You’ve seen his photos if you follow the U.S. Women’s National Team, and I had the opportunity to get to know the man behind the camera.
Brad Smith is the team photographer for the U.S. WNT. Smith is embedded with the team, traveling and documenting the team through every training session, friendly, and tournament. In addition, he shoots games in the National Women Soccer League (NWSL) and college. I spoke with Smith and we had a wide-ranging discussion that covered how he got started with photography, the equipment he uses, technique, and his favorite moments.
Editor’s note — This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Smith selected the accompanying images and are his favorites as of this interview. This interview is adapted from the original version that appeared in the 2017 Photo Issue (Issue 36), which is available for purchase.
Our Game Magazine: How did you get started?
Brad Smith: I’ve been covering the women’s team — let me see now, I’ve made every game for the last three years except one, last year in San Jose when I was actually covering the men’s team. You’re probably aware but I’m contracted to the U.S. Soccer Federation. I work with International Sport Images (ISI; http://www.isiphotos.com/). So I’m the team photographer, the women and men’s; I’m embedded.
I actually started at the University of Wisconsin. I joined the student paper [The Daily Cardinal] when I was a sophomore. I was the guy who was interested in photography, interested in sports like most people are, but at the time I was low on the totem pole. You had some established people there who were doing football and basketball and things like that and what was open at the time was soccer. I didn’t know a lot about the game but I covered my first two games, and I really enjoyed it. At Wisconsin it was a great environment, coaches on the women’s and men’s teams would give me some pointers on how to watch the game and what was actually going on so it was kind of an interesting time. That was when Dean Duerst was there, he was the head coach for the women’s side.
I did that and then my next year I was also the photo editor of The Daily Cardinal. I made the decision to transfer because Wisconsin doesn’t have a photojournalism program. They have a fairly decent journalism school but I actually took my first photography course in college at Wisconsin in the agricultural journalism department. It wasn’t taught any differently but I actually had an agricultural journalism course requirement so that was my first photo class.
OGM: Prior to Wisconsin, were you interested in photography? What was your background prior to college?
Smith: I can’t really say I was one of those people who had a camera around their neck from the age of five. We had a family friend who was interested in photography when I was in high school that I thought was kind of interesting. So I had fun with it. But I wasn’t hugely into it; I wasn’t carrying a camera with me all the time like I did in college. I drive my wife nuts with that now on vacation. But I’d always enjoyed it. I remember I might have entered a photo contest when I was in high school and that might have been the first really kind of “I’m-halfway-decent-at-this” kind of moment. But it just kind of grew out of really enjoying the journalistic side of it too — the documentary style and getting to know people, because for me photography is a lot about getting to know people, seeing different things, traveling around. It’s a little bit more than just taking pictures.
OGM: In sports you capture a fraction of a second and it can tell a story but it’s only one moment.
Smith: In every game you’re going to have a couple of crucial moments that are going to tell the game. And no matter who my client is, one of my main goals out there is to tell the story of the game through pictures. You’re always going to have your jubilation but you’re always going to have dejection on the other team — there’s always an opposite. You have to kind of learn to look for these moments, and that’s one of the things, it doesn’t matter if you’re shooting sports or if you’re shooting news or if you’re shooting a feature. I used to work at newspapers so it’s very ingrained in me to always look for the story: [if] this is a player’s fiftieth cap, you’re going to cover that because that’s the story that game is about.
OGM: You mentioned taking courses. How important is it to learn the basics? I assume you started with film?
Smith: Yes. I am just old enough [to work with film]. All of my preliminary work in college and my beginnings with newspapers… we shot everything on film. I have pictures of Eddie George, the Ohio State University running back on black-and-white film from when I was shooting Wisconsin football. I think with this kind of background, you always have to root yourself on the technical side. I don’t think a photojournalism degree is necessary; I can actually say if you’re going to be an independent guy, a freelance guy like me, business classes are really helpful.
You can’t jump to step six. You really have to start at step one and that is being able to technically know how to make an image: know what manual focus is, manual aperture, and [what] manual exposure actually is and does. Know that when you’re shooting on manual, when that little line centered in the middle, that is not the perfect exposure, that is your camera looking for a center way to frame.
