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I Learned to Take Photos of Tiny Things by Doing Sports Photography

by Cynthia L Fortner about a year ago in editing
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Bees move more unpredictably than linebackers, frankly. However, both require speed and agility—from the photographer, that is, in order to get the shot.

Bee on Emerging Echinacea Cone in My Garden, July 2, 2020; omniscient photo in-situ

I love to take photos of bees. I work to support them with flowers specifically planted to attract bees into and around my yard. Last year, I documented 7 different species of bees on my Echinacea flowers (aka cone flowers) in 1 afternoon alone. The medium-sized bee in my photo above is not enlarged as I simply took the shot a few inches above the feasting bee. These nerves of steel I gained from sports photography. More on my sports-photography venture in a moment, as I'm on flight with my bees.

In early Spring--in other words, right now, bees are delighting in the emerging arrival of yellow-pollen-laden catkins on the branches of the miniature willow placed just outside my front door in a huge terracotta planter. My first bee on a catkin arrived just a few days ago. Five days prior, the bees and I were battling snow. My willow was covered to protect it from freezing temperatures, the warmth of which produced the early blooms and this bee's delectable meal.

Bee on a Willow Catkin, March 7, 2021; photo in-situ with 1.4 enlargement

Yes, I captured this bee (and the earlier one) in an in-situ photo, meaning that my prep of where and how I position my body as photographer, focus, depth of field, angle, background choice, and so on are all done rapidly in advance. Bees don't generally hang around for long! The narrow depth of field depends upon how close I am to my bee, which, in this case is about 3 inches. Any enlargement happens before I take the shot, so I am checking stats, and focus, in my screen information as I set up the angle. And it all happens really quickly!

This bee photo appears exactly as I took it. I love the bare branches with emerging catkins and the reveal of last-year's leaves on the planter's surface dirt. All this exists in contrast to the life-affirming bee, with its belly covered in yellow pollen, on a pollen-emerging catkin.

My photographer's eye often looks for juxtapositions like these, not only within a single photo, but also between photo subjects during a single shooting session, as evidenced below.

Pink Catkin Chapeau Pre-Pollen Emergence, March 7, 2021; photo in-situ with 2.1 enlargement

This extremely narrow depth of field I achieved with a camera placement about 1.5 inches away from this beautifully furry subject. I had no idea catkins emerged with pink hues, until this shot. The angle reminded me of presenting an elegant British fascinator about to be worn at a fancy Spring event that is still resting on its hat stand. Thus to emphasize its filigreed features and freshness, I angled, bent, and crouched for a green soft background.

My camera now is my smart phone, presently a Samsung Galaxy J3 Achieve, which affords me the opportunity to place its seeing camera-eye in tight spaces, often between branches and flowers. I have learned its workings, like flicking the screen with 2 fingers in order to get an instant enlargement before taking the photo. This is my editing; it's fast; it's in the moment; it's intuitive! But with moving subjects like bees, everything has to be done so very fast, just as with football sometimes!

Moreover, a helpful neat feature is I am able to position a shutter dot on the phone screen for best finger-tapping in order to take that fast shot! Bees are vital creatures to our planet, and I delight in sharing my plants with them. They give back great photo opportunities, but my photography journey did not start with bees.


My football photography days began a few decades ago, we'll say, when I often worked with 3 different SLRs, each sporting different lenses, but 2 with color film and the other with black-and-white. I would roll at least 300 shots of film from huge reels into the SLR pop-in canisters--the type we all have bought holding 12-to-36 shots. I got trained in rapidly attaching the film from the canister onto the winder, advancing it, shutting the camera's back, then taking a few shots to advance the film to its first unexposed frame. It became a race against time. Changing a film canister was not an excuse for missing a shot.

This prep took place in the basement darkroom of an old building on the University campus where I earned my B.A and M.A. Degrees (interestingly in English and Psychology). This building no longer exists. Rumor has it that the cockroaches had gotten too big to contend with in the darkroom. They weren't any problem to me, but were big. I had been warned not to step on any or who knew what else the others might do to me! It was darkroom humor, and I was sad to see the building demolished.

I had taken several community classes first on how to use the lenses and different SLR cameras. After doing some very public portrait work of graduating music students on campus, I got tapped by the yearbook team to do some photography at sporting events.

