Albert Pujols hits a home run April 16, 2006.Photo by Dilip Vishwanat.
It’s as synonymous to St. Louis as the Gateway Arch: Cardinals baseball. It’s an almost year-round passion for so many in this city. We spend winters pining for it, springs anxiously awaiting its return to town, summers immersed in it, and autumns hoping it lasts just a little longer. Millions of eyes are glued to the action as the birds on the bat take to the field for that most beloved of sports. But do we all see the game in the same way? How different is it to experience baseball through the eye of the camera lens? We recently sat down with Dilip Vishwanat, freelance photographer for Getty Images, to examine the job of a professional sports photographer and learn how he tells the game’s story.
Tell us how you came to be a sports photographer. I didn’t always want to be a photographer. Through my sophomore year of college, I thought I wanted to be an architect, but I couldn’t handle all that math! So I thought about what I really liked to do in high school, which was take pictures for our high school yearbook. I worked for my college paper, too, and liked how every day was different. I thought that photojournalism was the next best option, so I enrolled in the journalism school with the intent of becoming a newspaper photographer. I never had my sight set on sports, but when I moved to St. Louis I had an internship with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and worked on nights and weekends. What’s going on at those times? Either hard news, or sports! That’s how I got interested in them. An internship with the Sporting News in 2000 solidified my future as a sports photographer.
Who do you work for, and how do you get access to cover the St. Louis Cardinals? I’m actually a full-time staff photographer for the St. Louis Business Journal during the day, but am also a freelance photographer for Getty Images, and that’s how I came to the Cardinals. My work for Getty covers mostly sports, but occasionally corporate work and some editorial (for example, I just photographed Joe Buck for the New York Times Sunday Magazine). Basically, they tell me they need a baseball game covered, and assume I’ll be there. We have several wire services like Getty and the Associated Press, the Post-Dispatch, and the Cardinals team photographer who all have designated access to cover the games. I work about 70 baseball games a year, not including the playoffs.
What’s a typical day like? I usually get to Busch Stadium about two hours prior to game time. I park where the other visitors do, but I get to enter through a special VIP/media gate. The photographers have access to a media dining room where we eat and prepare. After that, it’s out to the field. There’s a “photo well” at either end of each dugout, and that’s where all the photographers set up. We bring our laptops for uploading files during the game, and we also share the space with the television cameras. There is a sort of unwritten rule as to who shoots from which spot, but we’re a small community and all get along, so everyone is very amicable if we need to swap spots for a certain angle or move around a bit. We’re friends and we make room for each other. We are allowed to photograph on the field but we must stay on the warning track, and we also utilize the standing room only spots around the stadium, as long as we aren’t blocking fans. After the three hours or so covering the game, I head back to the media dining room and work there for about an hour. Later at home, I’ll have another hour to hour and a half of work sorting through pictures, resizing them in Photoshop, captioning and such.
What’s the expectation when you are covering the Cardinals? My job is to tell the story of the game in 20 pictures. For a night game, I actually shoot anywhere from 300 to 500 pictures; for a day game, it’s 500 to 1,200 pictures. My goal is to capture the action and both teams, not just the Cardinals as that’s not the entire story. You shoot a night game differently than you shoot a day game. During the day, it’s mostly getting stock shots — good, clean pictures of the guys fielding a ball or swinging a bat. You’re shooting with a lower film speed setting so the image quality tends to be higher. I usually post my 20 pictures to Getty’s website within a week, and everyone can access them there. I’m shooting for their subscribers — news publications and websites — for editorial purposes.
For night games, I actually transmit my photos during the game. I’ll edit on my laptop and send five to eight pictures after the third inning, and then transmit the remainder at the end of the game.
While I do mostly general game coverage, I will have some special shots requested for certain occasions. For example, on opening day I’d be sure to get the first pitch, maybe a shot of the opening day signage or an overall stadium shot with the big American flag in center field.
What are some things you’ve learned on the job photographing baseball? Seventeen years ago when I first started covering the sport, I didn’t know the game all that well (we didn’t have a team in my hometown). At first, you are just in awe of everything — the stadium, the size of the crowd — and the proximity of the players can be overwhelming at first. Plus, the enormity of everything that could happen, trying to figure out which way to point your camera and hope your shot works out. If it does, you give yourself a high five and move on. You have to constantly pay attention, and you have to accept the fact that you are going to miss pictures. That just happens.
What’s one of your best moments shooting the Cardinals? There was one game on Easter weekend in 2006, during the first season in the new Busch Stadium. Albert Pujols hit three home runs this game, one of which was a walk-off. I was shooting just outside of third base, and was the only one over there. Albert never really showed emotion, but when he hit this ball, he jumped out of the batter’s box and was just elated. I think it may have meant a lot to him to do that on Easter Sunday. The shot was what I call a “Luke Skywalker moment.” If you are familiar with Star Wars, at the end of the first movie, Luke takes a shot at the Death Star and then just holds his breath, hoping it goes in. It’s the same way for this. You shoot that moment, but hold your breath, not knowing if it was in focus or properly exposed. That one turned out to be my most successful shot. It wound up in a two-page spread in Sports Illustrated, a two-page spread in ESPN The MagazineTM, the cover of USA Today and numerous other publications. That day started out as a nothing game and turned out to be one of the best.
