Shooting Sports with David Black
David Black is a photographer who has been shooting sports for many years. He's also seen a lot of changes: autofocus, priority modes, and digital photography only being a couple of them. We recently got the opportunity to talk to him about how he started off by shooting only one sport to gaining the abilities to shoot various others.
If you're a sports fan, you'll want to take a look.
B&H: In the Biography section on your website, the first thing one sees is a quote from you, “I love to make pictures.” You’ve been doing this for over 30 years. Can you share with our readers what motivates you, and from where you draw your inspiration?
Dave: It's true, Steve, I do love to make pictures. It's fun, it's a challenge, it's exciting (especially when photographing sports), and it is my livelihood. Making pictures is kind of like putting a big puzzle together, piece by piece; the journey is fascinating, but it's the finished visual product that excites me, and motivates me to do it all over again tomorrow.
B&H: Being a professional freelance photographer is tough enough. Specializing in sports is even tougher! How has the industry changed over the past 30 years? Also, any insights for our readers on how to make it in the highly-competitive field of Professional Freelance Sports Photography?
Dave: With the introduction of the digital age, autofocus, and priority modes, the broad base of photographers has increased 1000-fold over the last decade. Great visual minds that might never have dipped their big toes into the waters of the photographic industry, are now some of the new leaders. It's exciting to see this.
For me, in 1980, when I started photographing sports, I began by specializing in one sport: gymnastics.
I had great familiarity with this sport as a high school and NCAA college competitor, as well as some years of coaching. While my photographic skills were in their infancy, my superior knowledge of the sport, its athletes, and their skills gave me a definite edge in capturing peak action and key moments over many of the best sports photographers of that time, even the greats from Sports Illustrated.
"Chase perfection and you will catch excellence"
Once I was established in that sport, I added another—figure skating—where I excelled again. I then added another, and another, and kept striving for excellence in each new sport that I covered. This methodical approach was my cornerstone of success, and I believe it still works today for those who want a career in photography.
I'm originally from the Green Bay Packer franchise, whose history runs deep in my family.
B&H: You recently completed a series of blog posts on Light painting, which was very well received. What gave you the idea to do the series?
Dave: You're right, the Lightpainting series in my Workshop at the Ranch (WATR) website articles got people amped up with an all-time-high monthly readership: above 110,000 unique visitors. Creative lighting is a key component of my image-making formula. Early on, I began shooting sports with arena strobe systems, and now I also incorporate Nikon Speedlights to give my action imaging an artistic presence. Lightpainting is the most artistic lighting technique I know of. It is the photographic extension of my college degrees in Graphics Design and Studio Drawing. Instead of the ink pen or paint brush I used in college, I now use a mobile light source (LED flashlight) to apply/paint light onto my subject during long exposure times. I teach Lightpainting at many of the workshops I'm involved with, and even have a Lightpainting video class on Kelby Training. The series of Lightpainting articles was an idea that came from hundreds of emails I received over the past few years, requesting that I devote several articles to teaching this technique. I'm currently working on a Lightpainting book.
B&H: You also teach a number of workshops a year. How long have you been doing this, and what do you enjoy most about sharing your knowledge with others?
Dave: Let it be known that I love to teach photography just about as much as I love to make pictures. As I mentioned earlier, I was a double major in Graphics Design and Studio Drawing. My goal was to become an illustrator for books and magazines. I had to take a Black-and-White Photography class to fulfill the Graphics Design major. The teacher/dept. head, Mr. Bob White, told me that I had a keen talent for photography, and so he took his own time after the course had concluded, to help me continue my photographic progress. It was because of Mr. White that I am a photographer today, and so I always wanted to do for others what Mr. White did for me. I have been teaching at workshops and universities almost from the beginning of my career. I like to see people learn something new and achieve their goals.
B&H: You’ve photographed major sporting events all over the world. Any travel tips for photographers who are new to this?
