Striking action portraits are a signature style for Dustin Snipes, a sports photographer in Los Angeles.
"In my sports action pictures I try to stay away from traditional, high-impact shots. Everybody with a camera that shoots 10 frames per second can get that. I want to be able to see the picture in front of me and not just pull the trigger. I want to get something unique.
"I definitely try to use a lot of color and movement, in my sports portraits especially. I really enjoy that. I spent the last several years doing sports action every day, but I like to create the entire environment. I would go to an event and find the perfect location and then wait for something to happen there."
An example he cites is a shot at a cross-country race in which a racer had the misfortune of falling face first into the course.
Snipes had scouted out the course carefully until he found a place where he thought something memorable might take place.
"I was using a wide lens, an AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED, and I was just on the other side of the ropes where they were turning right in front of me. I wanted to feel like I was in the action."
For most of his action shots, Snipes relies on the Nikon D3.
"I love how it feels in my hand," he says. "I switched over to Nikon because the focus is a lot better than on any other camera I've ever used. The people at Nikon let me borrow a couple of camera bodies and lenses, and I ended up buying everything they let me borrow. I loved how fast it was. I love the noise reduction. I shoot a lot of nighttime events, and the noise reduction is amazing. The other cameras didn't have that smooth quality to the picture that Nikon does."
To capture the action, "a lot of times I find myself using smaller lenses, an AF-S NIKKOR 70-200 f/2.8G ED VR II or a wide lens, like the 14-24mm f/2.8, to create something unique," he says. "I'll shoot with an AF-S NIKKOR 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II if I'm focusing tightly on the players. Because of its versatility I'm also able to focus fast enough to get the action."
For portraits, he'll switch to the D3X. "With the D3X there's a quality level that can't be matched because of the higher dynamic range. And the colors are amazing. On another camera, if a guy was wearing a white shirt, it would just be out of there, but on this camera I can get details inside of the shirt, instead of having just plain white on there."
Snipes will use an AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED lens for many of his portraits because of what he calls the "wide look" but also because "I can get a lot of action in it."
"It's kind of like I'm shooting in two different categories. They're portraits, but they're taken in a fashion where the athletes are doing what they naturally do, working out or whatever. I try to capture them in some sort of movement."
Discovering photography while in high school, Snipes scored a summer photo internship with a minor league baseball team (the Spokane Indians) during college. "That was my first sports-related photo job, and I really enjoyed it. I developed a pretty decent sports portfolio, so when I applied at other, bigger newspapers I would always get put into sports departments." His college didn't offer a photography program so Snipes' education came with experience. "Over the course of two years I did about four internships and really tried to keep taking pictures," he says. After school he landed a job with Icon Sports Media, a photo wire service, and moved to Los Angeles.
"I was getting a lot of game action. I was doing USC games or UCLA games, depending on what they needed, world rugby championships, sumo wrestling, dog racing, baseball games ... I covered pretty much everything.
"I never really thought I was going to be a sports photographer, but I liked that you could always get something different even when you were shooting the same sports. There's so much going on and so much action. Even though you are always looking at the same players, you can get so many different things. You can find unique things at the events that people see on TV all the time. There's a lot more than just what they're showing you."
Snipes continued to build his portfolio for Icon and freelance clients, working hard to develop a name for himself. One way he did that was by entering photo contests.
"I would enter a ton of sports photo contests, and I got lucky. One of my first big ones, about five years ago, was judged by Sports Illustrated editors. Right after that, they started hiring me. I started working with them a lot more. I also started working with ESPN because of contests I had won. I was getting my name out there."
Among his awards are the Nikon Campus Challenge Portfolio of the year, Photo District News magazine's list of 30 New and Emerging Photographers to Watch, and SportsShooter.com's Photographer of the Year, three times.
At the end of 2009 Snipes decided the time was right to become a full-time freelancer.
"It definitely is a leap of faith, jumping from a full-time position where you get a salary and benefits, to saying, ‘I want to do more.' But if I wanted to get to where I wanted to be I had to make that leap and transition over. I think it came at a good time and I was ready."
Snipes mixes in a few advertising clients—he'd like to do more—with his editorial work for publications such as Los Angeles Magazine, ESPN the Magazine and ESPN Rise, which focuses on high-school athletes.
He has enjoyed the creativity he is afforded in working with younger athletes, citing shoots with John Wall, the University of Kentucky star who plays for the Washington Wizards, and Brandon Jennings, who transitioned from European basketball to an NBA career with the Milwaukee Bucks.
Working with high-school players especially has been fun.
"High-school players are willing to do anything," he says. "They don't have agents or reps. They want to do things and are willing to try new things. I can be a lot more creative with them."
Whether he's shooting game action, portraits or an advertising campaign, Snipes relies on the comfort level his cameras afford to capture authentic photos, a quality he knows is important as he continues to build his career.