Peter R. Miller
After 34 Super Bowls, eight Olympic games, 14 NBA Finals, and a Dave Boss Photographer of the Year award, Los Angeles-based sports shooter Peter Read Miller has the relaxed but assured air of someone who knows exactly what he's doing, knows his place in the universe, and likes it there. Arguably the question foremost on most sports fans' minds is "what's it like to be a Sports Illustrated shooter?" Everything points to the fact that it feels like a workout before you even put the camera to your eye. We asked the fit, 66-year-old Miller just how many pounds of gear he's hauling around.
"[laughs] A few too many, It's probably about 30-40 lb. You don't really count full for the lenses that are on the monopods, because basically you're resting them most of the time." It does help that Miller is 6' 3" and 225 lb himself, but he's quick to point out that he and the players have very different jobs and, beside the all-important shot, part of his job is to keep out of harm's way, which can be a little more complicated than one might expect, especially when a behemoth 300-lb defensive lineman, who can do the 40 in 4.84 seconds, comes thundering your way. "Yeah, you can hear it," says Miller, "you can hear the hits, you can feel it through the field when somebody goes down."
His survival instincts, honed over many years, kick in automatically in such situations but, oddly enough, the most dangerous turf is not necessarily in a pro stadium.
"I've had near-misses all the time... the big problem on the field is not the people who are actually shooting, it's the layers of people behind you who are there for whatever reason. Colleges are particularly bad about this; I mean, I can usually move out of the way, but if I can't move out of the way because people are behind me, then it's... [a problem]. I've been lucky, I haven't been hit in a long time." Sometimes he shoots with both eyes open for reasons easy to imagine.
But these occurrences are relatively rare and Miller is known for getting up close and personal with the action to achieve a unique perspective. One of his techniques is low-angle shooting, which he's quick to point out, he didn't invent. "...the ground level is more versatile, the player's a little bigger and the background is a little better, but sometimes it doesn't work because you really don't have a big field of view, so it's easy to miss stuff and if [the action] doesn't come your way, you're not gonna get it... it's a shot where you just gotta take a little risk."
Which brings back the question of vulnerability; most people would agree that lying prone on your stomach in the grass before an oncoming stampede would not be their first choice of evasion.
"Yeah, there is [some danger] potentially, but in most college and pro stadiums, there's a good couple of yards between you and the out-of-bounds line, that buffer zone where the TV guys can roam. I won't say it hasn't happened [when] a team is already back against their end zone. With something like that I just kind of tuck my head down and hope they go over me [laughs]." But, he says that's the only way to get faces and detail in the shot, because, everybody's got their head down and that's the way they play football, but yeah, to get under all that, [a low angle is] good for that."
So what about the gear he uses? Miller has been an avid Canon shooter since the rangefinder days, dabbled with other brands in the 1970s and '80s and has stuck with Canon exclusively since 1991.
Here's Miller's usual rig:
- 4 Canon EOS-1D X DSLR cameras
- Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM super telephoto lens
- Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM super telephoto lens
- Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM telephoto zoom lens
- Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM zoom lens
- Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM ultra-wide zoom lens.
The 400mm and 600mm lenses are on monopods, the 70-200mm is slung over his shoulder, the 24-70mm is around his neck, and the 16-35mm is in either a belt or shoulder pouch.
The cameras and lenses are in individual cases, which are then padded with rain covers and a sweat shirt or rain jacket. Preferring not to take anything into the game that he's not going to use for the actual shoot, he unpacks in the car and leaves all the cases there.
And that's just for football. Baseball and basketball require extensive use of remotes.
For baseball, options include an extra 70-200mm for home plate remote angles and then, instead of using both the 600mm and the 400mm, he'll probably just cut it down to the 400mm with an extender: "With most of the ball parks on the West Coast, I'm good with the 400mm and maybe an extender if I wanna get tight."
Basketball, on the other hand, is "remote city, as many as I and my assistant have time to put up, and those depend on the building, like an overhead remote in the Staples Center that's basically a 400mm straight down, and then behind the backboard is a remote with, usually, a 20mm or a 24mm. [Basically] a lot of wides, a long lens for overhead, and then on the court, I'll use the 300mm or 400mm for down-court and then the 70-200mm or the 24-70mm for my end."