Dave: Well, no one has ever asked me that question before...hmm. It's difficult, with current airline restrictions, to pack your 400mm f/2.8 or 600mm f/4.0, and all the rest. My advice is to carry on board the primary gear that is required to get the job done efficiently. Late arrival of additional exotic gear is troublesome, but not if you have the essentials. I accomplish this by not using a fancy camera backpack that is too large for a regional-sized jet, or exceeds the international size/weight limit. I like to wrap my individual pieces of gear with soft cloth or padding and place it in a non-compartmental travel backpack. This pack never leaves my back, so my gear is handled with care. This style of backpack is unassuming, smaller and lighter, and I've never had the airline take it away and place it in the belly of the plane...and it can fit my two Nikon D4 cameras, my 24-70mm, 70-200mm and Nikon 200-400mm f4.0 lenses, one Speedlight, and a few accessories.
B&H: Your two books—Thoroughbreds and The Way I See It—are awesome. Love the fact that they are available as eBooks as well as large format coffee-table books. I see they are self-published on Blurb. How is that working out?
Dave: Self-publishing my books has worked well for me, but that is probably because I have a large base of photographers who read my WATR articles each month. The hardcover coffee-table books printed by blurb.com are published on demand, not in bulk, so they are beautiful but expensive. The eBook version is average-priced, thus easy for folks to buy, which was my goal. The Way I See It is an educational book with portfolio images, explanations of how they were made, my mindset to accomplish the picture, and all camera data, gear, and lighting stats for each image in the book. Thoroughbreds chronicles a decade of my horse-racing photography. It is a lovely book about horses and not so much about data, but it teaches my approach to photographing the sport. I originally made the coffee-table edition for my daughter, Haley, who is a wedding and portrait photographer. I want her to have a library of books containing my career images and thoughts while working as a professional photographer. There are many more books to come.
B&H: The composition and lighting in your photographs are amazing! I love the different angles you use. Many photographers are afraid of lighting. Anything special to say to motivate them?
Dave: I have always felt that "Light is the Greatest Influence." Even the most boring of subjects—when lit creatively and artistically—can become a work of art. Bringing that concept to your own photography will raise you above the crowd. When I began using off-camera lighting, sport strobes, Speedlights, and Lightpainting, I continually raised the bar higher than many of my colleagues were willing or able to go. This concept of raising the bar visually with lighting, combined with my methodical pursuit to capture sports action with efficiency and excellence, is why I have done well in the industry over the years. When you learn to use light, even just a little off-camera flash, you become a double threat—kind of like being a baseball player who hits and fields.
B&H: Gear! Any recommendations on a basic kit for someone starting out? Also, what’s in your bag in terms of lenses?
Dave: Your earlier question addressed what is currently in my backpack, but there are a few additional items that I find useful. Rather than using a 2nd flash on the hot shoe to fire a remote Speedlight, use the Nikon SU-800 Commander. It's less expensive than a second Speedlight, has great range, and all the power output and TTL settings are displayed on the Commander's screen instead of being deep within the camera menu. I like the new Nikon 28-300mm lens. It's perfect for travel and very sharp. And with newer cameras having clean High ISO capabilities, the 3.5-5.6 aperture is easy to handle. I always carry an LED flashlight. I use the Inova Bolt 2L. It's perfect for the nature photographer who wants to add some additional off-camera light to flowers and small nature scenes. It is also my light source of choice for many of my Lightpaintings.
B&H: What’s in the future for Dave Black?
Dave: My recently redesigned website is now up and running. Come check it out at www.daveblackphotography.com. I'm currently working on a series of athlete portraits in some unique environments. All done with location lighting, of course, mostly Speedlights, and even some Lightpainting. I am also making more online-training video classes with Scott Kelby at www.kelbytraining.com . We just finished a video class dealing with football-game coverage, and I will begin filming my second Lightpainting video class for Kelby in the next few weeks. It is very exciting to have the opportunity to broaden my teaching base and help many more photographers. My Workshop at the Ranch (WATR) articles are in a Questions & Answers format. Photographers are emailing their questions to me, and I answer them. The most popular Q&As will appear in the next several months of WATR.