Mike Nowak On the Field and Off
A childhood love of playing sports has been parlayed into a photographic career by Mike Nowak in Southern California. At high school in east San Diego, his love of playing sports was augmented by helping to document those sports. As he got involved with each new athletic endeavor, he would spend some time photographing it, starting with body boarding and surfing. His other major interest was college football at San Diego State. While shooting the players, he learned some portraiture techniques, worked with some other photographers, and began developing his own style.
While he took a few black and white photography courses in college, he considers his craft largely self-taught. “I was brought up in the film days of shooting Polaroids and creating your look through gels and other ways of processing your film, and it’s definitely a different ballgame now,” he says. “I’m glad I learned on film because it gives me a good base for my photography now.”
Hailing from San Diego, Nowak landed what many sports fans and photographers might call a dream job. Since 1998 he has been photographing the San Diego Chargers. He covers all aspects of the team, both home and away, and has complete access to every part of the stadium at all times. His work can be found on the team’s official site.
With a total range of events to cover for the Chargers, a variety of photographic opportunities present themselves to Nowak each day. “When you are shooting action, you are just living in the moment,” he says of an NFL game. “You are capturing a split second of what is going on in the game, whether it is a great catch or a sack or some motion on the sideline with the coaches or players. When you get into off-the-field stuff, you can turn on your more creative side and play with the lighting, go for some black and white grainy images of the locker room. You can just be there covering an event, but in that four hours during the game you can also have a list in your head of what you want to do creatively, whether its player introductions or the team stretching.”
Many non-playing opportunities present themselves to Nowak in a variety of locations. “I travel with them on the team bus and the team plane,” he explains. “From the beginning of the season to the end I try to create a story with pictures. I get behind‑the‑scenes stuff of players getting ready for games, going through their mental process when they have their hands clasped together, or with their head down in their hands, just thinking about what they need to do for the game.”
Nowak has captured everything Chargers, from coaches on the sidelines to players’ gear to fireworks over the stadium. “I tend to want to try to get everything,” he explains. “I want to be different, so I use remotes. I will put remotes up in the stadium to try different vantage points. We put a mount on top of the stadium so I can actually shoot with the camera raised up on a pole, shooting down on the stadium so it almost looks like an aerial shot.”
Remotely fired cameras also played a role in some award-winning photographs Nowak took of the team. “I put remotes in the tunnel when they come out for player intros. I did one last year that took a third place in the NFL Photo Contest. It’s our defense and it’s kind of a huddle shot. When Shawne Merriman was on the team he would rally the players together, the defense, right before a game. I started getting some good shots with the fisheye and I showed them to Shaun and I said, ‘This is what I want to do. I want to put a camera on the ground while you guys huddle around it and get a shot looking up at you.’ The players are pretty fired up and intense. He was all for it and so we did it. I put an eight‑millimeter lens on my full-frame Nikon camera and laid it on the ground and the guys gathered around. My main concern was it was going to get stepped on, because there not really looking at the ground the whole time, but they huddled around I fired off some frames. It all happened within 20 seconds and ended up getting a good picture out of it.”
The PocketWizard MultiMAX is the tool Nowak relies on for his remote shots and beyond. “I have half a dozen of them, and they work great,” he says. “I use them for my location lighting. I tend to shoot a lot of lights on location, just to have more control, but as far as remotes go in the stadium, I use the MultiMAXes, and I can fire them pretty much anywhere on the field. The cameras are sometimes 300 or 400 feet away if they’re on top of the stadium, and they work great—no problems.”
Recently, Foreigner played a pre-game event which Nowak covered. “I went out and used a pole-cam above the crowd,” he says. “I fired it with the MultiMAX, and the stuff turned out great.”
Nowak is not prejudice when it comes to alliance to any manufacturer of gear he uses to create images, shooting Nikon, Canon, and more. He has the Nikon D3S, the Nikon D3X, the Canon EOS 5D, the Canon 5D Mark II, and the Canon EOS-1D Mark IV. He has also shot medium format by employing the Mamiya RZ. “It was good,” he says. “Kind of like shooting back in the film days with the RZ body, but you had a detailed digital file. I shot our San Diego Charger Girls swimsuit calendar with the RZ . I’d like to play with it some more, for sure.”
Nowak dials in his exposures with a Sekonic L-358 light meter with the MultiMAX trigger in it. “It’s been in a swimming pool and it still works great,” he says, laughing.
Football isn’t the only sport Nowak shoots. “I have friends in the downhill mountain biking sports scene,” he says. “I used to race mountain bikes a few years ago. I still like the sport and I do it, but I’ll go out every year on the off‑season to try to take some really good pictures of those guys for the industry, for their sponsors. I have a lot of Profoto lighting—the B2 packs, the set of Pro-7b’s, and Pro‑8 Air. Since I own all that, I am able to create studio images outdoors and in daylight. It’s kind of fun to see what you get. You can get a guy going into a turn and is kicking up a little bit of dirt. You throw some lights on it and you can actually make a pretty dramatic picture of it.” He drives his Profoto gear with PocketWizards.
He is also shooting motor cross, and claims soccer is a particularly hard sport to shoot. When football season is over, Nowak keeps his skills up and things fresh by photographing everything else, from architectural work for hotels to corporate head shots.
Nowak doesn’t see himself straying far from football, or the Chargers in particular. He has won the Pro Football Hall of Fame Photo Contest, and has collected a total of five awards from them over the years. The competition is open to every professional photographer in the United States, and shots from any game during the regular season and post-season are eligible. No matter how late the Chargers will be playing each season, Nowak will be there, capturing moments on the field and off. Fans are counting on him, after all.