Professional Insights

Professional Insights

Dave Black

Dave Black

Sports & Fine Art Photography (U.S.A.)

Born to shoot

For 34 years, veteran sports photographer Dave Black has been capturing the essence of competition for publications like Sports Illustrated, Time, Newsweek and ESPN. He has covered the Kentucky Derby, the Masters, NASCAR, 12 Olympic Games and countless bouts of the NFL. Black is also a Nikon ambassador and well-respected fine-art photographer, teaching the photographic principles to thousands of students each year, and his "Workshop at the Ranch" website tutorials reach approximately 85,000 unique visitors each month.

Discovering what I was meant to do

In college, I started out studying drawing and graphic design in hopes of one day becoming an illustrator for books and magazines. To fulfill requirements for one of my majors, I had to take a black-and-white photography class. The instructor was the head of the photography department, and he liked what I was shooting. He took me under his wing, sending me out on small assignments and giving me extra time in the photo lab. I was an athlete myself in those years, and started doing a little coaching and photographing my athletes. I kept trying to improve my craft, so that by 1980, the U.S. gymnastics team asked me if I would be their official photographer. Gymnastics was my sport growing up, so of course I said yes.

Sometimes in life there's a moment that comes around where you suddenly recognize what you were born to do. This was that moment for me, and I stepped across the line from coach to professional photographer. Deep down, I realized that this was what I was supposed to be doing, so leaving everything else behind seemed very natural.

Know your subject

I didn't know that much about photography when I started out, but I knew everything about my subject matter: gymnastics. It really helps a photographer to learn whatever they can about what – and who – they're going to photograph. If you're shooting landscapes, learn about landscapes. If you're shooting still lifes, study still life photography and those who came before you. If you're shooting athletes, then watch their teams and how they perform. Long before I shoot any event, I start studying up on the athletes and learning about my subjects. If the next assignment is football, then that's what I get fired up about. If motocross comes next, then I'll soon be fired up about that. This gives me an edge, because now I can start a conversation with them and I'm no longer just a photographer. Instead, I make a connection because I know about their world. When you do this, athletes often get excited about working with you. That's one of the best parts of the job.

I still think and train like an athlete even though my "sport" is now photography. I'm always looking for the perfect picture. I don't expect to ever achieve perfection, but I'm always striving for it. My job is to capture something new. I may have photographed the same subject, the same sport, or even the same athlete, but my job is to capture my subject in a different way than the day before. I get to create something tomorrow that wasn't here today. How many jobs let you do that?

There's something indescribable about capturing a great image. You feel it deep down inside. There's a joy that comes from the accomplishment. It's a victory over the whirl of the event surrounding me: the crowds, the athletes, the media and the hoopla. To get a winning shot means that you've sheared away all of that and narrowed it down to a single moment, and usually a single person. At moments like this, everything goes quiet in my head. There is a special feeling that washes over me when I know that I've just nailed it. It's an adrenaline rush. It's a jolt of electricity.

A message to young photographers

If you're just starting your career in photography – whether you shoot sports, fashion, fine art, wildlife or whatever – don't let anybody tell you that you can't make it. Perhaps that sounds overly simple and clichéd, but I'm telling you right now that you can do it. You just have to go after it. Is there a sort of natural talent required to be a sports photographer? Or to be any kind of photographer? Absolutely not, I believe. However, you must have determination and drive, because this is not an easy career path. It takes dedication and stamina. In fact, you have to approach your job almost like an athlete: train hard, practice hard, and don't let anybody tell you it can't be done. Just keep pushing ahead and you'll win.

You'll also need to be prepared for sacrifice. Anyone with real passion and a drive for success must also be able to accept the idea that there are going to be some sacrifices along the way. You may travel a lot. You'll sometimes miss important events and you'll sometimes miss the important people in your life, but that comes along with the job. If you're passionate about your photography, it will be worth it.

Finding the right moment

I've seen many sports photographers that seem satisfied to just hang around until the game starts and then pull out their cameras. Not me. Once I arrive, I start shooting the athletes as they warm up. For example, when I shoot baseball, I get to the ballpark early and watch the practice. I'm not always looking through the camera, but rather observing the athletes to see how they move and interact with others. I watch their behavior, looking for some key little tic or movement that will tell me when they're going to swing for a home run.

Once you're used to watching athletes through a viewfinder all the time, you're able to narrow down what you pay attention to. You're no longer looking at their entire body, but rather a very specific part or characteristic: perhaps the way a shoulder moves, or how the player's chin rises at a specific moment. It's moments like these that tell me when something big is about to happen.

On Nikon

I've been a Nikon shooter right from the start. I've experienced their innovations first-hand through the years, many of which have helped push my photography to where it is today. I trust Nikon equipment absolutely, and always have. You must have confidence in your equipment, because you can't say: "Excuse me, could you just hit that home run again?" You only get one chance at getting the right shot, and so you need the confidence that your camera will be ready and able to capture that shot. Nikon gives me that confidence. For me, the new D4S is a giant leap for photography. Its autofocus speed, tracking speed and low-light capabilities make it a game-changer, and I can't wait to see what Nikon will offer next.

What's in the camera bag?

Nikon D4S, Nikon D810, Nikon D750, AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED, AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED, AF-S NIKKOR 16-35mm f/4G ED VR, AF-S NIKKOR 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR, AF-S NIKKOR 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR, AF-S NIKKOR 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II, AF-S NIKKOR 400mm f/2.8G ED VR, AF-S NIKKOR 600mm f/4G ED VR, AF-S TELECONVERTER TC-14E III, Speedlights SB-900×8 units, Wireless Speedlight Commander SU-800×2 units

See more of Dave Black's work on his website Open in new window.