Long Lens Earns Spot in the Big Leagues

    Los Angeles Dodgers player Rafael Furcal manages to steal second base under the glove of Padres shortstop Khalil Greene during the April 6 game. (Will Parson/Guardian)

    There’s an old telephoto lens that has been passed down from
    generation to generation within the Guardian family. Inside its beaten and
    scratched body held together with tape, the optics are still pristine. Never
    mind that for a 10-pound hunk of metal and glass, the lens rattles like a baby
    toy. Many shooters have eyed its narrow field of view, an unwieldy 300 mm
    tunnel fashioned in an age before image stabilization. The magnified world
    trembles with every heartbeat, so trying to keep fast-moving athletes in frame
    is often particularly frustrating. What matters, though, is that it’s a
    professional piece of equipment. So by some wishful logic, whoever uses it
    could be considered a professional photographer and will surely be recognized
    as such every time he or she straps it on to their camera.

    Among photographers there is a type of lens envy, best
    summarized by a caricature of the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer David
    Hume Kennerly drawn by his friend and fellow Pulitzer winner Jeffrey MacNelly.
    It shows Kennerly beaming as all his camera equipment hangs around his neck —
    the prize of his collection an especially long lens that dangles at crotch

    I recently had the opportunity to shoot with a photographer
    who is a true professional, regardless of the size of his lens. His name is
    Lenny Ignelzi, a member of the Associated Press who has been working in the
    field for over 30 years, and who let me tag along for a couple of San Diego
    Padres games during the team’s first stretch of home games against the Los
    Angeles Dodgers. One of the first questions he asked over the phone to size me
    up, of course, was, “How long is your longest lens?”

    San Diego Padres first-baseman Adrian Gonzalez scowls after missing a strike during his at bat. (Will Parson/Guardian)

    I proudly spouted off the specifications of the Guardian’s
    ancient lens, which, after a tense pause, garnered a positive reaction of “not
    bad” from the professional. We met before the first game in the San Diego
    Union-Tribune’s parking lot, where I recognized him as he had described himself
    over the phone: with gray hair and a limp. I guess decades of covering breaking
    news and sports will catch up with a person’s knees. Ignelzi had been nice
    enough to get me a media pass for the Padres games that weekend, but after some
    cursing and frantic searching in his Prius, he couldn’t recover the actual
    pass. So in the interim he outfitted me with the credentials of a bearded,
    middle-aged man named Jack.

    After receiving directions to meet him at Petco
    , my excitement, as well as my
    lack of familiarity with downtown San Diego,
    caused more than one wrong turn as I drove to the stadium. By the time I was
    hustling past batboys and security guards in the tunnel leading to the field, I
    could hear the announcement of the first pitch. To make matters worse, the
    tunnel split in two, one each for the first- and third-base sides. My cell
    phone wasn’t getting reception, and so as I imagined Ignelzi settling in to
    shoot the game, I figured my cause was almost lost. Luckily, I received a
    little kindness from the Japanese media swarming the park to cover the American
    debut of the veteran Japanese pitcher Hiroki Kuroda. In halting English, one
    man directed me toward third base. The tunnel opened up into a stadium full of
    roaring fans, and next to the dugout, the master was shooting the starting
    pitchers. He was amazed at my tardiness but luckily not too angry. After the
    first inning, I followed him through the lower seats to the media box on the
    first-base side.

    This is where I spent the rest of the two games I shot — 50
    feet to the side of the Padres dugout and only a little farther from first
    base. Looking through my camera, the view reminded me of the pictures I had
    seen so many times on the baseball cards I collected as a (not-so-young) kid.
    It was exciting not only to watch my favorite sport so closely, but also to see
    that there wasn’t much difference between my shots of the older veterans like
    Jeff Kent and Jim Edmonds and those of the same players on the cards I had
    collected during my childhood.

    At least, the resemblance was there when I could train my
    camera and keep it steady for even a fraction of a second. The glowing fantasy
    of shooting the big leagues soon faded back into the reality of long-lens
    photography. Shots of batters were easy enough, though my camera’s shutter
    ticked away painfully at half the rate of a truly professional one. I managed
    only a handful of other decent action shots the entire weekend — a stolen base
    here, a couple ground balls there. With a lot of difficulty I almost managed to
    catch a diving Andruw Jones as he came up with a fly ball, only to focus on the
    grass immediately in front of the all-star. Imagine closing one eye and looking
    through a cardboard paper towel tube, and then looking up and trying to find
    Orion’s belt in the night sky — in a fraction of a second — and you’ll
    understand my aggravation.

    But the experience was one of my most memorable behind a
    camera. I stood in awe not just for the game, but also for the mastery with
    which Ignelzi wielded his equipment. His lens was longer than mine by a
    considerable margin, but he still whipped it around at one point fast enough to
    catch the shortstop in midair as he dove for a bullet line drive. I left with
    thousands of pictures to look through, remembering what the master said after
    shooting that diving play. The 30-year veteran had looked up from his camera’s
    LCD screen, laughing at how he had gotten the winning shot on the first frame
    of the burst. “There’s a lot of skill involved,” he said, “but a lot of it is
    just luck.” For my weekend as a so-called professional sports photographer I
    certainly felt lucky.

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