NBA Behind The Scenes: The Photo Game (Part One)

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(Editor’s Note: While we cover the NBA as obsessively as we can around here, there are still numerous ancillary parts of the game experience that we want to uncover and explore. Being involved with the NBA can mean everything from serving up exotic foods to firing shirts into the crowd. We will delve into these angles of the NBA as part of a new regular (and perhaps a bit irregular) All Ball series, NBA Behind The Scenes.)

BROOKLYN – It was 3:30 on Monday afternoon in Brooklyn, four hours before the Brooklyn Nets would play host to the Portland Trail Blazers. The interior hallways of the Barclays Center were mostly deserted, save for a few food service employees firing up ovens and custodial staff giving the place a final shine before thousands of fans arrived. Out on the arena floor, a rec league championship game was taking place.

Sitting in a folding chair just below one of the baskets was a man in a black polo shirt and jeans, working at a determined pace. He wasn’t tall, wasn’t short, and his blond hair made determining his age require more than a glance. He tore black gaffers tape into strips and secured loose wires that were splayed all over the place — to the basket support, from the basket support, along the cement arena floor, on the edge of the court. Three large hard plastic containers were open on the floor around him, all neatly packed with lenses, cameras, tripods and various other equipment. A hand truck was just behind, waiting to be loaded up and rolled away.

The man’s assistant turned up, carrying several camera batteries, which were checked and rechecked, and some were swapped out for more potent options. Words like “reflectors” and “overheads” were used casually between the two men in conversation. A ladder was propped up under a backboard, and a multi-thousand dollar camera was affixed to the glass and carefully aimed out toward the paint.

I had come to Brooklyn to meet up with Nathaniel S. Butler, who is a photographer for NBA Photos, and has been chronicling the NBA in pictures for about two decades now. You may not know Nat Butler’s name, but if you’re an NBA fan, you almost definitely know his work. Like perhaps this image …

John Starks drives hard for a slam dunk

Or this one …

M Jordan Airtime1

Or maybe this one …

Bill Russell Portrait

Or even this one …

LEBRONARMS

This is what Butler does, and among those who shoot the NBA the for a living, Butler is one of the very best to ever do it.

Which is why earlier this week I spent a day trailing Butler, watching him work, and then putting myself in his shoes and attempting to photograph an actual NBA game. Along the way, I learned that being an NBA photographer is equal parts artistry and elbow grease. We see the beautiful images — online, in magazines, in newspapers — but we rarely see the work behind the scenes, or even the thought and accumulated institutional knowledge that goes into capturing every image.

Tools of the (photography) game

Butler was drawn to a life in photos in part because of his love for basketball. As a student at St. John’s during the Chris Mullin/Walter Berry era, Butler would often play pick-up ball with the guys on the team. (“I was the 15th man on a 12-man team,” he cracks.) He was also interested in photography at the time, so he’d shoot the St. John’s games and share the images with his buddies on the team. When he finished school, he started shooting NBA games in the New York area, and parlayed that into some assignments for the NBA. Before long, NBA Photos was started, and Butler took on covering the New York area, as well as other big events, from The Finals to All-Star Games to the Dream Team.

As a kid, my room was plastered with NBA posters and photos I’d painstakingly snipped from magazines. Almost all of these images were game photos, live action someone had captured into a frozen moment. I didn’t put much thought into how those images came to be until I embarked upon my previous life as an editor at SLAM magazine. Through that experience, I attended dozens of photo shoots with talented photographers, and I learned a bit about what differentiates good and bad photos. But actually putting myself behind the lens? Other than the occasional iPhone image, I was a true rookie.

Nat introduced me to his assistant, Reed Kelly, and Kelly handed me the camera I’d be wrestling with for the evening. This was one of Butler’s back-ups, a Canon DX, with a 28-300 zoom lens attached to the front. The whole contraption was weighty, much heavier than it looked. There was no flash attached to the camera; instead, there was a radio transmitter atop the camera, and whenever I hit the button to snap a picture, it sent an instant wireless signal to six huge lights hanging above the court in the Barclays Center rafters, triggering them to flash and illuminating the court faster than anyone could notice.

According to Nat, there are two main types of cameras people use to shoot NBA games. The majority of the photographers use motor-drive cameras, which allow you to shoot about 10 frames per second. The cameras Nat and I were using would only allow us to take 1 frame every four to five seconds, the time it took our flashes to recharge. So yeah, not much margin for error. But while you sacrifice the ability to shoot a ton of frames and then later go in and choose the perfect image, in exchange for the slower response, you get the highest quality photos. “You can shoot billboards with these cameras,” Nat said.

Nat was actually using three cameras during the game: the one he would hold in his hands; one mounted behind the backboard on the opposite end of the court, just over my head, that he could trigger remotely; and one hanging high, high, high up over the court attached to a catwalk via several clamps. After the game we went up to the catwalk to retrieve the camera. I did not know I was uncomfortable with heights until that moment, but my legs are still trembling. Here’s a view from the top …

Brooklyn heights

A photo posted by Lang Whitaker (@langwhitaker) on

We grabbed a pregame meal and about 30 minutes before tip-off made our way onto the court. As I grabbed my camera and slung it over my shoulder, almost as an aside I asked Nat how much the camera, lens and flash trigger I was haphazardly carrying was worth. Nat thought for a moment and said, “I guess about $9,000 to $10,000.” I removed it from my shoulder and from then held it carefully with both hands. Reed checked the little LCD screen and let me know that the memory card would hold about 250 images. Nat said that would be fine for the entire game. Considering I can take about 20 pictures of my kid eating his dinner in less than a minute, I understood that perhaps I needed to be a bit more discerning in my NBA photo taking.

