The job description stated that "if you're shy, then this isn't the job for you." Well, I am shy, but I can fake outgoing and people-friendly when I need to. And someone was offering to pay me to point a camera. That someone was a company called PhillyPhanPhotos, which appears to be part of MLB Fan Photos, and the website's something called Printroom.
They were going to pay me about eight bucks an hour to run around Citizens Bank Park with a Nikon and a kit lens, and take photos of willing fans. The fans who agreed would be handed a card with a code on it, and a day or so later they could browse the website to find their photo. Which they could then purchase: $14.95 for a 5x7 print, $29.95 to download the image, and higher-priced variations of frames and layouts (including a calendar).
The guy on the phone explained that there was a quota I'd be expected to meet: I'd have to take 350 photos a night. Once I made that quota, I'd be paid $10 an hour, and there were higher bonuses when I passed higher numbers, or was the most productive photographer (the "MVP", inevitably). And I'd get a piece of the online sales of my photos-- five percent which, as you can figure from the prices above, meant that occasionally I'd could enjoy an espresso without guilt.
What could I say? That this was beneath me? That the pay and bonus structure was pretty much ignorable, since I probably wouldn't make quota and the money was chump change anyway? No: I needed money, and anyway, the job could be a fun way to spend an afternoon. I mean, work at a ball park? Get into the games and get paid for it? And maybe I'd be good at this. So I listened to the money talk, asked a question or two, and finally told the guy on the phone that I'd be there, bright-tailed and bushy-eyed , to be part of his stable of paparazzi.
(Teachable Moment: The word "paparazzi" to describe the hordes of celebrity photographers comes from Fellini's film La Dolce Vita, and the photographer friend of Marcello Mastroianni, whose name is Paparazzo.)
I took the subway down to Citizens Bank Park and arrived around 4:00 pm. The employees' entrance is located on the side of the stadium furthest from the subway, so I basically had to walk halfway around the stadium to get in... and then back the same way inside, to reach the Phan Photo station located behind Home Plate. But it's fun to watch the stadium getting ready: lots of electric carts zooming about, food vendors pushing hand trucks loaded with food and ice and stuff to their stations, and the Phils down on the field doing batting and pitching practice.
And CB Park is one of the nicest pall parks around. It's human scale, close to the field in most places, and unlike Vets Stadium, it's not walled off from the surrounding world. Gigantic breezes filter through the concourse and keep the air nice and fresh. The upper levels are reached via gigantic ramps and open stairways, so you can stand on a balcony and gaze out at the city, the plane landing at the airport, or the football and hockey stadia nearby. Early arrival to the meant that I could start to appreciate the place's design.
The Phan Photo station's in the stadium's concourse, located behind home plate. I introduced myself, and was given a quick orientation: here's your Nikon, go shoot pictures.
I learned more from the other people on the crew, so here's what the job is like. We arrive at the stadium between 4 and 4:30, and pick out a Nikon from a big box of'em. We load the Nikon with a freshly-charged battery, and the bosses would hand out freshly-formatted memory cards. Now, these are older Nikons: I can't find the model they use on the Nikon site. The main reason they use Nikons is that they offer the ability to annotate images with textual information, and they use that to track which photogapher took which picture.
So when we're getting our Nikons, we're also picking up decks of cards, which we're to hand out to the fans we photograph. The cards have code numbers on them, in batches of 50 or so, and we use the Nikon annotation feature to slap that code number onto the photo files.
At 4:30, we're presumably loaded for the hunt. The stadium opens its gates, and that's when we can go out among the arriving fans and ask them if they want their pictures taken. If they say no, then we move on. If they say yes, we snap off a few pics, and hand them a card so they can check the website for their photos later on in the week. We continue to do this until the game begins so, while everyone's standing with their hands on their hearts, we're scurrying back to PPP Central to hand off our memory cards. After that, we continue to work the crowds until 8:30, but we're not allowed into the stands unless it's during an inning change.
There are a few variations on this routine. A couple of people are handed cameras on monopods, equipped with LCD screens, and they go out to offer a kind of deluxe package for people that can be bought at the PPP desk. This job is more labor-intensive, involves a lot more salesmanship, and I'm glad I'm not doing it. They also had a green screen set up at the main desk, so people could get themselves 'shopped onto a nice-looking background.
