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7 things you never knew about being a sports camera operator

A TV camera shoots the Dodgers, as Sonnenburg often does.
A TV camera shoots the Dodgers, as Sonnenburg often does.
Luis Sinco/Getty Images
Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

Being a sports camera operator has a lot in common with being an athlete: It takes endurance, athletic knowledge, and teamwork. And while you're at work, millions of people are sitting on their couches, crumbs on their shirts, judging your every move.

Joe Sonnenburg has shot a wide variety of sports events for TV for almost a decade, and he posts highlights of his exploits on Instagram. He recently talked with me about how his job actually works, and — as importantly — he answered some of the questions any fan might have: How do they keep track of the baseball? When do they go to the bathroom? And is sports photography really all it's cracked up to be?

1) Shooting the game is only a small part of the job

Sonnenburg is a freelancer and works a wide variety of jobs, so procedures vary from game to game. But one thing's constant: He never calls it a "game." He's always shooting a "show," a name that's apt because of both the scope of his day and the much wider range of stuff he shoots.

He walked me through a typical day shooting a baseball game, and the big takeaway was that it can be a long, arduous process. A crew will arrive in the morning, unpack all the equipment, and cart it to the right location (it depends whether you're shooting center field or third base). Then it's time to build the camera, which means assembling the body, lens, and sticks for the tripod — a task that can take anywhere from one to three hours.

After that, crews "FAX" their cameras, which means they'll check in with the director, who's sitting in the TV truck and assembling all the camera feeds into a complete show (Update: Since this article was published, a lot of audio people have cast their vote that it's a FACS, short for facilities, though there are proponents of FAX as well). This process also involves making sure the crew can hear both the director and the announcer through their headsets.

Once the cameras are set up, the crew start shooting 15 minutes before the hour-long pregame show, and then stop ... well, whenever the game ends. Baseball doesn't have a clock, so they can be there a while. "Last week," Sonnenburg says, "I shot a 16-inning game that lasted five and a half hours." If there's another game the next day, they leave their cameras and get ready to start the process over again.

But you also don't start off shooting major league baseball games.

2) Beginners have to shoot every sport — so get ready to learn water polo

So how do sports camera operators get their jobs in the first place? Sonnenburg works as a freelancer, meaning that different crews hire him. And that means working a ton of different sports.

After taking college classes, he got an internship shooting USC football games and gained some experience. But once on the job market, he — like other camera operators — found himself shooting a wide variety of gigs, like a racquetball live stream.

Sometimes a camera operator's versatility requires a quick sports lesson. "I shot rugby a couple of years ago," Sonnenburg says. "The first part of our camera meeting, we went over basic rules so we had ideas of how it works."

3) Camera operators have to carry cheat sheets

If you're working a sport you aren't familiar with, you need to be able to respond to a director's requests. Call sheets can help. By knowing a bit about the players on both teams, camera operators can speed up their coverage and make sure they're in on a key shot.

It helps that they have a constant line of communication with both the director and the announcer. "Sometimes if the announcer starts talking about someone," Sonnenburg says, "it's like, 'Okay, we want to get him.'" A good camera operator can also use a cheat sheet to anticipate the director's requests — if the quarterback gets injured, you want to be ready with a shot of the backup before anyone asks.

4) As you progress, sports knowledge can be a differentiator

A camera operator's knowledge can be a key asset: By knowing the game, he or she can shoot it better.

For example, baseball's byzantine rules and style of play are perfect for a knowledgeable camera operator. The good ones see the ball because they start to know where to go: "You have 80 home games a year; you can work 160 days," Sonnenburg says. "You just kinda learn to do it."

The same goes for spotting a hockey puck as it speeds by. "With hockey, you learn how the puck moves," he says, and it becomes easy to anticipate the geometry of the puck bouncing off the boards. If a slap shot's coming, you learn to whip the camera quickly toward the net. It's a combination of muscle memory and skill that allows Sonnenburg to capture split-second shots without actually being able to see the puck or ball on some occasions.

That skill becomes even more important when different cameras are involved.

5) Super cameras require super camera operators

Once camera operators have gained experience, their assignments can get tougher. Sometimes that means pulling more tight shots, in which control, focus, and framing are more important than in wider shots. Though Sonnenburg uses some of his formal training to compose shots, like the rule of thirds, it ends up becoming instinct because gameplay can move so quickly.

That's even more important when working with a slow-motion camera. Some of the cameras shoot 1,000 frames a second, which means a mistake can last for an eternity. So the slo-mo that we all love to watch isn't just a technological innovation — it's a camera operator who has found the shot, focused and framed, and managed to hold it perfectly for an instant.

6) All that makes camerawork its own endurance test

Camerawork is a high-focus job without a lot of breaks. If there are multiple cameras, an individual crew member can usually sneak in time to run to the bathroom, but sometimes Sonnenburg has to scramble down scaffolding and back up in a short period of time.

So camera operators prepare for their work with rations. "I typically have a backpack, sweatshirts, rain gear, snacks, water, a little multi-cooler, and you'll always see that we carry bags around," Sonnenburg says. To stay awake, he'll bring along snacks to provide a bit of energy. "Sometimes baseball can be boring."

7) But it's worth it for the perfect shot

All that difficulty, however, is worth it when the perfect shot comes.

Sonnenburg recalls one from last year — seen above — when he captured a playoff-clinching slide by Hanley Ramirez: "It was just one of those things where I was in the right place at the right time, and also understanding there's going to be a play at home and I need to be there."

And that adrenaline rush often lasts the entire game as camera operators strive to grab the shot that will make highlight reels. In that way, they're not that different from the players they shoot — both are in search of the perfect play that will last beyond a single game.

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