Shooting the Super Bowl

Photo by Michael Maloney/SF Chronicle

On this eve of the Super Bowl, I thought I’d describe what it’s like to cover one of the greatest sporting events in the world.

I’ve had the good fortune of photographing 5 Super Bowls during my career at the San Francisco Chronicle. The SF 49ers had a great run in the late 80′s and early 90′s and in fact won each of their Super Bowls thanks to such great athletes as Joe Montana, Steve Young, Jerry Rice, and many others. They even won back to back championships in 1989 and 1990.

Of all the sports I’ve covered, football by far was my very favorite sport to cover. I loved the challenge and excitement each game offered. As a photographer on the sidelines, I was very much like a defensive lineman, corner back or safety, trying to predict what the play was going to be and where it was going to take place so that I could position myself in the right place with the right lens to capture the play. It helped to really know the game, the team and the individual players. I loved shooting football, especially a game of this magnitude.

When you watch the game tomorrow and see all the photographers on the sidelines, you are seeing the very best sports shooters in the country. All seasoned veterans who have earned the right to be covering the big game. Sports Illustrated, All Sport, NFL Magazine, Associated Press, Getty Images, USA Today, NY Times, Washington Post and other news organizations send their best sports shooters. On a personal level for me, it was fun to compete against all of them. To measure my work against theirs.

Game day starts early for the shooters and editors. Most arrive 6-8 hours prior to kick off. Not only are they covering the game, but all the hoopla before and after, in town, outside the stadium and inside. Most publications send a shooter or two to the Super Bowl host city for all the activities during the week leading up to game day. At the Chronicle, for the game day coverage, we usually sent 4 shooters plus an editor. Unlike most games, each shooter is assigned a position by the NFL and would have to shoot the entire game from that one position. Because of this, we made sure we had the lenses to be able to cover our section of the field. Usually a 400mm f2.8, along with a 300mm f2.8, 70-200mm f2.8, and a wide angle. My favorite position was in the end zone, 1/3 the way in from the sidelines. We needed fast lenses because by the 2nd half, we were shooting at night, relying on the stadium lights.

The NFL restricts the number of publications that can cover the game to minimize the number of shooters on the sidelines. The larger newspapers representing the two teams, the host city’s major newspapers and the publications and wire services mentioned above are the only photogs you will find on the field and even then, it can be crowded. Each shooter has a numbered or color coded vest to wear keeping them in their assigned shooting positions. Some are allowed to roam. Assistants are sometimes allowed however they have to stay a few yards behind the shooters. Publications also have runners who periodically come by to pick up memory cards from the shooters – usually after a big play, a touchdown and end of quarter.

Speed is all important in this digital information age. Some of the wire services now have a direct link from shooter to editor so that just minutes after a big play, that image is on the web and available to publications throughout the world. Back in the film days, it took at least half an hour or so to get the image out. (Each NFL stadium had a full darkroom for use by the wire services) At the Chronicle, we had an onsite editor who would watch the game on closed circuit tv and would look at all of our images as they came in by a runner, pick the best ones, caption them and send them to the paper and to the online galleries. That allowed us shooters to concentrate on our shooting. At the end of the game however we were all in the media tent helping to edit our shots on our laptop computers and get them transmitted to make our deadlines. You had to be good not only as a shooter, but as an editor so that you could quickly get your photos captioned and sent. I thrived in this hectic environment and was proud to have an efficient workflow to get out as many images as I could in as little time as possible.

I’ve had people ask me after shooting a game if I enjoy watching it, but what they don’t realize is that I’m not really watching the game as a fan would. Rather, I’m looking for story telling images and trying to capture them. It’s an entirely different way of seeing the game. I enjoy the process, but it’s not the same as watching the game as a spectator.

Tomorrow, I’ll do just that. I’ll be a fan and enjoy the game with my favorite beverage wishing the 49ers were playing and wishing I was shooting my 6th Super Bowl.

Photo above was during the closing minutes of Super Bowl XXIX - on January 29, 1995 at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami, Florida. 49ers quarterback Steve Young threw a record 6 touchdown passes en route to a Super Bowl MVP award. His main target…Jerry Rice.

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