I think it’s important for people to get out there and kind of learn from the start. Classes are great. Basic composition, great. When I started, everything was black-and-white film, you still had dark rooms.
My first two years I was still making prints for publication because that’s how it was done. After that we started finally using a film scanner, and I remember Photoshop 3.
When I moved to newspapers we were still half and half a lot of times, so I was still running film. I was still using processors to process the film and then scan it in. For both me and newspapers it’s totally changed now. You don’t need the office to go back to, to process film. You can be mobile, be anywhere, and do the entire bit.
When digital cameras finally did come out, the first ones were basically the cost of a BMW. It was about $35,000. These things were very likely to give you carpal tunnel [syndrome]; they were much heavier, the batteries would not last nearly as long, the cards were expensive and small. That’s one of the things that’s really opened it up and what’s made it more competitive for me, seeing a lot of the more amateur photographers out there, is the gear. It’s expensive but comparatively it’s easier to do. And it actually is a little bit cheaper if you figure out the cost of film and processing and all that.
OGM: With technology like Photoshop, you can be a bit lazy and correct things in post-production.
Smith: [laughs] I don’t think of myself as old school, but my idea when I’m shooting is to get everything as correct as possible from the start. As a photographer, the last thing I want to do is spend five minutes taking a picture and 25 minutes working in Photoshop.
OGM: That’s the difference between an amateur and professional — the reliance on Photoshop or technology. That goes back to training and technique. It doesn’t matter what camera you’re using, getting a good shot means knowing lighting, how to frame a story, and things like that.
Smith: The better your technique, the better you’re trained, the less time you’re going to be spending on the computer. A lot of times with people who are starting out, truthfully, especially with digital, they’re shooting too much. You’ll hear somebody and you’ll be like, “Is somebody making a movie?” because all you hear is the shutter. You really have to learn and it just takes years to be able to pick the moments. The whole idea behind a motor drive is not to shoot everything. I really couldn’t care if the camera is six frames a second or eighteen frames a second, the purpose of that motor drive is to clean everything up. You’re really there to — I want to time everything — so basically the first shot you take should be that shot that you’ve anticipated taking, that you see coming, and then use the motor drive to clean up after that.
OGM: With film, you didn’t have the luxury of digital cameras so you had to pick your moments.
Smith: Yes, most of the time you were dealing with a roll of 36, right? If I would shoot a game when I was in college, I would do five rolls, that was quite a bit. That’s 180 photos. So now when I usually shoot a game — it depends on the game — but I’m probably at 2–3,000 images. There’s quite a bit of difference.
OGM: How do you pare that down to a story?
Smith: The technology helps. You kind of know when you come across a good picture on your camera. The cameras all allow you to tag photos, there’s a little key icon so it locks the photo. When I download that into the computer it recognizes the ones that I’ve already locked. The NWSL game I did on Wednesday I think I shot about 2,500 images. At the end of the game I keyed about 200. Then I go back through the ones that I keyed and for the first edit, I pick the best 20 or 30 out of that.
OGM: What do you look for when you’re getting down to that 20 or 30 images? Is it subjective?
Smith: It’s subjective to a certain point but there’s always things you should look for. Obviously for soccer, this is goal scoring, goal celebrations, peak action, you always need your starting eleven photos, and then you’re always going to need you’re player of the game photos. You always have certain shorthand for certain photos — ISOs are single photos of players like the player of the game; JUB is celebration photos, jubilation, jub. Then, we always want a couple pictures of the coaches, too. Then, ideally, there’d be some pictures of fans and some overalls. That right there adds up to about 20, 25.
OGM: Are there certain players you enjoy shooting because you know you’re always going to get a good moment?
Smith: [laughs] It’s kind of hard to choose. Also, I think that kind of comes down to you always have to be prepared for these games. Part of that preparation is just doing a little bit of reading into who’s going to be playing. I don’t really have to do that with the [U.S.] Women’s National Team, I’m kind of used to everybody. But for the teams that come in, I always do research on our opposing teams: who’s their top scorer, who are their wingers, does the keeper have a propensity to come out or sit in the box, who’s the target forward, is that target forward going to be the person who’s going to be the target on corners or is that going to be somebody on the defense? Stuff like that.
