Graduating photojournalists put their photo skills to the test at the SEC Championship

The script could not have been written much better: photographing the SEC Championship as one of the final assignments for the Red & Black before wrapping up their college career. For graduating Grady College photojournalists Reann Huber and Casey Sykes, the stage was set for them to show off the skills they had learned and the talents they have been honing.

Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith (3) holds up the SEC Championship trophy with Georgia head coach Kirby Smart after winning the SEC Championship. (Photo/Reann Huber, www.reannhuber.com)
Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith (3) holds up the SEC Championship trophy with Georgia head coach Kirby Smart after winning the SEC Championship. (Photo/Reann Huber, www.reannhuber.com)

“The SEC Championship not only reminded me how fun this job is, but it also got me excited for what other championships I’ll hopefully shoot later in my career,” Sykes, a staff photographer for the Red & Black said of the assignment. “The atmosphere is just so unique, and whether the team you’re covering wins or loses, there’s so much emotion, so great photos happen regardless.”

For Huber, shooting the SEC Championship was a perfect segue into what she will do next as a multimedia intern at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a position Sykes is just finishing.

“I think this experience helped me a lot to prepare for my internship,” Huber, the Red & Black’s assistant photo editor, reflected. “Sports photography is something I really want to do in the future and I look forward to continuing that post-graduation.”

Just as deadlines rule in the real world, the Red & Black was publishing real-time stories during the game on its website and published a special 8-page extra edition Sunday night, featuring photographs by Sykes and Huber, and editorial features by Grady Sports Media Certificate students Emily Giambalvo and Nathan Berg.

As they prepare for graduation next week, and their next internships (Sykes heads to Michigan six-month photo internship at the Grand Rapids Press/MLive), they shared some thoughts about what it was like to photograph the electrick atmosphere at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium as the Georgia Bulldogs were crowned SEC champions.

Grady College: How do you prepare to cover a game like the SEC Championship?

Reann Huber: One of the first things I do, and I do before every game, is double check my gear. Make sure all cameras, lenses, cards, and hard drives are working properly without any glitches because there is no time to have any issues before, during, or after the game. You also have to be well versed in who the key players are on both teams, offense, defense and coaches. The last of my main preparation for this game was understanding what shots I need and when I needed to get them in by. Putting out our special edition paper the day after the game could not have been done if we did not plan our shots beforehand.

Grady College: Other than location, how was photographing the SEC Championship different than a typical college football game?

Casey Sykes: The nerves. I felt queasy for a week leading up to the game because I was so nervous and excited. They were totally gone halfway through the first quarter, though.

GC: Tell us about the timeline of your day?

A favorite photo by Sykes. Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson (21) puts in his earbuds while walking back to the Auburn locker room after a team prayer two hours before the start of the SEC Championship game. (Photo/Casey Sykes, www.caseysykes.com)
A favorite photo by Sykes. Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson (21) puts in his earbuds while walking back to the Auburn locker room after a team prayer two hours before the start of the SEC Championship game. (Photo/Casey Sykes, www.caseysykes.com)

CS: We got there around 10 a.m. and walked around and shot tailgating activities until we were allowed to pick up our credentials at noon. Then, we got situated in the press room, sent off tailgating photos, made sure code replacements, captions, hard drive files, etc. were all in place for the game, ate a quick lunch, and went to shoot Georgia players getting to the stadium at 2 p.m. After that, we went back to the photo room to edit and send off what we had of those. Then we got out on the field around 3:20 to get ready to shoot the game. We shot pre-game and the first half and came back in at halftime to send in our selects from the first half, which was at about 6 p.m. Then we went back out, shot the second half and post-game, and came back to edit and send off those ones, probably at around 8:15 p.m., which was great because the special SEC paper of The Red & Black had a 9:00 p.m. deadline. Then, we hung out a bit longer in the photo room, I edited a few more of my favorites, and we went to hang with the writers (Nathan Berg and Emily Giambalvo) in the press box while they finished up their stories. We headed out from the stadium around 11:30 p.m.

GC: What facets of your Grady photojournalism education prepared you to cover this event so well?

RH: I could not have done what I did on Saturday night without the experience that I have gained going through the photojournalism program at Grady. While I know there are certain photos that I know I have to make, I have been taught to look for more than just what is right in front of me. There is always a story that needs to be told and I have learned to be able to effectively try to tell either side of the story, win or lose in this situation.

CS: Professor Mark Johnson always emphasizes the importance of people over things, and I’ve always tried to carry that with me when I shoot sports. He says stuff like, ‘don’t show me the game, show me what it means’. That goes a long way.

GC: We know the trophy presentation was chaotic. How did you position yourselves so well to get the incredible images that you did?

RH: The presentation of the championship trophy was probably the most chaotic photo situation that I have ever been placed in. To make a dynamic photo, I’ve been taught to either get higher or lower and with the crowd pooling around the stage, I knew I needed to get up as high as I could. Thankfully, they had a smaller side stage set up for photographers to photograph from that I could get up to. Granted, a lot of pushing and shoving was happening and that was one of the only ways to get where I needed to be but it turned out for the better in the long run.

CS: I made sure to secure the giant telephoto lens 5 minutes before the end of the 4th quarter to lighten my load, and then I edged as close to the Georgia bench as the police would let me as the clock wound down. Then at the final spike I literally full-on sprinted toward the center of the field to get the coach handshake shot which only kind of worked. After that, I looked for Fromm, Chubb, any other notable playmakers in sight and shot whatever they were doing. The actual trophy presentation was chill because they were up on a stage and the photographers just kind of assembled in front of them. Reann was obviously doing something right though! Her shots from that are so killer.

GC: How many pictures did you take? How many were keepers vs. those that were tossed?

RH: Between pre-game and the entirety of the game, I took just under 3,000 photos. I have found that in most situations I get 10-15% of my images that I take I can actually use and that number decreases even more now that I know what will be good for paper or our online galleries.

CS: The total photos I took was 3640. About 200 were keepers. Maybe only 5% ever see the light of day.

GC: It appeared that you both were all places at the right time. How do you plan your work flow when you photograph a game as large as this one?

RH: After shooting football a number of times, both Casey and I have a good grasp at knowing where and when to be at the right time. We balance it out to where we both photograph from opposite sides and we never stop moving. Staying in one spot for the entirety of a quarter is not going to get you a good variety of photos so you have to be able to keep moving and know when and where you should be.

GC: Do you have a favorite picture from the event? If so, which one and why?

CS: I do, and it actually has nothing to do with Georgia. Maybe two hours before kickoff, Reann pointed out that Auburn was gathered in the center of the field praying as a team. Immediately I started looking for Kerryon Johnson, their star running back, but I had only seen a handful of photos of him while looking him up on Google the night before, so I only had a vague recollection of what he looked like, plus they didn’t have their jerseys on. I finally recognized him just after the huddle broke. I suppose he’s used to the press, so he thankfully ignored me as I backpedaled two feet in front of him while shooting, and he started to put in his earbuds with a sort of determined, thousand-yard stare. It was so cool to see because in that moment, just from his body language, I knew he’d be playing in the game. I didn’t even notice the Georgia and Auburn symbols above him until I started editing and that was just the cherry on top. My favorite moments to shoot are always intimate moments like that, that no one else would get to see. When I manage to find them, I definitely feel like I’ve used my access well and have done my job that day.

Highlights of the pictures that Huber and Sykes took of the SEC Championship for the Red & Black are below:

To view the complete photo albums that Huber and Sykes photographed for the Red & Black, please view:

SEC Championship/First Half

SEC Championship/Second Half