‘Get low and get out of the way’

My most pressing question was, What do I do if some player comes diving toward me? “Get low,” Nat said, with a grim smile. “Just get low and get out of the way.” I tried to remind myself that NBA players are among the world’s most elite athletes. If they were coming at me, they probably had the body control to avoid me, as long as I remained a mostly stationary object and didn’t abruptly move into their path.

Causing some sort of accident was by far my biggest fear. I could read the NBA.com headline in my mind: “All Ball blogger takes out Lillard; Blazers pretty much screwed.” I imagined the outcry from Portland fans, the angry phone call from the league office, the resulting ESPN “30 For 30” documentary. So, if anything, I was resolved to err on the side of safety. If avoiding a collision meant missing a photo, well, we’d just have to hope Nat got the picture from the other end of the floor.

I was relieved when I was shown to my slice of court under the basket. Because there were several photographers working the game with more experience than me (read: every other photographer there), I was assigned to the opposite end of the court from Nat. There was a Blazers TV cameraman to my left, directly under the rim, and nobody to my right, except for a long advertising board — plenty of room for a player to avoid me if necessary. My camera was armed with autofocus and a zoom lens that allowed me to get tight on faces even on the other end of the court. And with Nat and his assistant Reed checking in on me frequently, the whole set-up was disarmingly simple, which put me at ease.

The more I considered it, the more I understood that the most difficult part of photographing the game would be anticipating the action and being ready to snap a photo when something worth freeze-framing happened. Also getting the image in focus by having the camera ready to shoot something at that range. And framing the shot perfectly. And making sure I hit the button early enough to give the flashes time to fire. And … OK, this wasn’t going to be easy at all.

Look for the moments that matter

“You’ve watched enough basketball,” Nat told me. “Use your knowledge. Watch the game, think along with the game and look for those moments.”

This echoed some advice ESPN’s J.A. Adande had passed along. J.A. spent a similar evening a few years ago in Los Angeles alongside Nat’s West Coast NBA Photos colleague Andrew Bernstein. Before I met up with Nat, I’d emailed J.A. and asked for any tips he would share. “The best advice I can pass along from Andy Bernstein is that if you see the shot, it means you’ve already missed the shot,” J.A. wrote. “That means you have to anticipate the shot. Rely on all of your years watching basketball to anticipate what comes next.”

langshootingPart of me felt as though this was my biggest advantage — I’ve watched and played basketball my entire life, and more than that, I’ve watched untold hours of NBA hoops the last fifteen years I’ve been covering the NBA. So I knew the Nets would try to get Kevin Garnett the ball on the perimeter, and that Reggie Evans would be wreaking havoc in the paint just feet from me. I guessed the Blazers aimed to set Damian Lillard loose in the paint, and I suspected LaMarcus Aldridge would post up along the baseline against Garnett. These were the types of potential images I was aiming for.

Would I be able to get perfectly framed and focused photos of jump shots and blocked shots? I wasn’t certain, but I figured that should be my goal. Early on in the game, Shaun Livingston drove the lane and dunked all over Robin Lopez. It happened on the opposite end of the court from where I was stationed, and I was watching with my camera in my lap. As Livingston improbably rose and threw the ball down, I gasped out loud along with everyone else in the arena. Maybe one second later, I realized that I’d missed an incredible photo opportunity. It would have been a tough image to catch — it happened about 90 feet away from me — but still, I had the camera in my lap when it happened, and I had robbed myself of even having the opportunity to get the shot.

From then on, I realized that I basically needed to watch the game through the viewfinder of my camera. The danger there would be that I was mostly blinding my peripheral vision, so I couldn’t be sure if I was totally safe from any crashing players or bouncing balls. But at some point, I reasoned, I would have to make peace with the fact that doing this job well might just require embracing a modicum of risk.

Just before the game began, as something of a parting gift, Nat loaned me a cushion to park myself atop — I obviously hadn’t considered the potential agony involved with sitting motionless and cross-legged on the wooden floor for three hours.

As it turned out, viewing an NBA game as a photographer required a completely different part of my brain than watching as a fan or as a writer. I wasn’t searching for any larger narrative, really, and context could mostly be ignored. I was focused on the moment, trying to read a few seconds into the future and looking no further than that. And then waiting for the flash to reset so I could do it all again.

Before long the players took the court, and we were on. What follows are some of the images I took that night, with my thoughts and comments below each picture. These pictures have not been cropped or color-corrected or anything else. This is what I shot…for better, or for, probably mostly, worse.

FOR PART TWO, CLICK HERE

2 Comments

  1. techie says:

    great story, keep it up :D

  2. Paul says:

    Awesome story. As both a basketball and photography enthusiast it was great to have an insight into what the photographers go through on a nightly basis doing the job that I wish I could do! :)