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Article Published August 25, 2019
Behind the Lens: An Inside Look at Sports Photography
PJ Foti, Sports Writer

Sports photographers are continually perfecting their craft so they can capture the pivotal images that help tell a story. They face their fair share of challenges while trying to get a snapshot of the action, but also experience plenty of exciting moments along the way. Quite often, the fruits of their labor are worth a thousand words. In this story, we take a look at the world of sports photography through the lens of some of the top photographers along the shoreline.

A Changing Industry

Like many industries, photography has undergone some major changes with increased technology in recent years. The current age of digital photography is vastly different than the old days of film. Years ago, if a photographer only brought a few rolls of film to a game, he or she was limited in the number of pictures that could be taken.

"Back in the day, you were pretty conservative with the pictures you took. Now, you're taking a few hundred pictures and spending more time in front of a computer screen," said local freelance photographer and North Haven resident John Vanacore. "It's not time-consuming, but it's tedious. The dark room is still fun, but the technology has certainly broadened the capability of what can be done."

Branford resident Peter Hvizdak, a staff photographer for the

New Haven Register, said that he needed to have super-sharp coordination skills in order to get a great shot during the film age. Now, Hvizdak is one of many photographers who uses the autofocus feature that comes standard on cameras. However, an effective strategy is still a critical component of sports photography, as is the right mindset, according to Hvizdak.

"It took more hand-eye coordination back in the day. Today, with autofocus, I know what I'm going to get. Being able to take sharp photographs back in the day was difficult. You needed to be very coordinated with manual focus," Hvizdak said. "Anybody thinks they can be a good photographer because they have the newer technology, but that's false. It's about the thinking process and what is in your brain, heart, and soul."

John Steady, a Branford resident and owner of Steady Photography, used to make a living selling Little League baseball pictures to parents. However, now that anyone can have a quality camera at their fingertips, professional photographers like Steady have to make sure they get images that nobody else can.

"The model I started with was going to games, photographing the games, handing out a business card with my website, and waiting for the orders. That used to be a very good business, because nobody had the ability to get those pictures without professional equipment 10 or 12 years ago," said Steady. "The equipment is more accessible now, so it's no longer a good business model per se. Now, we're trying to do anything that mom and dad can't do with an iPhone or even a good consumer camera."

Challenges on the Sidelines

Photographers are accustomed to dealing with a variety of challenges while covering an event. They are always carrying plenty of equipment; some areas might be restricted; people can get in the way; and there are deadlines to meet. On top of that, sports photographers need to be alert at all times should a ball, a puck, or even a player come flying their way.

That's exactly what happened to Wesley Bunnell, a staff photographer for the

New Britain Herald, while shooting a New Britain Bees baseball game.

"I took my eye off the batter and was hit by a foul ball square in the stomach. Even though it's not the Majors, a ball getting hit off a professional bat hurts," said Bunnell, who added that he was happy the ball didn't break his camera. "I tried to play it off, because I didn't want people to see I was in pain. I actually got angry at first, but after everything was done, it made me laugh."

Another challenge is the conditions of the field or, in some cases, the water. One person who can attest to that is Kelley Fryer, the chief of photography at

Shore Publishing. Fryer recently shot the Branford Yacht Club's 58th annual Invitational Regatta. Her positioning atop the committee boat, coupled with the windy and rocky conditions of the water, caused Fryer to get sick on the job.

"The committee boat had a captain deck up high, and I chose that because of the vantage point. Being up above, I could shoot on the decks, which was really good," Fryer said. "But when the conditions changed, the wind picked up, and there was some chop. Being at the top of the boat, swinging back and forth, and looking through a long lens got to be really challenging."

All that heavy equipment can make it difficult for photographers to maneuver around the sidelines, too. Fryer typically has a few camera bodies on her shoulders at all times, along with her spider belt, which is a holster for her camera lenses.

"I love being ready for all shots. Sometimes it's a challenge with the weight, but you get used to it," said Fryer. "The beginning of the school season will be an adjustment, because I like to move around the field. I'm always moving, so that first week I might be a little sore, but then I'll be fine."

One of the most difficult hurdles for sports photographers, especially the daily shooters, is dealing with deadlines. Those tend to be anywhere from 8 to 9 p.m. and can even be earlier. As a result, a dramatic game-ending catch may not even be captured, because photographers have to head back to home base to upload their images on time.

"The biggest challenge is deadline, but we have to get the news out as fast as we can," Vanacore said. "Sometimes you're covering a competitive game that's going back and forth. You don't know how it's going to end, but it's the nature of the beast. You might not have the best pictures, but the idea is to get the news out as quickly as possible."

Experiences and Opportunities

One of the perks of working in sports photography are the places you go and the people you meet while on assignment. Sometimes, you even get to be a firsthand witness to history like Hvizdak was on May 21, 1981.

