Super Bowl Elsa
Elsa Garrison for Getty Images.

For many of us, photographing the Super Bowl from the field is a dream assignment. Unfortunately, it’s not one many of us will every receive. Getty Photographer, Elsa Garrison, however, has been to the big game nine times. So, let’s live vicariously through her and find out exactly what it means to be behind the camera at one of the world’s biggest spectacles.

When do you typically find out you’re going to be covering the Super Bowl?

We usually start to find out who’s going some time in December. There are a couple spots left open for the local team photographers.

How many photographers are on the team?

We have five photographers on the field and another four up in the first row of the stands at the four corners of the field. Then we have a couple photographers who are elevated in the mid section. There’s also another shooter who’s even higher up in the stands shooting wider. It’s a pretty big team.

Where were you stationed last year?

I was on the field last year on the Patriots’ bench side. We divide the field up into quadrants. There was one more photographer on the Patriots’ sideline with me. We had two guys on the other side and then there’s one photographer who just runs back and forth and shoots from the end zone when the offense is coming.

So, you’re assigned a quadrant and you wait for the action to come to you?

Last year, when the Patriots were on offense, I followed them. If they were driving toward my quadrant, once they got past the 30 yard line, I’d go into the end zone and the other guy on that side would come to about the 20 to shoot the scoring drive. If it was going away from me, I’d stay in my quadrant and wait for an interception or a fumble recovery to be run back for a touchdown. That way, you have all your bases covered.

Pierre Thomas Saints touchdown
Pierre Thomas #23 of the New Orleans Saints leaps into the end zone to score a touchdown against of the Indianapolis Colts in the third quarter during Super Bowl XLIV in 2010 at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. Elsa Garrison for Getty Images

How does that set-up differ from a typical NFL game?

When I’m shooting a normal game, it’s usually just one of us on each sideline. You basically just follow the offense. If they’re having a really good passing game, I’ll go up the field. Or if the defense is particularly good, I’ll hang back and wait for a sack. If it’s primarily a running game maybe I won’t go up as far as I would for a passing game. You have to know the sport.

But, during the Super Bowl, you’re assigned a quadrant and it’s your responsibility to make sure you get whatever happens in your area. Regular season, if you miss something, it’s still a big deal, but in the Super Bowl, you really don’t want to be caught out of your position.

Have you had good luck getting action in your quadrants?

There have been games, like the Super Bowl in Miami with New Orleans and Indianapolis, my quadrant didn’t get a lot of action. I only got one touchdown the whole game. I was sitting in the first row of the stands on the Saints’ side. The last play of the game, the Colts were driving toward our end zone and I started thinking, “Oh, good. I’m going to get the game-winning touchdown.” Then he threw a pick and it was over. There have been some Super Bowls where I’ve seen pretty much everything, though.

What happens when the game is over? It always seems like chaos for photographers running onto the field once the clock runs out.

We’re all assigned to something for post-game. Last game, I was following Tom Brady, win or lose. That was my job at the end of the game. So, when the game ended, I left my long lens with one of the runners and I sprinted out there and followed him off the field. Some guys follow the coaches. Some guys take their long lenses and stand on the team’s bench and face the stage.

Is it bedlam trying to be the first one into the pile?

You want to get in that scrum early, especially if you’re short, like me [laughs]. If I’m not right next to the guy, I’m not going to see him. You have to elbow your way in. It gets kind of rough sometimes.

How long do you follow the players after the game is over?

Sometimes they’ll let you into the locker room after the game and sometimes they won’t. It depends on the team and the PR people. A lot of times, it’s not easy to get into those locker rooms. It’s not like baseball, basketball, and hockey where they let outlets in for the celebration. Usually, once the team gets to the locker room, it’s time to go transmit pictures.

Are you continuously sending out images over the course of the game?

We’ll usually have a team of editors as part of our big workflow. We’re constantly sending images to them, they’re editing and sending them out throughout the game. It’s a constant stream.

Super Bowl Elsa Garrison
Defensive end Michael Strahan #92 of the New York Giants celebrates after defeating the New England Patriots 17-14 during Super Bowl XLII on February 3, 2008 at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. Elsa Garrison for Getty Images

Do you use card runners to get the images back to the editors?

Yes, we do. We’ve tried to use the little hot spot things to use the wireless transfer right from our cameras. It works well if you’re trying to peg a single image and send it back to the editor in real time. But, last year, my quadrant was kind of a dead zone. It was so slow. There were a few plays where I thought it would’ve been great to get the shot out quickly, but I had to wait for the runner. They’re pretty fast, though.

How far do the card runners actually have to run?

Last year, the work areas were in these portable trailers just outside the stadium. We had a spot in between, in the outer ring of the stadium, where a guy would take all the cards from the runners and dump to the editors. It cut down on the amount of running, which saved time.

What about the shooters up in the seats? Do they have to rely on runners as well?

When I shot in the seats in Miami, I was plugged directly into a hardline, so everything I shot went directly to the editor, immediately. There’s no editing or erasing the bad pictures in that scenario. They see everything. You start thinking about whether you’re shooting too much and stuff like that. But, then you realize you have more pressing things to worry about than whether the editor thinks you’re shooting too heavy.

Do you edit in-camera when you’re on the field?

Maybe you look at the back of the camera for a minute just to see if you got it. Maybe you tag one you want the editor to see right away. I don’t shoot as heavy as some. During a Super Bowl, you definitely shoot a little heavier. But, you don’t have a lot of time to edit down your take anyway.

Also, during a big game like that, you just never know what sort of play will mean something. It could be a boring tackle, but then the guy is out for the rest of the day, that picture becomes really important. It’s best just not to mess with things.

What’s in your kit when you’re on the field?

