Elegance In Action: Photographer Dave Black

Dave Black

2005 Indoor Track and Field Championships.

I first met Dave Black when I attended a Sports Illustrated-sponsored photography workshop 25 years ago. Black’s work stood out even then. As an editorial sports photographer, his striking images were notable even among his S.I. colleagues for their elegant simplicity. They were then, as they are now, minimal, graphic, iconic images of athletes at the peak of their game. They aren’t just pictures of specific athletes, they’re archetypes, iconic photos. It was obvious Dave Black was a master 25 years ago, but now we make it official.

“I think I’m pretty simple in my approach,” Black says. “I just think there’s really one thing people want to see, especially when it comes to sports. I boil it down, and I’m very fond of the basics. I like seeing a picture of a quarterback dropping back in the pocket, just gearing up to rifle the football. It’s so basic and so cliché, and it’s been done so many times that the challenge to me is to do it again so that people go, ‘Wow, look at that.’ We’ve seen it a million times, what makes me now want to look at it? It usually involves some kind of dramatic lighting. But it’s the simple, basic moves of athletics done in such a way that makes people look at it again and say that it’s remarkable.”

Dave Black
Kevin Barnett delivers the final serve to win the World Volleyball Championships versus the Netherlands in 2000 (shot on assignment for Sports Illustrated.)

A lot has changed in the course of Black’s career. The ranks of editorial sports photographers have been decimated. Rates have declined, staffs have been slashed, and it’s harder than ever to make a buck. But Black isn’t bitter. In fact, he says, he still encourages young photographers to pursue their dream of sports photography. He even points out the ways the job itself has gotten easier, even though that means good photographers are no longer quite so special.

“It’s still a great job,” he says of sports photography. “It’s a different job today because it’s an easier job. You have digital, you have autofocus, you have ISO up to like 10,000 and beyond. You can’t tell me that it isn’t easier to shoot pictures today. And therein lies the problem. Now everyone can do it. Have you ever seen the animated movie The Incredibles? The premise of the villain in the movie…he develops all the technology to do all the things that Mr. Incredible can do, so he’s basically a superhero via technology. He can do all the same things: he can fly, he can lift great weights, he can destroy things…His whole thing, he says, is he’s going to develop these things and sell them on the market, because ‘If I make everybody super… then no one is.’ And that’s what’s happened in the photography industry. Everybody can do photography now. And Nikon and Canon, their goal is to produce cameras that allow somebody to take it out of the box and shoot like a pro instantly. And they’ve just about done that.”

Dave Black
Skateboarder Jono Schwan soars above a half-pipe. Technical expertise in lighting can set a photographer apart from the field.

Black says it’s still possible to have a great career shooting sports, it’s just that the clients are different. He made a shift nearly a decade ago from editorial sports photography to commercial photography—still frequently featuring athletes and peak action. Instead of shooting for a newspaper or magazine, however, he now works for the corporations that sponsor events, teams and athletes. It’s a change he was able to make, he says, because of something he’s been working on since his S.I. days: his ability to light.

“There you have it,” he says. “If everyone can do it, how do you differentiate yourself so you can get hired? I say it’s lighting. That’s one of the ways you raise the bar on everyone around you. And that may mean, if you want to shoot football, it may just be one of the things in your basket of eggs, you’re going to have to have other things in your basket of eggs that probably garner some corporate involvement. I saw that things were changing, but that wasn’t really it. Money has never been the driving force for me, ever. I just like making good pictures. That’s what I like to do. I like making great pictures. I like making pictures, period. I love it. It just so happened that people would hire me and buy pictures, so I did make a living. So when it came down to it, it wasn’t a commercial decision. I knew that doing lighting was what I wanted to do. I wanted to make different pictures, but I also knew that making those kind of pictures would probably open up doors commercially for me because I could do things that others weren’t doing, because now everyone’s super, so to speak.”

COMPETITION ISN’T VICIOUS: “It’s not a vicious thing, because sports is not a vicious thing—unless you’re Tonya Harding,” says Black. “It is just competitiveness. I walk in with an 800mm or something, and you know one of the guys on the sideline would go, ‘Man you’re just upping the ante, aren’t you.’ And I’d be like, ‘Yeah, and I’m going to put the converter on it, too.’ And we smile at each other. It’s a friendly competition. I’m not out trying to drive somebody out of business.”

Black’s interest in lighting sports stemmed from the days when he was in direct competition with the photographers around him. If the standard at an event was a 300mm lens, he’d show up with a 600mm. If the standard was ambient lighting, Black would incorporate a strobe. If fast-moving action couldn’t be effectively photographed with flash, he’d figure out a way. And he did.

