Full-Coverage Sports

by Dave Good

Mark J. Rebilas

October 16, 2012

To the many fans of his weekly photo blog (markjrebilas.com/blog), Mark Rebilas is a funny and often self-effacing sports photographer. 

Case in point, a post he made on August 11, 2012, as he wound down from two weeks of covering the XXX Olympics (the second summer Olympics of his career).

“On my last day of shooting the London Olympics I would be assigned to cover the Men’s Race Walk that began at 9 a.m. Following a long day and late night at Taekwondo, I was not exactly thrilled about the shoot. With it being my last day of work in London, I arrived at the venue about thirty minutes prior to the start and gave the photo positions and available angles a quick glance. ‘I can work with this,’ is what I would say to myself in my head. Doesn’t matter that race-walking makes as much sense as a ‘who can whisper the loudest’ contest. I wanted my last day of the Olympics to be filled with cool photos…”

A bonus for readers of his blog is that Phoenix-based Rebilas is always generous with the inner workings of how he gets the shots that make him one of the most in-demand sports shooters in the business. But if you should chance to catch up with him one day at a drag strip or on the sidelines at a game, don’t be surprised if he’s angry.  

“I get myself in a bad mood before a shoot,” the 31-year-old photographer admits. “It’s one of my things. I can’t explain it, but I try and get myself as pissed off as possible. It totally works for me. You may see me walking around on the field a couple hours before a game, pacing around, looking down at the ground. I’m just trying to get angry, to get in my zone. If I’m all happy and talking to other photographers, I’m not going to get my job done.”

In an industry where every angle has been exploited to a point well beyond over-saturation, Rebilas still manages to produce arresting images—dragsters exploding at the top end of the track; a Thunder boat disintegrating before viewers’ eyes; major league home runs being shot from the top down. A former Navy photojournalist, his awards include a first place win in the 2002 Military Photographer of the Year contest, 2003 Navy Photographer of the Year, 2005 Pro Football Hall of Fame contest first place, 2008 SportsShooter.com Photographer of the Year, two-time National Motorsports Press Association Photographer of the Year, and NPPA Best of Pictures Sports Photojournalist of the Year in 2009. 

“I’ve always worked to produce images that are different than everyone else,” says Rebilas of his body of work. “At a big sporting event, you’re going to have 50 to 100 photographers there. If I see a bunch of photographers standing in one spot, I’m going to do everything in my power to go somewhere else, even if they’re in the preferred spot. Differentiating yourself from your colleagues can really get your name out there.”

Rebilas, it turns out, grew up in photography. “My dad’s a motorsports photographer. Since the age of ten, I’ve been traveling around the country with him as he covered various auto racing events. Back in the film days, he would put me on top of a motor home or in the grandstand with a camera with the focus ring taped so I couldn’t move it. He’d tell me, if somebody crashes, push the button. That’s how I started.” He laughs. “I blame my dad for my obsession with car crashes.”

Admittedly, there’s something about a race car or speedboat crash caught right at the apogee of the big bang that borders on mesmerizing. “Nobody wants to see people getting hurt out there,” Rebilas says, “but crashes are definitely a big appeal to auto racing. Even the drivers know that. A lot of times I’ll set up in a place where I’ll get a crash shot [due to the risk of danger, he often uses remote-triggered cameras] because I know that’s the shot that’s going to sell.”

“Sell” is a key word in Rebilas’ work vocabulary. He is relentless about looking for images that he knows will sell not only now, but possibly later. “Remember when Plaxico Burress [the NFL player] accidentally shot himself? He ended up going to prison after that. Just by dumb luck, I was at the last game that he played in before all this went down. He wasn’t really even playing, he was kind of on the sidelines. And I got a picture of him reacting to something. He may have been scratching his head for all I know, but the photo makes it look like he’s down and sad. Well, that photo ran all the time while he was in prison.”

How, you may ask, could Rebilas have known that the Burress image would make him coin down the road? He didn’t. He doesn’t carry a crystal ball, but experience tells him that it’s not only the hero shots that can make a photographer residual income after the fact. “When I’m shooting an athlete, I’m trying to get as many expressions as possible because you never know how they’re going to become a story.” Take Tiger Woods, for example. “I’ve got some pictures of him looking sad, and those have run over the course of the last few years with all of the things going on in his life.”

