Photographer Donald Miralle on capturing moments, digital photography and sports
[Editor’s note: This is the first in an occasional series of columns by Tim Ball profiling those who create the images that stop us in our tracks: Photographers and illustrators.]
My career started out as a sports writer at a tiny weekly near my hometown in Northern California. Since then, I’ve worked in sports departments across the country, moving on to design and art direction, and have managed to do so with some degree of success. The odd thing is: I’m not much of a sports fan at all.
But this isn’t about me. It’s about a sports photographer who transcends sport; a photographer whose eye is acutely aware of light and his surroundings; a photographer who routinely makes images that stand out from a very crowded field. A photographer whose work — whose way of seeing — drove my love for sports design.
Donald Miralle, whose work for Allsport and Getty Images I first became aware of nearly 15 years ago, is all of these things. And his work — even though we’ve never worked in the same office, or even for the same company — has been hugely influential on mine. I’ve always found it difficult to define the “style” I have when it comes to design, but there is a starkness, a cleanliness, a sense of wonder and a touch of surprise to many of Miralle’s images… qualities that I’ve consistently tried to instill in my work.
He’s won all the awards (more than 40 internationally), has been named Sports Photographer of the Year by Pictures of the Year International, but now sets his own hours as a freelancer, leaving time in between shoots to paddleboard, surf, swim, and enjoy Southern California life with his wife and two boys. In this interview, Miralle opens up about his start, the state of the industry, the transition to freelance and commercial photography and the artistic approach he takes to work and life.
Tim Ball: Tell us a little about your background; how you got started in the business, and how you got to where you are today.
Donald Miralle: Growing up in LA I was really into two contrasting things, art and sports. As far back I can remember, which was probably somewhere between the ages of 3 and 4, art was always effortless and enjoyable to me. I remember being able to draw and paint with ease and at a much higher level than the rest of my peers, focusing on projects for hours. But art took a backseat to sports when I was about 10 years old, when a little show called the Summer Olympics rolled through LA. It made a big impression on me and I can vividly recall the spectacle and pageantry of the Games, going to gymnastics, boxing, and other venues and feeling such excitement waving the American flag and watching real super heroes in action. It was the beginning of my love affair with sports and the Olympics.
Our parents thought it was really important for us to get involved in sports, so they enrolled my sisters and I in club teams for soccer and swimming when we were 6 years old and I ended up swimming all the way through college. It wasn’t until my junior year while I was at UCLA, after the swimming team was cut because of Title IX, that was drawn back into my passion with art. Later that winter I was accepted into the UCLA Art School, and switched from a Bio major to Fine Art. Soon thereafter, I took my first photography class and something literally clicked.
TB: And soon after that, you joined the legendary sports photo agency Allsport (which later was absorbed by Getty Images). How did that come about?
DM: During my last year at UCLA, I was coaching swimming during the week and on the weekend I would look for random photography jobs. I usually would flip through the LA Times classifieds and work on weekends assisting photographers, mostly wedding, portrait, and architectural ones in the area. When I graduated I remember being a bit stressed out with what I was going to do with my life, and my dad forwarded me a classified ad for a photography agency looking for photographers, editors and photo researchers in the LA area. I went in for an interview with my ramshackle art book of snapshots I took in Photography 101, not really knowing what to expect but believing I could be a photographer. When I walked into the panoramic ocean views of Pacific Palisades seen through the glass offices of Allsport Photography, the worldwide leader of sports imagery at the time in the 90’s, I was blown away by the pictures hanging on the walls from legends like Pascal Rondeau, Steve Powell, Bob Martin, Chris Cole, and Simon Bruty to name a few. I immediately realized that I was way out of my league, so I jumped at a entry level position on the picture desk making $9.25 an hour to get my foot in the door. For a year I worked seven days a week — five days at the desk acting as the last filter for pictures from all over the world going onto the Allsport web site — and then shooting local events on my two days off.
I worked my ass off those first couple years, absorbed everything I saw like a sponge, kept my head down, saved what little money I made for camera gear, and borrowed or rented long lenses to be able to shoot along the way. It is not an easy feat trying to become a sports photographer, not only because of the cost of big glass but also back then in the days of film, photography was a craft to be learned and mastered. You would have to travel with a developing kit, shoot and soup minimal amounts of C-41 negative film on deadline for the wire and for newspapers, but mostly shoot on unforgiving E-6 chrome slide film, which would be shipped back to the office and made into sets for the magazine clients.
