The NFL’s regular season kicks off tonight at 8:30 pm, and Sunday, when the Cardinals take on the Saints at home in Phoenix, another game kicks off on the sidelines. The game Cardinals chief photographer Gene Lower plays against himself.
“Football to me is the biggest chess match of any sport there is to photograph,” says Gene.
The longtime football fan (he played up through high school and now coaches his son’s team) landed his dream job shooting for the Cardinals 16 years ago, and he makes the most of every second of every game.
“I’m always trying to think ahead to what the next play might be,” says Gene. “My job is my passion.”
For Gene, every moment is an opportunity, and every great photo is a win. And since he travels with the team and gets to know the players, he has a unique feeling for what’s going on.
“I’ll be damned if somebody’s going to get a better photo than me,” he laughs.
Another Ball Game
Gene’s job as the Cardinals team photographer is totally different from the job of someone shooting for a magazine or a newspaper. Editorial photographers follow the ball. Gene follows the Cardinals from every angle.
“I consider myself not just a photographer but a historian,” says Gene.
He gets to the stadium early to shoot the tailgates, the pre-game show and the Kids Club Captain of the Game. Once the game starts, he has to shoot everything from signage (sponsor logos on the jumbotron with the game unfolding in the foreground), to check presentations and “Will you marry me?” messages. Gene is responsible for getting shots of every player on the team, whether they play the whole game or less than a minute.
“Then there’s cheerleaders, the fans, and oh, yeah, the action itself,” adds Gene.
On the field, he captures every moment from the Cardinals’ perspective, explaining, “my choices have to be made around the Cardinals, not a big moment in the game.”
Over the years, he’s learned strategies for how to get a great shot – even when it’s not the shot he had planned. For example, he shoots from the corner of the endzone, about five yards in, rather than the sideline. If the ref blocks his view of the touchdown, he can pivot to the bench and catch the coach fistpumping.
From the corner, he can cover the middle of the field…
…the coach on the sidelines…
…the far corner of the endzone…
…and the action happening right in front of him.
“One thing I pride myself on is always having the picture,” says Gene.
Why Technology Is a Game Changer
Gene was in the photography business for just two years before he started shooting for the Cardinals. How did he get the job? Cutting-edge technology. The Cardinals needed to post photos to the web fast, and Gene was shooting digital. His talent and processes combined to make him the right fit.
Using the latest technology gave Gene a boost early in his career, and he’s been committed to staying on top of technology ever since.
A few years later, after PhotoShelter revolutionized his own photography business, Gene brought the Cardinals on board as the first NFL team to have a PhotoShelter Libris account. Now, all of the Cardinals’ visual assets are stored, organized and shared on a cloud-based visual asset management platform.
Gene went from giving the organization two or three CDs (which were easily scratched or lost) from a game or press conference to uploading a huge folder of photos to the team’s easily searchable online library right after every event.
He used to get calls all the time from Cardinals staff members asking him to help them find an image because they didn’t want to deal with the hassle of searching the CDs. Now, thanks to keywording, he never gets those calls.
If someone on the Cardinals staff needs a vertical picture of Larry Fitzgerald celebrating a touchdown like this one, they can search the library in no time.
“What used to take minutes to hours to find is now taking seconds,” Gene explains.
And that speed applies to Gene’s uploads, as well.
He uploads his first batch of 50-60 photos right after the game. His “1st edit” is a taste of everything. Top action shots, important check presentations, Papa John’s Happy Birthday messages – everything he knows the Cardinals communication teams will want to share right away.
Then he dives into his second phase, using Adobe Lightroom to start coding the pictures into the next four categories: action, cheer, tailgate and miscellaneous.
Check out this look inside his library. It’s broken up into seasons, then games, then his five galleries.
He takes requests from Cardinals staff members as he edits, and once everything is uploaded to their Libris account, they can easily download whatever they need.
From Gene’s Playbook
When I asked Gene what advice he has for aspiring sports photographers and communications professionals, he drew from his own experience.
Tip #1: “Stay persistent.”
After 16 years with the Cardinals, Gene is still working to constantly improve his work and his processes to maintain his edge in the highly competitive sports world.
“I’m one of 32 people in the world with my job,” Gene says. “You need to be dedicated and hungry, and you have to go after what you want.”
Tip #2: “Stay on top of technology.”
Gene has made himself invaluable to the Cardinals by being not just the team’s photographer, but also their archivist. He uploads everything he shoots, as well as their past history, onto their Libris site. His use of cutting-edge technology has given him job security.
Gene says the sooner you adopt new technology the better, because every innovation comes with a learning curve.
He explains he is now shooting with nothing but Sony mirrorless technology, and while other photographers aren’t yet considering it, he’s already starting to master the differences.
“You have to stay on top of it, or you’ll get left behind.”
Tip #3: “Every team should have a PhotoShelter account.”
Right now, a handful of NFL teams have PhotoShelter Libris accounts, and Gene says he’s working on convincing the rest. And – no surprise ending here – that makes our whole team smile.
Learn more about Gene in this Arizona Cardinals Zoom Behind the Lens video.