So far we have been talking about the relative calm, ease and control of shooting the live action of athletes of superhuman strength and speed in front of 70,000 or 80,000 screaming fans. The Olympics, on yet another hand, is a whole other animal. Earlier, we asked Miller if he scouts a stadium or venue before a shoot as he replied, predictably, that he did if it was unfamiliar or hadn't shot there in a while. At the Olympics the preparedness level is on constant red alert. You simply can't prepare enough. "The Olympics are pretty much a one-time gig; wherever it is, the key is to get there early, you know, be able to look over a lot of the venues. I do a lot of gymnastics, for example. You really have to look it over and see where the angles are before the games start [because] once they start there is no catching up. There is something big happening everyday for 17 days," which brought to mind his penchant for seeking out unusual angles or methods to perfectly capture and express a moment or event, like his great fencing shot from the 2012 Olympics. Remembering the multiple exposure feature on his 1D X, Miller rested his camera on a small fence in front of the photo bench, stopped down one stop to darken the background and ripped off about 20 frames. The result captured a series of parries and thrusts that encapsulated, in a single image, the physical experience of fencing and served as a visual metaphor for the whole event.
PETER MILLER'S FAVORITE LENS
Designed for the professional sports or wildlife photographer, the new EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM with Internal Extender 1.4X combines the flexibility of a zoom lens with a super telephoto maximum focal length. On full-frame cameras, this zoom encompasses an angle of view between 12º and 6º. In APS-C format equivalency, the result would be closer to 320-640mm. This lens houses a unique built-in 1.4x extender that converts the focal-length range and maximum aperture to 280-560mm f/5.6 (448-896mm for APS-C cameras), with a resulting angle of view covering 8º-4º.
Miller points out that very unique methods like this can be quickly overused and become hackneyed, and he seems to have a unique talent for recognizing their moment, using them and walking away—as in his field-level coin toss, shot in Dallas.
"When Canon brought out the EF 8-15 mm f/4L Fisheye USM, I hadn't used a one since the film days but I felt like there was a picture [there] that I could get in a magazine, get a Leading Off [SI picture of the week] and then nobody else was gonna get a fisheye picture [laughs] for a long time."
Miller went down to Dallas, where they allowed him to lay the camera on the field with the fisheye in the Dallas-Denver exhibition opener for both teams at Cowboys Stadium; the Cowboys lost the toss but won the game.
"The key is that [the shot] had a kind of foreground interest in that you had all the players and ref (Terry McAulay) with the coin up and because the roof was closed, all this structure up above, because a lot of times you use that fisheye and it's just a bunch of sky." So that worked really fine for me but to my knowledge, they haven't run a fisheye picture since then. I remember fisheyes, when they first became available in the '70s, it was the same thing—you'd go out, you'd make a really cool picture and then nobody would wanna see another fisheye picture [laughing] for like two years, so I think... those things, they run their course and then people kind of forget about them for awhile and then they come back."
As mentioned earlier, Miller has been a steadfast proponent of Canon's gear since 1991. Having already stated publicly that he's delighted to forgo crop-sensor cameras in favor of the 1D X so that he could finally use Canon glass the way it was intended, it was a compliment to the equipment that he has a very short wish list for the 1D X.
"They are amazing cameras, they do everything that I need done right now and I can see a lot of next steps: I can see a much faster Wi-Fi where we get the stuff right out of the camera, which works now if you shoot JPEGs, but doesn't work if shooting RAW. That is just a matter of up-scaling and I think that is going to come, but I am really happy with the 1D X and the way it is right now. "People are asking about the lens lineup all the time."
He reserved special praise for the EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x lens. "I think the 200-400mm zoom is a major step up for Canon. I used it all during the Olympics and it is a pretty amazing lens. I think that where they are going is key, making the lenses lighter. When they went from the old 400mm f/2.8 to the new 400mm f/2.8, that was amazing; it's half the weight! And I think it's still evolving [the trend]. I am not a real pixel picker or whatever you call it and all worried whether I've got that corner sharpness or whatever. The glass simply just keeps getting better and the cameras keep getting better and I think that is the way to go."
While it's almost like asking a doctor for medical advice at a party, we wondered what kind of basic gear he'd recommend for an ambitious sports mom or dad. While not discouraging any type of sports photography, especially in daylight, he brought up some general ideas.
