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Matinee: 'Peter Read Miller on Sports Photography' Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

29 March 2014

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the twenty-sixth in our series of Saturday matinees today: Peter Read Miller on Sports Photography.

This B&H production, which runs just over an hour, was recorded in November last year. Miller, a Sports Illustrated photographer for over 30 years, discussed the subject on the occasion of the publication of his book Peter Read Miller on Sports Photography.

We thought the topic especially appropriate as March Madness once again earns its name. Great games and great fun (even if only one team can win it all) despite some terrible Frank Sinatra karaoke barkleyed during one lull in the action.

Miller begins the talk with a montage of his work put together by a friend. That might seem like a good chance to take inventory of your refrigerator contents but the images get your blood going.

The discussion covers the three aspects of sports photography Miller has enjoyed the most: the Olympics, football and portraits.

His story begins with the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona -- or actually the rehearsal for the opening ceremony. That's how he found out the torch for the games would be lit by an archer.

He scouted out a spot for a remote camera and when the moment arrived, he was ready, shooting the archer with a 500mm lens from his spot (just like all the other sports photographers) and firing the remote with a time exposure to get the arch of the arrow and the torch igniting. Nobody else had that shot.

What he loves about the Olympics, Miller says, is the emotion. "These people really give it to you," he says of the competitors. "It is true emotion."

So he likes to position himself behind the finish line for the sprints, catching the reaction of the runners as they realize they've won and, sometimes, set a new world record.

He remembers how in Beijing he wondered how a fellow photographer with no tripod or clamp was going to get sharp night shots of the Bird's Nest stadium. When darkness fell and the fireworks went off, the photographer simply stabilized his camera by hanging it from the railing by its strap and gently setting off the self-timer.

It isn't just about the gear.

Everybody has the same gear these days, he points out several times during the course of the talk. You have to go beyond that, he suggests, as he tells you how he did just that.

And usually it's a matter of prep. Going to the rehearsals. Doing the background work. That's how he got his torch shot.

He started working with the NFL in 1973, assigned to shoot the sidelines, which he found surprisingly valuable. He learned, he says, how to look for things other than action.

He was the only sports photographer in the Oakland Raider locker room after a devastating loss, he points out, for just that reason. He got a few shots of the agony of defeat before anyone bigger than him looked up.

He likes the freedom to move anywhere around the football field (other than the bench areas). But you need good low light late in the season to see the eyes of the players during daylight games. So he parks himself where the light is good and takes what comes his way.

There were lots of Joe Montana shots in the presentation, we were happy to see. No San Franciscan can get enough Joe Montana. A great guy and a lot of fun to work with, Miller notes.

He goes on to recommend lenses, wearing a camera around your neck with a wide to normal angle lens, what kind of shots you can get behind the line of scrimmage and on the other side, what angles are more dramatic and more practical advice.

Among his portraits, he discusses a series of Mexican wrestlers, posed in the costumes they wear in the ring. There's a video of the shoot on his Web site. Then there's a series of Sydney Olympics athletes painted in gold. And a discussion of some portable lighting setups for a series of Sports Illustrated cover shots.

The stories accompanying the images are short and amusing but Miller doesn't spare himself. He recounts some of his more memorable mistakes and failures (like forgetting to crank back his ISO or reset his shutter speed to stop motion), ending with one that turned out better than he hoped.

He had missed all the action at the track on a memorable come-from-behind victory that had eluded even his remote camera setups. As he was crossing the track feeling despondent, he looked up and saw the back of the winner facing a lineup of orange-vested sports photographers, the jockey's arms spread wide to embrace the victory. No one else got that shot.

"Never give up until you're in the parking lot," he concludes.

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