I bring two Canon 1D Xs bodies. One has a 1.4x converter and a 400mm F/2.8 lens, which I’ll use most often. I’ll also have a 24-70mm F/2.8 hanging around my neck set around 50mm. I use that for when I’m in the end zone and someone makes a catch right in front of me. Occasionally I’ll bring a 70-200mm F/2.8 on a third camera body. If they’re on the goal line and you think one of the players is just going to dive over the pile, the 400mm can be a little too tight for something like that. 95% of the time, though, I’m using the 400mm lens with the 1.4x converter.

I used to shoot with a 300mm and a 600mm, but the new converters are really sharp, so I feel comfortable with it on the 400mm. I can also run faster with it.

Celebrating super bowl
“During the Super Bowl, you’re assigned a quadrant and it’s your responsibility to make sure you get whatever happens in your area. Regular season, if you miss something, it’s still a big deal, but in the Super Bowl, you really don’t want to be caught out of your position.” Elsa Garrison for Getty Images

When do you typically arrive in the Super Bowl city? Do you shoot the whole week or just the game?

It depends. I’ve done the whole week where you get there Monday and the do media day on Tuesday. Friday is typically the big press conference day. The last three Super Bowls, I’ve come in on Thursday. They’ll have all the media stuff pretty much all day on Friday. Saturday will have a few more press conferences, but it’s mostly just waiting for the big game to start.

When do you actually arrive at the stadium for the game to start shooting?

We get there about four or five hours before the game to start getting situated. Then we go out and shoot the little details around the stadium and people coming in. You slowly get to work a couple hours before the game. A few guys will go out and get people tailgating and then others will go and get warm-ups for the bigger players like the quarterbacks and the running backs. Sometimes the owners are milling around or celebrities are in attendance before the game, you can shoot that.

Last year, I shot the Patriots warming up. They weren’t in their uniforms, which is part of the reason they like to have shooters who cover the teams a lot. You know who the players are, even if they’re not wearing their jerseys. I know what the coaches look like and even the assistant coaches.

Usually we get to the field about a half-hour to an hour before the game. Once the game starts it’s just go, go until the end.

When do you start transmitting images?

After the kickoff and the first series, you try to get pictures of the quarterbacks and we start shipping those images right away. After the first four downs, I’m sending a card, whether they score or not.

Do you have a ballpark number of images you’ll shoot during a game like this?

It really depends on the game, but my playoff games the last couple of weeks have been around a thousand images. That’s about average. There are some people who shoot much heavier, and I will too if there’s a lot of action. Sometimes it’s a little less, too.

Does it get competitive with the other photographers out there trying to get the iconic Super Bowl shot?

Yeah! [Laughs]. My co-workers and I are all one big team and we know what our assignments are, so even if everything doesn’t go your way, you want to at least have a good showing. You’ve been picked to go to the Super Bowl, so you want to show what you can do. At the end of the game, though, it gets a little competitive. I don’t want to let anybody down. It’s not for the weak.

How do you decide when to shoot tight and when to step back for a more wide angle approach?

You mix it up a bit. If I’m in one of the quadrants and they’re kicking off to me, I’ll try to get to the middle of the end zone a little bit and shoot wider. That way you get the ball coming to the guy catching it. If I’m in one of the elevated areas, I definitely shoot the kickoff wide.

With big games, like playoff games or season openers and stuff like that, there will often be fireworks or a flyover or something and you want to shoot that wider. As far as the action stuff, goes, I mix it up a little bit. Most of the time, I’ll shoot a little tighter. I’ll shoot some full body and then some half. I like to wait in the end zone and wait for them to come to me because I feel like the backgrounds are a little bit cleaner. If the backgrounds are really messy, I’ll shoot even tighter.

How much of a chance do you get to really be creative with your shots? Or do you keep things more straight forward for the sake of the assignment?

Super Bowls are at night or indoors, so the light is all pretty much the same and you can’t really play. But, if you’re shooting outdoors during a day game, I’ll try and work with the light a little bit. Maybe I’ll find a little beam of light or something and I’ll try to make that work while a play is going on.

I like to shoot backlit a lot. I just really like the way it looks. Some people don’t like to do it, but why wouldn’t you? It’s beautiful? [Laughs]

Madonna Super Bowl
Madonna performs at the halftime show of Superbowl XLVI. Elsa Garrison for Getty Images

Where do you go during the halftime show? Do they push you off the field for the big production?

During the regular season, the NFL gives us all colored vests that we wear out onto the field. We get tan vests. It’s part of our credential and it lets people know that we’re allowed to be on the field. During the Super Bowl, there are different colors for different areas. The elevated people will have one color. The field people will have another color. Then, there’s one white vest. Each outlet gets one. The white vest is for coin tosses, pre-game stuff, and halftime shows. That color can go onto the field and up close. The rest of us are shoved off to the sidelines. They bring all the stuff onto the fields and you do shoot it, but from wherever you happen to be.

Do you have any personal favorite Super Bowl pictures from the games you’ve shot?

It’s hard to say, but I kind of liked the shot of Brady walking off the field last year. It was kind of sad. He’s looking up and the confetti is coming down. It’s a sad moment, and it’s a newsy photo, but I like it. I like the more subtle moments more than the standard action pictures.

One other Super Bowl, I got a photo of Eli celebrating. He was running right toward me and he just gave it up. I knew that was going to get some play. The Super Bowl was in Phoenix that year, and had the Patriots won, I would’ve had to fly back really early to shoot the parade. But, since they lost, I got two days off [laughs].

It seems like the reaction shots are often as rewarding as the action shots.

Yeah, I tend to like reaction photos better than the action stuff. There’s just more emotion in them and that’s probably the most fascinating part of the game. Even if your team doesn’t win.