Hvizdak was covering an NCAA Tournament matchup between Yale and St. John's for the

Register. Yale's Ron Darling took the mound and squared off against fellow future Major League Baseball player Frank Viola at Yale Field. Darling had a no-hitter going into the 12th inning, but St. John's ultimately came away with a 1-0 victory in a classic contest. The game is widely regarded as the most famous matchup in the history of college baseball.

"It was a game of historical proportions, because the two players turned out to be Major League Baseball players," said Hvizdak. "You never know what is going to happen."

Bunnell was excited to meet Viola when the High Point Rockers were in town to play the New Britain Bees. Viola is the pitching coach for the Rockers.

"It's cool to see some of the pro guys. To have him standing three feet away from me was pretty cool," Bunnell said. "I do like the fact I get to meet different people. Whether it's umpires or even the parents, getting to meet new people increases my energy level."

Steady went to Fenway Park when Branford native Mike Olt played the Boston Red Sox as a member of the Texas Rangers during his first MLB season in 2012. He's also been to his fair share of UConn men's and women's basketball games.

"Your camera can lead you to a lot of cool places and open a lot of doors," said Steady. "I've gotten to do neat events, and those doors would not be open without my camera."

For Vanacore, a trip to Madison Square Garden to shoot a Yale vs. Harvard men's ice hockey game was a major moment in his career. Vanacore encountered some obstacles, but said that they were totally worth it in the end.

"I was four hours early for this game, and some places will let you in, but I learned the press access at MSG is only an hour and a half before the event, so I had three hours to kill, lugging 75 pounds of equipment, my laptop, and worrying if it might get stolen as I'm lugging it all around Penn Station," Vanacore said. "Just waiting and waiting, but when I finally went in, it was awesome. The place is enormous. It was a sellout crowd. Between the atmosphere and it being the inaugural game between two legendary rivals, that was the highlight of my sports career."

The Perfect Shot

There may not always be a perfect picture, but sports photographers are constantly trying different techniques in their quest to get the best shot. Staying ahead of the action is often the biggest factor in that mission. Fryer even takes it a step further by researching the teams she's covering, so that she's aware of the biggest playmakers in advance.

"Since I've been shooting the same 11 high schools for years, I know the upcoming class. I'll get on the field and have a sense of who they're going to go to," said Fryer. "Also, the pregame articles, I read those and get a sense of who the coaches are talking about. It helps give me a hint of what to look for."

As great at it is to get an outstanding action shot, Hvizdak believes that the capturing the emotional aspect of a game is just as important.

"You can try to get the best action shot, but sometimes, the best action photo does not tell you the story of the game. You're looking for emotion," he said. "Sports is not just action photography. It's about lifestyle and people's struggles as they're maybe trying to make a team or fight through injury."

Vanacore saw plenty of emotion when the Valley Regional-Old Lyme football team notched a 21-20 victory versus Ansonia to win the Class S Large Division state championship in 2014. Vanacore made sure that he got plenty of pictures of Valley Head Coach Tim King, who was over the moon after his Warriors pulled off the upset of perennial powerhouse Ansonia.

"He was so elated that he was able to conquer the beast. It was like a David vs. Goliath matchup. I took a few pictures with the upset look of [Ansonia Head Coach] Tom Brockett, but the elation of King as the kids were rushing the field—he's there almost like he was praying." Vanacore said. "He was celebrating to the gods with his fists up in the air, head back, mouth wide open, letting out a huge scream. That really said it all about that game, the way it went, and the way it ended being a great upset."

Some of Fryer's favorite action shots are the ones that show the graceful nature of athletics. Fryer especially likes to cover diving competitions at places like the Walter Gawrych Community Pool, where the North Haven girls' swimming and diving team holds its home meets.

"What I love about North Haven for diving is that the whole team lines up on the side of the pool," said Fryer. "To frame it where you have the diver and her teammates right behind her, I thought was one of those photos you want. I like it because you have the whole team in the shot."

The Final Frame

What sports photographers accomplish on a day-in day-out basis is a daunting task to say the least. They need to work hard to snap the key moments of a game, while doing so in a way that is unlike anything else that's already been done.

"There are a lot of great shooters out there, so I'm always thinking, how can I show this differently?" Bunnell said. "It might be with a remote camera, a new spot, elevation, or aesthetics. I like to use back light to create a dramatic photo."

Steady said that the lens being used is the most important tool in a photographer's arsenal.

"A misconception is people think it's all about the camera, but it's really all about the lens," said Steady. "Having a good lens makes your photography better, which is funny because I see people with expensive cameras on the sidelines, but if they bought a cheaper camera but a better lens, they'd have better success."

Like many photographers, Fryer just has a desire to be out there on the field in order to capture everything that comes with the emotional roller coaster of sports. The job presents a unique opportunity to convey the essence of an event to thousands of people—and that's something that Fryer and her colleagues are always enthusiastic about.

"I'm so excited. With football coming up, I can't wait to get out and shoot football this year. I can't wait to shoot soccer," Fryer said. "There isn't one sport where I don't want to do it."