To all the sport fans out there on the edge of their seats, holding their breath as the shot is taken, this one’s for you. Whatever the game being played or medal won, there is a true connection between every fan and the innate pleasure of every point scored. If it weren’t for photographers like Andrew Bernstein, deep within the action, we wouldn’t be able to relive some of the most exciting and iconic moments of our lives.
We caught up with Andrew Bernstein, a prominent figure in sports photography, to discuss his images in the New York Times bestseller as well as, Barnes and Noble “Best New Book of the Year,” Mamba Mentality: This is how I Play by Kobe Bryant and what it’s like to be an official NBA photographer.
When did you decide that you wanted to become a photographer? Who influenced you in photography and how did they inspire you?
I was introduced to photography at 14 when my Dad bought me my first camera (a Canon TL with a 50mm lens). I took to photography quickly during a trip we made to the western US National Parks. I was influenced early on by some of the great photojournalists: Eugene Smith, Dorothea Lange, Robert Capa, Weegee, Andre Kertesz. I was inspired by their ability to see things beyond the obvious and record moments in time with amazing skill.
How did you become the longest-tenured NBA photographer and the official photographer of the USA Dream Team 1992 Barcelona Olympics?
I was fortunate to relocate to Los Angeles in 1978 to continue my college education at Art Center College of Design. I was introduced to staff photographers from Sports Illustrated and became their assistant on all kinds of assignments. Through that job, I learned how to light arenas with strobes for basketball, hockey, track meets, and other indoor sports. It was a very specialized skill that helped me get my foot in the door with the Forum, Lakers and Kings. The NBA held their All-Star Game at the Forum in 1983, which was my first official assignment for them. That led to me becoming the first Official NBA Photographer in 1986 and helping to establish NBA Photos. USA Basketball and the NBA formed a partnership for the 1992 Olympics and I became the official photographer for the Dream Team. That is still my favorite assignment of my career.
What equipment do you like best or use most often?
I currently use all Nikon equipment: D5, D4s, D850 cameras. My most popular lenses are: 17-35mm, 16mm, 80-400mm, 28-300mm. Back in the film days, I was using a mix of Nikon and Hasselblad cameras.
You’re most known for your sports photography. What is the most exciting thing about sports photography and capturing these amazing athletes?
No two games or assignments are ever the same. I love the athleticism and beauty of the athletes in every sport. Their physical abilities continue to astound me. My challenge is to record that grace, power and competitiveness every time. Because I utilize the indoor strobe lighting technique, I am limited to shooting one frame every four seconds, to allow the strobes to recycle. That is especially challenging and exciting for me to shoot.
Do you have certain shots or angles that you try and get at every game?
For every NBA basketball game, we set up 6-7 remote cameras, positioned in strategic areas of the arena. It’s a 3-hour set up each and every game, then removed. For the All-Star Game and NBA Finals, we increase to 10-12 remote cameras. I use 4 additional handheld cameras at my photo position on the court.
How do you capture those spectacular soaring dunk shots?
I need to be locked in and paying attention, first and foremost. If I’m distracted or fumbling around for the right camera or lens, the moment will be gone in an instant. I also set up my remotes so they will maximize the ability to get exciting dunks from different angles.
Have you had any injuries or close calls while taking pictures in the field?
We are very close to the field of play in most sports. There have been many close calls and some injuries during my career. I took a direct hit on my knee by a baseball during Dodgers batting practice, I was hit in the eye with a hockey puck that came through the small hole in the plexiglass we shoot through, I’ve had many NBA players fall on me and a few WNBA players as well. Shaq landed on me three times, once pretty seriously but luckily no broken bones. The most serious injury I had was when James Harden flew into me during the Western Conference Finals last year and split my elbow open. I spent the night after the game in the ER. At least I have a nice scar to remember him by!
Do you have any favorite athlete(s) that you like to capture?
