Paul Gero Shoots ‘Friday Night Lights’

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It’s my pleasure to share a cool photography project documenting high school football by my good friend and fellow Sony Artisan Paul Gero. I’ve known Paul since we met in lovely Port-au-Prince, Haiti back in the 80s but these days Paul makes his living as a portrait and wedding photographer in my old stomping grounds Orange County California also known as The OC. You should hear about the project from Paul himself so I asked him a few questions about it and here’s what he had to say.

Q: How did you decide to shoot a project on high school football?

I have wanted to do this project since I first saw the book “Friday Night Lights” by Buzz Bissinger in 1990.

Rob Clark’s moody b & w photographs in that book really grabbed me and I loved the concept of a behind-the-scenes look at a team. Then that book was made into a movie and then later still a television show. Each time it always gave me that reminding nudge about wanting to do it.

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Our mutual friend Ken Jarecke did a wonderful project on Nebraska football following the team on their last year in the Big 12 before going to the Big 10. I thought the concept and the photography and the book was brilliant.

So all of these things are in the back of my mind as well as every fall when I was in newspapers I would think about this project and then not do it.

But last year was different.

The head coach of the Tesoro H.S. (where our kids will go in a few more years) is a friend. His daughter and my daughter play on the same AYSO Extra soccer team. I casually suggested to Matt one day, “Would you ever consider a behind the scenes, year in the life documentary project on Tesoro?”.

Instantly he responded yes, and we met a week later and I shared with him some of the books that were my inspiration. He said yes again at the meeting and the project was on.

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Q: Most people probably associate you with your portrait photography. Did you choose this project as a way to show off other skills or simply to keep things fresh?

I simply love photographing sports. It was one of the first things I photographed when I was a kid starting out (back in Columbus, WI) and I loved it when I was in newspapers (and missed it tremendously when I was photographing mostly politicians). It’s a technical challenge as well as an artistic and aesthetic challenge – the art of freezing peak action that tells a story is one of those challenges.

Also I enjoyed playing sports as a kid (and now) and I think that really helps with making better photographs of a game. The better you know it, the better you can anticipate.

I had a couple of ideas for this project – 1) I wanted to create a coffee-table book 2) and I wanted to create a video. Since I was new with Sony I wanted to use the cameras to do everything. It gave me a real project that would force me to learn new things in an environment that would give me room to learn and fail (at times).

It was the perfect way to really learn new skills.

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Q: Lots of photographers choose a project that involves travel to an exotic location, how did it help you to work on a project so close to home?

I’ve always believed that wherever people gather, there’s the potential for great photographs”¦so great photographs are wherever you find them even close to home. I also didn’t have unlimited funds to do the project – so this made it easier because I merely invested my time and didn’t spend a fortune on travel, hotels, etc. It’s funny, as I get older I find the projects I want to make are in my own backyard (like this and documenting my family as they grow up) and less around the world (as was the case when I was starting out)

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Q: How early did you show up on game days?

For home games, I would typically show up around 2-3 PM for a 7:00 PM start. The team would go through meetings and drills and there were some really quiet moments captured while athletes were preparing for the game.

For away games, I would leave with the team on their bus, often as early as 1:30 PM (to beat traffic). It made for some long days, but it was exactly how I wanted to do a project like this.

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As a documentary photographer, it’s all about access (and it’s one of the reasons I love weddings – people give you access to them for a long stretch of time on their day) and I was given a real gift in that by Matt, the coaches, the players and their families. Having access to the pre-game speeches and planning, as well as the half time speeches and post game speeches really gives you great audio clips and video plus a real insight to the team.

Last year when the team lost in the playoffs on the last play of the game (followed by a point after that gave them the win with no time left), I was heartbroken. This team had become my team in a way.

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Q: Did you shoot practices in addition to the games?

I did in the summer during camps because that was the dog days of training camp. It also made for some great photographs when the kids were charging up the hill on Day 2 of training camp. That had to hurt! I also photographed a passing league game as well as riding to the team up to LA for the Nike Football Festival at LA Live (they won the event!) and it was fun to see these youngsters excited and wide-eyes at the experience.

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Q: I understand this is the first time you shot video of sports action. What did you learn from that?

I learned quite a lot. One of the main reasons I switched to Sony was in the ease of shooting video and though it’s easy to shoot it that doesn’t necessarily make it good :-). But the physical and technical aspects of shooting video are infinitely easier than using DSLR. While I could have done this project with my previous DSLR it would’ve been difficult because those cameras do not have an Electronic View Finder – they are optical. Shooting video with the Sony’s can literally be a one button operation. By the end of the season my stability was much better when shooting video and I also had a much better sense of when to roll on video and when to shoot stills. It was tricky at the start of the season because it was so new. That was one of the reasons I wanted to push my barriers and do this in both stills and video – I knew the only way to grow is to force myself to do it.

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Q: What gear did you use for this project and did you use the same gear for stills and video?

