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My Experience with Sports Photography and Getty Images

I am a freelance photographer and editor based in Los Angeles.  For years I wanted to pursue a career in sports photography and perhaps like many of you, my objective was to staff at Getty Images. 

The purpose of this is to bring an honest perspective to an industry (and company) that can often seem confusing, frustrating and difficult to navigate.  More than anything, I want to share my experience at Getty and what I learned from it.  To be clear, I am not writing this on behalf of Getty Images or any of their staff. Despite how things turned out, I am and will always be grateful for the opportunities I had at Getty Images.

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My experience:

I started as an intern in 2008 in Los Angeles.  At the end the program, the managing editor proposed “extending the relationship” and asked me if I wanted to continue as a stringer here in Los Angeles. I enthusiastically accepted, invested in a brand new full Nikon setup (from Canon) and eagerly awaited my first assignment. I was fortunate to have covered the Winter X-Games in Colorado with Doug Pensinger in early 2009, but for the next five years there was not a single job in Los Angeles. I reached out to the managing editors more times than I can count to try to keep the ball rolling, but the timing and location were never right.

From 2009 – 2014, I put Getty on the back burner and started pursuing other opportunities. I freelanced a bit for AP Images, continued working for USC Athletics and for USA Water Polo. I realized that covering sports exclusively would not help pay off that brand new Nikon gear I had purchased, so I started a wedding photography business, took on corporate assignments and started as a contract photographer for the City of West Hollywood.

In late-2013, the first sport photo intern was hired as a full time staff photographer in Boston.  To me this was huge news. Not only was I stocked as it was my friend who got hired, but someone had finally bridged that gap between intern and full time staffer.  It gave me hope and suddenly, Getty was back on my radar. 

Since the job market in Los Angeles had not improved, I proposed relocation in late 2013.  After five years, I was surprised that the staff was supportive of the idea. They gave me a list of cities where they had the most needs.  When I settled on a location, Cincinnati, Ohio, I had a long discussion with the assignment editors about exactly what I could expect as far as assignments.  Understandably, there would be no guarantees for work, but they did mention that a lot of the work I would receive would be shot entirely on spec. For me this was a red flag, as I have always been resistant of the contributor business model. I realize money can potentially be earned on the backend, but as it would be a case by case scenario, all of the risk is placed on the photographer. I definitely went back and forth as to whether or not I would be willing to take on this risk. In the end, I decided the most fiscally responsible route would be stay in LA, where I had an established business. I regret never communicating this to the managing editors, but I will always be grateful for their help on this one.

In early 2014, I started covering NASCAR fairly consistently for Getty until late 2016, when NASCAR’s contract decreased in size and a bunch of us were cut from the team. In 2017, I was once again back at square one. Since then, I have continued as a wedding and contract photographer, reaching out to Getty regularly in hopes that the situation would improve, but things have not yet panned out. I shot one assignment in 2018, nothing in 2019 and then COVID shut everything down in 2020.

In late 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, Getty offered four full time Junior Sport Photo positions. Despite that these positions were really meant for younger photographers with less than three years of experience, I was encouraged to apply, but in the end they said I had “too much experience” for the position. That was expected, but another staffer told me my sporadic work history with the company showed that I “lacked the dedication and determination” to do the job. As I never had control over my assignment load, I respectfully disagreed with this assessment. No explanation was offered. Nonetheless, they are entitled to their opinion and so I have to respect it, even if I don’t fully understand the rationale.

As I came to terms with the fact that work with Getty may be on hold for the foreseeable future, I wanted to share with you all some very important advice.

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Don’t put so much value in Getty Images

I know most of you reading this probably want to end up at Getty full time. This is a respectable goal and I encourage all of you to pursue it, but as someone who has dealt with a number of setbacks, I urge you not to put too much value into this company as it can lead to major disappointment if things don’t pan out. Bottom line: do not let this be the only path you’re willing to take in life. When my assignment load came to a grinding halt after the internship ended in 2008, it hit me really hard. I felt totally lost, confused and disillusioned with the entire process. Every other opportunity seemed like a compromise and I ended up stressing the fact that continuing at Getty simply wasn’t on the table. This is something I couldn’t control and it took me a long time to come to terms with that.

If you’re in a similar situation, I would just encourage you to never forget that you are an artist first and foremost, so your focus should always be on making great images, regardless of the client or genre. Keep yourself busy and shoot what makes you happy. If it’s sports, go to another agency, organization or university, but also be willing to do the things you don’t want to do to make ends meet. I ended up pursing wedding photography of all things.  I never thought that would happen. 

