Interview with Sports Illustrated Photographer, Peter Read Miller
Editors’ Note: Photo.net is honored to have Peter Read Miller judge the September Sports Contest. Submit a sports photo for a chance to win his book, an Eyeist review, a GoPro camera, or a selection of Focal Press titles.
Peter has been photographing athletes, events and the sporting life for more than 40 years. He has worked as a staff and contract photographer for Sports Illustrated for more than 30 years. His images have appeared on over 100 Sports Illustrated covers. In addition to covering 8 Olympic Games and 38 Super Bowls, Peter has shot 14 NBA Finals, covered the Stanley Cup Finals, and so much more. He is a sports photography instructor, an Eyeist reviewer, a Western Digital Creative Master, and a Canon Explorer of Light. Peter’s book, Peter Read Miller on Sports Photography, was just published this week.
Peter took time from his busy schedule to share some of his thoughts on what goes on behind the scenes of an SI(Sports Illustrated) shoot, dish out some sound advice to sports photographers, and even share what lens he’d use if he were only allowed to use just one!
I have a feeling I know the answer but what is your favorite sport to shoot?
I pretty much love shooting anything. For example, I love shooting soccer (European football), but we don’t get to shoot very much of it at Sports Illustrated. I’ve shot two football (American) games per week for years. I did learn to love it and enjoy it for a number of different reasons. One of the reasons is that you have a lot of freedom. When you shoot a football game, you’re not stuck in one position. You can think about what is going to happen in the game and then you can position yourself where you think the action is going to happen. With baseball, you’re kind of focused on first-base and third-base and with basketball, you’re on the baseline. But, football requires a lot of strategy. Some of it is guessing. Some of it is luck. There is real thought that goes into where you are at every play. The idea of playing coach, quarterback, and defensive back to help determine where I should be always made it really fun to shoot football.
© Peter Read Miller
So I’m not picturing you sprinting up and down the entire length of a football field, which I’m guessing you do from time to time, tell me more what your setup is like. Do you have a crew with you?
We’ve been fortunate at Sports Illustrated and we’ve almost always had an assistant with us. There are many different reasons why we cover the game for the magazine. It would go from, “This is the Super Bowl and we’re going to have 11 guys and nothing is going to happen on the field we are going to miss,” down to, “We are doing the feature on a defensive lineman, so you go down there by yourself and sit there out there all day and take great pictures of just him.” And in between are the games where we think, “Well, this just looks like a good match-up.” So, then it is usually me alone, with another SI photographer, or three or four people when you get into the playoffs. The Super Bowl has always been 11. With any luck, we’ll get extra passes for assistants who are able to help us carry extra gear. I usually have two long lenses, two short lenses, and four bodies, which is really more than I’d want to run around with if I was working by myself.
Have you ever anticipated one thing and another thing has happened? Are there any shots you’ve missed that haunt you to this day?
ALL THE TIME! What time do you have to be home tonight? Because I could go on…. But, you know, it happens. You can have the best-laid plans and there’s a chance something totally different can happen and maybe even you get it. But, yeah, I’ve missed my fair share. Again, if you knew every time, it wouldn’t be any fun.
You’ve shot 100 Sports Illustrated covers. Not suggesting that the cover shots are necessarily always your favorite shots, but do you have a cover shot or shot in general that you feel extra proud of?
I have a lot. Covers are special because there is only one every week. That’s it. You get them for a lot of reasons and sometimes, they are ridiculous reasons. Really, there are pictures that I made that have never made it on a cover that I’ve been really been proud of. The picture on the book cover was featured inside the magazine—which is a pan blur of LaDainian Tomlinson going over the line. That’s a favorite of mine.
Another is a shot from the Olympic trials last year of Gabby Douglas—an overhead remote that I’m particularly proud of—that I keep among my favorites. You know, some of it is situational. My former boss Steve Fine, the director of photography at Sports Illustrated, always said, “Photographers like the pictures that are the hardest to take.” There have been many lessons and I’ve been fortunate enough to learn a lot of them. People like Steve tempered my judgment in terms of what I like and what’s really good.
