Spring Season

During a TV timeout at an Orlando Magic game. I had no idea the guy behind me was making the same face. Lucky for me, Bill Frakes is always looking for moments like this.

Over the last decade, I’ve spent many beautiful spring days inside basketball arenas. It’s the sport of the season, from the NBA to March Madness.

Basketball is fun to watch - especially this time of year - but I have to admit, I’ve never been a fan of covering it.

In fact, my least favorite part of shooting basketball is the game itself. A ball is constantly bouncing, shoes are squeaking across a shined floor, music is blaring and fans are yelling inside the echo chamber we call basketball courts. For me, the games are migraines waiting to happen.
The part I enjoy - oddly enough - is the setup; the hours and days that lead up to the games.

It starts early - sometimes an entire 48 hours before tip-off. Lights are put in place, wires are run and camera angles are decided. Sometimes negotiations with the arena or the broadcast channel are required. Sometimes the catwalks themselves - the scaffolding around the roof of every arena in America - aren’t easily accessible.

Many of the crisp, amazing shots you see from basketball games are shot on strobe. That means someone (me) has to put those strobes in place. Those strobes - along with every light and speaker - are rigged onto the catwalk of an arena. It’s a place you don’t think about unless you have to. I know I had never considered how the lighting and sound systems were hung until I had to do it myself.

Some catwalks have elevators that offload directly onto the catwalk platform. Others have steep stairs that you have to climb with the cameras, strobes and wires you need in tow. It's hard work, but hard work is something I've always enjoyed.

Once the lights and overhead angles are set, there are still plenty of other remotes to put in place. Every arena is different, and every level of play has rules about where you can and can’t put cameras.

Setting up a flash wizard tree. They're called flash wizards because it's what we use to sync all the remote cameras with the strobes in the catwalks. When a camera is fired, so are the strobes.

For the most part, there is always a camera on the side of each hoop (a post camera). Then we try to find a slightly elevated shot that has a clean look at the hoop for rebounds, layups and dunks. There are cameras under the press tables and next to benches. There are floor cameras and glass cams (cameras, literally, behind the backboard glass). And last but not least, our handheld cameras; a telephoto (either a 300mm f/2.8 or a 400mm f/2.8) and a shorter lens (a 24-70mm f/2.8 or a 24-120mm f/4) for near-court shots.

Setting up a camera under the press table. These are placed right at the 3-point arc just in case there is a game-winning, buzzer-beating shot.

This year I took a step back and am watching the NCAA tournament on TV. I find that I am not just watch the games, I look for the cameras, too.

I’ve been in just about every arena that this year’s games were played in. I know why broadcast chose the angles they did. Every arena has slightly different options, some better than others. I can see the other photographers, many of whom I know, on the floor each time a ball goes to the hoop. I can anticipate the images they will make; the ones I will see the coming days online, in the newspaper and in sports magazines.

Like a chef who can’t eat a meal without guessing the ingredients, I can’t watch an athletic event without guessing where the cameras are. A strange, but entertaining occupational habit.