As an Allsport photographer you had to be able to switch gears and do everything that the newspaper and the magazine photographers were doing, but also be a salesman out in the field and do everything on a shoestring budget. There was little or no room for technical error, and you had to be spot on with your exposures, sharpness, and composition. And there was always someone right behind you who wanted to see you fail or wanted your position. It was really a tough business — one that you got into not for the money, but for the passion to make pictures.
TB: Given more than a few obstacles to success on that path, you still managed to become one of the agency’s most prominent photographers, with a very quick start out of the gate. How?
DM: Luckily I had mentor Darrell Ingham (Managing Editor at Allsport at the time), who saw my potential and drive, and took me under his wing. After a year at the desk, Darrell promoted me to Junior Photographer.
A year later I was awarded the “Sports Photographer of the Year” for Allsport. A couple years later, Getty Images acquired Allsport, along with some other, smaller, agencies, and our tight crew grew into the largest photographic content agency in the world. It was a really cool time for photography: We had a staff of some of the best young talent in the world under one roof, all pushing the envelope, and we now had the financial backing we didn’t have before.
When I was on assignment for Getty Images, I was always part of the A-Team, covering the biggest and highest-profile sporting events worldwide. I thrived during this time, always seemed to be in the right place at the right time, and won a bunch of awards including a couple World Press and Pictures of the Year International contests. I really enjoyed myself.
I held my staff job with Getty until I reached my 10-year anniversary in December of 2007, and resigned on good terms in search of something new.
TB: How different do you see shooting for an agency vs. shooting for a particular client?
DM: Like I mentioned earlier, shooting for an agency you have to be able to switch gears and do everything well. You have to shoot moments for the live, wire coverage; capture features for double-trucks in magazines; and also shoot branding for commercial clients, all at the same time. It is a true juggling act and back in the day before digital cameras, we would actually be juggling one camera shooting negative film for the wire and newspapers, another camera shooting slide transparency film.
TB: About that: How massive a difference is it now, not having to literally juggle a camera for each client? How has the transition from film affected your job, and the industry?
DM: Digital photography has made it so much easier and really opened the floodgates in good — and bad — ways. It’s made everything so immediate. Not only with images going viral almost instantly online, but also having the ability to see if you have captured the frame you need, so that you can move on to the next, rather than guessing or shooting more of the same to be safe.
Now with camera phones and Instagram, everyone is a photographer. And it’s great to see everyone’s creative vision, but in a way it has watered down the field. Digital is so much more forgiving in terms of exposure than film ever was, with almost 2 stops of latitude if you are shooting RAW files. The cameras are almost better than the photographers now and there is so much post-processing going on in editorial and commercial photography that I feel the real craft and skill that was needed to manually focus a camera and make images sharp and exposed correctly had been replaced with aperture priority, autofocus, and Photoshop.
But at the end of the day, you need to treat digital cameras the same way you treat film, and if you have that same approach, your images will stand out. And truthfully, whether my images were going to be on a website, in a newspaper or an ad, my approach is always the same in that I try my hardest to cover all my bases for the client: Tell the story, but also go for something different and artistic that will hopefully set me apart and make people look twice at a photo.
TB: Your photos always seem to have an artistic bent to them — at least the ones that I most respond to. How do you keep fresh, creatively, especially when you find yourself shooting something you’ve shot dozens of times before, like a Chargers game or a golf tournament?
DM: Every shoot is a little different, and there is even more contrast between comparing an editorial shoot to a commercial ad campaign. The hardest thing when you are covering another golf tournament or football game, especially at the same venue, is not to fall into shooting the same, old pictures over and over again. Say, a nice, clean tee shot; or a picture of the ball as it leaves the quarterback’s hand; those photos are very important to live coverage on the wire, but you’ve always got to be looking to capture a big moment or maybe some screaming light.
