Preston Mack, the Athletic Shooter

It takes an exacting attention to detail to keep clients such as ESPN, TIME, Reader’s Digest, BusinessWeek, Disney, Marriott, and General Motors coming back. Professional sports photographer Preston Mack has perfected his methodology, enabling him to shoot subjects he’s drawn to.

©Preston Mack

Originally from New Jersey, Mack left his hometown of Piscataway to attend the University of Miami as an Architecture major. He played baseball for two years while there, and began assisting two photographers during his third and fourth years of a five-year program. During his last year he also pursued a Photography minor.

“The mentoring you get as an assistant is the only way to learn, I think,” says Mack. “You can only learn so much in the classroom. After you learn what an f-stop is, you need to apply it in the real world.” After graduating in 1994, he went to The Los Angeles Times for a summer photo internship. When that was done, he did another internship at The Palm Beach Post, before a full-time job came up at The Sun Sentinel in 1995, where he stayed for five years, shooting every day.

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“I wanted to shoot sports and portraits. That’s my focus,” says Mack. “The only way I could do that all the time was to leave the newspaper. I didn’t like shooting news, or other things you have to do.” Leaving in December of 2000, and went out to shoot sports on his own, full-time.

Mack considers his time spent at the paper critical. It was during that latter-1990s period when he took part in the transition from film to digital technology. “I was able to use all of the new digital cameras, like the Canon EOS DCS 3, which cost $15,000 at the time. I couldn’t have afforded to buy one of those on my own back then, but being a staff photographer, you got to play with the new digital tools, and learn how to utilize the technology.”

Being a full-time freelance photographer for over ten years proved the right move. “It was the best decision I ever made,” Mack explains. “A lot of photographers hang on to their jobs because they’re scared, or not trusting their abilities to get work. You can’t sit around and punch a time card. Leaving is the best thing if you want to take better pictures.”

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Mack’s subjects of choice are directly linked to who he is. “When I first started, I was assisting for Sports Illustrated photographers in Miami. There’s so much going on in terms of sports in Florida. Sports are a huge part of my life. When I wasn’t playing sports, I was watching them. It was a typical guy-thing. I just loved sports, and understood them. Once I learned how to take photos, applying that to sports was easy.”

Crediting his knowledge of sports and his understanding of athletes with helping in his success as a photographer, Mack likes the bond he’s able to create with his subjects. “I’m able to relate to athletes,” he says. “Being almost 40 years old, I can still play a little. I think that helps a lot when I’m trying to connect with them for a portrait shoot.”

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When asked his preference in which type of sport he enjoys shooting most, his answer is clear. “Football is the best,” he quickly says. “You can’t beat professional or college football for shooting. It’s designed for great photos because every play is 100% full-effort, and it’s over in five seconds. It has the most amazing emotion and atheletic effort. It’s incomparable. I love baseball, but baseball is the thinking man’s game. Not a lot of great photos are all the time. It’s a great sport, but for pictures, football rises to the top.”

Ironically, Mack isn’t a football player, and makes no illusion about being able to read plays the way he deeply understands the subtleties of baseball. At one photoshoot, the catcher didn’t show up. Mack put down his cameras, picked up a catcher’s mitt, and caught for none other than Roger Clemens. It doesn’t take much sports knowledge to imagine few people can catch a Major League pitcher. “That surprised him,” Mack reports. “Because of that, he respected me. That kind of stuff matters when you’re dealing with athletes.”

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Corporate work is also part of Mack’s photographic services. He cites Disney as his favorite corporate client. As with football, there’s a reason for this. “They’re an amazing company to work for because their resources are almost unlimited. If you have a good idea and they need to get something done, almost anything is possible. I love working with them because they have the mentality of getting the best picture possible. The resources they provide are second to none.”

Mack was assigned to photograph Roy Edward Disney, son and nephew of the original founders of the Walt Disney Company, at MGM Studios. With the sun rising down Hollywood Boulevard, creating difficult shadows. The Disney machine sprang into action and a 30-foot by 30-foot silk was erected to block the sun. “Not many other companies will do that for a still photo production,” Mack says.

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Now in Orlando, like most other Florida photographers, Mack is location-based. He writes his excellent blog, from there, and travels widely for clients. His blog has become a resource for photographers, as he breaks down his process and gear used on shoots, including details such as appleboxes and sandbags.

With his methodology so meticulously documented, it’s no surprise Mack is very concerned with his gear. “I know many photographers rent a lot of their gear, but I’m against renting,” he says. “I like to have my own gear because I can trust it. I don’t know the person who rented a Profoto Pro-7b before me took care of the battery, or they dropped it or got sand in it. I know my gear is available when I need it, and I know it’s going to work. It’s in tip-top shape. I take care of it.”

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The well-cared for gear includes a Profoto 7B generator, a Profoto AcuteB 600 generator, a Profoto Acute2 1200 generator, a Profoto Acute2 600 generator, five various Profoto heads, four speed rings, two white domes, two small softboxes, one Octabank , one Profoto medium softbox, and four grid reflectors. A former Canon owner, Mack switched two years ago and now shoots a Nikon D3, a D700, and two D300 bodies. His lenses are a Nikon 20mm, 50mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm, and a 300mm f/2.8. He also has a Sekonic meter.

Mack is as passionate about his gear as he is about sports. “One thing I demand from my gear is reliability. It has to work. I can’t worry about it,” he says. “Whether it’s lights or PocketWizards or whatever, nothing is sacred. If I have any type of doubt, I can’t use it. If it starts acting up, I’ll switch brands. There’s too many other things I need to worry about. They’re paying me to concentrate on being creative, not to make sure a strobe fires.”

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Triggering his lights with PocketWizards, Mack has stories about the old days. “I own two PocketWizard transmitters, two transceivers, and six receivers. The receivers are a mix of the Plus II and the Classic. I used to use these other optical slaves. They were never consistent, and wouldn’t fire all the time. It was very frustrating, and I had to hardwire all my lights. If you try to do that for a portrait in the middle of a grassy field, it’s difficult to run zip lines around and hardwire everything. PocketWizards are a blessing. Now everything just works for me. When you deal with high-pressure portraits and athlete celebrities, everything has to work and work reliably.”

Not lacking in examples, Mack was kind enough to share one with us. “I took 58 photos in 20 seconds when I was shooting a portrait of Tiger Woods about two years ago,” he recalls. “That’s 58 pictures they could pick from. If any of the PocketWizards didn’t work, I wouldn’t have one or more of those photos. Everything worked. All four Profoto lights fired and every reciever synched up the lights perfectly, and that’s what a professional needs: consistency when it’s crunch time. I never had a problem.”

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Although Mack worked on the bleeding edge of digital technology in the 1990s, he doesn’t want to be a computer operator, spending hours retouching his work in Photoshop. “I believe you need to get almost everything in-camera in order to be a true photographer,” he adds. “A well-lit portrait is timeless. I see a lot of over-computerized work now. Photographs seem to lose their soul when you do that much digital work to them.” Mack uses Aperture to do RAW conversions, Photo Mechanic for digital editing and captioning, and Photoshop for cropping and minor toning.

Mack is not about to get typecast as someone who only shoots sports. He loves the excitement of shooting sports, but very much enjoys the intimacy of getting to know his subjects when shooting portraits. He is now accepting more advertising photography jobs. Adventures by Disney and Disney Cruise Lines are recent clients he’s doing such work for. His love of lit portraits, artistic eye, and professional execution ensure his future as a shooter in-demand both on and off the field.

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