Your portraits are incredible as well. I watched some of the videos on your site and one thing I’ve noticed is how well you interact with your subjects. In the video of the shoot with Andrew Luck, you even had him laughing. You seem to put your subjects at ease. Do you have any advice to share with other portrait photographers?
One thing is to be ready and I mean really, totally ready. We used to go out on feature stories and spend days with athletes, but that doesn’t happen anymore. It’s all about the photo op and so when someone comes to your studio or when you’re at his or her house, they don’t have a lot of time to spend. You’ll really want things to be ready and project confidence. In a way, the subjects are like horses and you can’t let them smell the fear. I like to have really good people there that I really know. I like to have a stylist whenever I can, even if it’s for just the simplest grooming. It’s all about making the athlete feel special and that’s harder and harder, because their days can consist of eight TV interviews and two headshots and more. When they get to you, you’ll want them to take a minute and think, “Okay this guy is a little different. He’s doing something a little more.” So, I’ll give them more by just making them comfortable. When they come in after a workout, they are hungry. Have some food. Simple, but it’s true. It’s easy for people to think of their subjects as, “Well, all right…they’ll come in and sit down and I’ll take the picture.” But, they are people too and if you treat them that way, the more you’ll get out of them.
© Peter Read Miller
That’s great advice! Especially the food!
It’s really true. And music. I like to have music on the set. Fortunately, I have enough younger assistants who can keep up with the latest music [laughs]. That’s another thing that really puts people at ease.
I’m kindof star-struck doing this interview. Have you ever had any moments during a shoot when you really felt star-struck or nervous? If yes, how did you handle it?
You know, I always feel a little bit nervous before a shoot. I think it’s good. I think if you’re not a little nervous, you are not totally focused. I’m always thinking that I really want to get the good picture. Moreover, it would be great to get the picture that I didn’t even expect to get; one that’s even better. Sometimes—especially at SI—there’s a very scripted, tight idea of what the art director wants and what the editor wants and what everybody wants. Same thing as commercial shooting—you can have a client that is saying, “We want him this way, this way, and looking this way.” You do just that and then sometimes, something else happens that just blows that original plan away. Then you get to tell them, “Here’s what you wanted, but check this out.” It’s great when little discoveries like that happen.
Going back to the star-struck question, they’re all amazing in their own way. At the end of the day—in those moments with them—you just can’t be star-struck because you have to direct them. In a nice, kind, friendly way you have to get them to do what you want. You have to see yourself as an equal, whether you really feel that way or not. I think it’s really important to project that.
© Peter Read Miller
Speaking of SI, do you want to tell me how you landed there? It’s the dream job for so many people. It’s like a rock concert music photographer working for Rolling Stone.
It’s just a series of opportunities. I attended USC and shot a lot for the yearbook and paper, but I had no intention of making photography a career. I was studying economics. I went to grad school. And then, I just hit a wall. I didn’t want to be in school anymore in Pennsylvania. I came back to Los Angeles and started shooting for the athletic department at USC, which again brings us back to football. I ended up getting some pictures published nationally and I was a really trying to get into shoot NFL games. I’m calling these PR guys and they’re responding with, “No, sorry, you’re not accredited, you’re not from anywhere.” I attended a Rams game while in LA, just as a fan and bought a program. I looked at the masthead of the program and saw that it was published in Los Angeles. At that time, the NFL had creative services, kind of like an in-house ad agency who produced all of their publications and I contacted the guy in charge. He answers the phone! This tells you how long ago it was! I told him who I was and what I was doing. Ironically his wife was going to SC grad school and he said, “We get the programs. I’ve seen your stuff. If you’d like to shoot some games for us on staff, we love that.” You could have knocked me over with a feather. I wish I had a story of hard work and suffering—and I’m not saying that I didn’t work hard. I worked for a lot of people, like ABC television when they were really big doing sports. Through all of this, I was going to the games for the NFL and I was going to other events for ABC and getting to know the SI guys because they were there too. SI gave me a couple of assignments, probably because everybody else was busy [laughs] and I did okay…and I kept getting more assignments.
