and enjoy the experience as it will come out in your images.
Having fun with the fans
Don't forget to get the big picture shots as well

I hope you have enjoyed this article. If you have any questions or comments you can send them to