Fish Out of Water

By Eric Hanauer

2000-03 Fish Out of Water 2000-03 Fish Out of Water By Eric Hanauer Underwater photographers often indulge in self pity, whining about the complexity, the expense and the hassles of dragging heavy, bulky, expensive gear through airports, on boats and underwater. David Doubilet once stated that if anything would end his career, it would be the schlep factor. And he’s got the resources of National Geographic behind him, so what chance does the poor freelancer or amateur have?

Before complaining too much, we need to examine the burdens of photographers in other fields. I recently had an opportunity to do just that, experiencing a different aspect of the profession while posing as a sports photographer during a Cubs game at Wrigley Field.

An old high school buddy, Ted Butterman, leader of the Cubs’ Jazz Band, introduced me to Steve Green, the team’s photographer. To divers, being a professional underwater shooter may sound like the best job in the world; to sports fans who are into photography, Steve’s job would also qualify. Not only does he shoot all the Cubs’ games from field level, he also does freelance work for major magazines such as Sports Illustrated, and for the baseball card companies.

Steve arranged a field pass for a night game against the Milwaukee Brewers. The surprise factor was that he is also a diver, so we were able to compare notes on our lines of work.

Photographers are stationed next to the dugout at Wrigley Field, some 120 feet away from home plate. You’ve probably seen the arsenal of long lenses out there, looking like so many bazookas trained on the players. They are reverently nicknamed “big glass” by people who use them, primarily sports and nature photographers. Most of these lenses range from 400mm-600mm.

I rented a 400mm 2.8 Nikkor lens, and didn’t realize how big it was until hefting its huge carrying case, nearly the size of a standard suitcase. It barely fit into the airplane’s overhead compartment. Security checked it out at every stop, suspicious that I was trying to smuggle a rocket launcher on board. The lens costs $7,000, about as much as my camera, lens, underwater housing, strobes and arms combined.

By June, the Cubs’ season had begun the death spiral that would eventually conclude with an agonizing crash into last place. But with Sammy Sosa hitting home runs ahead of the previous year’s record pace, the stands were jammed.

Before the game I was thrilled to walk on the perfect green grass, mingling with baseball stars who had previously looked like toy soldiers from the far reaches of the nosebleed seats.

Once the game began, Steve and I had a chance to talk. His wife, Lisa, had been a divemaster in Thailand and the Philippines. She had just returned from her adventures in Asia when they met at Wrigley Field. In the course of the conversation, Steve mentioned how he had always wanted to learn to dive, and Lisa encouraged him to do it. He took the course in Chicago and did the open water work in Cozumel. That was five years ago.

Their honeymoon was spent in Grand Cayman, and led to Steve’s most memorable dive. “The first night dive there was awesome, seeing the phosphorescence in the water, the creatures that come out, the lobsters and the squid. But being kissed underwater that night was the best part.
They go diving at least once a year, and Steve recently tried his hand at U/W photography. “In Bonaire, I met the guy who had the photo concession at Sand Dollar. He loaned me gear and I went with him a couple of times. I also went with David Cubbin, an instructor on a Grand Cayman boat. We talked about technique and buoyancy, all the factors that come into it, as well as taking a picture.”

I asked Steve for some samples of his underwater photography to illustrate this article, but he declined, saying he still felt like a beginner underwater. I sympathized with his feelings, because shooting a baseball game with big glass made me feel like a fish out of water. With the big, heavy lens mounted on a monopod, and restricted to the photographer’s well, I yearned for the freedom and mobility of water. I felt like a distant observer instead of a participant who could, to a degree, make things happen. Fast action like a close play at second base or an infielder making a running catch was impossible for me to capture, even with fast autofocus. I watched the veteran photographers shoot those plays manually, but felt as frustrated as a novice underwater trying to master a 15mm lens and dual strobes. My greatest success came with subjects that stayed in the same plane, such as batters swinging and pitchers pitching.

The game began at twilight, and soon the fading light level was too low for ordinary film. Eventually I had to switch from Kodak E200 to Fujichrome 1600, pushed to 3200 to maintain a semblance of shutter speeds fast enough to catch a hitter’s swing. The resulting images were grainy and contrasty, but better than no images at all.

Steve suggested watching the batters’ hips to tell when they were about to swing. I was lucky enough to capture Sammy’s 29th and 30th home runs, on his way to 60 plus for a second straight year. The night game was a blowout for the Brewers, but the fans didn’t stream for the exits until after Sosa’s final trip to the plate.

A couple of the press photographers were using digital cameras. I watched awestruck as they downloaded the images to laptop computers, Photoshopped them on the spot and e-mailed them back to their newspapers. I wondered how long it would take before we would be doing that underwater.

Steve and I spent some time comparing our photographic specialties. He said, “I think it’s similar in that it’s all about how to capture light. What I do above water is all about speed and distance. I capture a specific moment, taking a bunch of chaos and try to put it in a predictable situation, so that when a good event happens in front of me I’m ready for it. There’s light and athletes in motion...all these different factors.

“Underwater you try to get yourself as close as possible to the subject; above water I use my lens to get as close as possible. A 400mm is the shortest lens I use. Underwater everything is like a 15mm or a 28mm. It takes a lot of patience so you don’t spook the fish. You have to stop the motion so much with strobes and create the light. In my work I have to find the light—that’s a huge difference.”

I asked Steve how he got to be the Cubs’ photographer. Working on an M.F.A. at the Art Institute of Chicago, his thesis was about Wrigley Field as a place in American culture. “I loved the ballpark, was enamored of baseball and a Cubs fan. This was 1981, a low point in Cubs history, right after the strike. That was the year the [Chicago] Tribune bought the Cubs. It was pure serendipity that I happened to be there when a media corporation bought the team. They realized the need for a photographer. They liked me and I liked them, and it just worked.”

My baseball photos from that night are very exciting to me, but compared to Steve’s they are mundane and ordinary, like a beginner’s extension tube efforts compared to a pro’s spectacular wide-angle shots. His advice: “So often in baseball nothing happens, but you’ve got to be ready for the moment.” That’s good advice for underwater shooters as well.