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Rick Maiman: Acing the Tennis Shot at the U.S. Open

Andy Roddick, U.S. Open, ©2007 Rick Maiman

Freelance photographer Rick Maiman doesn’t play tennis nor is he a particularly dedicated sports fan, but you wouldn’t know it when he starts talking about the U.S. Open. He’s been capturing images of the Grand Dame of tennis for most of his 25-plus year career, and while he admits “I’m not a tennis player and I’m not a particularly strong sports devotee,” he qualifies that with, “But when I’m courtside watching and photographing tennis, it can be electrifying. I have seen some things there that I’ll always remember.”

Andy Roddick pumps in the third set of his match after winning a point against his good friend and fellow American opponent Justin Gimelstob in the U.S. Open. ©2007 Rick Maiman

He first started shooting the U.S. Open when he worked for Sygma, a photo agency based in France, which was one of the “big three” agencies in the world at the time. Everyone shot slide film, and Maiman remembers rushing “out of the stadium to meet the driver who would take the film to JFK and put it on a plane to Paris, where it would be processed and looked at by the photo editors the next morning.” Digital, of course, has changed all that and while digital photography has its challenges, running out of the stadium to deliver your film isn’t one of them.

Venus Williams in action at the U.S. Open, held at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, New York. ©2007 Rick Maiman 

Digital Grand Slam Gear

Since 2000, Maiman switched to digital and, for the past 5 years has been photographing the U.S. Open for Bloomberg News.

Maiman has always used Canon cameras and lenses and comes to the U.S. Open equipped with a Canon EOS-1D, an EOS-1D Mark II and an older Mark I as a reserve. And, no surprise here, he has his eyes on the new Canon Mark III.

During the day, when there’s plenty of light, he’ll shoot with a Canon 28-300mm lens when he’s at courtside. He also uses a 300mm f/2.8 lens and converters or a 500mm f/4 for coverage when shooting from the photographer’s pit, located at the long end of the baseline.

Venus Williams, U.S. Open 2007, ©Rick MaimanShooting from the pit, Maiman says, is a “great place for getting reactions” at the far side of the court. “In the early days of Venus Williams’ career she wore cornrows with beads and when she served, the beads would fly forward and we would try to capture those beads in motion” since the movement helps communicate the feeling of action.

Serena Williams at the U.S. Open. ©2007 Rick Maiman

At night, when conditions change, he often uses an 80-200mm lens. But his favorite lens, which has been discontinued, is Canon’s 200m f/1.8, because of its extremely sharp optics and ability to deliver a shallow depth-of-field to blur the background and emphasize the subject. Maiman says he’d never give up his Canon 200mm f/1.8 lens, “unless they made a new version of it.”

In addition to his cameras and lenses, Maiman’s kit includes a monopod with a quick-release ballhead (all of his camera have quick-release plates), a flash (usually the Canon 220EX Speedlite) for postgame shots in the locker room or press room and plenty of Kingston media cards.

For media cards, Maiman packs a minimum of eight Kingston CompactFlash cards, including Kingston’s new CF Ultimate 266X speed cards. These are perfect for the action he shoots. The additional speed ensures that he maximizes the overall write speed of his cameras. This allows Maiman to literally shoot non-stop without having to wait for his memory cards to “catch-up” with the maximum write speed of his cameras. Given the increased performance of digital SLRs, having the extra speed makes a difference when you’re constantly filling the camera buffer and need it to write to the card quickly.  

Maiman also uses SD/SDHC cards for backup. Canon’s line of professional digital cameras have dual card slots (CF and SD or SDHC) that allow him to record to both formats simultaneously and create an “instant archive” of his images. Maiman says he rarely use cards smaller than 4GB and actually prefers 8GB cards so he doesn’t have to spread out the images over too many cards, preferring instead to shoot an entire match on one card so it’s coordinated from start to finish.