Also remember that success in this business is largely based on luck and timing. If things don’t pan out, it’s not necessarily your fault. My timing was never right with Getty. While it took almost five years after my 2008 internship to finally start working, albeit inconsistently, their most recent 2020 intern is now basically a full time freelancer here in Los Angeles. The point is, everyone will have a different experience, so keep trying!

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Be proactive and maintain the relationship. 

This was a tough one for me as LA has always been an exceptionally competitive market for freelancers, but here are three ways you can maintain the relationship:

First, check in with the managing editors at Getty regularly just to let them know you’re there.  They will usually respond even if they don’t have anything for you. Remember, these guys are are responsible for assigning photographers to literally hundreds of events, so even it doesn’t work the first few times, you never know what their needs will be in the future. 

Second, establish a relationship with the local staffers in your area. Get feedback from them.  Ask them what you can do to improve. Show them your work.  They’re an awesome group of people and they will likely help you if you ask nicely.  If a staff position ever opens or if they need an extra freelancer for a larger shoot, any support you can get from local staff will help! 

Third, bring ideas to the table. Admittedly, I should have done much more of this.  Do your own spec shooting so that you’re consistently improving your portfolio.  Learn the Getty aesthetic (good composition, good light, clean background) and study the weekly “global sports photos of the week” galleries. If you have a cool shot in mind for a particular event coming up in your area that might impress the editors, go out and get it!  Choose events that don’t require a credential to ensure you have no editorial obligations.  This will allow you to take risks and focus more on making a strong, unique images.  Consider events like Spartan Race, triathlons for the early morning light swim action, surfing competitions if you live on a coast, X-games (this one does require a credential), or any other unique sport.  Check out the events that Red Bull puts on, as they are often offer some cool opportunities. You may have to invest some money into travel, but if you can show the team that you are working to improve your aesthetic on your own time, I think that is definitely a plus.  

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Be a team player.  

Always remember a positive relationship with Getty is based largely on your ability to work well with others.  The sports photography staff at Getty is really a family more than anything and they are extremely particular about who the allow into this inner circle. Having worked on the NASCAR team for two and a half years, I can say there was very much an inner circle to that group.

If you’re fortunate enough to work on a team as a freelancer (i.e. NASCAR, Super Bowl, Olympics, US Open etc), don’t rock the boat (see next section) and try to work as efficiently as possible.   If the consensus is that they enjoyed working with you and you don’t bring drama or complications to a situation, chances are they’ll ask you to come back. You’re all in this together, so work hard, make nice pictures and enjoy a beer with your colleagues when the day is done.

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Don’t rock the boat.

Whether it’s by email, in person working solo, with a client or with a large team, your attitude and the way you present yourself will pretty much always be more important than quality of your work.  If you are known to be difficult or confrontational, everyone will know and as a result, they won’t work with you regardless of how amazing your work may be.  Like it or not, people talk, things get misinterpreted and rumors spread. I’ve seen it happen. You should always assume that there are no secrets at Getty Images, so never give them a reason to talk shit behind your back.  These guys all operate under a lot of pressure as they all have strict deadlines.  They have neither the time nor the patience for ego, attitude or unnecessary drama.  Especially when you’re new, just keep your head down, shoot well and don’t mess up.

Also, resist the temptation to talk about “your career” with the managing editors. I’m ashamed to say I’ve broken this one a couple times since 2008 and I regret it every time I do. All I can say is no matter how frustrated you may feel, I’d urge you to be professional and to keep your emotions to yourself.  Even if you think the relationship is good enough, it’s just inappropriate.  Always respect the chain of command and remember, these guys are your superiors before your friends. They will always put the company before you.

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Conclusion:

There is no doubt that for most photographers, pursuing a staff position at Getty Images is a constant uphill battle. Unlike law or medicine, there is no single path to success in this business. As a freelancer, you’re pursuing this blindly, you’re always at the will of the assignment editors and perhaps most importantly, you are always expendable. These guys can turn their back on you at any moment so they can focus on the developing the next set of young talent. It’s just the way it goes.  If they don’t use you, the ball stops rolling and you’re stuck.

On the other hand, if you are able to slip through the cracks and you are working consistently, keep doing what you’re doing and be grateful for the opportunity. Nurture the relationship, don’t rock the boat and keep improving. You’re in a good place!

I am more than happy to answer any questions.  Please feel free to reach out anytime. 🙂  

Best of luck to you and thank you so much for reading!

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