Skyd features the work of many excellent photographers, and one of the finest is Kevin Leclaire of UltiPhotos. Kevin’s professional approach to shooting Ultimate has helped define the way we comprehend the sport of Ultimate. As an official photographer for High School Easterns, and the 2011 College Championships, Kevin is primed to provide more refined glimpses into the sport.
In light of his contributions to Skyd and his upcoming tournaments, we’re please to be able to share this extensive interview with Kevin. Our discussion covers his personal history with the sport, some of his favorite shots and some excellent tips for up and coming photographers.
Who are you? What is your Ultimate background?
I’m a management consultant in the commercial space industry (yes, rockets and satellites) who is also a part-time photographer. I founded UltiPhotos.com in 2008 and now spend much of my free time shooting Ultimate tournaments and maintaining the website.
I came late to the sport of Ultimate. Although I played my first “game” of Ultimate at the age of fourteen, I didn’t play my second game until I was a year out of Virginia Tech. I had met a friend at a GE training event in Atlanta in 1996—and he couldn’t stop gushing about Ultimate and I had to find out if it lived up to the hype. I went back home to Roanoke, found what limited pickup I could and started to play. My second real tournament was Club Sectionals and my team played savage for seven of our eight games and still almost made Regionals. I was thoroughly hooked.
Shortly thereafter, I went to Harvard for grad school and joined the Harvard Ultimate team. Since then, I played with a number of Open, Mixed, and Masters club teams, but none were able to reach that holy grail of Nationals. Now, 15 years later, aside from WAFC league action, my competitive playing days are mostly behind me.
I’ve always enjoyed taking photos, even when I was a small kid, but it wasn’t until my wife gave me a Digital SLR camera for Christmas that photography became a true passion for me. In 2006 I began to take my camera with me on trips to Alaska and Africa, and yes, to Ultimate tournaments that we were playing in. The DSLR allowed me to “freeze the moment” in a way that a point-and-shoot camera never could. Even so, it wasn’t until 2008 after shooting a few rounds of Fools Fest and Philly Invite that I realized that not only did I love to shoot Ultimate, but that I was developing a real knack for it. I started UltiPhotos.com in that time period and by August 2008 I’d booked my first Official Tournament Photography gig with Chesapeake Open.
I never took any classes, but I did read a couple intro books on DSLR photography and I scoured the web for tips and tricks as well as what was considered the best in Ultimate photography to use as a benchmark. Most importantly, I continuously practiced to refine my technique. As I gradually improved, I upgraded my gear to keep pace.
Any techniques/tricks you use to get better shots?
Oh yes—lots! Getting a great Ultimate photo takes a lot of work and not a little bit of luck. I don’t want to give away all my secrets, but here are a few fundamental elements of getting a good shot:
- Being in the right place—you can’t get a good shot if you don’t have a good view of where the action is going to take place. This means getting there first. It also means having an angle to shoot from that gives you good light on the play and not harsh shadows.
- Exposure—sometimes the right place to be is a sideline between two games and you can’t count on the sun being behind you for one of the fields. So depending on the light conditions, I will often dial exposure up or down depending whether I’m shooting into the sunlight or not. That way I can try to avoid faces that are too shadowed or highlights that are blown out, which saves a lot of time in post-processing.
- Pre-focus—when shooting action photography, even the fastest cameras take time to focus on new action. By identifying the likely receiver and pre-focusing on them, you have a much better chance of nailing the focus when the disc comes to them and prepares you to capture a “D” on the receiver as well.
- Background—this is the hardest thing to manage as you often have to take what you can get. But be aware of the background, and if you can, avoid having the bright blue port-a-potty or bright yellow trash can in your sight lines. There’s no quicker way of taking a great shot down in stature than a distracting background. By the same principle, if you get palm trees in your Sarasota shots, it can bump a photo from good up to great.
- Luck—you can’t control if the players will lay out or get a D and on what part of the field. All you can do is be prepared to click the shutter when something exciting happens.
What equipment do you use?
I shoot Nikon—two D300 bodies, one with a 70-200 f/2.8 VR-II lens for close action (e.g. within 30-40 yards), the other with a 200-400mm f/4 VR-I lens for action that is farther away, sometimes from end zone to end zone or even across fields.
What events and/or things do you like to shoot in particular?
I prefer to shoot elite Ultimate tournaments, such as Chesapeake Open, as well as the always fun and entertaining WAFC April Fools Fest. I most wanted to shoot Club Nationals, but I had always wanted to earn my way there. Last year I finally (and literally) earned my way to Club Nationals by being the Official Photographer for 8 of the 9 Mid-Atlantic club teams attending as well as WAFC, PADA, and TFDA, the major Mid-Atlantic Ultimate clubs.
I also make it a point to get out and shoot local Ultimate events that aren’t as well known, including occasional WAFC league action. It particularly makes my day when I hear that I’ve captured the best photo of someone’s Ultimate career. There are no good photos of me playing “in my prime” and I would pay good money for photographic evidence that I could once lay out! So I make it a goal to try to get good photos of as many different players as possible when I shoot an event. Photos from every Ultimate event I’ve shot are available on my website for viewing and/or purchase.
Shooting Ultimate is my first passion, but a close second is wildlife and other nature photography.