There have been many, but to name my top favorites: Kobe, Magic, Jordan, Shaq, Dominique Wilkins, Wayne Gretzky, David Beckham, Joe Montana.
How many frames on average, do you take during a game- including pre-game and post game?
Average about 1,200-1,500 per NBA game. That doubles for All-Star, playoffs and Finals.
You have gained the trust of the players over the years. Do you have advice for aspiring sports and portrait photographers, on how to approach and gain trust from your subject?
Always be honest and present your genuine self. Don’t have an agenda or self-serving motive. Ask them about their families, their kids, where they went to college, etc. Try to find common subjects to talk about. Above all, if you make a promise, keep it. If you say you need a subject to sit for 10 minutes for a portrait, do it in 8 minutes. If you tell them you will send them photos, do it ASAP. Trust is built through consistent demonstration of integrity.
When you’re capturing an athlete in a more intimate setting, is there a different narrative that you’re looking for?
I want to give my viewers or fans of the team or athlete I’m photographing a look behind the curtain of what they usually see. If it’s a team, then I like to show context of how they travel, train and interact with each other. If it’s an individual athlete I want to show how they are a person like everyone else. They work hard at what they do, they have downtime, they interact with their teammates, coaches, trainers, etc.
You have had many years of interaction with Kobe Bryant, what story do you want to come across in your images in the best seller “Mamba Mentality: How I Play” by Kobe Bryant?
It’s important to me that people who read the book really understand the concept of what Kobe calls “The Mamba Mentality”. It’s a mindset that he applied to his process and craft of basketball and is now applying to everything in his life. That’s why the subtitle is “How I Play” not How I Played”.
Did you and Kobe have a shared vision for the book?
Absolutely. Kobe and I want the reader to understand what it took for him to become the iconic athlete he was. The hard work, dedication, sacrifice, pain, joy and intense focus on his process and craft.
What are your most memorable moments while creating images and looking through older pictures for the book?
Reliving some of the amazing games, playoff and Finals series was a thrill while putting this book together with Kobe. Also seeing how he progressed from a teenager to a seasoned 5 time NBA champion through my photos.
How did you decide which images made the cut?
That was the most difficult part of the process. I relied on Kobe’s input first as well as the book’s editor and designer. The book needed a consistent flow and some images just didn’t fit.
As the second acknowledged photographer to receive the Curt Gowdy Media Award (congratulations by the way)
What are some of your biggest achievements and highlights of your career?
I’m most proud of my longevity and consistency of quality throughout my career. I pride myself on my work ethic. I’m very grateful to the people who I work with, and work for me to produce the high level of photography we are known for.
How has your work changed over time?
The move to all-digital changed our workflow significantly. My approach to my work and how I prepare has not changed at all in almost 40 years.
If you could go back in time, would you change anything? Is there a particular shot that you wish you could have changed and why?
I’m a perfectionist so I could probably find a tweak or fault in almost every image I ever took, including the “iconic” ones. That being said, I wouldn’t change anything about how my career developed, the relationships I made and value and my body of work. If there was one thing I could change it would have been to have traveled a little less so I could be home with my family more. But that’s the nature of the business I have chosen to be in.
Have you received any advice through your career that has stuck with you? What advice would you give for other aspiring photographers?
Don’t stop shooting. Don’t get distracted. And don’t get caught up in competing with the other guy. Your work will set you apart from the crowd if you are dedicated to constantly evolving and improving. Most importantly, be a person of integrity. Be someone that people want to work with over and over again.
What’s next for you?
I am deep into the development of my new platform Legends Of Sport. It will eventually be a landing site for everything iconic in sports: Athletes, teams, moments, venues and personalities. Stay tuned!
We have launched with a podcast that can be found on Apple Podcasts:
Anything on the distant horizon?
More books, exhibitions and some surprises…!
Want more up to date information on Andrew and his whereabouts check him out on his social media pages!
Current and iconic photography can be found on his Instagram: @adbphotoinc