Growing up in the small town of Brainerd, Minnesota, Elsa Garrison didn’t have an inkling that her ninth-grade photography class would become her ticket to the high-octane world of professional sports photography. “The class was an art elective, and I thought it could be kind of interesting,” she says. “After that semester, I ended up working on the yearbook, pretty much through the rest of high school. I was definitely your classic yearbook dork—but we all are, I think,” she reflects.
Photographs © Elsa Garrison unless otherwise indicated; above photograph © Kevin Jairaj
In tenth grade, Garrison’s school started a program that paired students with professionals in the industries in which they were interested. After the area’s leading portrait photographer declined to participate, she was paired with the local newspaper photographer. “The idea was to shadow this person for a month, and then work on a project together,” she says. “The only time I could do daytime assignments was on the weekend, so I ended up shooting mostly sports.”
Shadowing the newspaper photographer at games was easy, since Garrison was already covering sports for the high school yearbook. “I was definitely not a gifted athlete, but most of my friends played sports, so it was a way for me to hang out with them and feel like I was part of the experience,” she says.
By the summer after her sophomore year, the paper had offered her a job, full time during summers and 15 to 20 hours a week during the school year. “One of the cool things about the Brainerd paper at that time was that they could request photo credentials for professional sporting events in Minneapolis,” she says.
Armed with a credential, she would make the two-hour drive after school, shoot the game, turn around and arrive back in Brainerd by midnight or 1:00 a.m. “I had keys to the paper, so I’d go in, develop my film, throw it on the sports editor’s desk, and then go home, sleep for a few hours, and go to school the next day.”
Garrison, who describes herself as being easily bored, views these early years as particularly formative. “What I loved about sports photography, certainly when I started, was the fact that it was all film, all manual focus,” she says. “It was hard, and I liked the challenge. You always had to be engaged, and you were always trying to improve your follow-focus. It was exciting when the planets aligned, you nailed the shot, and everything was in crisp focus.”
While working for the paper opened Garrison’s mind to the possibility of photography as a legitimate career option, after graduation she decided to continue her education at the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis (UMn). Instead of photography, she pursued an interest in architecture for the sake of her parents, who questioned the idea of studying a subject in which she was already successfully employed. “Certainly, if I didn’t choose to go to college, the newspaper was more than willing to offer me a full-time job,” she says. “But I was like, ‘nah, I’m getting out of here.’”
At UMn, she ended up working for the athletic department, and stringing for the Associated Press (AP) on the side. “It was the early ’90s, so it was still film,” Garrison explains. “AP would hire me for Vikings games, because they’d always have such a high volume of film and I could double-roll, so I could process a lot of film pretty quickly. During most games, I’d shoot the first quarter and then go in and run film for the rest of the game.”
She already knew the photographers who worked sports for the papers in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and they became a great resource when she was working for the athletic department. “I would see those photographers, and get a lot of good guidance and feedback,” she notes. “One of them asked me, ‘Why are you going to school for something else, when you seem to love this?’ And I’m like, ‘I think you’re right.’”
A couple of people recommended she check out the photojournalism program at the University of Missouri, Columbia, “So I applied to the Missouri School of Journalism, and transferred as a sophomore,” she says. “I wanted to at least learn how to be a visual journalist, why you covered things a certain way, and the reasoning behind that kind of work.”
Succeeding as a Woman in a Male-Dominated Field
As a budding sports photographer in the early to mid-’90s, one of Garrison’s primary influences was the dynamic coverage in Sports Illustrated, which was in its heyday at the time. “You’d pick up the magazine every week and see these amazing photographs on full-color spreads,” she recalls. “I admired the work of a lot of those photographers, but it was hard to find female sports shooters, so I was always admiring the work of men.”
Initially, she gave little thought to the matter of gender. “The way I was brought up was that if you wanted to do something, you worked really hard, learned how to do it well, and then just did it. There was no, ‘you can’t do this or that because you’re a girl,’” Garrison notes. “It didn’t really dawn on me until I moved away from Minneapolis to go to college in Missouri, and noticed a lot of gender differences.”
At that point, she started actively seeking out the work of female sports photographers. Most of the women she did find worked for wire services or were covering sports at bigger newspapers. “I would always look at the work of Kathy Willens, Elise Amendola, and Amy Sancetta from AP,” Garrison says. “This made me think, ‘OK, other women are doing this job, so it’s not like a gender thing. I can do it just as well as anybody else.’”
Another key influence during her college days was Sports Illustrated photographer John Biever, who she assisted a few times to help lug his three huge prime lenses—a 600mm, 400mm, and 300mm—during football games. “It was interesting to see where he positioned himself, and to notice that he was shooting wide open all the time,” remarks Garrison. “Shooting at f/4 with the compression of a 600mm lens just has a different look to it. I really like that look,” she adds, “because it blows out all the background distractions really nicely, and you can focus on the action.”
When flipping through magazines, she would deconstruct her favorite images to understand details, such as the angle the shot was made from, what lens and camera settings were used, and other technical attributes. “It was amazing to me how they used the tools of the time to make the images that they did,” she says.