But back to more of your question: it’s always interesting seeing the different personalities of the players on the field. That’s part of the research too. I always love players who are really intense, it always makes for really great photos — like Heather O’Reilly. I would intentionally position myself at the corner flag on the end line so I could get the run of her just coming straight at me. If there was a brick wall there and the ball’s right next to it, she’s going to go for it.
Then you have other players who are just absolutely fun to shoot because you don’t know what they’re going to be doing — you just know that one minute, it could be them dribbling the ball and the next minute it could be a goal. That’s Tobin [Heath], Pinoe [Megan Rapinoe], definitely both of those two; they’re so creative on the ball, it could be a magic moment at just about any time of the game.
OGM: Have you every missed a moment that you regret?
Smith: [laughs] I miss moments in every game. As I’ve gotten better those [misses] have gotten less. But a lot of that is just due to the fact that you have to keep your face on the camera. There’s going to be times when you miss stuff because you get blocked by players, there’s just things that happen. People are like, “Did you get this, did you get that?” I was at the 2006 World Cup final when you had the moment of madness when [Zinedine] Zidane decided to head-butt [Marco] Materazzi, I couldn’t see it, I got blocked. I saw him walking up, and then there’s five players between me and him. So I have no photo of that but I know it happened [laughs], I was on the field. But a lot of times, it doesn’t matter how old you are, if you’re an amateur or experienced pro, you just have to realize there’s things you can’t control or learn from your mistakes.
OGM: Let’s get back to more of the technical aspects of your job. How much equipment do you carry for each game? What is typical?
Smith: For me, I’m usually carrying one roller bag and one backpack. So that is usually two to three cameras and then for different parts of the game I use three different lenses. My main three are 24-70 [mm]; 70-200 [mm]; and then my main field lens, which is a 400 2.8 [Nikon AF-S Nikkor 400mm f/2.8]. Besides that, I’ll bring a couple of specialty lenses along to do ultra-wide angles that are [for] stadium overalls or just to have an interesting picture of the field from field level or to set up a remote with. Besides that, you’re going to have a couple of flashes and you’re also going to have your computer.
OGM: What’s an estimate on the weight amount of all of this equipment?
Smith: Probably about 70 [pounds]. I’m kind of used to it. But, yes, it’s a lot of weight.
OGM: And the weather conditions. Talk about some of the extreme conditions you’ve shot in.
Smith: My wife knows I’m a little bit anal about the weather. I absolutely hate getting rained on, but that’s part of the job. You’re going to have rain, you’re going to have snow. When I was working for a newspaper in North Carolina, I shot an N.C. State football game and, “Oh, look, there’s a hurricane coming in.” Great, I’m standing in six inches of water because part of [Carter-]Finley Stadium does not drain. You just have to be prepared for everything — if I have a raincoat, my camera has a raincoat, my 400 2.8 has a raincoat. If it’s getting super, super cold out, I’m always wearing extra layers. We had an insanely cold game last year, temperatures around 20 [degrees] or 30 and when that happens, your hands are holding a big piece of metal so I’m using hand-warmers. You can’t really use heavy gloves because then you can’t feel the camera, you can’t feel the shutter. Of course the problem with that is the thinner the gloves the easier your hands are going to get cold.
OGM: If you had to choose: extreme heat or extreme cold?
Smith: Give me hot. I’ll sweat all over the place. I would rather do that than look like the marshmallow man because “here comes Brad wearing five layers.” You don’t really have to worry that the camera will quit working; I’ve only once been in an environment where the camera [stopped]. I lived in China for about four years and while we were over there we went to this ice and snow sculpture festival up in northeastern China. They have all these ice sculptures they do in these parks and they have neon lights inside so you go at night. And it was about probably like negative 30, and when that happens, all of a sudden I’m like, “Oh, the camera is starting to have these purple bands through the pictures.” The batteries aren’t as bad now but it used to be that you’d have to put the batteries inside coats so they stayed warm, stuff like that.
