A few years back, Digital Camera Magazine published an article about me entitled “The Frenetic World of David Bergman.” Sometimes I laugh about it when I’m home in my slippers taking out the trash.
But during this time of year the description is warranted. If I’m not on tour with a band, I’m usually shooting football for Sports Illustrated. I thought it might be interesting to go through last week’s schedule and give you an idea what’s it’s like to shoot for SI.
WARNING – this post is long but filled with tips for travelers and sports photographers like what not to say when trying to get a 45-lb. bag into an overhead compartment.
The SI editors usually do their assignments on Monday of each week. If my phone rings at around 5 pm on Monday with “Time Inc.” on the caller ID, I know I’ll probably be on a plane in a few days. There are different photo editors for each sport. Last week it was the NFL editor on the line so I knew I’d be shooting preseason games.
He assigned me to cover Ravens at Patriots on Thursday night in Foxboro, Eagles at Steelers on Friday night in Pittsburgh, and Bengals at Packers on Monday night to document the ongoing (at the time) Brett Favre saga in Green Bay.
I spent the next hour online booking my travel. My wife calls me “logistics man” because a big part of my job is figuring out how to get myself and my gear from point A to point B in the most efficient, yet cost-effective way.
I booked myself on five flights (seven if you count connections: LGA-BOS, BOS-PIT, PIT-JFK, LGA-MSP-GRB, GRB-MSP-LGA) and hotels in Boston, Pittsburgh, and Green Bay. I also hired assistants in each city. I often use assistants for football because I shoot on the sidelines with a couple of very big lenses (400/2.8 and 600/4). It’s nearly impossible to carry them by myself along with the assortment of shorter lenses and accessories that I need to properly cover a game.
A note about assistants: Once I find someone I like in a particular city or region, I try to always work with that person. A good assistant knows what I need before I do. It also helps if they’re fun to hang with because we’re going to be spending most of the day together.
On Wednesday night, I packed up my gear for the trip. I normally do this in under an hour, but it took me a little longer since I haven’t shot a football game in six months and was out of practice. Here is the gear I bring:
1) Versa-Flex MU1724.08 dual-lens case
Notes about this case: I bought the Versa-Flex many years ago because it’s made to ship my 400 and 600 together with the proper inserts. However, I’m never sure that my checked bags will actually arrive at my destination, so now I only pack the 600 in there and carry the 400 on the plane. If my bags don’t make it I will still have enough gear to minimally cover the game.
The case is heavy, but I have a cool little travel scale so I can weigh my bags at home and make sure I’m under the 50-lb. limit. It’s no fun to get to the airport and find out your bag weighs 50.5 lbs. and the agent won’t give you a break.
3) Thinktank Airport Check-In computer bag
Notes about this bag: Yes, I travel with two computers when I’m working for SI. We’re required to use their proprietary transmitting software and it only works on the PC that they provide. I still bring my Mac for all of my day-to-day work. Since I’m a freelancer and own the copyright to all of my images, I also copy my photos to my own computer for editing in Aperture after I’m done sending to SI.
4) A cart. My old Ruxxac finally died after many years and hundreds of thousands of miles. I recently bought the Wesco Maxi Mover Folding Handtruck. It’s sturdy and folds flat like the Ruxxac, but I wish the bottom plate were longer.
On Thursday morning at LaGuardia Airport, I checked my Versa-Flex (weighing 49.5 lbs) and my cart (wrapped up in bungee cords so nothing sticks out). If it’s a long trip, I’ll bring a separate bag for clothes. I’m allowed to check three free bags on Delta because of my elite status (fancy, huh?).
I carry on my roller and the computer bag (which slides nicely over the handle). The roller weighs 45 pounds, and I imagine the flight attendants wouldn’t be happy to see me putting that thing in an overhead. Here’s the secret to getting it up there: Lift it up over your head in one swift motion without making a face so it looks like it doesn’t weigh anything. Definitely don’t scream out, “Holy crap, this bag weighs a ton!” If you look like you’re struggling to get it in there, the person sitting below it is going to cause a scene.
I usually put my computer bag under the seat in front of me unless there’s a lot of free space in the overhead. All I really need out of there is a magazine and the headphones for my iPhone. If it’s a long flight, I’ll grab my Mac to try and get some editing done.
While waiting to pull back from the gate, I noticed that two airline mechanics boarded the plane and went to the cockpit. That’s not a good sign. Turns out there was some “indicator” issue that had to be fixed. The good news is that we only took off an hour late.
Here’s an example of when a good assistant can save my butt. I didn’t remember until late Wednesday night that one of my monopods had a stripped stud (the reversible screw that connects the monopod to the camera). I talked with my Boston assistant (photographer Ken Kotch) and asked him if he could call around the local photo shops to find me a replacement. When I landed in Boston, he picked me up at the airport and told me that he couldn’t find it anywhere. Instead, he had a friend of his make one! I have no idea how he did it but I know it involves a lathe. It fit perfectly, and I definitely owe them one.
At this point it was about 3:30 pm so we didn’t have time to check into my hotel. We stopped at a Target store because I needed a thigh brace. Not for me, but for my camera. The Nikon lenses are awesome, but the lens hoods never seem to stay on. Instead of taping it up for every game, I slip a tight Neoprene sleeve over it. I had one for my 600, but not the 400. Unfortunately, Target only had knee braces. I bought one just in case but couldn’t make it fit.
During this time, I also got a call from SI’s NFL editor. By now, we all knew that Brett Favre had been traded from Green Bay to the New York Jets. There was no reason for me to cover the game on Monday night, so now I had to shoot Jets training camp at 1:30 on Saturday afternoon, 8:45 Sunday morning and 5:45 Sunday night.
