Take me out to the ball game, safely – Stockton Record

In the early days of photography, when cameras became mobile enough to shoot sports, photographers took their lives in to their own hands.
Around the turn of the 20th century, cameras became small enough to be hand-holdable, albeit with 2 hands. But the cameras still only had what amounted to wide-angle lenses. This meant that, to get close to the action, the photographers had to literally get close to the action. In baseball, they were actually standing on the field of play, often about 10 feet or so away from the batters box. I’ve often wondered how many of those shooters were smacked by a foul ball or beaned by an errant wild pitch.
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As photographic technology improved, cameras got smaller and lighter and lenses became longer. But there are still some inherent dangers while photographing sports in the modern era.
I single out baseball because it tends to be one of the most dangerous for photographers. Often times you have to split your attention to where potential action may be happening at where the ball actually is. In sports like football, basketball and soccer the players are the hazard. If they careen off the playing area uncontrollably they can cause great harm to those on the sidelines. But in those sports there’s a lot of action and it’s easy to keep one’s attention on it. Both player and photographer can see things happening and avoid most collisions. Not always, but most of the time.
Baseball can have an almost picnic-like atmosphere. There tends to be long lulls in the action, whether it’s the change between ups or innings or even as a batter is walking to the plate, where one’s mind can wander. Quite often one’s attention can be diverted elsewhere. Like wandering food vendors or even just talking to the person next to you. Even with protective fences and netting, I’ve seen a few spectators get some pretty nasty injuries from foul balls. In addition to fouls, pieces of a splintered bat can also go flying into the stands. That’s why during Ports and Pacific games there are warnings issued about them both.  
As a photographer sometimes I’m concentrating on the batter which makes it easier to tell where the ball is going. There are other times, however, where my attention is elsewhere on the field. Sometimes I’m focusing on the pitcher or waiting for action at second base. It’s then I’m worried about foul balls or even pieces of a broken bat flying at me. One has to focus on the action but also be aware of some of the hazards of the job. 
Fortunately, I’ve never been hit by a batted ball, though I’ve had a few close calls. When I started at the Record almost 37 years ago, the longest lens I had was a 180mm telephoto which wasn’t nearly long enough to let me shoot from the stands at Billy Hebert Field. The Stockton Ports let the Record photographers shoot from the field just outside off the foul lines but when I was there I was nervous as a long-tailed cat in a roomful of rocking chairs. Now I use a lens that’s more than twice the length of that original lens but it still helps to be aware to what’s happening in the game and around me to not only capture the action but to also make sure that I’m safe.
Record photographer Clifford Oto has photographed Stockton and San Joaquin County for more than 36 years. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Instagram @Recordnet. Follow his blog at recordnet.com/otoblog. Support local news, subscribe to The Stockton Record at https://www.recordnet.com/subscribenow.