That is what I really like about sports like football. I’ve never been to two games that are exactly alike. The script is always a little different even if you are covering a losing team. I always try to get amped to shoot editorial, and try not to just go through the motions. When you’re in the moment and seeing things clearly, the cameras are really just an extension of your mind’s eye, and when things are flowing instinctually, I usually come back with something I’m happy with.
TB: You were a swimmer through college; you’re still very competitive in watersports. And some of your most spectacular images, to me, are in the water, or of athletes in the water (or, in many cases, both). Are you able to relate to those athletes in a way that other photographers aren’t?
DM: I started swimming not too long after I was able to walk, and was surfing when I was about eight, so I feel more comfortable sometimes in the water more than on land.
When I was in high school, I was an All-American swimmer and team captain but when I walked onto the swim team at UCLA, it was like being a big fish from a small pond getting thrown into the ocean with sharks. It was amazing to swim with, and against, some of the best swimmers and Olympians in the country, and to this day some of my best friends and best times of my life are from those years at UCLA.
Being in that world and being able to relate is important … And spending so much time in the water gives me a leg up on a photographer who can’t swim or relax or hold his breath for three minutes in the ocean or a pool. But what is even more important is how you connect with and conduct yourself with people — whether it’s an art director or an athlete making seven figures a year.
TB: And you’re now a competitive paddleboarder and surfer, right? Looking at some of your Instagram images from practice runs and race days, you seem to not just be making great photos, but also having a great time (alone, with friends, and with your family). This is something that, I imagine, is a little easier to balance these days as a freelancer, than it would be as a full-time staffer, right? Did the balance of work and personal life have a lot to do with your decision to go freelance?
DM: It’s ALL about finding that balance with your family and work, and getting your priorities straight. Especially when you have a job that takes you away from your home and family. It’s a constant juggling act, especially with a wife who runs a successful business and has a hectic schedule of her own, and two crazy boys both in school and sports. And their time is so precious because once it’s gone, you can never get it back.
That is probably the main reason I went freelance. But I also wanted to have more control over my time, over who I was working with, and have the ability to go a slightly different direction than the previous 10 years. Change is good, and sometimes you have to break out of your comfort zone to grow.
I also wanted to prove to myself I could do it alone — not just because I was a staff photographer at a big agency — and I think I was able to accomplish that.
Having the time to be a competitive paddleboarder is a luxury of being in control of my schedule and is just something I love to do, being in the ocean with like-minded people and part of finding that balance in life. It’s nice to win races and set records or goals for yourself, but that’s not why I do it. It’s hard to explain the feeling of being connected to the earth and the ocean as you paddle 32 miles across two Hawaiian islands, run into a blue whale, great white shark or a super pod of dolphins in the middle of nowhere with just your arms to propel you. You’re not scared, but at peace. When I’m in the ocean, I feel free and connected simultaneously, and it’s something special that I am able to share with my two sons now.
TB: Tell me a little about your work and relationship with LAVA Magazine, which seems to be right up your alley, and which also seems to have given you an enormous level of creative freedom.
DM: After I won the World Press Photo award for my black and white Ironman World Championships story in February 2010, the sport of triathlon — especially the Ironman — received a lot of international attention.
A publisher friend of mine John Duke, who I swim Masters with, and had decades of experience in the triathlon industry, approached me about starting a new magazine. Ironman (a.k.a. the World Triathlon Corporation or WTC) was interested in launching their own publication focused only on Ironman distance athletes and races. Not just to showcase the sport and the photography from it, but also sell ad space to the myriad of brands, gear, bikes, etc., associated with triathlon.
So in the spring of 2010 LAVA Magazine was launched, with the Ironman World Champion and the sport’s greatest ambassador, Craig Alexander, on the first cover. With 60,000 Ironman triathletes in the U.S. alone who would automatically receive a subscription to the magazine — in addition to the massive number of folks who follow it internationally — the magazine immediately opened to high circulation and rave reviews. As the Senior Staff Photographer, it is my job to shoot the covers and big feature stories, and the great crew at LAVA has always had faith in my ability and my way of seeing when shooting anyone from Craig Alexander to Lance Armstrong.
TB: Speaking of international competitions, how many Olympic Games have you covered now? I remember you were part of what was to be an absolute all-star team of sports photographers for Newsweek in Vancouver. And then that all fell apart pretty late in the game, right?
