A Completely Different Playing Field

Intro

We needed soccer photos. Our company photographers weren’t giving us the turnaround time we needed. So I figured I would go cause I was free. The Pioneers won that game 5-0. In my final year of high school and my first year of shooting sports for the yearbook, I had shot 34,098 photos covering 33 different games across 9 teams in that last year of school. (Stay tuned for what is now a necessary glow-up comparison post)

Almost 4 years later, I have gone through the ranks of becoming the sports photo editor for two volumes for GW’s student newspaper, The Hatchet. While I no longer work for The Hatchet, we can call this a ‘step-up’ in my career, working with the Washington Redskins in the NFL and the Washington Wizards in the NBA.

Redskins

My internship with the Redskins started at their first home preseason game in late August. I had gotten out of work early to get myself out to the field. Now leaving to go to work at 1pm in the afternoon may not sound that bad but I wasn’t too thrilled because I knew I wasn’t going to be home until midnight after what was an already long morning.

I was also pretty nervous to be honest because even though it was preseason, I was going to be shooting an N-F-L game. Now that didn’t actually hit me until later but that’s besides the point.

During the drive out to Landover, Maryland, I was trying to pump myself up to be as excited as I was the day before but still thinking “oh this is an unpaid internship, I can quit it if it’s not fun or too much work to balance with classes, it’s not like I’m signing a contract.”

I arrive at the parking lot and wait at the shuttle to meet some of the other game-day photographers, Sam and Joe. Sam was the photo intern over the summer and Joe was the fall intern last season.

I still remember Joe walking up from his car, I thought I recognized the bag he was carrying as a case for a 70-200mm lens so I make a joking comment at it pretending to know what I was talking about and making it seem like I knew what I was doing there. I was wrong. He corrected me that it was actually a 100-400mm lens.

I obviously hadn’t done my research into gear. Same carrying case, different lens. So I was off to a great start.

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Sam then arrives and gives us our credentials for the game. I introduce myself to her, normally, without making some kind of photo joke to help myself fit in (cause we know that didn’t work earlier) and then we board the shuttle to take us out to the field.

While the two of them were catching up, talking about how the off-season was for each of them, we turned the corner to go down FedEx Way and I was just in awe admiring the stadium and thinking to myself, “Oh shit, I’m actually doing this, ok, this is kinda cool.”

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Then walking up to the south tunnel and clearing security, I could see the light of the field quite literally at the end of the tunnel under the bleachers. Another small, ‘oh shit’ moment.

Though the field would have to wait just a little while longer.

We turned the corner and went to the media room to drop our gear and it was finally time to put a voice to a face and meet my “supervisor” (?), the team photographer, Garrett Campbell.

Not at all surprising, he sounded just like he did on the phone and looked just like he did from the picture on his website.

After a quick introduction and overview of the day’s marketing shoots, he left Joe to give Sam and I a tour of the stadium. It was also Sam’s first time actually coming out to the stadium too.

Going from field level to the main concourse, we took a lap around the stadium and Joe showed us where we would shoot alumni events at the Bud Light Pavilion, where receptions would take place at the Merrill Lynch Touchdown Club, and we even took a quick trip up into the club and suites levels.

But with that quick walk around, it was time for us to get to work and start shooting some of the events that were taking place there. So we headed right back up to the Bud Light Pavilion and got to work.

I wasn’t necessarily doing a whole lot, I was more trying to just follow them around and see what they were doing. I was still in a weird mindset about this whole new experience but I just started shooting like I was covering a normal event as I’ve done times before.

This was probably just over about an hour of work and while not the most fun shooting, it was still preseason and I did understand the need for marketing material. Again, I could just quit if it wasn’t interesting or worth my time right? I knew I had to give it more time though.

So once again, we headed back downstairs, did a quick photo dump and edit, and then I was told to go out to the field with Sam to get photos of the cheerleaders warming up. Finally, going towards and through the light at the end of the tunnel.

My first thought walking out onto the field, “Huh, it’s a lot smaller than it looks on TV.”

The funny part about this whole thing is that, starting this internship, and really when I started shooting sports, I wasn’t ‘in to’ sports but I was in to sports photography. So walking out onto the field, it was definitely a cool experience to be there but it wasn’t a ‘surreal’ experience as an actual football fan would have had.

This was my first time at a professional football game. It was also my first time shooting a professional football game. I don’t follow sports and I very rarely watch sports on TV minus the times my parents would put a game on at dinner or around holidays.

Now I have shot high school football before, never gone to just go for the game, so this was a completely different playing field for me so to speak.

A small number of people started to filter in and some of the players were coming out to start practicing as well so we headed back inside to get our gear ready and pickup our khaki media vests to prove that we were allowed to be out on the field.