Hunger for Images
After college, Garrison moved to Los Angeles for a job with the wire service Allsport, which was acquired by Getty Images in 1998. Fast-forward twenty years—she now lives in New Jersey and covers the New York sports market for Getty, which keeps her on the run.
In the New York area alone, there are two major-league baseball teams, two basketball teams, three hockey teams, and two football teams. “It’s a big market,” she says. She also spends a lot of time in Philadelphia, shooting about a third of their hockey season, half of their football season, and a handful of baseball and basketball games.
While making great pictures is still as crucial as ever, Garrison notes, “When you’re working for a wire service, it’s delivering that image quickly that counts, and I feel like the faster I can do that, the better I’m going to be.”
She describes the setup at playoff and championship games with a pool of editors stationed behind the scenes. “The position photographers are all tethered, and half a second after an image is shot, it’s in the editor’s hands. Depending on what the situation warrants, I’m sending tags or my whole take. So, that’s definitely changed the way that we work.”
During the regular season, Garrison generally works solo, but she is still constantly filing images throughout the game. When shooting baseball, she heads to a little workroom between innings. “Even if I’m not sending pictures, I’m at least ingesting the cards so everything’s in my laptop,” she says.
With basketball, she’ll shoot the first quarter and then send about 25 pictures. “In the days of film, I would shoot maybe the first half of the first quarter, because I’d have to process film to make deadlines, she notes. “You’d miss more than half of the first half just developing film, but now I feel like I can stay out there longer. I get more images, I can also get them out quicker, that is a huge difference. And I also have a lot less stuff to carry,” she adds. “All I need is my camera, my laptop and an Internet connection, and I can send.”
While Garrison’s affiliation with a major wire service gets her privileged access to the spots she wants close to the action, the field is more crowded now than it used to be: “There are more photographers, and more outlets now than when I started,” she says.
The media frenzy comes to a head during rival team match-ups and championship games. “When I lived in Boston and the Yankees would come play the Red Sox, suddenly the first-base photo pit would have three TV cameras in it, and half the pit was gone,” Garrison explains. “You could fit like four still photographers in there, and now you’re scrambling to either make two rows out of one or to find other positions to shoot from.”
For a different example of how media presence has influenced sports, Garrison cites the youth baseball championships she’s covered in the small community of Williamsport, PA. “The championship game used to be played on Sunday afternoon, and now it’s a night game because of ESPN,” she says.
What’s more, the income and notoriety from this coverage has allowed for an expanded roster of teams to participate, resulting in an extra week of playoffs, and the construction of a second stadium. Says Garrison, “This certainly gives more exposure to the sport, which is great,” yet she also describes the effect this media coverage has had on the youthful players. “The kids know where the TV cameras are, and you can see them start to react to them. This used to be the last genuine moment in sports,” she points out, “but I think that’s gone now, too.”
A longtime Canon shooter, Garrison generally carries two 1Dx Mark II bodies, but she also packs a couple of 1Dx bodies for use as remotes. Like her early influences, she prefers prime lenses, such as the Canon EF 300 mm f/2.8L or EF 400mm f/2.8L, over zoom telephotos.
“When you’re shooting a bigger game or event, something like the Canon EF 200 – 400 gives you a lot of flexibility very, very quickly,” she admits. “But on the downside, it’s an f/4 lens, and I think one f/stop in depth of field makes a big difference when you’re shooting football. You can really tell in the images.”
While her preference for primes may seem old school, “Sometimes you’ve got to take a chance to separate yourself from others,” she says, offering the example of shooting on the baseline with the same 70 – 200 mm lens as the guy beside you. “All the pictures are going to look the same,” she says. In such situations, Garrison asks herself, “What’s the difference that I can bring to a game? Maybe it’s shooting with a large prime one day, or an 85mm f/1.2 the next.”
Given her long tenure with Getty, covering sports 99.99 percent of the time, using different lenses also helps Garrison to shake things up. “It forces you to be a little more creative in the way you’re shooting something, and it helps keep things from getting stale,” she affirms. “It forces you to keep your A game.”
Yet she generally limits such experiments to regular-season games rather than playoffs, noting, “There’s not a lot of super big moments that are going to happen during the regular season. You have a little bit more flexibility to play. But when it comes to the big games, I stick with the bread-and-butter, tried-and-true stuff.”
Capturing the Action
For optimal sharpness when covering most action sports, Garrison sets her shutter speed between 1/2000 and 1/1000 of a second. “I won’t shoot anything slower than 1/1000, and even then, you can get some motion blur,” she notes. “For football and basketball, I try to keep my shutter speed around 1/1600 of a second, although you have to go a little lower in some venues.”
For daytime baseball, she’ll set her shutter speed at 1/2000 of a second, and then adjust the ISO to the lowest number that permits shallow depth of field. “If I want to shoot at 1/2000 and f/2.8 or f/3.2, I will put my ISO down to 100 if that will get me the shutter speed and f/stop I want,” she explains.