"I know that the 7D was Canon's entry-level fast action camera, and I think that's still pretty much the case; you need something like that that's got a pretty good frame rate and good high ISO performance, and I would say a 70-200mm f/2.8. The most dreadful question I get is how do I shoot high school football at night—it's a trap there. The only thing I can tell you is that the high ISO has gotten so much better that if you have any of the more modern cameras, you've got a lot better shot at it. You definitely need some kind of 70-200mm, and if you're shooting in the daytime, that f/4 is a great lens. Another lens I like that's got great performance and versatility is the 70-300mm, and I know they make several versions."
Miller also comments on some recommended exposure settings he feels comfortable with, to stop his kind of action: "That's a funny thing, that's something I've noticed and I've had other people confirm this but nobody can tell me exactly why—the higher megapixels the cameras get, the higher the shutter speed it takes to really freeze the action. I'm sure there's a way to sit down and think it through but that's what I've found. We used to shoot film at 1/500, which froze most everything and1/1000 was like, tack-sharp. I used to shoot night football at 1/250 second and there'd be some blur in the hands and feet but you got sharp pictures. Now I really don't like to go below 1/1000 or 1/800 at night, and I like to be 1/2000 - 1/2500 in the daytime."
Does image stabilization help? "It's especially good for some things, [for instance] if you're at a baseball game and it's a bright sunny day and you're shooting with your 600mm, but now you want to turn it into a portrait in the dugout, that's gonna end up being at 1/125th second. I have found that if you're using it on a portrait shoot and you want to make sure you're getting everything as sharp as possible [it's useful there]... they put the best glass and the best technology into the lens with the IS, so it's the best lens choice whether or not you use the IS."
On the past and the future technology, we wondered if Miller could have foreseen anything like current camera technology. Would a shooter from the '70s, waking up from some sort of suspended animation, be able to handle it or simply short out?
"I don't really think so, it certainly is a lot different... it is, but it isn't. The things that make a good image are still the same: sharpness, exposure, composition, those things are universal. Anybody that is competent handling a '70s-era camera, given a couple of days, would be right back in it. Maybe not all the nuances, there are so many options and variations on all the top-of-the-line cameras, but if someone gave them a basic setup and said to go out and shoot, I think most people would not have great difficulty. The workflow is obviously totally different, you don't spend that time in the darkroom, you spend it at the computer. However, the time spent is almost the same, your fingers just don't turn orange."
When asked whether he started out in action shooting and then branched out into more formal portraiture, he said: "I started as pretty much an action guy but it became apparent to me early on that you had to do both—my first few experiences with strobes were pretty scary, but as time went by I developed some kind of familiarity with that and a kind of a style. It's proven to be really good for my career because we've got guys who shoot action and guys who shoot portraits, but I think [having] that versatility has been good for me."
Miller has separated his work into three categories: pure game action, mainly football; game and event coverage with remotes, everything from baseball to the Olympics; and commercial and portrait work. Miller's studio alter ego has done commercial work for Nike, Visa, Kodak, ABC TV, Time, Life, People, Newsweek, and the New York Times, just to name a few.
Currently, his favorite lens in the studio is the EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM that Canon brought out in 2012. "That lens is so sharp that it's just amazing. And besides that, the EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM was always my go-to lens. Then, if I'm going longer, I'll probably use the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM."
We asked if his studio work was a kind of therapy or an antidote to what he does in action sports; does it fill a gap? "It does. The thing about shooting a football game or the Olympics is that they tell you where to go, they tell you where to park, and they tell you where to go in; they tell you where you can and where you can't be. While you certainly have control over the pictures you're taking, you don't have control of much else. And then you flip it around and you go in the studio and then you're totally in control of everything, which can be good or bad, but it's a reversal from being someone who's taking all this direction to someone who's giving all the direction. It's nice to have the balance because sometimes I get tired of being the guy that's giving all the directions and worrying where the donuts are or where the coffee creamer is [laughs]."
Our final question found this very articulate photographer at a loss for words: What would you be doing if you weren't doing this? He replied, "Oh I don't know, I can't imagine not doing this," which is the ideal answer for anyone who truly loves what he does.