The game was a bit of a whirlwind, I knew what I was doing in terms of the actual shooting, but wow this was definitely a bit of a shock being on a larger playing field.

The comparison I told all my friends was that it was just like shooting a basketball game, but on a much larger scale. There was a lot more moving around and navigating through many more photographers and a motorized sideline camera that would run you over if you got in the way.

Throughout the game, I mainly stayed on the home sideline, following the action up and down the field. While I said it wasn’t surreal for me to be on the field, it was definitely a cool experience to be just feet away from the action. We definitely have the best seats in the house.

Walking behind the home bench and being so close to the team, some of the my best shots from that game came from taking player profiles around the bench, mainly because it was dark and I didn’t have the proper gear to shoot in this setting.

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Thankfully the Redskins won and beat the Jets 15-13. A pretty good start for my first NFL game. With even a small number of fans there leaving the lower bowl just barely full, there was so much excitement between the crowd and the team rushing out onto the field.

I didn’t know I could go on the field to cover the celebration so I just hung back and watched it all go down and then rushed in to start downloading photos.

By the time all my photos copied over, it was almost 11pm. I was exhausted. And I still had about a 45 minute drive to get back home.

We took the mile walk back to the parking lot because the shuttles we running for people with assistance needs only. I was mainly on autopilot, my brain guiding my feet to continue walking.

It wasn’t until I got back home and got out of my nice, hot shower before I realized, I had just shot a fucking NFL football game. America’s pastime. Not only was I there, I was on the field, and I was doing what I love.

Safe to say, I no longer had any intention of quitting this internship.


Wizards

At the beginning of the semester, when I was still an editor with The Hatchet, I went out to shoot the Washington Mystics playoff game that was being hosted on campus.

It was great to be back home at the Smith Center, kind of getting a sneak preview back into basketball season this year. This was almost a warm up session for me to get back into my game after a summer of working a desk job, not doing too much photo work.

I would definitely say I knew what I was doing, I was in my element on home turf. But I guess I didn’t know what I was doing in the setting of an NBA game.

I was sitting in my assigned spot on the court, ready for the game to start, and this guy comes up to me and says I need a lens hood to protect the players if they fall on my gear. He continued to go on for a minute to tell me the whole reasoning behind it while I just sat there thinking who is this guy and why is he lecturing me, I’m sorry I’m not used to the NBA’s standards. He finally walked away.

A minute later, he came back. He said to find him after the game. Turns out he was the NBA’s Washington Area photographer assigned to not only the Mystics but also the Wizards. I guess that lecture was fine.

We got coffee the next week and, despite my lack of a lens hood, he asked me if I wanted to work with him as his assistant for the upcoming season. My first jobs, the Mystics finals game and Wizards Media Day. In Ned’s words, they were the two busiest and most hectic days of the year.

The first home game I helped out with was a preseason game against the Miami Heat. I made sure to put in for an early leave from work that Friday so I could get out to the arena to help setup.

At each of the games, we try to set up six tethered remote cameras throughout the arena. One of the first things Ned asked me was if I was afraid of heights. While I wasn’t, that first trip up to the catwalk, about eight stories above the court, was slightly uncomfortable but I got used to it.

Because floor spots are limited for each game, most of what I do is help setup and breakdown these cameras and keep an eye on them throughout the game in the back to make sure everything’s working. So more on the logistical side instead of the shooting side, which is still interesting to see the back-end workflow of how photos for these work.

Something else I do during the games, the real “assistant” work, is fixing all the things that go wrong when the cameras and stuff decide to stop working.

The Heat were back for the home opener. We had almost everything setup and working just fine, one of the cameras wasn’t tethering so I would have to run and get that card every quarter. A little while into the first quarter, Stephen, Ned’s other long-time assistant, ran into the photo room from shooting in desperate search for batteries and he called on me to help.

Turns out that the batteries died in the radio transmitter that triggers the light system for the arena. No lights being triggered means very underexposed photos. And very underexposed photos for the very first regular season home game, well it’s not a great way to start.

We changed the batteries but some lights still weren’t firing. Stephen ran up to the catwalk to check on each of the lights and I stayed by the basket to test the system when he made adjustments.

Shortly after Stephen left, with definitely not enough time for him to make it up there, the lights were firing again and no one had touched anything.

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This was a large issue but it was a quick issue that ultimately, by some miracle, resolved itself. This is how most of our issues have gone so far this season. Just adding to the challenge and mystery of having an extravagant setup.

Ned is also responsible for shooting the NBA’s Washington D-league team, the Capital City Go-Go. Ned and I were there for their first game as a team and the first game in the new arena. With the new arena, we had to figure out how everything worked, setting up the lighting, how to transfer photos, how the arena looked in general for photos.

