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Matinee: Baseball Photographer Jon Willey Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

19 March 2016

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 127th in our series of Saturday matinees today: Baseball Photographer Jon Willey.

With spring about to be sprung on us (later tonight), it couldn't be a better time to get into baseball mode. Spring training is already in full swing (Giants 15, Padres 6 in last night's game as Matt Cain returned to the mound).

To help you with the transition, photographer Mark Wallace interviews Arizona Diamondbacks photographer Jon Willey. A lot goes into photographing a baseball game and Willey reveals his secrets in this 13:40 video clip produced by Adorama in 2010.

The first thing you'll learn, as they chat in the Diamondbacks' Chase Field dugout, is how many stills the staff captures at each game. An astonishing 1,000 to 1,500 images each. They go through all that the day after a night game and pass the load on to an archivist before they continue their rounds with some publicity work.

Only a small percentage of what they shoot is game action.

They use shot sheets for each game. Only a small percentage of what they shoot is game action, Willey says. There will be requests for images of various events (like the Star Spangled Banner, throwing out the first ball, etc.). So they have a shot list to keep track of what has to be done. It's like shooting a wedding, Wallace points out.

The staff also shoots the ball club's community outreach initiatives. And afterwards, they make prints of things like hospital visits which they send to the kids involved as a little souvenir of the day.

Of the 30 team photographers in the league, only six guys (he's one) in 2010 were employed fulltime by a team, he tells us. Most are contract photographers.

What about camera settings?

He shoots ISO 3200 on Canon Mark IVs. "I need as much shutter speed as I can get," he explains. Aperture doesn't come into it much. He can shoot at a wide aperture all day to knock out the background.

They turn off image stabilization, too. They even tape it down in the off position. It affects what they see in the viewfinder.

Willey describes his remote setups and how he carries two cameras with him at the same time. He talks focal lengths, too. When to use 400mm, when to use 135mm. And the importance of understanding the situation on the field to anticipate what's going to happen (like a play at the plate with a runner on third and less than two outs), so he has the right gear ready for the shot.

Exposure is an issue too, particularly in a domed stadium at night where the light value varies from 1/3 to 2/3 stop between home plate, the pitcher's mound and the outfield.

They leave the dugout for the photographer's well, which is in the visitors' dugout on the first base side, because all the action comes toward first base, Willey explains. The pros fan out at the beginning of a game, he points out, but they all end up on the first base side by the end of the game.

Wallace asks about using strobes. Willey says it would take 50 to 75 strobes to light the stadium, and strobes are prohibited by Major League Baseball. Even if you're sitting in the first three rows, you'll be asked not to use your flash for the safety of the players.

And no autofocus on the remote cameras. They prefocus the cameras manually and tape down the mechanism so the lens isn't seeking focus all the time.

You may have to watch this one more than once to absorb all the details. A lot goes on during a ballgame. But you'll get better shots of the action the next time the ump bellows, "Play ball!"

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