How is it being around the players? Do you talk to each other or interact at all? Before the game, the guys are more loose and amicable to chatting, but once the game starts they really fall into the game mindset and we don’t really interact. I personally choose to leave everyone alone, as I don’t know them personally and they are in game mode. Especially with baseball players, a lot can be superstitious. I do have a funny story involving Mike Matheny from a couple of seasons ago. We play this game to help pass the time. The warning track is right in front of us, and we chew a lot of gum. Every two to three innings we have a contest to see who can toss the gum and get closest to the grass without going in. So Matheny saw us doing this, and said something like, “You guys are killing me! That’s right where I stand and walk to the umpire.” So we of course immediately stopped our game. Well, awhile later the Cards went on the road, came home and were in a losing streak. So Matheny told us to start throwing gum again, and they started winning! He never said anything to us again.
Occasionally, if a player has a bad game, you will shoot into the dugout, but you just shoot a little bit, then turn back to the game. You try to be respectful. And you will hear some of the players’ banter, mostly about the game or the nuances of the pitches and such.
What’s the hardest part of shooting baseball? Actually, it’s not the photography, it’s the weather here. Those photo wells that we stand in are made of concrete, and they just absorb the heat. We take the temperature and it reaches about 130 to 135 degrees. So standing there for four hours in the middle of July...your eyes are just messed up from the sweat, you have towel burns from rubbing your face and head with a towel — it’s just exhausting. You have to make sure to eat and drink a ton of water.
A three-hour rain delay isn’t fun, either. My second Father’s Day as a dad, we were one pitch away from the game being over when Jason Mott gave up a home run to tie the game. We ended up there an extra hour and I missed my Father’s Day, our family barbecue, everything.
What’s your favorite part? My favorite part of sports photography is shooting baseball in October. There are few if any things better in my job. The energy in the stadium, the level of play, the level of pressure is all heightened. If you look at something like the World Series — all eyes of the world are on the work being produced from that field. My reward for getting through the summer is getting to October. I was instantly hooked the first time I did it. I didn’t grow up rooting for a team, but I became a Cards fan. And the better the Cards do, the better I do.
What are some other highlights or memories from your photography career so far? I really enjoyed shooting my first World Series win in 2006 when we beat Detroit. I was shooting from right field, and there was a moment when you just knew they were going to win. I loved covering the Daytona 500 for the first time. Feeling the vibrations of all those cars was an awesome experience. Being on the ice for the first time following a Stanley Cup win. Big events like Super Bowl...I’ve covered six or seven and it’s a spectacle onto itself, how it overtakes a city. The enormity of it is mind-blowing and the media scene is huge. It’s also a great chance for me to see lots of photographer friends and colleagues that I don’t normally see.
I’ve had a few celebrity sightings. I’m not a star geek, but Jeff Tweedy from the band Wilco was at Busch Stadium for Star Wars Night (their recent album was called Star Wars). My wife is a huge fan. Everyone else there was geeking out over the Star Wars movie characters, so I had the chance to go ask Tweedy for an autograph and take a selfie for my wife. I also shot a picture of him and his dad that I sent to his publicist, which was cool. I met Paul Rudd at a World Series game in Kansas City as he’s a huge Royals fan. I took a picture, again for my wife! I did get to be within 50 feet of Muhammad Ali at my first Super Bowl game, which was amazing.
Your work has been on the cover of Sports Illustrated three times. How does that come about? Two of those were action photographs that they picked. They just suited the story that week. The most recent was of Jason Heyward and it was a total surprise. He came across home plate after a walk-off single. Everyone else was shooting the action around first base where the team was crowded. I was the only one shooting him crossing that plate. Derrick Goold from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch had tweeted about the issue, and a colleague at the St. Louis Business Journal shared the tweet with me, half joking, like, “Is that your photo?” I took a look and said, actually, it was! Within two minutes of seeing that I got the call from Sports Illustrated letting me know that I indeed had the cover.
Another cover was a hire. I got a call on a Friday mid-day for a shoot on Saturday morning the next day, photographing T.J. Oshie of the St. Louis Blues and Adam Wainwright. To be called to shoot a national magazine cover was a pretty happy moment. It’s a thrill.
Finally, for the amateur photographers out there — what equipment do you need for photographing sports? Everyone always asks about the giant lenses we use. The two most common questions I get as a photographer are how far you can see with it and how much does it cost! I actually have three camera bodies and about 10 lenses. There’s a standard kit that any sports photographer needs: A 300 to 400 millimeter lens, a 70 to 200 millimeter lens, and either a 16 to 35 or 24 to 70 millimeter wide-angle zoom lens. The rest are all supplements based on your personal style. I provide all my own equipment for shooting and it’s all done in digital.
Karen Hill is a Florissant native who spent over a decade in communications at the Missouri Botanical Garden. She's currently a SAHM to three young children and owner of Olive + Peony children's clothing boutique. Her family resides in Kirkwood.