Life as a Sports Photographer’s Assistant

It’s uncommon for someone to go to school for something and then come out actually doing that job. It’s very rare for photographers, but James A. Ridley has basically done just that. He went to school to learn photography, claiming to be one of the last classes to do everything via film. Today, James assists photographer Nat Butler, who shoots a lot of important photos for the NBA. The stories he shares are pretty exciting, even when at times they might sound drab to him.

Because his work is truly just his, James has time to make photos on his own terms. That means using vintage lenses and his Fuji cameras is on the table.

James is also an incredible photographer, and shared his shoot of a burlesque performer as a human menorah with us many years ago.

Phobographer: you’re a photographer’s assistant. What’s that like? Talk to us about what goes into something like this when photographing basketball?

James A. Ridley: Assisting for basketball is quite different than assisting for a fashion or advertising shooter. In fashion for example we often work at a studio, you put up lights and the backdrop in the morning and break down in the evenings.

For basketball, the larger emphasis is on setting up remote cameras. I work with Nat Butler, and he will usually want to set up 5-7 remote cameras plus his two handhelds. The remote cameras work with strobe and fire simultaneously. The cameras are tethered, and the images transmit directly to the NBA. We will also maintain the strobes in the catwalk and will oftentimes place different types of snoots or different strobe layouts for different aesthetics. Prior to the game, we photograph arrivals and warmups. During the game, I manage Nat’s cameras and the arena strobes. Post-game is the breakdown and making sure all of the files are sent.

The day will usually start at about, 2PM and we will be leaving the arena at about 10 or so. This varies, of course, on different time games and also the importance of games. For All-Star, playoffs, and finals, the days are often much longer, and we will oftentimes have studio photography tasks as well. We also photograph the team portraits, media day, and other special events that might come up.

Phobographer: when do you get to shoot?

James A. Ridley: The short answer is I shoot in my downtime. I try and always have a camera on me. I currently shoot using a Fuji XT3. In the past, I have photographed using a Canon F1 and even a Rolleiflex. The Fuji is a small but highly capable camera that I can carry reasonably easily. My primary focus is of course working with Nat and making sure everything is working on his end, but I shoot as much as I can. When the decisive moment presents itself to you, you have to be able to act. Some games all of our equipment works flawlessly and I don’t need to fix anything. In other games, I am having to fix something every time out. I am usually tucked away in a tunnel where I can keep a visual on Nat’s cameras, otherwise, I am backstage somewhere.

Phobographer: Your photos have a film-like aesthetic to them. I know you’re using Fujifilm, but what makes you lean this way for this kind of work?

James A. Ridley: Prior to Fuji I shot Canon. I’d like to say looking back on my portfolio which spans about fifteen years at this point, it has simply been a natural attraction to the aesthetic of film.

I went to the School of Photography at Orange Coast College. I was part of the last generation to have the majority of their educational experience be based in film. In my intro class, we shot plus x 125. In my advanced classes, we were encouraged to experiment with different films. In my commercial classes, we used 4×5 and 4×5 transparency. There were only two digital classes offered at the time. Every other class was required to be photographed using film. We processed and printed ourselves. We were lucky to have two large darkrooms to play with.

In my commercial class taught by Rick Steadry we would receive two grades, one for the negative and the other for the print. Towards the end of my education, classes were starting to have the options of digital or film. My biggest influences are also film shooters. Bruce Davidson, Eggleston, Henry Horrnstein, Larry Fink, etc. I’ve always edited in a way that was reminiscent of film. All of the black and white images in this project are Ilford Delta 3200.

During playoffs and finals for 2019 I photographed using a Canon F-1. I shot about forty rolls. Unfortunately, during finals, I was refused hand checks of my film bags as we were traveling between Toronto and San Francisco. The x-rays didn’t destroy the film, but there was certainly some contrast loss. I processed the film myself in my bathroom, so there is always room for error there too. I like to keep the process as personal as possible.

Back to what I am currently shooting with, I believe in using the proper tool for the job, and Fuji just does that for me. I bought an XT1 when they first came out and used it as a second body for shooting weddings. I wasn’t blown away by the image quality. I loved the feel and weight of the camera, but the files just didn’t hold up to my 5D at the time. Fast forward to the XT3, and the files are so much better. Yes, my 5D still has the full frame edge and as much as Canon’s new mirrorless cameras are amazing, they are just so expensive.

Fuji ticks the boxes that I need. Size, price, feel, and image quality. I shoot using Canon FD lenses paired to a MetaBones SpeedBooster. The 20mm FD in particular is a favorite, followed by the 35mm. I am a big fan of the weight and feel of the old Canon lenses. Lately, I have started to use more of Fuji’s own lenses, which, so far, have been outstanding. I know Fuji has some great film presets for their JPEGs but I just don’t use them. If I am shooting JPEG, it’s on my iPhone. I shoot all raw on the standard Fuji mode, which is a Provia. I process using Capture One and rarely go further than contrast, crop, and color. I will perform minor retouching in Photoshop if required.

Phobographer: what’s been one of the scariest moments you’ve had on the job? And what about the most memorable?

James A. Ridley: I wouldn’t call any moment scary. I don’t get scared, but I certainly get stressed out. The absolutely most stressful was NBA All-Star 2022 in Cleveland. Nat was going to photograph the 75th-anniversary photo of the top 75 players of all time. I was to direct the building of the stage and light the set. I arrived at 5:30 AM the day of the shoot to find the stage was being built about ten feet off the mark that we had designated the night before. This placed it only about five feet from a wall, which did not give me enough room to build a truss that I was going to rig the hair lights to. The stage had to move about ten feet and it was weighed about 4 thousand pounds. Phone calls started going out. While this was happening, I also needed to build a 40′ canvas backdrop. I used a lot of speed rail, high boy rollers, and two 20′ canvase. By 10:30, we had taken apart the steel deck portion of the stage that it was down to its skeleton of speed rail and clamps. We had enough people, we all got together, did a team lift, and carried it ten feet. We found the proper position, and the hastened together crew began reinstalling the steel deck. By noon we had a stage. I lit the stage using a mixture of large soft boxes and Mola dishes. Black plex was the final piece and of course, the seating assignment which thankfully was not in my hands.

Soon Players, entourage, and media started arriving into the room and slowly began taking their assigned positions. Nat began doing his thing, and I did my best to help him out throughout the chaos. There were the top 75 players of all time and hundreds of other people of various positions within the NBA and media present. Nat took about a dozen formal frames and we were done. It was a huge honor to have such an important position in this historic photograph, and it was over very quickly. After the portrait, it was time for the all-star game. I was positioned on the catwalk to take care of strobes and rigged cameras and our second assistant was assisting Nat on the floor. Post-game we broke down Nat’s usual game setup. I didn’t leave the arena until around 1AM and returned early the next day to break down the set.

Phobographer: what’s the most boring part of the job?

James A. Ridley: I don’t know if I would call it boring but the travel during playoffs and finals can get tedious. Moving the gear, flying with the gear. Hanging out at airports and all hours. Flights delayed. Flights canceled. Finding the rental cars. That sort of thing. It’s just a grind. This was my fifth season. Nat has been doing it since 84. It’s a marathon.

All images by James A. Ridley and used with permission. Be sure to check out his website and Instagram page to see more. Want to be featured? Click here to see how it can be done.

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