Professional Insights

Professional Insights

Robert Beck

Robert Beck

Sports (U.S.A.)

Competing in the big leagues

Beginning his career shooting surfers, Robert Beck has become one of the most respected sports photographers in the industry today. Working for Sports Illustrated for over three decades, he has shot many of the world's greatest athletes and captured top sporting events, including the Masters, the Super Bowl, the World Series, the NBA Finals, the Stanley Cup Finals and the Olympics. He is currently based in Carlsbad, California.

What drives me as a photographer

In a way, I view my job as a sport, as a competition: whoever gets the best image wins. My job is to provide the best image for my publication. The baseball player in the game I might be covering is trying to win the game, and I am too: the game of getting a great picture for Sports Illustrated. I have to create something that is better than what another photographer at the game creates. I need to make an image that tells a story in such a way that it stands out from the rest of the images captured by other photographers there. That is my "victory."


A competitive world - on and off the field

Being a photographer is very similar to being an athlete in one way: we are driven to succeed. Good photographers are every bit as driven as, for example, a Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky. They want to win in their sport and have that extra drive in addition to athletic ability that helps them prevail where others might falter. In my case it is the will to produce a better image: one of my editors will approve of and our audience/readers will enjoy. That's how I and everyone on our staff got to where we are: again, we are driven to succeed, to create the winning image. The editors and Sports Illustrated expect us to get that image, and our readers expect to see that image in our magazine and on the website.

In the past, there might have been 10-20 photographers at a football game. Now there might be 40-50 - maybe up to 70 at the largest events. They all have the opportunity to make good images; superior autofocus and auto exposure systems have made the required skill set much less severe. So what's going to make my picture better than the others? That's what I have to think about. I might not be the best photographer on that field on any given day but you'd be hard pressed to find one that works harder. It takes the experience of years shooting sports combined with the equipment I use, mixed with a bit of luck, to come out with creative and interesting images week after week, game after game.

Good pictures, great pictures, and perfect pictures

When I walk into an arena or a stadium, I'm looking for a picture that tells the story - something that is hopefully a little more creative than what everybody else is shooting, but still technically sound. Those are the three most important criteria for a good image: story, creativity and technical proficiency. A great image includes those qualities but has one magical difference that sets it apart - it's one of a kind; it's an image that literally no one else has. It's not just a slightly different angle or focal length: it's something so special it is one of a kind.

Some of the most famous pictures from yesteryear might look great as far as content is concerned but their technical expertise dulls in comparison to today's images. It's not because the photographer lacked the talent, it's simply because the equipment has improved so much. The content of the image can stand up to the test of time but the technical aspects would be challenged. Today's imagery is the beneficiary of superior optical and capture systems.

Finding an edge

Sometimes I feel like a 45-year-old knuckle-baller in major league baseball: I've been in the game for a long time, and have experience that I put to work for me - I know what works, and what doesn't work. I can use those things to make my job easier, perhaps spending less time on technical aspects and more time on creative ones.

I'm used to huge sports venues. I've been to more arenas and stadiums than I'd like to count. They are all very similar. For the most part, my shooting and working locations don't change much, so I have to concentrate on how I make each picture a little bit better than the last one I made. Sometimes that edge is very, very small. It may not be noticeable to you, but I'm conscious of it, and I work hard to make that slight difference every time.

Technology in photography will always be improving, but the most obvious and significant advancement in the last ten years has been autofocus systems. The development and use of autofocus has helped all photographers, myself included - it is so much easier to shoot in autofocus modes. Autofocus speeds are incredible and the capture of subjects is unbelievable. The percentage of sharp images has risen exponentially through the years.

The structure of the digital file has improved with every generation of DSLR as well. We used to shoot mostly daytime events or used high powered strobes in arenas with film in the ISO 100-200 range. Now we can shoot in almost any light at up to ISO 4000 without worrying about the image falling apart. Digital files are far superior to film: there is so much less noise/grain when shooting in those low-light conditions and the final image is exceptionally crisp and clear. This kind of technology lets us make images that we simply couldn't make before. And yet we can still shoot in daylight and create images even better than the old chromes: sharper, with improved color and contrast. To be able to have such improvement in low light and even better performance in sunlight is outstanding.

The D4S

Right off the top, the D4S tracking system and autofocus blew me away. Let me give you an example. We had an opportunity to shoot some young skiers who will probably be Olympians someday, and one image we wanted to get was the skier coming out of a sweeping blind turn and making a jump straight towards us. We looked at the hill. I hadn't actually tried the D4S at the time, and I thought, "There's no way I'm going to pull this shot off." I didn't think that there was a system in the world that could pick up a skier that I couldn't see yet, lock on a millisecond later and then track him through the air until he lands.

In the morning, we went up the hill and ran the skiers through the gates. I shot while they soared, carved and raced by. I thought, "I'm not really catching them." They were just moving too fast from positions that were hidden; I had no time to lock on to them. We shot a couple of runs then put some of the images on the computer to check them out. That's when I realized that this camera was nailing it - it was catching the skier flying off of that hill and the shots were tack-sharp. I started thinking about just how small a window of time that really was. The camera had only a millisecond to catch that person coming out of nowhere, lock on and make it tack-sharp.

That kind of technology has driven photography to a new plateau. These shots weren't a fluke, because we kept shooting that jump for another two hours. Time after time, the D4S was getting it spot on. I don't think I've owned a camera that could do that before. I'm not sure that there is another camera that could. I've never got that picture before, and I didn't think it was possible. Now it is.

The Nikon edge

Right from the beginning, Nikon has been my choice - first and foremost because of their lenses. Their glass is far superior: I've even had editors who can pull up an image and know that it was shot with Nikon because of the clarity, contrast and color. Add to this Nikon's ingenuity behind the glass: the body, the autofocus advancements and the files. It's a step ahead. I feel like I have an edge over other people when I'm shooting.

I trust Nikon, without a doubt. I have no qualms about bringing my Nikon equipment to any playing field, pool or court, and I know I have the best that I can work with. I'm never afraid of someone else out-trumping my gear.

It's the same in any business: you choose your tools, and you're going to choose the tool that will help you be the most successful. Whether it's a plumber, a TV repairman or a mechanic, he's choosing the best tools. I've done that in photography, and I've chosen Nikon because that's something I don't want to have to worry about. Nikon makes the best tools for my job.

What's in the camera bag?

D4S×3, D4×2, AF-S NIKKOR 600mm f/4G ED VR, AF-S NIKKOR 400mm f/2.8E FL ED VR or Nikon 200-400mm f4, AF-S NIKKOR 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II, AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II, AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED, AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED, Ai AF Fisheye-Nikkor 16mm f/2.8D