“I worked very early on with Speedlights,” Black says, “because they worked with high-speed sync. I was years ahead, with people saying it couldn’t be done. I set out not to prove them wrong but just to make pictures I had in my mind all these years. Editorially there are certain events in sports that you can light—arena sports and so forth—but taking it outside was the big thing. Lucky for me, I shoot a lot of Olympic-type sports. Can you light cycling at a velodrome? Yeah, it’s legal, they let you do it. How about track and field? Sure, not a problem. You can’t go to a Major League Baseball game and throw a strobe on your camera and start shooting a guy at the plate. And in football, you can’t light football. The distance and everything…But in track and field, I put a strobe right next to the finish line and nobody said a word. All throughout the 1990s and when the SB-28 came out, it had high-speed sync and you could use it outside. I don’t even think it was in the manual; I just kept messing with it and figured it out.”

Dave Black
Rythmic gymnastics, Japan, 2016

“Early on,” Black says, “my lighting with action came out of taking the signature move of an athlete and then lighting it in a way that it would be so spectacular and so dramatic that it would just knock people over, blow them away. Everything I’m talking about here is designed to raise the bar. That’s my personal performance bar. Which is now probably sounding like an athlete. Sports photographers, if we looked at ourselves like athletes, we’d do a much better job. It’s raising the bar personally, and then raising the bar against all my colleagues.”

One way Black has always raised the bar, in sports photography and elsewhere, is with previsualization. It’s a technique that’s shared by world-class athletes.

“Athletes are taught today to replay the perfect long jump in their minds,” he says. “I’ve worked with the Olympic committee for so many years and dealt with sports science on a daily basis. And one of the big things was previsualization for athletes to have a mental success: First build a mental success. They’d picture the perfect triple backflip off the high bar, or they’d picture executing the perfect dive from the 3-meter platform, whatever it might be. I think photographers—sports photographers especially—lack this.”

Dave Black
Peyton Manning hands off to Knowshon Moreno in 2013.

“Everybody has a great camera,” Black continues. “Everything’s fast, everything’s autofocus, everything works. So how come the pictures don’t? I’ll ask a class, ‘How many have a great camera?’ And they all raise their hands. ‘How many have a 400mm lens?’ They all raise their hands. ‘How many have sent themselves to workshops to learn more stuff?’ They all raise their hands. ‘How many are making the pictures they want to make?’ And maybe two guys will raise their hands. So what’s the difference? What is it that seems to be lacking? I kept narrowing it down, and it was just pre-visualization: they don’t know what they’re looking for! How can you be so into sports and not know what you’re looking for? I’ve pre-visualized the perfect running play that I want to occur. The perfect pass, the perfect reception, the perfect scenario for the end of the game. In sports photography—in any photography, whether it’s a wedding or landscape or wildlife—it’s all about knowing what’s going to happen.”

“Everything I incorporate,” Black adds, “from knowing your subject to previsualization to anticipation to lighting to get the basic shot and then cut away everything that is extraneous…all these things are designed to raise the bar. There are lots of ways to do it. You up the ante to where they are not willing to pursue you. Or they’re not willing to do it because you work harder than them. Or they don’t want to spend the money. Or they don’t want to go through the aggravation and the work that is involved to light an arena.”

Competitive though he may be, Black says there’s no malice in raising the bar. In fact, he has demonstrated a career-long passion for teaching others about photography, helping countless photographers to improve their own approach to any number of subjects. He has, ultimately, a coach’s mentality. It’s something that stems from his own life as an athlete. He was a gymnast through college and a coach afterward. Teaching others is simply standard operating procedure.

“Teaching has always been there,” he says, “because as an athlete, as a gymnast, you’re always trying to teach someone who’s younger—as a junior you’re teaching a sophomore. When I left school, I actually coached at the university for a year and then went and coached private club gymnastics. I was always coaching.”

Today, Black coaches photographers in real live workshops and via his web site, daveblackphotography.com, where his “Workshop at the Ranch” blog attracts more than 85,000 monthly visitors. Throughout a long career, his passion for teaching has never wavered. Neither has his love of photography.

“I used to say I’m a sports photographer,” Black says. “Today I just say I’m a photographer, because I do a variety of things now. That’s one of the neat things about light. If you learn to use light, whether it’s a single speedlight or whatever it is, your avenue of clients opens up. If you just shoot sports with available light, that’s pretty much all you’re going to do. But if you do a little bit of portrait lighting, you can now not only take a portrait of the coach or player, but you can take a portrait of the chancellor of the university as well. ‘Oh, you use a little lighting, could you do a senior portrait of my son?’ Sure! So now you can do this and that and everything branches out and exponentially grows. Why learn lighting? Because it’s going to open up all these doors as far as business and experience. If you can light, you can do anything.”

Dave Black is proud to be a Nikon Ambassador. See more of his work and read his photography tutorials at daveblackphotography.com.

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