“When you’re shooting an assignment—especially sports where you don’t get a second chance—there’s no margin for error, which is why I use Kingston cards,” Maiman explains. "They are unquestionably reliable and simply don’t fail. Kingston [cards] work for me and I will never abandon them,” he says, adding that “you dance with the one that brung you.”


Justin Gimelstob returns to Andy Roddick in a night match in the U.S. Open on Tuesday, August 28, 2007. Gimelstob competed in his last appearance and is retiring to become a broadcaster. His good friend and opponent, Roddick won in three action-charged sets. ©2007 Rick Maiman

A Day in the Life

Maiman’s day usually starts at about 8:30 or 9:00 in the morning, and he sometimes doesn’t leave until after Midnight. If the play is really hectic, he might be there until 2 a.m. And he loves what he does so much that he wouldn’t have it any other way.

During the course of a day and evening, Maiman will shoot from the pit to get courtside shots or, during a break in the play, he may look in the stands to see which celebrities are watching the match. “I’ll never forget the time that Nicole Kidman showed up with Tom Cruise. I stood up on my pit row bench with a 300mm lens and two doublers [tele-converters] behind it and took the shot.”
 
But he doesn’t stay in the pit all day. He explains that, although some photographers don’t want to leave courtside. “As somebody who has to be a 'jack of all shots,' I want to break up the action. I want to expand the coverage. I want to give the editors more.” So he’ll take shots from different parts of the venue to mix it up. One place that’s a must is the mezzanine where he often shoots with a 400mm lens. That’s where he made a photograph of Pete Sampras kissing his racket in reaction to scoring a point.

Some of the toughest but most exciting shots include getting a tight shot of a serve, framing the player’s head, the racket just going down, the player’s contorted movement, and the ball in the air, coming off the strings of the racket.

Images that show emotion are also mission critical because it says a lot about the player’s demeanor at that moment. But not all players exhibit reactions like Serena and Venus Williams do, so getting a shot of someone like Roger Federer expressing emotion is “like seeing a white tiger in a jungle.”

Another tough, but important, shot is capturing a player falling or tripping. Or, as Maiman points out, “when they lay down on the court after a win. We’ve all had our hits and misses getting those types of pictures.”

While “you don’t go out and make a Pulitzer picture every day,” Maiman’s passion for his work comes from simply being a photographer. “All I’ve wanted to do in this business is work in it, I never thought about perks. I just wanted to be a working photographer and I’ve been allowed to live my dreams … I’ve never wanted to be in someone else’s shoes.” We should all be so fortunate.


Tennis Photography Tips:

1. Read your camera manual and know how to change the settings without thinking about it.

2. Make sure your batteries are charged and that your cards are reformatted in the camera. When I was shooting film, I took some of my greatest pictures—without film in the camera.

3. Make sure the lens and viewfinder are clean. If you have a digital SLR, clean the front and the rear element of the lenses and make sure your lens caps (both front and back) are dust-free.

4. Anticipate the action. Watch the players practice, whether they’re practicing for the U.S. Open or a local high school match. Know your subject; players are creatures of habit.

5. Capture the emotion and reaction. So much of tennis is reaction, which has made for some of the greatest moments, like when Jimmy Connors missed a point and rested his head on the racket.  

6. Don’t crowd your frame with too many elements; you don’t have to have everything in the frame. When possible, use the camera’s aperture-priority mode to decrease depth-of-field and blur the background to emphasize the main subject. Basically you want to set the lens aperture to f/2.8 or the smallest number (widest opening) on your lens to isolate your main subject from distracting backgrounds.

7. Don’t shoot everything horizontally, regardless of what you’re photographing. Vertical pictures in tennis are the standard.

8. Shoot from different angles. Get low to the ground or even shoot when the player has his or her back toward you.

9. Study tennis photos in the newspaper or online. Go to the U.S. Open Web site to study the images. Learn from them, imitate them. Once you’ve mastered that, then branch out to other types of shots and develop your style of shooting.

10. Use your camera’s audio clip function to attach a .wav file to the images so you’ll always have the correct caption information. I find this feature invaluable.