What’s the most amazing thing you’ve caught on camera?
It would be a close tie between two moments from a safari in Tanzania. First was driving through the great migration with a sea of wildebeests and zebras in every direction. Second was photographing a lion pride finishing the remains of a cape buffalo they’d killed overnight and watching as dozens of hyenas encroached on the remaining lionesses and cubs.
What are your top 3 photos?
It’s hard to pick the best three, but here are three Ultimate shots that I’m particularly proud of:
I shot this from the far end zone in the Open Championship game at Club Nationals last year. Not only was the light fantastic and every single fan in the crowd zeroed in on the amazing play, but the perspective and timing makes it look as if Colin Mahoney of Ironside has just gotten higher in the air than anyone ever to play the sport. This photo was published as a full page in the past Winter edition of the USA Ultimate magazine.
This photo from the Masters Championship game also appeared in the Winter magazine and was the cover photo for the Masters Division and my first cover of any sort.
For my third selection, I chose the photo from the 2008 Philly Invite that helped convince me I had something special with this Ultimate photography thing.
How would you define the state of photography in Ultimate right now?
Ultimate Photography is still in the early stages of its development, but is improving in leaps and bounds. There are four key factors that I believe are important to measuring the “state of Ultimate photography”: 1) quantity, 2) quality, 3) accessibility and 4) economics.
Fortunately for Championship-level Ultimate, there have been a few elite Ultimate photographers who have been able to cover these events and get magazine-worthy photos for some time. In particular, Scobel Wiggins, Matt Lane, and more recently, Andrew Davis, come to mind. However, the vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of Ultimate players in the U.S. never get to play at Nationals and until the past few years, few had any good photos available of them playing Ultimate.
Quantity: Due to the expense of camera gear (and cost of processing film), it wasn’t until the advent of many consumer-affordable DSLR cameras in the past 5 years that the number of people photographing Ultimate took off. Suddenly every team seems to have a player or parent on the sidelines with a camera taking photos of the action. So the quantity of Ultimate photos available is increasing dramatically and should continue to grow in the coming years.
Quality: One can take really good Ultimate photos with less than $1000 of camera gear—in fact, that’s how many of us started out. However, the action generally has to be pretty close and the lighting really good, and certainly skill helps. To get high quality photos from a distance, or in low light conditions, it means stepping up to rent (or buy) some pretty expensive professional lenses. Generally though, quality is improving with more experience and glass covering the action.
Accessibility: Thanks to quality photo hosting sites like Zenfolio (which I use), SmugMug, and others, it has become much easier to organize photos and make them available for viewing and/or purchase online. I spend hours uploading, organizing, and tagging photos for every tournament I shoot to make them as accessible as possible.
Economics: There is definitely a market for tournament photography and Ultimate photos, but it is a very small from a total dollars standpoint today. The good news is that strides are being made and certain college teams, Ultimate clubs, and USA Ultimate all see the value in paying skilled Ultimate photographers to cover their events. Great tournament photos can be differentiators—they are desired by players and fans alike and can help market and grow a tournament into the future.
However, no one is going to quit their day job to make a living shooting Ultimate in the near term and there is only one full-time professional Ultimate photographer in the world that I know of and that is only because he works for a certain well-known disc merchandiser. The best way to get more skilled photographers shooting Ultimate (and to develop new talent) and increase quality photographic coverage of the sport is to pay more photographers to shoot Ultimate events. Even a small (but meaningful) amount is a powerful motivator for someone to go the extra mile and provide great tournament coverage.
Where do you see it going in 5 years?
My vision is to have official tournament photographers for every Regional-level and equivalently competitive tournament as well as for many of the Sectional/conference-level events. That would be quite a challenge as 1) there aren’t nearly enough of us today and 2) many tournament organizers do not yet see the value of incorporating a photographer’s travel expenses into their budgets, much less a stipend. I can see this changing and I hope the change can be accelerated by player demand for quality tournament photography. One thing that could help tremendously is if USA Ultimate would encourage Sectional, Conference, and Regional tournament directors to budget a certain amount per team for photography.
What events are you looking forward to shooting?
There are three big Ultimate tournaments coming up in the next four months where I will be a paid official photographer. The 2011 USA Ultimate High School Eastern Championships outside Philadelphia is May 20-21 and I will be shooting it for the second year in a row. Next up is D-I College Nationals in Boulder, which I am especially excited about since I will be shooting the full tournament for the first time and I will get to see a lot of teams in action that I’ve never photographed before. Finally, in late August, I will be covering Chesapeake Open for the fourth year in a row. These all promise to be exciting tournaments with lots of high level competition.
How can people get a hold of you if they’d like you to shoot at an event?
The best way to reach me directly is to send me a message from the contact page on my website (http://www.ultiphotos.com/contact.html).
The best way to find out what events I’m already shooting or when I post photos is to become a fan on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/UltiPhotos) and/or follow UltiPhotos on Twitter (http://twitter.com/UltiPhotos).
Anything else you’d like to add?
I have a vision to build UltiPhotos into something larger than any one photographer and make it the destination for tournament photography across the country. To accomplish this, I am looking to find other like-minded Ultimate photographers to work with who can cover local tournaments in different regions of the country and give UltiPhotos.com a national presence.