DM: The first Olympics I was remotely involved in (as something other than a fan or photographer) was the 1998 Nagano Games, when I was the Los Angeles-based picture desk editor for the Allsport team in Japan. I handled the graveyard shifts to make sure all the images made it to the wire stateside.
Since then, I’ve shot Sydney, Salt Lake, Athens, Torino, Beijing, Vancouver and London. Next year is Sochi. If I make it out to Russia in February (I have a credential but am still on the fence about it), that will be Olympics number eight as a photographer.
And the all-stars you were referring to made up the Beijing Olympics team that Simon Barnett at Newsweek put and dubbed “The Dream Team” — consisting of Vincent Laforet, Mike Powell, and me. It was a successful assignment as a whole, especially for those who were dialed in with social media at the time … But yes, it fell apart late in the game; not because of Mike’s and my efforts, though. One rule I learned from that experience was that art is greater than ego.
TB: You also seem to be shooting a fair amount of commercial photography these days. What are some of the big differences, in your mind, between shooting, say, a campaign for the Washington Nationals and shooting, say, the Nationals at Spring Training for Getty? Is it still a little surreal to be walking around and seeing your work on a billboard? Or a giant in-store display somewhere?
DM: My focus in the past several years has definitely shifted to commercial photography, and it is completely different than shooting an editorial event. First off, there are many more moving pieces: dealing with the brands and agencies, art directors and art buyers, digitechs and lighting assistants, etc. You have to be able to deal with — and have the social skills to handle — many different levels of production, which actually is more work than the photography itself.
Secondly, the environment for commercial shoots is totally controlled and scripted, while an editorial one is usually quite the opposite. When I’m shooting the annual campaign for the Washington Nationals or a catalog for Dick’s Sporting Goods, there are very tight schedules with talent, catering, wardrobe and makeup. But everything revolves around the image you have to capture for the client, which in turn revolves around the campaign the agency is trying to develop for the client.
In contrast, when you walk up to shoot a baseball game as an editorial photographer, you’re just there to document what would be happening with or without you, but nothing is revolving around you as the photographer. You are just a witness documenting what you see and hoping to freeze the moment in a compelling way.
But the biggest difference between the two is really the bottom line: Commercial campaigns have much bigger budgets and pay exponentially more than editorial does. The idea of working fewer days and making more money is always attractive. But it’s nice to be able to mix it up to keep your eye and your schedule fresh with editorial shoots which can also give you exposure for more commercial shoots. In a weird way, they are very complimentary.
TB: Tell me a little bit about how you approach portraits, which I imagine isn’t a whole lot different, regardless of the client. I’m sure you don’t always get an unlimited amount of time with someone, but you always manage to make it feel like they’re extremely casual and comfortable with the situation. That, to me, speaks volumes about your technique, even more so than the technical precision with which you work.
DM: Whenever I give students, young aspiring photographers, or my assistants advice, I tell them the best thing they can do for their careers is to learn how to shoot a portrait.
Some interpret this as developing the technical prowess to light the most complicated setup, when actually some of the best portraits are simply lit. I am actually referring to capturing the subject’s personality successfully, so that he or she engages the viewer. And to do this the photographer has to engage the subject first and foremost.
You usually don’t have unlimited time with high-end celebrity and professional athlete types (I’ve had anywhere from four minutes to four hours!) and it always varies from shoot to shoot. But for the most part, most of the athletes that I’ve shot are normal people who just want to be treated as such.
You do need to be able to be socially comfortable enough to connect with the subject and put them at ease long enough that they’ll let their guard down for that split second, giving you something to capture. So maybe the natives were onto something believing that if you take a man’s picture, you steal his soul.
TB: OK, last and most predictable question: What’s the most memorable shoot you’ve been on?
DM: I was told early on by a very wise editor that you are only as good as your last picture. I’m heading to Hawaii, Colorado and Nevada in the next three weeks and hopefully each of those will have some memorable moments …
Tim Ball is a freelance art director and design consultant currently working on Digital First Media’s redesign team. Previously, he worked as an art director at The Washington Post and in design and management positions for newspapers across the country.