I spent 45 minutes on the phone with the travel department changing my “I can sleep in until 10am” flight on Saturday to a “They have flights that early?” one at 6:15am. I also canceled my Green Bay flight and hotel.
We got to the stadium at about 5 pm for the 7:30 start. I like to arrive early so that I can really get “in the zone” for my shoot. If I run in at the last minute, it just never feels right, and I have a lousy game.
During the regular season, we usually just cover the game. There are dozens of photographers on the sidelines, and I put a lot of pressure on myself to make the best photos out there. I don’t always succeed, but I want to get pictures in the magazine’s coveted “Leading Off” section. It’s three double-truck (two-page spread) photos that are some of the best sports images of the week.
Preseason is different because we often have to shoot particular players for stories that the magazine has planned. In this case, I was assigned something pretty specific that is scheduled to run in a few weeks. I spent most of the game working on that.
I did spot Tom Brady (who didn’t play) talking on the sidelines with backup Matt Cassel, who seemed to be chewing on his helmet strap.
After the game, I decided to stay in the photo room to copy all of my images to the computer. The photographer’s workroom is apparently being used as a player’s lounge during the week because they had full-size video games in there. Ken and I competed in a game where the object was to shoot as many animals as possible — except for the cows. My vegan wife would love it.
When the images were done copying (and we’d killed all the animals), Ken drove me to my hotel.
A note about hotels: I try to stay at Marriotts whenever possible and have elite status with the chain. Often I check in after midnight and, if available, they upgrade me to a nicer room. It’s a complete waste because I’m just going to crash and check out in a few hours anyway. One time in Cincinnati, I had a room that was two stories with a spiral staircase in the middle. I was there for a total of seven hours – five of which I was asleep. One time I drove from Birmingham to Atlanta after a game, checked into the Atlanta Airport Marriott at 3 am, took a nap and a shower and checked out at 4:30am. I had a 6:00am flight to cover a game in New York.
On Thursday in Boston I was able to get about six hours of sleep before catching a cab to the airport. I avoid renting a car whenever possible because it wastes too much time picking up and dropping it off. It’s also a hassle to deal with the shuttle bus when I have my gear. I assume that my local assistants will know their way around the city better than I will anyway.
I flew USAir (which charges for every bag now!) from Boston to Pittsburgh and had my assistant Pete Madia pick me up. Again, no time to check in to the hotel, so it was right to the stadium. It was the same drill at the game, although I was able to shoot some standard action as well.
I checked into the hotel around midnight, transmitted my images, and got four hours of sleep before catching the early flight to New York. I was on one of the smaller regional jets this time so unfortunately I had to gate check my roller.
A note about gate checking: Not only do I lock my bag, but I also personally hand it to the person who will load it onto the plane. I tell them that there’s a large piece of glass in there and ask them to be extra careful with it. It’s not a lie — the 400 has a huge front element. But if I said there were cameras in there, I don’t think they’d take it seriously (everyone’s bag probably has a camera in it). I’m not sure that telling them that makes a difference, but it makes me feel a little better. My gear is insured and I pad everything the best way I can. After that, I just have to put my faith in the airlines (!).
When I landed at JFK, the bags took 45 minutes to show up, but at least they made it. You know how there’s a monitor that tells you which baggage carousel will have your bags? Sometimes I can’t remember what city I just came from. I always know where I am because I’m thinking about the day and what I have to do, but there have been a few times that I’ve stood in front of that monitor for five or ten seconds trying to remember what city I was in a few hours ago.
I took the AirTrain to Hertz to pick up a rental car. Since I live in Manhattan, I don’t own a car. So Hertz it is. I couldn’t justify an assistant for training camp.
Most of the time, I walk into Hertz, and my name is on the gold board so I can just walk to the car and go. Not today. For some reason my name wasn’t there. So I had to get in line and wait. And wait. And wait…
It was 9 am on a Saturday and they were moving particularly slow. When I finally got to the counter, the space they said my car was in had someone else’s contract in it. The second time, they gave me a Grand Marquis which is way too big to drive and park in New York City. I finally pulled out of the airport at 10:00 am from a flight that arrived at 7:48 am.
If you’ve ever driven on Long Island, you know what’s coming next: traffic. It doesn’t matter what time of day it is or which direction you’re going. There is always a point where you come to a grinding halt and can’t move anywhere.
I finally arrived at Hofstra University for training camp and spent the afternoon shooting Brett Favre during his first practice as a member of the New York Jets. It’s very weird to see him in that helmet.
It was both sad and funny, but I saw that they were still selling Chad Pennington jerseys in the merchandise tent. He’s the former starting quarterback that the Jets released when they brought in Favre. The rack of jerseys had a sign on top — 50% off.
What’s it like photographing someone at training camp? You shoot anything the guy does. Look! Brett’s standing! Now he’s kneeling! Oh my, he’s drinking water! Brett’s talking to a teammate! Now he’s talking to the coach! You never know what the magazine will run, so you want to give them a lot of options.
At the end of Sunday morning practice, I noticed about 30 kids lined up on the sidelines away from most of the crowd. I had a hunch that Brett might go over to sign autographs. It turns out I was right, and I had a good three or four minutes of shooting up close until the other photographers got there. Of course, at that point the media relations people kicked us all out, but I already had what I needed.
After each session, I transmitted the images to SI from the press room. The magazine wound up pulling me off the evening practice because they had already closed the Favre story. I hit another Target store to return the knee brace that didn’t fit and went home.
Final tally for the 4 days:
I spend the next few days editing, archiving, invoicing, marketing, and, oh yeah, catching up with my family. Then the process starts all over again!
And no matter how frenetic it gets, I still have to take out the garbage.