Yes, I used the Sony a6000 and the Sony a7 last year for the project for both stills and video. Additionally I used the 70-200 f4 G OSS, 24-70 f4 FE Zeiss, 35 2.8 FE Zeiss, 10-18mm f4 and occasionally the 55 1.8 Zeiss. The 35 and the 70-200 were my mainstays by the end of the season. I also used the Sony ECM-XYST1M stereo microphone on the a6000 and it worked pretty well. It’s not quite as controllable with audio on the a6000 as it is on the a7 series cameras but I was able to record video with decent audio using this set-up. In fact the audio portion of the video used the a6000 and this small Sony mike.

At first it was odd having microphones on top of my cameras – not something we typically did back in the newspaper days! But this is the age of hybrid photography/videography and audio is a key component. Still photographers probably looked at me funny and some videographers came up to me asking me if I was shooting video with those cameras? These cameras have unique gifts and allow for a real change to the conventional way of photo coverage.

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Q: There seems to be a lot of mis-perceptions regarding the ability to shoot night football with a F4 lens. Did the results surprise you?

Yes, especially my own. Normally I would’ve been using a 70-200 f2.8 or longer but I was limited in both selection and budget to the 70-200 f4G OSS. It proved to be an incredible lens – tack sharp at maximum aperture – and I was surprised at the color and quality of the files of the a6000, even at ISO 6400 and beyond. There was some noise, but I reduced that with the noise reduction filter in Lightroom and I was impressed with the richness of the color. 6400 ISO is now the new 800 ISO!

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Q: How did you market the project at the end of the season?

After the season was over I produced a coffee table, fine art book in 3 versions: softcover, hardcover and a special edition hardcover. I used Blurb to print all the books.

Photo of A Season With the Titans Book

The goal of the project though was not to necessarily create a revenue stream from the books, I really wanted to create a book that I had always wanted to create – with few limitations – and I was able to do that with this project.

On the night of the football team’s banquet I debuted the video before about 300 people and it was an amazing experience for me. Ironically as proud as I am of the book, there’s a side of me that was even more proud of the video – perhaps because it’s something so new and unique from what I’ve done. It forced me to learn new skills and forced me to go outside of my comfort zone and that can be frightening at any age.

It also gave me real insight and appreciate to the power of video and also the power of hybrid storytelling.

This is the first time in the nearly 40 years since I began as a photographer that real story telling is able to be done so completely with very simple (and the same) tools.

This is somewhat destructive technology but in that chaos are the seeds of great opportunity. I don’t know how or why but I believe that the way I worked this project will be eventually how I earn my living as a hybrid storyteller.

This year though I will offer the book in two formats – one softcover and one hardcover. I’ll reduce my cost to produce the softcover book in an effort to sell more of them. I will also have several dozen copies with me on the night of the team banquet to hopefully increase sales. I also hope to show the video this year at the banquet, so there’s a lot of work, but I learned so much from last year, that I anticipate the post production times to be far less involved.

Photo of A Season With the Titans Book

Q: Would you do it again?

I would and I am (much to my wife’s chagrin!)

I’ve already started documenting the team this year though I spent just a few hours with them during summer camp as opposed to much more last year. I’m using this year to create a better book and a better video.

I’ve upgraded the equipment and want to use it as a testing ground for both stills and video. This year I’m using the Sony a7R II and a7 II as well as different lenses: FE 35 1.4 Zeiss, Zeiss 85 1.8 Batis, FE 16-35 f4 Zeiss and I’m using the 70-200 f4 G OSS as well as the Sony A-mount 70-200 f2.8 G SSM II with the LA-EA3 adapter.

While I love the a6000, I’m really trying to learn and push the limits on the a7R II and the a7 II and see how they perform in sports and video, especially shooting at higher ISOs. I’ve been incredibly impressed with how well the camera is working and the added resolution for stills is simply amazing.

The fun part of this year is trying to see things in a new and different way and to push myself even further than before. I’m wanting to add more video to the mix too and that means pushing that aspect as well. It’s fun and it gets me excited to shoot on a Friday evening. I never know quite what is going to happen though it always turns out better than I can expect.

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Q: How can people see more of your work and follow you on social media?

They can check out my website paulfgero.com and blog or follow me on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook and I’m in the process of creating and launching a new site geared at training for photographers: gerophotoworkshop.com

Paul Gero’s Gear List for ‘Friday Night Lights’ 2014

Sony a6000 mirrorless camera
Sony a7 mirrorless camera
Sony 70-200mm fF4 G OSS lens
Sony 24-70mm F4 FE Zeiss lens
Sony 35mm F2.8 FE Zeiss lens
Sony 10-18mm F4 OSS G lens
Sony 55mm F1.8 Zeiss lens
Sony ECM-XYST1M stereo microphone

Paul Gero’s Gear List for ‘Friday Night Lights’ 2015

Sony a7R II mirrorless camera
Sony a7 II mirrorless camera
Sony FE 16-35mm F4 Zeiss lens
Sony FE 35mm F1.4 Zeiss lens
Zeiss 85mm F1.8 Batis lens
Sony 70-200mm fF4 G OSS lens
Sony 70-200mm F2.8 G SSM II A-mount lens + Sony LA-EA3 adapter

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