With Photography, You Never Know When Magic Will Pass Your Way

I love photography for its predictable nature. You can plan out every detail, from shutter speed and aperture, to lighting and lens focal length — and in many respects you know exactly what you’re going to get.

But just as NBA Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing was prepared when his Knicks squared off against the Lakers, his knees would still occasionally buckle when Magic Johnson would throw one of his trademark no-look passes.

NO LOOK MAGIC — Magic Johnson makes a no-look pass as Patrick Ewing defends. ©Chris S. Cornell

The best photographers use their experience (and learn from the experiences of others — through reading, watching videos, and networking) to prepare for every imaginable outcome. And even then, they are caught off-guard by the unpredictable nature of life.

Many times, the best photographs are the most unexpected, but they are usually captured by the photographers who are the most prepared. Photographers often concentrate too much on the sensational moment they may be hoping for, and are not ready when something different, but equally sensational, occurs.

So how can a photographer prepare for every possible outcome? The answer, of course, is one can’t. But a good photographer never forgets the ones that got away, and is better prepared the next time they find themself in a similar situation.

I’ve been making photographs since my parents gave me a Kodak camera when I was six years old. I’ve always loved photojournalism and sports photography in particular, and I’ve pressed the camera shutter hundreds of thousands of times in my life.

I’ve always been fascinated by the camera’s ability to freeze a moment in time — many times a moment that even the photographer did not have the chance to appreciate or contemplate when it was happening — and share that moment with others.

BY A NOSE — Dillon Ramage scored this goal for the Pleasant Valley Cobras in April 2018. ©Chris S. Cornell

When it looks like the soccer ball is going to come down within reach of both the goalie and an opposing player, the photographer should always be expecting a great opportunity, but the possibilities are endless.

At a game in Pleasant Valley in April of 2018, I happened to be positioned just beyond the corner when a pass was lofted into the box. I could see that Pleasant Valley forward Dillon Ramage was going up for ball, and that there was a defender and goalie converging from the other direction. I concentrated on making sure the focus remained on Dillon, and fired off several frames as the ball came down between the three.

Through the viewfinder I was able to see the ball deflect into the net, but I had no idea exactly how it happened until I reviewed the action on the camera screen. The decisive moment showed the ball pressing into Dillon’s nose as he headed it in for the score. The image was one of my favorites of the 2018 spring season.

As I was recently reviewing some of my favorite sports shots I’ve captured over the years, I started thinking about some of the factors that go into deciding exactly what are the ‘best’ photographs.

The technical elements — focus, composition, exposure and so on — are all important ingredients for a successful sports image, but what separates a good photograph from a better one?

My favorite photographs tell a story, and they often show a great athlete at a decisive moment. A great photograph truly does take the place of a thousand or more words.

Hendrick Hudson senior Anthony Alberti on his way to a second-straight New York State title in the 91 pound weight class. The finals were held at the Onondaga County War Memorial in Syracuse, NY. ©Chris S. Cornell

A photograph I captured in 1990 of Hendrick High School senior Anthony Alberti winning his second consecutive New York State title in the 91-pound weight class seemed to tell the story of his dominant wrestling career in just one frame. That was a good thing, because Alberti didn’t give me the chance to push the shutter more than a handful of times in a match that lasted less than a minute.

In 1990, I didn’t even know what autofocus was, and I was shooting 24-exposure rolls of black-and-white film (Tri-X or T-max) pushed to 1600ASA. I knew Alberti’s match probably wouldn’t last long, and that a win would cement his standing as one of the best wrestlers in Section 1 history.

It was a suspenseful drive back from Syracuse, not knowing if I had succeeded in freezing a decisive moment of Alberti’s victory. It turned out that there was only one decent image of the match, and it ran big across the front page of the North County News sports section. Alberti would later tell me it was “his favorite pic of all time.”

Sometimes a photo is made great by some unique aspect that shows off the athleticism of the participants, as was the case in a shot I got at an Arlington High School boys soccer game in the fall of 2017.

TURF TRAIL — Arlington’s Christian Martins (top) battles Spring Valley defender Woody Occeant in the first round of the Section 1 Class AA tournament October 23, 2017 at Arlington High School. ©Chris S. Cornell

In a 2017 Section 1 game between Arlington and Spring Valley, I noticed one particular defender on the underdog Spring Valley team, who seemed to be playing at a super-human level of intensity. I made a point of keeping the player, Woody Occeant, in my viewfinder whenever possible, and it paid off with one of my best images of that season. Christian Martins was attempting to advance up the right side of the field as Occeant streaked toward the sideline to cut him off. Martins never lost his focus and, fortunately, neither did I. A long trail of turf pellets followed Occeant’s dragging heels, and I was able to freeze Martins as he hurdled the defender in pursuit of the ball.

Over the years, I have taken hundreds of thousands of images, and I have no plans to slow down. I still frequently photograph sporting events, but other subjects include wildlife, people, architecture, and food. I may go back into the archives and follow up with another column or two looking back at some of the past images I have been fortunate enough to capture, but I’m even more enthusiastic about what’s to come.

Writer, editor, photographer. Work with independent filmmakers & businesses run by creative people. Work at WOW Production Services — http://wowproduction.com/

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