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Freeze frame: photographer Ben Chen shares his insights into sports photography.

Southern California-based sports photographer Ben Chen has photographed such high-profile events as the 2006 Rose Bowl between the University of Southern California Trojans (USC) and University of Texas Longhorns, and the 2005 American League Championship Series (ALC) between the New York Yankees and the California Angels.

Chen regularly covers traditional professional team sports, as well as NCAA games and NASCAR auto racing.

Not only is Chen under the gun for producing exciting images that capture the physical essence of a great play, he is known as a photographer whose images convey the psychological and emotional intensity of the greatest athletes in their chosen sports.

Though his wire service and newspaper deadlines are not quite as short in duration as the slam-bam plays he regularly captures, Chen often begins transmitting images to his clients before the game has ended. This is especially true when he senses a single image--one among the hundreds of images he'll make during an important game--is special.

It's a talent, he says, that comes from his long experience as a sports photographer, coupled with a strong knowledge of what each of his editors is expecting him to deliver.

Body of work

As a freelance photographer, Chen divides his sports photography into several categories. His "editorial" work is assigned mostly from the wire services and newspapers. Colleges, universities, and corporations also hire Chen to photograph important games or events. He also shoots weddings ( His website features two image galleries: one for sports, and one for weddings and other nonsporting events. Freelance assignments, which are more lucrative than standard editorial work, aren't deadline driven. This gives Chen the time required for placing wireless cameras at unusual vantage points, to achieve angles of coverage, which, as a wire service photographer, would be difficult--if not impossible--to employ.

The difference between types of clients, however, amounts to more than separate lines in a ledger book. One of the most visually arresting images on Chen's website was taken during a basketball game, with the camera placed well above the hoop, and the lens aimed downward at the net to capture the players' concentration on the impending rebound scramble.

Speaking with Chen, however, it's easy to infer his professional passion and preference is for sports photojournalism at its most intense, as a lone photographer with several DSLRs and telephoto lenses draped from his shoulders.

Chen never shoots in the standard high-resolution formats, including TIFF and RAW. He prefers high-resolution JPEGs, generally from 4 megapixels to 7 megapixels in size, which can be transmitted faster, allow for quick resizing, and also reproduce well in a variety of full-color print publications.

Though competition in sports photography is tough and growing, shooting professional sports offers Chen the advantage of requiring press credentials. "Acquiring legitimate press status can be a stumbling block for sports photographers new to the profession," Chen says.

Though Chen can be guarded as to the precise identity of his clients, he has a reputation as an established sports photographer, and he is open with both technical advice and how to approach coverage, especially when one is unfamiliar with the game.

"It's not essential to know a sport to photograph a game well," Chen says. "I've photographed sports without knowing the rules." Given that anticipation is important to sports photographers, as well as to the players, it's best to immerse oneself in a particular sport, however, to ensure continued success.

Education and experience

Chen teaches seminars and workshops, including one in the SPAA track last March at PMA 07, titled "Sports Action Photography Tutorial," which included a lengthy equipment-oriented tutorial. Given the venue, participants were already professional photographers.

Chen also teaches similar private workshops for football, soccer, baseball, and basketball, which are attended mostly by nonprofessionals, and from professions as diverse as mechanics and architects.

Chen himself uses Canon equipment; and though he doesn't mandate the type of digital camera his students use, he notes a DSLR with interchangeable lenses is a must if one hopes to meet with any professional success.

After the standard zoom lens, Chen says the 400mm f/2.8 fixed focal-length telephoto is the most important optic to acquire, at least for outdoor sports where plays are photographed at a distance. A portfolio critique is another educational service Chen makes available on his website.

Like many youth sports photographers have discovered--and Chen began his sports photography career shooting youth sports--he doesn't limit his coverage to the athletes, and tries to include all facets of the game, including fans, cheerleaders, bench jocks, etc., in his coverage.

A good percentage of photographers entering the field are graduates from university photojournalism programs, in addition to pros who are looking to diversify from other types of people-oriented photography.

Though the images on Chen's website are available for stock sales, the consolidation of stock agencies has made it increasingly difficult to resell images, adding weight to the importance of his educational activities, which represent another welcome income channel.

So, too, for the ever-increasing numbers of sports Chen shoots, including inline skateboarding, surfing, triathlon, polo, rhythmic gymnastics, motocross racing, and competitive dancing, which has become his favorite event to photograph, not because of its relative proximity to the photographer, but due to the beautiful line and graceful movements of the participants.

New sports photography book offers advice from top pros

The new book, "Sports Photography: How to Capture Action and Emotion," features a Ben Chen photograph on its cover. It was made using a camera attached to the backboard during a college basketball game

This softcover, 160-page book was written by author/photographer Peter Skinner and publisbed by Allworth Press in May. it showcases the work of 10 top professional sports photographers, and is geared to the amateur photographer who would like to take better sports photos. "Sports Photography: How to Capture Action and Emotion" is available through PMA Business Resources at http://services,,

Ben Chen at a glance

Ben Chen is a freelance photojournalist with 30 years of photographic experience. Based in Southern California, Chen's passion is for sports photojournalism at the pro level. He works for several wire services and other print media. Chen's work has been published in USA Today, L. A. Times, New York Daily News, Cosmopolitan magazine, and Popular Photography & Imaging magazine.

To make editorial photography financially feasible, Chen also shoots corporate events, weddings, portraits, and university assignments. Additionally, he teaches seminars and tutorials, and offers portfolio critiques.
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Title Annotation:Trends & Technology
Author:Thall, Larry
Publication:PMA Magazine - Connecting the Imaging Communities
Date:Sep 1, 2007
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