I never was an assistant and I never worked at a newspaper and I don’t say either of those things proudly, because I would have learned a heck of a lot more. I had to learn the hard way. It was a different time. There wasn’t the same level of competition as there is today. Photography as a whole—I don’t think—was that sexy and it was even before the days of Annie Leibovitz and Rolling Stone and—as you said—the rock photography people. There just wasn’t the charisma to it that has come along and overtaken things. I was fighting maybe hundreds but I wasn’t fighting thousands of other photographers like I would be now if I was starting out.
© Peter Read Miller
I think there are a lot of non-pro photographers who would love to be where you are (and likely even some pro photographers). Newer photographers struggle with the right camera settings and other technical aspects of shooting such fast action. I know you can’t give an entire photo 101 lesson, but do you have any advice to share?
Cameras will do so much for you these days that I think most people should be able to master the basics of their cameras pretty quickly, but it’s a lot more about thinking what the picture really is. I teach a few workshops every year and I look at people’s portfolios while I’m lecturing. The camera will do your exposure and it will do your focus for you, but it won’t frame the photo for you. It won’t tell you what’s in the background and it won’t tell you that there’s a pole coming out of somebody’s head or that there’s a chain-link fence nearby. I think people should not get bogged down in the hard-core technical because that’s pretty straightforward. There’s so much information in books and on the Internet. I’m from a different era where there were many more challenges. I think it’s great what the cameras do now. It should free you up to think about what’s really going on in your picture. Almost all the work I see now is technically correct. It’s sharp. It’s well exposed. But it doesn’t mean it’s a great picture. I think that is what people really have to learn.
I know you shoot with Canon Gear. If you could only take one lens with you on a shoot, what’s your favorite go-to lens when shooting an NFL game?
If I was responsible for covering the play that decided the game—I know this is going to sound weird—but I think I’d take a 70-200. I’ve always thought about that. What if everything doesn’t get here? What if all your stuff doesn’t arrive? What if everything breaks but this one thing? I love the 400 mm, especially with the really nice lightweight Canon. I’ve used the 200-400mm zoom with the extender, which is a great lens, and I’m just waiting for one to come my way. Honestly, I would have to work more, but if I was down in the end zone and it happened in front of me, I could go wide. Those are often pictures that tell a better story than the 600 or 800 mm which is basically like a trading card of some guy dropping back for a pass, which everybody has, but it doesn’t set the context of the overall scene. I would certainly run my butt off, but I could cover a game using that lens.
© Peter Read Miller
You mentioned it was harder before. Is this because you were shooting with film? Is that what you were referring to?
Well, yes. You had to determine your exposure all the time and we would have three different kinds of film. We would have 100 ISO slide film for the start of the game if it was sunny. We would have 400 ISO for when it got a little dark but not too dark. Then we’d have some 800-1600 night film. If you’re someone who shoots as we did for SI, you’re carrying about 90 rolls of film to a game, and that is not an exaggeration. So, when you’re packing for a weekend with two games, you’re just hoping for some good weather and that it’s going to work out for you.
Then, obviously, manual focus was more challenging. I look back at some of the stuff—because I reviewed a lot of older material while I was writing this book—and thought, “Wow, yeah I got them focused there.” Three things—focus, exposure, and having the right film—are key. Timing was key, also. You’re definitely looking at three to four frames-per-second; not 12. The timing was a lot more of an issue. So, yes I think there were challenges. But it’s not easy now and I’m not saying it is so much better now. There were just different challenges then.
Was it a total shock switching to digital or were you jumping for joy?
It was a transition. Referring to SI again, we really didn’t need to switch when the newspapers switched because we were a weekly. I could shoot a game on the West Coast on a Sunday afternoon, get the film on a 10:00 PM flight to New York, have it picked up the next morning at the airport, get it into the lab which is right downstairs in the building, have it processed at 9:00 AM, and then it’s on one of the editors’ light tables and laid out by noon. We had this great system.
What finally got us was how much better the digital images looked at night. We were shooting a lot of color negatives and I just take my hat off to all the picture editors who went through whole games of color negatives—with all of the colors backwards, all of that orange, trying to figure out which team is which, and seeing if good action was covered. When we found that we could shoot digital cameras at night, the initial word was that we’d take out our film camera when the sun was out and when it was night, we’d take out our digital camera. But, taking that many cameras to every game? Nobody wanted to do that, so the plan lasted for about a minute. One thing people say is, “Isn’t it nice not to be in the darkroom anymore?” Yes, that’s true, but when I do my own work, I now spend as much time on the computer as I spent in the darkroom. It’s just that the light is better and my fingernails don’t turn orange.