Otherwise, shooting sports is a constant grind where immediacy is often the only currency an image may have. “Say a guy wins a golf tournament and he’s celebrating. The first [shooter] who gets that celebration photo up on the wire is going to get paid,” Rebilas says. “All these newspapers, magazines and websites these days have an editor just sitting there with a bunch of different wire service shots sent from that event. Whoever gets that image up first, in most cases, gets the download and makes the money off of that. Speed is the name of the game.” 

To get that speed, Rebilas is seriously considering moving toward the new generation of DSLRs that are Wi-Fi equipped, but for now he carries a laptop in his backpack, or he’ll set it up in an event’s media center and run back and forth. 

Another part in the operation of a successful sports photography business, Rebilas says, is careful and aggressive rights management. “I own my images. I’m constantly working to build up my archives, because one day, I envision them making me money. There are photographers that make money from images taken 20 or 30 years ago.” But fewer photographers, he says, own their images these days. In many cases, they enter into work-for-hire agreements with wire services and magazines, and the images are owned by them. “The first couple of days after an event, that’s when you’re going to make the bulk of your sales. And then it tapers down. But then in a few years, when these people are retiring, or if one of them gets a DUI? I make sales off headshots of those people.” But you have to own the rights.

He makes it sound easy, but Rebilas admits that shooting pro sports is a time-consuming career path in which skills are only part of the job description: “You can be a great photographer and never make a penny in this business.” To that end, he puts a lot of time into marketing; spending six to eight hours per week on his blog. “There’s no easy way to do it,” he explains. “It takes a lot of time, and with the sheer amount of events I cover I have no time to be doing the blogs, really. I force myself to do them because it’s something that I really feel helps me get my name out there. I can’t attribute too many specific clients or photo sales to stuff being in the blog, but everywhere I go on assignment, people come up and say they love my blog and my work. That’s helping my branding. That’s getting my name out there.”  

Rebilas says he writes his blog with a specific audience in mind, and for good reason. “Mine’s more directed to the amateurs, people who are into photography, but that’s not their job. There’s a whole lot more of those than there are professionals that want to look at other photographer’s work.” 

Naturally, it follows that Rebilas is most often asked how to turn pro. “There used to be a path to getting into this field,” he says. “You’d take photography in high school and go to college and get a photo degree. You’d get an internship and end up working for a newspaper.” But that route, he says, is completely gone. “It’s next to impossible to do it that way these days because newspapers don’t have staff. They’ve realized that it’s a lot cheaper to hire freelancers. Everything is upside down in this industry.” 

Rebilas says the best training is to shoot a lot of sporting events, compare your work to the pros in magazines and elsewhere, and to keep working at it until the image results are not only consistent and excellent, but different from the pack. He talks about having to prove himself every time he shoots. “Yeah, I’ve got a kick-ass portfolio, but I can’t live off the past. I thought I was hot ten years ago,” he says. “Now, when I look at those images, I think, ‘Man, did I suck back then.’ It’s all about learning,” he says. “No matter how good you get, you can always get better.”

But before that first frame is shot, Rebilas has to go to his zone. “When I have a girlfriend, they hate it right before a big game because they know I’m going to be in a pissed-off mood. They don’t want to be around me before a shoot. Maybe I have issues, but it works for me.”

What’s In Mark’s Gear Bag?

Cameras 

• 1 Nikon D3s, 2 D700s, 

1 D4, 2 D800s  

Lenses

• 600mm f/4

• 400mm f/2.8

• 70-200mm f/2.8

• 24-70mm f/2.8

• 10.5mm fisheye

• 14-24mm 

• 1.4 converter

Flash

• SB-800, SB-900

Miscellaneous

• Macbook Pro Retina 

• Photoshop CS6 

• Photo Mechanic

Dave Good is an award-winning journalist, author and occasional photographer based in La Mesa, CA. He writes about music, pop culture and American life for LA Weekly, OC Weekly and more, and is currently at work on his second book.  

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