OGM: How do you handle the travel with all that equipment? Do you get off the field and explore the city?
Smith: It always depends. For me, a lot of the thing with photography overall is preparation. My photography bags are set up the same every time every place I go so when I open a bag in that same exact place is the same exact thing every time. And then my bags never basically leave my side. When I fly, I basically have two rolling bags; one’s a little bit smaller depending on what kind of planes I’m going to be on. Those bags never go underneath [in checked luggage], those bags are always in the plane with me. I will sacrifice clothes before I will sacrifice one of them. We’re lucky enough with the team to get laundry [service], so they can do laundry for me. Thank you, Ryan [equipment manager]. I can be able to concentrate on my gear a little bit more.
It’s always fun to travel. It’s always great to see new places. Our games in Sweden and Norway were fabulous, a lot of fun. It was interesting to see a couple of people who were like, “Yeah, we’ve never been on a ferry before.” We took a ferry between Norway and Sweden. Just at that, it’s nice — I’m enjoying taking pictures out on the water and just kind of relax. [It’s] still part of my job because we always try and do a little bit of travel coverage but it’s also like, “Hey, I get to take some landscape pictures that are kind of pretty.” It’s a little bit different.
OGM: You mentioned you always have a camera with you. Is that advice you would give to somebody who’s just starting out, always have a camera with you?
Smith: Yes, it never hurts to have a camera with you. You never know what’s going to happen, you never know what pictures you might take. I don’t do it when I’m home here [Washington, D.C.]. I always have one with me on vacation, and of course I’ll always have one on me when I’m on assignment. Otherwise, I’m kind of fifty-fifty. If somebody actually looks at my Instagram [https://www.instagram.com/bradsmithimages/], they’ll see I do quite a bit of travel photos, especially when I’m traveling with the team. I intentionally try and sit on the window side so I can take pictures. It helps pass the time. Most of those that I take are with an iPhone.
OGM: Speaking of the iPhone, how do you feel about phone technology? Pretty decent cameras built in.
Smith: It’s gotten so much better. It used to be people had these point-and-shoot digital cameras for them to take to parties or just to take on vacation and stuff like that. You don’t really need that anymore, your phone really can do so much — the new iPhones with the dual lens technology that kind of replicates low depth of field. They’re still limiting, of course, but they’re great for people to take candids of them with their friends and their family, birthdays and all this kind of stuff.
I just get excited by it because it’s like what better place to make sure you have a camera with you all
the time? It’s always going to be there. I think with photography, that side of it, it’s a lot more accessible and it just makes it fun, it makes it easy.
OGM: Where do you see photography going? Have you worked with drones?
Smith: The camera technology is always going to change. The sensor technology has changed so much and it’s finally gotten to the point where… when digital cameras first started, you had to basically upgrade once every year or two just because that [newer] camera would be so much better but that’s not true anymore. The cost of the body is expensive still but they’ve finally gotten to the point where I can buy a camera now and that body is going to be good for five years. I’m going to wear the shutter out before this [body] one becomes technologically out obsolete.
There’s a lot of new things that are coming around. The mirrorless systems are interesting, the idea of finally getting rid of that slapping mirror and making everything a little bit smaller, a little bit quieter, that’ll be actually really nice.
Drones are always interesting. It’s always a good idea to see a different perspective and drones have kind of opened that up. That’s why people think the [drone] photos are so cool, right? They’re like, “Hey, I’ve never seen that from up above.”
OGM: It still comes back to knowing technique though. If you don’t understand the technical aspects, you won’t be able to fully take advantage of the technology.
Smith: It doesn’t matter whether you’re shooting with a camera that was made in 2017 or 1947, the idea behind exposing that image is the same. I can give you a camera manual from 1930 and the basics of composition, focusing, exposure are all going to be the same. I always kind of drill that into people. And the other point I did want to make, I forgot about this a little earlier that is important with Photoshop on the editorial side, is that you’re not changing reality. At the heart of it, I still think of myself as a documentarian so I’m documenting these games — what’s happened is what’s true to form. I don’t want there ever to be any question about whether that happened or didn’t happen or anything like that. With that in mind, that’s one of the reasons I don’t use Photoshop that much. I’m not going to change the jersey color — you can do that but, no. It’s getting to the point where it’s a little bit too easy with the technology. I mean, yes, I actually probably could just cut that player out and put her in a different stadium. Yep, I can do that but no, we’re not going to do that.