At one specific football game, I learned to be a photographer. In hindsight, I see it as a glorious juxtaposition of music to muscles. Sitting subjects that don't move--like musical instruments with the seated musician, controlled light, followed by shading and burning techniques in the darkroom, are how I learned to manipulate the camera-to-print process. But that wasn't all there was to the photography game at all.

Football players move. My University had a total enrollment of about 5,000 students back then. This particular sporting event was an away game at a University with 75,000 rabid, screaming, face-painted, mascot-hat-wearing fans populating the stands. I was the only woman photographer on the sidelines. Frankly, I was the only woman on the field, period.

But there I was proudly with my press pass dangling between 3 SLRs, and with extra film canisters in a fanny pack. I quickly learned the ropes from a sideline photographers' coach who was anything but subtle. I remember him shouting at us that we would be removed from the field if we didn't follow the rotation guidelines or disregarded the chalked-lines on the grass where we were allowed to stand. This was for our safety, about which I would learn first-hand right before halftime. The coach continued his bellowing: "And we have a lady in the ranks so there will be no hands, no elbowing, and no pushing. Got it?"

I liked him.

I was put last in the rotation by the other photographers (imagine that!), many who had come from major news agencies, but the beginning of the game was pretty much each team testing out their offensive and defensive positions and players. It was even a little boring. So I got used to the sunlight through all my lenses, played with aperture, spotted depth of field by testing out points on the literal football field, and took some grateful shots of the hopeful fans from my University situated in 1 section of this huge outdoor arena. They gleefully cheered and applauded me as I took their photos in the opening 5-to-6 minutes of the game. Then it was my turn in the photographer box.


The coach stood right beside me, and stated in his lovely Southern drawl, "Ma'am, they're gonna throw. Don't let anything hit you. Get out of the way if that ball comes this direction. Since it is your first time up, I will spot you. If I say move, you move, ok?" I nodded, eye through the viewfinder.

I had already practiced the photographer's secret of setting up shots in advance with each camera. I put quick pressure on the auto shutter. I was taking risky chances getting my job done, capturing the action as the only woman photographer in a male-dominated and very aggressive field. And I was agile. A Linebacker later in this game and the lovely sideline coach taught me the importance of agility.

Then, the ball snapped; I hit the auto shutter, alternated between my three cameras with different lenses and film, while situated on one knee. It was a short lob, but I got the ball in flight with receiver's upstretched hands because I positioned myself on a lower plane looking up. Rabid fans in the background were capped by a glorious sky. I had a trick of not having to look through the viewfinder as I changed cameras. I used muscle memory to get the next camera in place and just kept pressing on that auto shutter.

Incidentally, several of my color photos were bought by the AP. Their photographers had run out of color film early in the game, but I was prepared. The University owned the rights to the photos, so the only copies I know of are in old newspapers or in a couple of near-antique college yearbooks. I wish I knew where the negatives were, especially after we processed them in the cockroach darkroom and pulled some spectacular prints. I was young and having fun. Braving the cockroaches was only a part of the thrill of getting that perfect shot while in the photographer's box on the sidelines.

Each play was over so fast! We rotated after each one, generally. The coach announced to the rest of the crew, "She knows what she's doing! Good job!" So I got a little braver. I held up a camera over the heads of the other photographers when their turns were up front. Not many of them kneeled or crouched. I walked the sidelines looking for interesting gems, like the players moving away from me so I could get the run back for a pass. I had some long lenses so I planked on the grass distant from the action just to see what would happen. I shot some good Quarterback action, got grass stain on my elbows, and raised the blood pressure of the line coach, indeed.


My starring moment came right before half-time: 4th down and not quite a goal-line stand about 20 yards out. My University team was loosing, but the other team wanted a touchdown, not a field goal. Jockeying was happening in the photographer's box at the goal line. However, as they were all earsplittingly reminded by the gentlemanly line coach, it was my turn. The other photographers had to acquiesce. The clock was the enemy, and the ball had to score or get out of bounds on the sidelines to stop it.

I positioned myself in an instant (football players do not wait for photographers) on one knee with my favorite camera and lens in hand, shooting color film. It was a lighter lens, important if I had to move fast, but with great resolution. Aperture was already set. Ball snapped. They were running it.

Linebackers are big, I mean Big, and they get Bigger in the viewfinder the closer they get. This guy was like a Mack Truck filling my field of vision; incomprehensible cheering and yelling was happening all around. In a flash, it dawned on me that I was in his direct path. He was stopping the clock as my team's Defense was pushing him to the sidelines.

