“Do they really need to be that close to the action?”
This question was recently posed by National Basketball Players Association Executive Director Michelle Roberts after LeBron James sustained a gash on his head as a result of slamming into a cameraman during game four of the NBA Finals.
It’s a fair question and the short answer is “yes.”
Before I get into why cameras need to be so close, I wanted to give a little background on my experience with NBA photography. I used to be the staff photographer for one of the Cavs’ sponsors and through this job I received photo credentials for a few games each season. Sadly, most of the games were during the lean years led by Lester Hudson and JJ Hickson, thus I missed the opportunity to have LeBron in my viewfinder. I’m far from the most experienced NBA photographer, but unlike many of the people criticizing the cameramen; I’ve been in their shoes.
Tristan Thompson gets help off the floor. Picture taken by the author, Jared Perry
One of the main reasons photographers are so close to the court is purely technical. Despite the amazing advances of today’s cameras, they still need light to produce the best pictures. It’s the same reason why your Galaxy and iPhone cameras take decent pics at the beach, but shitty pictures in the bar.
Quicken Loans Arena, the only NBA venue I’ve shot in, is actually very dimly lit. It doesn’t look like low light to the naked eye, but to the camera’s sensor, it’s dim.
Dim light affects how your camera operates and explains why photographers need to be close to the court with as much available light as possible. When the light is dim, the shutter speed slows down, and when the shutter speed is slow, action shots are blurry. Nobody wants blurry pictures, of course. How do you add more light to speed up the shutter? You increase a function on the camera called “ISO”. But, when you increase the ISO, the pictures become grainy. You can smooth out the grain in post processing, which is what many photographers do. It’s a constant battle all photographers and cameramen wage in real time. Next time you watch an NBA game, notice how many immediately look at their camera after the action goes the other end. They are checking settings (or just admiring their work). I can’t reiterate enough how tough it is to properly dial in the settings on your camera to ensure sharp photos, while battling low light and the incredible speed of an NBA game.
The most obvious way to add light is to use flash. As you can imagine, every court side cameraman employing their own flash isn’t feasible. Not only would that be hugely annoying to the players and fans, but it would also ruin every other camera’s shot. However, the flash on smartphone cameras is not an issue. The light they produce is inconsequential compared professional flashes. The equivalent to a drop of water to the ocean. It is worth noting that there is a house flash located in the rafters. However, it is only available to the Cavs’ team photographer and is remotely triggered by his camera.
Kyrie Irving puts Jeremy Lin on skates. Photo taken by the author, Jared Perry
On The Move
Let’s say you give people their wish and move cameramen off the court. Where do you put them? You are now limiting the angles available to television broadcasts and photographers who provide content to the millions watching at home. Do you really want to see an entire broadcast from a static aerial view like C-Span? NBA television contracts are insanely lucrative and the billions line the pockets of the league, owners and the players. Is it really in anyone’s best interest to water down the television product?
Even with this new space around the baseline, do you believe for a second that billionaire owners won’t add an extra row of seats to monetize it? They have already split the scorers’ table in half and sent bench players to the floor in front of the revolving baseline ads (yes, where the cameramen are located) and halfway up the tunnel. And speaking of fans in the front row, they are also at risk but never seem to be asked to move back. There are way more fans sitting court side than cameramen. Oh, and the cameramen are not any closer than the fan on sitting court side along the sideline.
Dion Waiters portrait. Photo by the author, Jared Perry
Move, Bitch, Get Out the Way!
In regards to the LeBron James incident, I’ve seen many people on Twitter screaming at the cameraman for not getting out of the way. It’s really unfair to blame him. He sitting cross-legged, with a 30-pound camera on his shoulder and fans behind him. It’s impossible to be mobile enough to quickly move out of the way of the 270-lb man barreling down on him. Plus, he has to answer to his boss, a producer in the truck outside the venue, about why he bailed out and didn’t get the shot.
A quick anecdote on the speed of these NBA players. I don’t think you can fully appreciate how quick NBA players are until you sit baseline. The first Cavs game I ever shot was against the Bulls. Derrick Rose was running an isolation play at the top of the key, which I saw coming, and suddenly he was at the rim. I only took two shots (frames). My camera shoots 10 frames per second. Needless to say, I learned to anticipate the action even more.
Derrick Rose takes it to the rack. That Cavs team was pretty gross. Photo by the author, Jared Perry
I think it’s only fair that if I criticize the possibility of banning court side cameras that I also propose some solutions that will keep the players safe and give the cameramen the access they need to produce quality work.
- An easy thing that all photographers and cameramen could add are padded wraps for their lenses and camera bodies. A lot of wildlife photographers add padded wraps to protect their gear in the outdoors. There’s no reason cameramen at NBA games couldn’t do something similar. If anything, I would soften the blow and probably eliminate many of the sharp edges on the equipment.
- Quicken Loans Arena could enforce its own policy about credentialed cameras requiring rubber lens hoods. It’s right there in the rules; yet, nobody checked or questioned me during the games I shot. I didn’t make the investment because I knew I wasn’t going to be shooting many NBA games. I ended up just not using a lens hood during the games.
- Give the cameraman at the scorer’s table (this cameraman seems to only be used as part of nationally televised games) an escape route. When LeBron turned his ankle on the cameraman during the Hawks series, there was just nowhere for that guy to go. Let’s put him on small scooter and have a production assistant pull him back through a gap in the scorers’ table if the action is getting too close. The cameraman can’t possibly focus on his job and also judge when he needs to bail. Looking through a lens is like a car’s sideview mirror — objects are closer than they appear.
- They could find a way to re-arrange some of the seating around the baseline and fan out the still photographers. You probably aren’t going to be able to move the TV camera person from underneath the basket stanchion, but you could try to swing out the still photographers a bit to clear space under the basket. And, many photographers would probably welcome this move because they wouldn’t be blocked out of plays in the opposite corner by rotating refs and the basket. Better yet, the owners to could agree to take out a few of those prime seats at mid-court and put photographers there. (Yeah, right.)
To me, the whole LeBron James incident was just really unfortunate. The cameraman was doing his job and so was LeBron James. I think there’s room for improvement in increasing player and cameraman safety. But, I don’t think it’s fair to ban cameras from the floor.
TrizGallo, aka Jared Perry, can be found on Twitter and Instagram under @TrizGallo. The former Clevelander now lives in Denver. Check out his other pictures on his nature photography site, AlpenGlowFoto.