OGM: Switching gears, how has the game grown from your point of view on the sidelines?
Smith: I’ve shot women’s soccer pretty much at every level and I’ve been privileged enough to have seen it grow from basically being a college game to having W-League games to WUSA to WPS to NWSL. Inside that time, I’ve seen the crowds just get so much bigger. With the national team, we’re lucky enough to be playing in NFL stadiums a lot of times. If we’re in an MLS stadium, it’s generally packed. It’s very cool to play to a crowd that’s 20, 30, 40,000.
I remember shooting at some of these games when the standard was a lot lower and in smaller cities. I think my first national team game I remember shooting was in Greensboro, North Carolina in the late nineties and they had a pretty decent crowd there but that’s because North Carolina was always a really big supporter. We’d never be able to play at that venue anymore, the University of North Carolina Greensboro, it’s just too small. We used to play at the University of Richmond; great city, [now] it’s just too small.
With the leagues, it’s just been great. I remember you’d see a lot of these players go through college who would be in the national team pool and they’d go to play in the W-League and it was almost more of a… I mean, they had a passion for soccer, of course, but they realized this couldn’t be a career for them. I did a photo story when I was at the News & Observer in North Carolina on Wendy Gebauer [North Carolina All-American and member of the 1991 World Cup-winning U.S. Women’s National Team], Bill Palladino’s wife, I think. They met, I believe, when he was the coach at the Raleigh Wings when she was a player and she worked in financial services during the day. She would work eight hours, financial services, water bottle on her desk and go to practice. Even though I think there’s still progress to be made on the women’s side, it’s no longer the norm that you’re going to have to have another full-time job in order to play professional soccer, and I think that’s great.
OGM: Is there a single moment that resonates with you?
Smith: It’s hard for me to choose, there’s been so many. I’ve shot four Women’s World Cup finals [2003, 2007, 2011, 2015] and one Olympic final, and all of those are great. Not all of those [finals], obviously, involved the U.S. but as a photographer you want to be involved in those big moments, you want to see history being made.
From a personal standpoint, the World Cup final in 2015 and when the U.S. won in Beijing in 2008. My wife [Sarah] was able to be at both of the games so being able to watch her in the stands, know where she was, look up at her while I’m shooting the game, that’s probably it.
OGM: That’s really significant, having somebody there with you to watch you work as well to share that moment.
Smith: She’s always been a big support for me, she’s always put up with all of this travel I do so I always appreciate that. In 2008 when they won [U.S. won the gold medal in Beijing 2008], we had 20 minutes between when the team won the game and when the medal ceremony was because of drug testing. So we’re just sitting on the field, and I’m just like standing on a riser — as photographers, this is the most important picture of the whole tournament, the trophy lift. And the first thing all of the photographers do [after the final whistle] is run to get into position. So I’m lucky enough to get up there and I’m standing on this riser that feels like it’s about to fall over it and I turn around and I can see my wife and she’s 200 feet away up in the stands, and I can actually see her — that was pretty cool.
For photos, it’s hard for me to pick. Literally, my wife knows, I don’t really have photos up in my house because my favorites always change.
OGM: I can see how favorites change but I find it surprising you don’t have photos up in the house.
Smith: Part of it is there’s so many to choose from. We have other stuff up on the walls [laughs]. From 2008, one of my favorite pictures is always a celebration picture at the end of the game where Heather O’Reilly and Natasha Kai are jumping up and they’re holding the flag, that was great. There’s a lot of stuff that always comes to mind.
OGM: Back to the business side of your job. Why do you suggest photographers take business classes in addition to photography classes? Have you run into pitfalls business-wise?
