As sporting events go, the U.S. Open holds a special place near and dear to me. I grew up playing tennis on long island, about 20 minutes away from the national tennis center; when we were kids, my little brother and I would always head out to Flushing Meadows with the pro from our local club. Down the subway ramp from the SHEA STADIUM station, just far enough away from the entrance to KEEP it legal, we’d scalp a couple of general admission tickets for nosebleed seats in the old Louis Armstrong Stadium during the first or second rounds.
Back then, the ushers had a nice side business going, and a portrait of Andrew Jackson palmed deftly (by our pro, not by a 10-year old kid) into an offered hand would get you all-day access to what those guys knew would, for that day at least, be an otherwise unused front-row corporate box. A lot has changed in the intervening 30-plus years; barcodes on the tickets (and dare I say perhaps a renewed sense of ethics) preclude our little seating gambit from happening anymore; the courts have gone from green to blue, many of the outer courts have become show courts and the entire facility more fan-friendly. The National Tennis Center was rightly renamed for Billie Jean King; Arthur Ashe Stadium arrived, Louis Armstrong Stadium, relegated to second-tier status, had its second tier lopped off. Ashe got a roof, then Armstrong disappeared entirely only to be reappear this year, rising Phoenix-like from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s original Valley of Ashes, as a state-of-the-art retractable roof stadium.
But one thing hasn’t changed: the vibe of the U.S. Open. Unapologetically loud. Hard-charging. Crowded. Energized. Raw. In a word (well, 2 words): New York. Which is what makes it different. Which is what makes it fun.
The U.S. Open is many things, but subtle is not one of them. And that lack of subtlety translates into the pictures to be made there as well. The stadium courts are utilitarian, massive concrete structures whose walls are so tall, and seating bowls so steep, that, by 2:30 in the afternoon, everything is in shadow and there’s never more than a passing wisp of what could be called “beautiful” late-day light. The outer courts, while somewhat more exposed to that light and its possibilities, offer chain link and harsh aluminum bleachers and concession stands and lampposts and a dozen other things to work around to keep your backgrounds clean and the focus on the light, the color, or the player.
Photos at the U.S. Open, like the U.S. Open itself, aren’t about, can’t be about and should never try to claim the mantle of the gentility of Wimbledon, or the warm, red richness of Roland-Garros. No, photos here are about grinding out a picture, about making something happen—about finding that 15-minute sliver of time when the sun plays with the rooftop on Ashe at around 1:30, or the 11 a.m. baseline shadow show on Armstrong, and working with it for what little time nature gives you. Its about finding higher, cleaner angles or shooting wide open at f1.4 to blur out background distractions. It’s about hammering out facial expressions and rippling muscles and the impact of a ball on strings as the baseliners pound away point after point, and about keying on reactions to tell your story, because here you can’t rely on the pretty stuff to pull you through. Like the players on the hard, unforgiving DecoTurf, you can’t try to be subtle to be successful here.
I have the good fortune of working with an incredible team of photographers and editors at the USTA and USOpen.org. We’re all tasked not with just shooting action, but also of giving a feel for what it’s like to be on the grounds, taking it all in.
I have to geek out about something for a minute here. The folks from Sony Pro Support had a terrific on-site presence, and were kind enough to loan me a bunch of toys to augment my typical Sony kit. Thanks to them I had access to pretty much every piece of equipment I could ever want. But more important than that was the ability to try out something I’d never really made use of before. I’m usually known as a golf photographer, which means I spend my time shooting “action” pictures of people who don’t move very fast, and who tend to do some pretty predictable things when it comes time to prove their athletic mettle. Shooting tennis players is, shall we say, a little different.
And so it seemed like the perfect time to try out a feature on the Sony A9 that I’d never really had much use for previously: Eye-AF. As in, autofocus that tracks an eyeball. No, not your eyeball—that technology, to track where your eye is looking and adjust the focus point accordingly, has been around for decades, and to show you how well it works you only need to think about how many professional-grade cameras still have it as an option…still waiting for your answer…
What I mean by eyeball tracking is their eyeball. The subject’s. As in, the A9 can discern a subject’s eyeball, and, once locked in, stay locked on. Couple that with the A9’s ability to shoot (and track focus) at an astonishing 20 frames-per-second, and the results are pretty much life-changing. It can follow an eyeball as its owner runs across a court or charges the net. It can follow it through the net, through an opponent’s legs, lunging for a serve return, you name it. Honestly, when it comes to servo AF-tracking systems among the various manufacturers, right now it’s not a fair fight. Some examples of images made with Eye-AF engaged on the A9 are below:
One of the most rewarding experiences of the entire tournament is my assignment to follow the champion around the grounds after the respective singles finals. It’s an opportunity to shed some light on things that would otherwise never be seen, and to preserve for the champion a little remembrance of the whirlwind of moments that happen after championship point.
All photos from here on in were made with a Sony A9 and either a 24-70mm f2.8 GM or 70-200mm f2.8 GM-OSS lens, and processed to black and white from the original raw files using Capture One Pro.