© Peter Read Miller
You must have to weed through so many photos at the end of one game. Do you have a process for that? I would imagine if it is for SI, you have people that would help with that, but for your own work?
At SI, we have an automated system that basically sends them off. I’m extremely spoiled regarding workflow. Just more recently, I’ve been doing more on my own. But, yes it’s a pain. I go through my games anyway and I usually shoot about 2000 pictures at a game. I basically get everything in the computer and throw them in Photo Mechanic. I throw out the really bad stuff and go back and look for the real winners. It’s a challenge.
You mentioned earlier that you use a Western Digital Passport right? For backup?
Definitely. I’ll move the pictures off the cards onto my laptop. I’ll back them up onto the Passport. If they were only on my laptop and something happened, I could lose them all. Step one is to ingest everything. Step two is to put it on a second source. I keep game photos on the WD drive intact and then I do my editing on the laptop. That way, if I’m going through too fast and I throw out a bunch of things on accident, I have a backup.
I just got a WD Passport as well because I have an 18 month old and take a lot of pictures that I don’t want to lose, but that pales in comparison to 2000 per game! That’s a lot of pictures!
We’re not paying for film anymore [laughs].
You seem to be an instructor at heart with the book and you briefly mentioned the workshop in Atlanta. Tell me a bit about the workshop.
Well, actually I’m doing two workshops a year now. I’ve got one coming up in Atlanta that starts on October 28th and runs through November 3rd. I also do one in April in Denver. Both of them are very similar in format. We shoot as much as possible. We shoot one, possibly two events a day in the afternoon and evening. I will lecture and other instructors will lecture. Steve Fine from SI has guest lectured many times to show how SI does things. To me, that’s the best part of my ability—to teach. I can lecture and I can talk, but what I really like to do is look at people’s pictures and say what’s great and also what may not work. I try to vary the events because I don’t want to just have them shooting football and soccer all day. We’ll do polo in Atlanta, we did fencing last year in Denver, and we always do mountain biking. I focus more on getting out rather than too much classroom time. I have a few assistants helping out and just kind of working with everybody. It’s very hands-on.
What’s the one thing you hope a student of yours walks away with after your workshop?
I hope they’re all better. For me, that is the challenge. I want everybody to be better using whatever gear they came with, although we get lots of loaner gear from Canon and strobes and other fancy things to play with. People sometimes ask me, “Do I have to bring my gear? You’re going to have all that stuff.” I say yes to them. When class is over, they’ll go home and they’ll be shooting with their own gear.
Does your book follow the flow of your workshop?
My book follows my presentation. I’ll do my presentation at the beginning of each workshop. The book is a combination of shooting tips, instruction, and there’s also just stories about what happened behind the scenes; what really happened in certain pictures. That’s kind of what the workshop is like. I really try to weave in the stories and histories behind the shots.
© Peter Read Miller
I don’t even know how you find time to sleep! You have so much on your plate. So, what’s next after the book release?
I’ve got a USC football game this weekend and then I’ve got a talk in Hastings, Nebraska next week at Hastings College. It is a school that is about 100 miles west of Lincoln, really in the middle of the state. They have a very active and enthusiastic photo department. After that, I’m doing the Falcons/Patriots game on the 28th. I have some other games in early October and then I’m headed to Photo Plus Expo. I’m also doing a B&H Photo event on the 22nd of October. After that, I’m headed to Atlanta for the end of October workshop.
My last question for you is about Eyeist. Have you had a chance to do any reviews yet?
Yes. Again, it’s what I like to do. I like to go through and talk about pictures that people have taken. I’m much better at that than lecturing about football or baseball or another sport. You show me what you’ve done and I’ll tell you what I think is good about it and I’ll tell you what I think could be better. So, Eyeist is perfect for me in that regard.
© Peter Read Miller
Stop by Eyeist and think about having a formal review with Peter.
You can order Peter’s book from Peachpit or your favorite retailer.
Click here to visit his Website and here to learn more about his workshops.
Don’t forget to visit the September Sports contest!