Yet for sports such as cycling or auto racing, she often shoots a little bit slower. “When I’m shooting NASCAR, I feel like if you freeze the action of the car, and don’t see a little bit of tire spin, it just looks like a parked car. So maybe I’ll shoot that at 1/800 of a second, to freeze the car in sharp focus, yet capture a little bit of the movement.”
At the other extreme, when trying for motion blur or panning, she notes, “How low I can set my shutter speed depends on the light, as well as factors such as whether I’ve had a lot of caffeine that day, and I can’t handhold my camera at 1/4 of a second because I’m too jumpy,” she adds.
When it comes to pushing her ISO, Garrison tends to be old school. “I feel uncomfortable shooting above ISO 3200 or so,” she admits. Yet she recalls shooting night baseball with an 800mm f/5.6 lens during a championship game, trying to get pictures of center field. “The fastest the lens would go was f/5.6, so I boosted the ISO to 8000 ISO. When I checked the images on the LCD, they looked great, but I thought they might be a little grainy. Yet, when I pulled them up in the computer, I was impressed,” she adds. “However, I’m still a little bit leery about ISO, and I haven’t broached the 10,000 mark yet.”
Essential Accessories for Stability and Light
Apart from her cameras, perhaps Garrison’s most essential piece of gear is her trusty monopod, “because I can’t handhold a 300 or 400mm lens for a five-hour baseball game,” she notes. “I have forgotten my monopod before, and nothing strikes more terror and fear in your heart than to realize that you drove somewhere, and your monopod is at home.”
Her preferred brand is Gitzo, but she has also used a Manfrotto Element series monopod, which is reasonably priced and comes in a variety of colors. When choosing a monopod, her biggest consideration is whether it will collapse enough to allow her to kneel when shooting football. “I’m 5'4" on a good day, so I need a shorter monopod,” she says. “That’s always been somewhat of a challenge, and for the longest time Gitzo was the only company to make a decent monopod that was short but felt sturdy.
While Garrison prefers covering action to capturing posed portraits, a she totes a studio lighting kit to Florida for Spring Training Photo Days, and recently streamlined her kit to make it easier to travel.
“Late last fall I got some ProFoto B1 battery-operated strobes, and I love them,” she says. “This has given me so much more flexibility, I was able to power the lights down low enough to use my 85mm f/1.2, and still shoot it on strobes at like f/2.”
She was equally impressed with the B1’s battery life: “If I didn’t use the modeling lights, I could get through an entire shoot of like 70 ball players, over a span of three hours, and not have to change the battery,” she enthuses. “That blew me away, my first day.”
Garrison also appreciated the fact that there are no cords to trip over. “I could be flexible and mobile when I wanted to shoot a tight portrait of a player with my 85mm f/1.2. I just picked up my main light and moved it, and I didn’t have to do anything crazy with adjusting cords. I used to travel with five or six bags of gear,” she adds. “Now I have my lights in a backpack that I carry on the plane with me.”
For auxiliary lighting, when faced with the whirlwind of hard-action sports like hockey, Garrison sets up strobes in the catwalk, remotely powered by PocketWizard’s FlexTT6 Transceiver, which can hyper-synch at 1/500 of a second. “This allows me to freeze action a little bit better,” she says. When working with remote cameras, she uses either PocketWizard’s MultiMAX II Transceiver, or the Plus III if she’s putting a camera behind a backboard or hockey net.
Being from Minnesota, Garrison grew up shooting hockey. “That got me a lot of places early on, just because some people have a hard time shooting that sport,” she notes. “There’s a lot of stuff going on, especially if you’re shooting at ice level.”
When asked about her favorite sport to photograph, Garrison names at least half a dozen, before admitting, “There’s not one favorite sport that I love. For me, the hot sport of the moment is where I want to be, which means I can go to everything.”
In terms of the most creative sport to photograph, Garrison shifts her attention from high action to the quality of the light, using the US tennis championships, in Queens, as an example. “The first week, there are about 18 courts going on at the same time, and as the lighting changes you can really do some fantastic, beautiful, creative stuff playing with the light, and working the shadows. There’s like 40 minutes of magic at center court in Queens,” she says. “You’ll see everyone shooting upstairs because the shadows are coming across the court in a way that looks really cool when a player lunges out of the darkness into the light.”
Last fall, Garrison taught a sports photography workshop during the annual Photoville festival, in Brooklyn. In addition to key tips for using light to your advantage and positioning yourself in front of a nice clean background, her advice to aspiring sports shooters is geared more to good preparation than to shooting itself. “I feel like a lot of sports photography is planning and problem-solving, and then the easy part is reacting to what happens in front of you,” she explains. “Especially if you are working a game by yourself, and you’re trying to figure out, ‘OK, how can I tell this story?’ You think of all these scenarios that happen, and what could happen, and you plan accordingly.”
Patience is a big part of sports photography for her, as well. “You can get yourself set up in a great spot, but you have to wait for the action to come to you,” she says. “You have to wait for things to happen, but when they do you need to be ready.”
Do you have any tips for photographing high action sports? Please chime in in the Comments section, below.