Smith: Technically, I’m a freelancer so it’s always good for people to have a good background in business if they’re going to be doing business. Know what a marketing plan is, know what invoicing is, definitely have a little bit of background in, and you should get this in journalism school, media law. Know what slander is, know what libel is, know what copyright law is, and know how to protect yourself, and know how to, if need be, go to the courts to enforce that. I’ve never had to do that by the way. That’s one of the things ISI is there to help me out with, but also I really believe most of the time that we can have a conversation with people.
OGM: How to market yourself, know your rights, what to charge, and so on. Good advice.
Smith: Again, my objective is to spend as much time on the photography side of it. That being said, when you’re a freelancer, the business side is still going to be a good percentage of your time. I want to spend as much time as I can shooting, secondarily, editing. But, I spend a ton of time writing emails, that’s going to be part of your jobs anyway, just communicating with people. You have to be aware of everything else that goes into it, too.
OGM: What’s ahead for you down the road. The U.S. has its final fall games to wrap up the year.
Smith: This is kind of the busiest part of the year for me. I have the games in September, October, and November — looking forward to all of those. You asked what else I do on these trips. One of the things I always do on these trips is, in every city, I try to find the best coffee place. I love my cappuccino and I love my flat white [espresso-based coffee drink].
OGM: Can we look forward to a Brad Smith Coffee Guide?
Smith: That’s not a bad idea for the website. I’m a little bit of a coffee snob, I’ll admit that. That’s why when we went to Seattle, I was like, “This is great.” That was easy.
OGM: If you’re a coffee snob, how do you feel about Starbucks?
Smith: If you have to, you have to. [laughs] Not the best coffee in the world but they do fill a need.
OGM: How much downtime do you typically have when you’re with the team?
Smith: Not too much, it always depends on the schedule. If training is scheduled for two hours, I’m actually going to be at training for three [hours]. Then I’m probably going to be editing just that training session for two to three hours and then you might have something else miscellaneous that takes an hour or two. So it always ends up being ten-to-twelve-hour days generally.
OGM: I would have said eight or nine but not ten to twelve hours.
Smith: It always depends, might have a couple of days that you’re working six or seven but then game days are always crazy. I’m pretty big on preparation so people know that I prefer to be at the stadium earlier rather than later. Generally, I’m at the game three to four hours before the game starts. At that time, I’m just going around making sure everything’s set and also I’m shooting other things that are in the stadium. A game day for me is twelve to fourteen hours.
OGM: So if the game starts at 7:30 at night, then you’re working until what time?
Smith: The game’s two hours… I’ll probably be done around one [A.M.].
OGM: Similar to game days for writers working on deadline, though we don’t lug around seventy pounds of equipment.
Smith: That’s the key, that’s what it really comes down to for me: I relax more when I’m prepared. That’s just it. So I’ll get there early, make sure my gear’s all good, talk to five or seven people who all have different needs for the game. When it kind of comes down to shooting — one other point I want to make is that for a lot of this, what sports photography in general comes down to is preparation, anticipation, and then a little bit of luck. I prepare as much as I can, I research the teams, I make sure my gear is all ready, batteries are all charged, computer’s ready to go. Then I’m always kind of visualizing what’s going to go on in the game, I’m anticipating what’s going to happen next. With all that in mind, there’s always the little bit of luck that helps.
OGM: That’s a good overall slogan for anything: preparation, anticipation, and a little bit of luck.
Smith: It never hurts [laughs]. With the cameras and the way they work, too, from the technical side, with the single lens reflex camera with these mirrors, if you see it in the camera, that means you didn’t get it. There’s a fraction of a second delay before it actually shoots, before it takes the picture, before that mirror slaps back up and actually records an image. So if you see it in the camera, you didn’t get it. You’re always actively looking before the moment — you want to find the moment, you want to capture the moment but you always have to be acting before the moment.
OGM: The job is not as simple as showing up and taking pictures so thanks for sharing it with us.
Smith: Yeah, any time. I definitely enjoy and I’m very lucky and privileged to be the guy who was chosen to embed with the team.
This interview is adapted from the original version that appeared in the 2017 Photo Issue (Issue 36). Limited quantities still available for purchase.