It was a busy and long day, but it was interesting to see how literally every single aspect of this job works and was set-up from literally an empty arena.

While this work is more infrequent, I’ve had a lot more hands on work receiving images, captioning, and coordinating with the team to get photos. This process has been completely manual because of the new arena and because the team needs the photos faster than the league does.

With the Redskins, I’m more out shooting and creating work. With the Wizards, I’m back receiving photos and seeing where they actually end up and how they’re used by the teams and league.

So with these two internships, I’ve been able to learn the whole process from creating an image to where that image is placed as a final product.

Ethan Stoler Media, LLC

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Now to the fun part of this story. Ever since that first ‘holy shit’ moment after the first preseason Redskins game, I’ve had a realization that this is 100% what I can see myself pursuing as a career out of college. Both a ‘holy shit’ and a ‘a-ha’ moment.

While school may or may not have taken a spot on the back-burner this semester, I have worked tirelessly to get out to as many games for both teams as possible and have spent a majority of any free time I have trying to figure out what I can do to maximize these opportunities I somehow got myself in to.

A lot of this establishing myself has come with help and advice from other photographers I’ve been working with. Surprisingly enough, switching my major to Organizational Sciences has also helped guide me in organizing the growing freelance side of my business.

Probably a month after I started, I had established myself as an LLC, something every single person I talked to said they wish they did at my age, so of course, at my age, I figured I should do it and get ahead of the game.

With the LLC came a business credit card to buy new gear, and insurance for that gear, and liability for the jobs that gear and these new skills would help me get. All for a fun $300 fee, but that’s a business expense so it’s fine.

The classes I’ve taken this semester have definitely come in handy so far with giving me insight into how the organizations I am working in function. As well as guiding me in creating my own ‘organization’ of myself. It’s funny how I’ve basically been running through my Entrepreneurship class and textbook in real life.

Maximizing these opportunities even more, my Instagram feed made a sudden change from travel posts and memes to now mostly sports posts from some of the top photographers from all over the NFL, NBA, and the accompanying sports departments at different news outlets. And still travel posts and memes.

Even more, I’ve built up inspiration Instagram collections and Pinterest boards of different styles of sports photography and ways of editing and posting and sharing these top photographers use.

I really noticed this “research” paying off during when the Panthers were at home against the Redskins. I had connected with a photographer from Sports Illustrated who just so happened to be my freshman RA’s dad, he has been letting me borrow different lenses from him to try them out during games. This game I specifically shot on a 500mm f/4 lens.

Also with this mini-entrepreneurship venture, something I really wanted to work on unconsciously was networking. I wanted to meet as many people as possible and talk with other photographers about their story and how they got to having these jobs as a career.

Being in the media rooms where everyone preps for the games and works together, I’ve been able to meet and talk with other photographers who have also made careers out of this work through different outlets such as USA Today Sports, Getty Images, Sports Illustrated, The Associated Press, etc,  as well as other team’s photographers.

If I’ve learned one thing from my two years in art school, it’s that the only way to get better and improve your work is to have it completely torn apart and pick out everything that’s wrong.

With most people I’ve been able to meet and talk with, I always ask them to look over my work and give their feedback on what I’ve shot so far. As people who are in the careers and positions I can only dream I make it in to, their advice and opinions have been extremely helpful in helping me improve and grow as a sports photographer.

Let me get a little sentimental here. One of the things I really enjoy is telling stories and using photography to tell the story of a game, a person, a family. Photography is really about telling a story or conveying some kind of message, visually. In this case, it’s telling the narrative of the game.

And it’s a lot harder than it seems, to not only get that one shot but to also find that one shot. And if you miss it, it’s not gonna happen again, so you always have to be prepared.

Next Steps

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With the Redskins’ season now more than likely officially over for me, it’ll be time for me to really reflect on what I’ve been working on for the past few months and go through my photos in even more depth to see what has been working and what I need to work on.

Welcoming any and all feedback, I plan on taking the time to reach out to a few more people I have met and ask them to chat with me about not only my path but theirs as well. Everyone has been telling me that I’m on the right path but it’s really figuring out where that path leads and just kind of going with the flow.

Of course, before this semester is even over, internship applications for next summer have already opened and closed. Only time will tell whether or not an internship with the NBA or the NFL next summer will be apart of my path.

In the meantime, the NBA has got a good amount of year-round work. With the Wizards and D-league continuing through the end of the Spring and the Mystics starts right back up in time for the summer. So it sounds like Ned and Stephen won’t be getting rid of me too easily.

With just about a year left of university, who knows what will happen after I graduate. But hey, that’s a year away, I’m still just rolling along with what I have now.

Ethan Stoler