This isn’t your average professional NFL shoot. When Baltimore-based sports photographer Shawn Hubbard decided to challenge himself to put down his Canon cameras and pick up his iPhone 7 to capture the entire Ravens vs. Giants game a few weeks ago, he definitely got some sideways looks from the players. Shawn is the team photographer for the Baltimore Ravens, so he’s no stranger to the game, and as it turned out, he produced proof that “the eye is mightier than the camera.” We caught up with Shawn a few days after the game to find out how this seemingly impossible challenge went!
First off, can you tell me about how you got involved with the NFL and what you normally do for them?
I have several ties to the NFL. I am one of the official team photographers for the Baltimore Ravens and this is my 10th season with the team. I started out shooting their youth events, cheerleaders, and marketing imagery and gradually transitioned to shooting on-field action. I also have been shooting as a part of the official NFL photo team covering the Super Bowl for the last two years. In addition, I was also commissioned to do some commercial work for the Green Bay Packers.
What inspired you to shoot entirely on the iPhone 7? Did Apple approach you, or did you take it up as a self-assigned challenge?
I’ve always enjoyed the challenge of making quality, creative images with my camera phone. I had no contact with Apple about this (although, maybe next time Apple…wink, wink). I approached the Ravens with the idea as a self-assigned project. I knew our other team photographer would be covering the game “for real” so there was nothing for me to lose. I knew shooting a whole game with a phone would be super challenging and new challenges always excite me.
Did the Ravens pay you for this shoot the same as they would any other game? Were there any reservations to you changing equipment?
In exchange for a credential and access I offered to shoot without pay to really just make it more fun. I had nothing hanging over my head, I could just do whatever I wanted and shoot with no pressure. I didn’t have any reservations about the equipment. I knew I was going from high end pro camera gear with great autofocus and a huge focal reach to a phone…that was the whole point of the project to see if I could make the jump and still make good images.
What types of planning and preproduction go into a mobile shoot?
At the time I got the go ahead to do the shoot, I was using the iPhone 6. I really had no intention of upgrading to the 7, but for this project I knew the images would be more relevant with the new phone. I had considered getting the iPhone 7 Plus because it has the extra camera with a longer focal length, however the size of the phone is way too big for me to want to carry it around all the time. I considered buying one, shooting the game and returning it, but at the time the 7 Plus was on backorder until December anyway. I knew battery life was going to be a huge issue. I’m on my phone a lot and even when I shoot a game with my normal equipment I’m always trying to make iPhone images while traveling with the team to the stadium and during the beginning of warmups. My phone is normally below 50% battery life by the time the game actually starts. I bought a battery pack when I got the phone, mainly because they were offering a really good deal on it. Lastly, I knew I wanted to get some different perspectives on things and I thought about being able to mount the phone to the end of one of my monopods for a higher view. Rather than buying a selfie stick I opted to get a wireless Bluetooth camera trigger which worked out nicely.
What camera do you typically use on these shoots? What was the biggest difference in the end result of your work between that and the iPhone 7?
I shoot with three cameras on a typical game day. Two Canon 1DX Mark II’s and one Canon 1DX. The biggest difference in the end result is just simply quality…especially in low light. Despite having made some “pretty images” with the phone, aside from web use and small print, I’m not sure how well they’d hold up enlarged. I haven’t tested that out though, so maybe I should try before I count it out.
Were there any unique challenges presented when using the iPhone? How did you overcome them?
Well it’s totally a different experience altogether, but there are a number of notable differences. When I shoot game action, I shoot primarily with either a 70-200mm or 400mm lens, so the biggest difference was reach. Even when things happened close to me in the end zone, things were still very far away. Also, the phone has a considerable lag when shooting, so timing things is much trickier. Lastly was depth of field. With my DSLR and pro lenses I can shoot at 2.8 or lower if I choose to clean up busy backgrounds. With the phone, everything in the frame is in focus, so I had to be much more careful about my composition to make clean images. Also, in low light situations the iPhone struggles to freeze even moderately moving subjects. I ended up just working with that and try to get creative with some intentional motion blur.
Did you see any benefits to the iPhone over your normal camera equipment?
Maybe less soreness in my back and legs! Hauling around three camera bodies and four to five lenses while sprinting up and down the sidelines can have lingering effects for sure. Other than that, in this environment, I’d still much rather shoot with my Canon gear.
Do you think the images stand up and represent you well as a professional photographer? Do you believe other photographers could benefit from a similar challenge?
Absolutely. I get asked ALL THE TIME about what kind of gear I use and I think this in some way is a testament that it really doesn’t matter what gear you have if you know how to use it. Despite the fact that iPhone images may not be practical for all types of work for all types of clients, I hope that I’ve shown that the eye is mightier than the camera. I think this is a great exercise for other photographers because working within the limitations of the iPhone makes you think about lighting, composition and waiting for the moment so much more.
What has the reaction to the images been so far – from both the Players and the Fans?
Despite getting some odd looks from a few players while shooting I haven’t gotten a chance to get any of their opinions yet since the images have been published. The images were really well received by the Ravens staff and from people online. Several people have said that if I hadn’t told them they were iPhone images, they wouldn’t have known. That was one of the goals of the project.
Any future plans for this project? Would you ever try doing this same type of shoot with a different phone? Samsung perhaps?
Maybe. I think trying to shoot another sport in the same way would be the next thing I’d like to try as long as I have good access. The great access I have with the Ravens definitely played a huge roll in the variety of imagery I was able to get. I don’t think it would be as fun or successful if I was, for example, shooting a soccer game from where the normal press shoots from. As far as shooting with a different phone…Hey, if Samsung or any other company wants to hire me to shoot with their product…I’m in.
To see more of Shawn’s work, check out shawnhubbardphoto.com.