So what about the actual photos? Were we given any kind of guidance here? Well, a little: "Try to get the field in the background" was one very important bit of advice. Or, failing that, the scoreboard. The management was happy with our using the camera's Auto settings (which did get decent results), but other photographers had some good pointers as well as far as locations, settings, and strategies went.
We pretty much had to use flashes, which I usually don't like: they blow out people in the foreground, making them look phony and green-screened from a fashion shoot into a nice, bucolic ballgame background. But, as it turned out, flashes were required because you'd get harsh shadows across people's faces, and the washed-out quality of flash photos also disguised blemishes, wrinkles, and other deficiencies. And the point was to sell the photos, not compose portraits. So our baseline was to turn the flash on and, if we were using manual settings, calibrate so that the foreground wasn't too blown out, and the background was still vivid. (Usually 100 ISO, a 1/200th shutter speed, and an f-stop of 13, at the start of the game but after the sun went down, Auto was fine.)
So out into the world we went, searching for photos. We had a few limits. The seats behind home plate? Don't even think of hitting those. Do not approach the players, and do not take their photos. (I suspected that their faces were the property of Major League Baseball.) I was told to watch J------ in action to see how it was done. This was advice both good and bad. Johnny was pretty much the group's champion: he could sidle up to people and become their best friend with almost no visible effort. I expected to develop a sale pitch that'd be my standard approach, but for J-----, every approach was unique. He was someone with that knack for people. Watching him was good because it was encouraging, but it was bad because you just knew that this was a talent he had while your own approach would be a skill you learned.
I didn't notice any alpha-male territoriality at the job. You'd expect that; if someone found a prime fishing spot where the fans practically begged you to take a picture, wouldn't a photographer stake that spot out and defend it like a wolverine? Not here. Closest to that was the Harry Kalas statue, where you could approach people and ask them if they wanted a photo taken with ol'Harry. I mean, you just know that some people are eager to be photographed next to a big bronze Golem holding a baseball bat. That was D-----'s usual spot, but he wasn't protective or defensive about it.
I have to admit that I went into the job just knowing that I'd never make the 350-picture quota. Even if I wasn't shy, the quota was one of those "motivational" things employers set up; just outside of realistic, a nice hedge or lever against an employee ("sorry we gotta let ya go, but you weren't meeting the requirements..."). And if you did find anyone who could hit it regularly, so much the better. As it turned out, the Phils had been losing a lot of games, and this was after the playoffs. Game attendance was WAY down, so almost nobody made the quota. I found out that 200 was a more realistically attainable goal.
(I know what you're thinking. Why not shoot lots of pictures of the people? Why not take ten shots of the same family pose? Well, they urged avoiding "duplicate" pictures, and offered a "duplicate ratio" that one had to keep low. So I generally took two or three photos of people, one Portrait orientation and one Landscape, and I'd try to frame things differently for that third photo. Anyway, it was a challenge to get higher numbers without gaming the system.)
So here's how my evening would go. At 4:30, I'd trundle myself on out to the 140-150 seats, which are at the far end of left field. That's where the first fans would head, because that's where the baseballs land during batting practice, and early arrivers can scarf up authentic MLB Baseballs if they stay alert out there. Kids usually gather at the front row because they try to beg a free ball from one of the players hanging out in the outfield. And when they actually GET a ball, well, there I am, ready to capture the moment and photograph them with their proudly-held prizes.
There are also adult regulars who park themselves there with gloves and sharp eyes, and on a good day they can grab two or three balls for themselves. You can't help disliking these guys. Not only are they depriving kids of a chance to catch a ball, but a lot of them were pretty crabby when I'd offer to do my photo thing. Not that I let on, of course. But the one time I got a ball, a kid asked me for it, and I gave it to him. You gotta keep your baseball karma positive.