My auto shutter was still taking photos as I did a push-off sideways roll and just kept rolling to get out of this Giant's trajectory. I wasn't hit, thankfully.

The crowd was going wild; the volume was above crescendo! The clock was stopped with seconds on it. First down attained and goal just inches away!

The Linebacker lifted me up off the grass back onto my feet with a, "You alright, Ma'am?" "Never better! I know I got great shots of you," I replied, with adrenalin pumping, oblivious to the athletic agility I had just demonstrated.

Immediately over the loudspeaker, the newscaster recapping the play added to whatever else he'd been saying: "...and Wasn't That a Great Move By The Laaaay-Deee Pho-Tog-Ra-Pher!" I can still hear how he emphasized each word in the excited way announcers do. He continued, "Come On Out and Take a Bow!" So I did, led by the near-apoplectic line coach onto the actual football field, to rapturous applause!


I thought of my sports-photographer's moment the day before bees arrived at my catkins. I have been living a life tested by endurance these past few years. A surprise snowstorm from the previous week had finally melted after blowing in snow drifts, and along with the blizzard came some plastic debris. While picking up these undesirables, I found hidden a football-shaped black-walnut husk buried in leaves by squirrels, but uneaten. Intact, this husk had a tiny thread of moss growing on it.

Black Walnut with Moss, March 6, 2021; photo cropped; no enlargement at time of photo

I waited for full sun to peak out from behind cotton-ball clouds. I knew this was a one-shot deal because my mossy little gem was situated beneath an ancient thorny rose bush. I didn't want to kneel on soggy ground, or get cut by thorns, so I crouched and twisted to get the angle right without blocking the sunlight.

Again, I focused on a very narrow depth of field, as the original image indicates further. However, I was a good 8-to-10 inches away from my subject in a nearly-omniscient, uncomfortable pose. In order to tap my screen to take the photo, I had to wrap my hand around a thorny branch, but I was used to being agile in a variety of photographer situations.

Black Walnut with Moss; March 6, 2021; uncropped photo

By tapping the photo itself stored in my phone, the editing screen appears, which includes a pencil as an editing feature. Tapping the pencil brings up a cropping grid, options to rotate the image, and an icon to flip its orientation from right to left, among a few other editing features.

I just used the cropping feature to tighten up the frame on all sides. Only then did I notice the shine from moisture remaining on an upper segment of the moss toward the top-center-right of the cropped image. I had not realized the moisture's presence before in the original. I love editing with both images and writing. Moreover, I find both especially delightful when the editing, whether before or after--and with agility, quick thinking, an eye for composition, predetermined techniques, knowledge of the equipment and the subject, a focus on the setting, intuitive framing, and confidence-- brings minute treasures to light and to life.


I am cheered on by my sports photography memories as I have spent parts of the last decade recovering from surgeries to my hands, legs, and hip following a car accident. All agility to me is testament to the vibrant spirit that exists in us and in our natural world, whether a smarm of bees, or a swarm of football players. It is all action and image present for me to capture as a photographer and writer. I just have to get out there and see possibilities as I regain my mobility.

So I have spent my recovery time taking photos with my phone, writing about my memories, and seeing beauty in the smallest of things as I challenge my agility. I am doing pretty well too. So here I am.

Self Portrait, January 9, 2020; photo in-situ, edited to black and white

I don't want to include here the color image from which I edited this photo in my phone to black and white. There is magic in what black-and-white film and images can reveal or intentionally not reveal. Thus, again, in the editing mode, I tapped the pencil but selected the orientation feature to flip the portrait's gaze from looking left to looking right. Next I explored the filters and selected this black-and-white application.

I normally represent myself in social media by a flower icon. My endurance has really been hiding behind this flower while I have been recovering from my injuries. Like many of my other Nature photos and photo memories of that football game, my photographs are in-situ, just as I shot them, just as they are, or at least as I see and frame them, but with all their captured energy and beauty! Photography flourishes in unpredictability and agile courage to take that shot quickly before it disappears into subtle memory.

Tiny Onion Bulb Blossom, May 7, 2016; photo in-situ

By the way, I have never been stung by any of my bees.



About the author

Cynthia L Fortner

I like words, their etymologies, as meaning comes from memories, histories, that little internal voice, barely a birdy chirp. Words are a performance of meaning psychologically. So, I like memoirs, writing them, birds, flowers, and seasons.

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