Sports column: Sports photography is harder than it looks
Published 8:00 am Sunday, February 5, 2023
The moment still haunts me years later.
Malik Newman, the former Callaway star who was one of the best high school basketball players ever in Mississippi, came up with a steal and was gliding down the floor for a thunderous breakaway dunk against Vicksburg High.
I was in perfect position, right behind and to the left of the basket, to snap a photo of an in-game moment you can’t script. I pulled the camera up to my eye, heard the autofocus beep quietly, and pressed the button several times as Newman got to the free throw line and took flight.
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As the crowd roared for Newman’s dunk, I eagerly checked the screen to see my poster-worthy image of it — and saw a fuzzy image that looked more like Bigfoot striding through the woods. I did, however, have a poster-worthy image of the back wall of the gym about 80 feet away.
My fantastic photograph had been ruined by the dreaded “back focus,” which is when the camera randomly decides something in the background of your picture is more interesting than the thing you’ve locked in on.
A back focus is one of a number of photographic follies that have plagued me ever since I started shooting games as well as covering them. I’ve decapitated and amputated more people than Jason Voorhees, sent football players running uphill for a decade, and somehow learned how to put a voodoo hex that makes a camera not shoot right when I need it to.
Just last week, I had a tremendous picture of Vicksburg basketball player Mikey Johnson getting fouled by a Jim Hill player that was award-worthy — if it weren’t for the fact that the Jim Hill player looked like he’d run into a guillotine.
The lens wasn’t able to pull back far enough, so while Johnson’s reaction to the contact is captured well, the defender’s head is chopped out of the frame.
The legend of the Headless Shooting Guard might not be as terrifying as the Headless Horseman, but maybe it’s got some legs — which, coincidentally, the Jim Hill player also lost part of in my picture. In all honesty, part of the reason I’m writing this column is just so I can run that picture. That’s it up above.
Another bad habit of mine is what I call “The Bowker Tilt.” I’m right-handed, so I hold the camera with that hand and steady it with my left. I’ve come to realize that, while shooting game action, my stronger right hand pushes the camera down ever so slightly, resulting in a picture that’s tilted to the right by 10 or 20 degrees.
It seems to happen more in football and soccer, where I’m tracking a play and hitting the shutter button several times in quick succession. I’m not sure if anyone has ever noticed it except me, and it doesn’t necessarily ruin a picture, but it’s one of those things that’s hard to unsee once you see it.
Someone looking through back issues of The Post 50 or 60 years from now will probably wonder how our football teams did so well when their players had to run up the side of a mountain to reach the end zone.
All in all, I feel like I’ve become a pretty capable photographer over the years. I’m not the most technically proficient photographer, but do have an eye for photos and angles. I’m just good enough to be dangerous.
Which, apparently, means I’m also just bad enough to ruin some otherwise great pictures.
Ernest Bowker is the sports editor of The Vicksburg Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org