I could usually rack up about a hundred photos by 6 or so. I'd start to move around a bit: a pass through Ashburn's Alley would get me some shots from the balconies. This was also when the spectators started turning up in the 101-107 seats, far off in right field, which also got a slew of batting-practice balls, usually from southpaw batters. From there, I'd finally gravitate into the bleacher seats, the 108-118 and 129-139 sections along the first and third base lines. These were the last to fill up, but they offered great shots of being Down Close to the Field.
For some reason, the bosses always insisted on working Ashburn's Alley. Which wasn't the best advice, because the only good spots there were the balconies above the 147-148 seats: everything else had a wall between it and the field.
My usual sales pitch began with something like "How about a photo for the Phils website?" Which as technically true, as our sales site is accessible through the Phils site. But it got people to agree and pose. I'd joke, chat them up, ask them if this was their first game or not. The I'd show'em the pictures and hand'em the card. Early on, I'd offer to re-take a photo if they didn't like it, but that didn't happen often: I wanted to move on, and they wanted to get back to their lives.
Of course, it got tougher as time went by, as they became more likely to have been photographed by one of the other photographers. So I'd throw in a jokey follow-up to a refusal, ("Nahh, you don't want that guy's photo of you. Mine's much better.") and sometimes, I'd manage to get someone to do a second photo.
As I said, the start of the game meant that we had to turn in our memory cards. But this also meant that our chances of shooting photos were severely reduced. This was because, as I also said, we were not allowed to venture into the seats while the game was being played-- okay, we could run down while the innings were switching over, but that was kind of a snatch'n'grab approach. So when the game began at 7 pm, the opportunities for taking photos were severely reduced.
After 7, we usually wound up wandering around the concourse, cadging photos off of people who were waiting to return to their seats. Ninety minutes of boredom and halfhearted attitude. Or, sometimes, we'd venture up to the upper levels (the 300 and 400 seats), where we had two advantages. The first was that these people were so far from the game that they didn't mind a little interruption. The second was that the high angle over the game field made for some spectacular compositions.
I'm taking a break from the job right now. The season ends this week, and between some task I need to catch up on, and some video shoots, I've told them that I'm not available for a few weeks. I have another job in the day, but that doesn't prevent me from doing the photo thing in a few weeks. But I might return in October, because they also work the Flyers games at the Wells Fargo center, and those might be a different kind of fun.
We've established that the job's pay scale was best suited for teenagers living rent-free. But the job was fun. It felt great to go out into the crowd and just Be Friendly, even if it was of the sale-pitch variety. You go out, trade a joke or two, and if you make people laugh and feel welcome, it makes the job go by very pleasantly. Sometimes I'd run into people who were enjoying their anniversary ("Next year he takes you to someplace YOU wanna go, right?"), and sometimes I'd find a huge group of people who were likely to rack up good sales for the photos. One time an office party asked me up to one of the private boxes to shoot the gathering, so we got everyone onto the balcony and shot that. Which might mean about twenty sales... or one sale, and an office color copier getting a workout.
But let me pass along this little story. My last night at the Park, the game had a big rain delay. When this happens, the bosses' advice was "Work the Concourse." This isn't exactly encouraging, because the concourse is a lot of food stands and foot traffic and shitty lighting and prestressed concrete. But I went into the baseline stands and saw these three men sitting together, watching the tarp being pulled over the field.
And I had a brainstorm. I went up and said, "Gentlemen! How ya doing?" (They grunted.) "Listen guys, we usually try to get pictures of the fans being happy, right?" (Grunting.) "Now, look at this. Mind if I get a picture of you guys looking miserable?" (Happy grunting.) "I mean, like this--" and I give'em a frown-- "with that tarp in the background, it might be funny." So they got up, frowned, held an umbrella limply, gave me big Thumbs Down signs, and loved the photo.
So I spent the next hour going around the concourse, going up to families, and explaining my whole "Let's look miserable!" scheme. They nearly all went for it. "Look like you just learned you're NOT getting a puppy for Christmas!" I'd say, and the kids would be laughing so hard that they couldn't look miserable. One kid asked if this was "acting." "Yep, sure is!" I said. "Sanford Meisner technique!" and his FATHER burst out laughing. I'd also insist on a happy photo, too, but that approach netted me about sixty photos, plus a lot of customers who got a quick bit of entertainment during a really sucky time at the park.