The low angle basketball picture — the camera right on the floor — has become the popular “in angle” these days and it is interesting to watch, for this was something I began doing back in the 1950s — and have ever since.
For me, it began with one of my first cameras while as a student, I photographed Kansas University basketball games, selling pictures to newspapers in Kansas City and Topeka along with the AP and the old Acme Telephoto networks. It was a 4 x 5 Speed Graphic which had a rising front. With the camera sitting right on the floor, you could raise the lens — and the perspective. One of the first really successful pictures I made that way was of the legendary Oklahoma A & M basketball coach, Hank Iba, coming off the bench yelling to make sure the officials called the foul on KU player Harold Patterson. The picture won several contests.
I began using that technique fairly regularly, swinging the camera on the floor from side to side following the action without ever looking through it. This particular technique was working to make dramatic pictures at the same time I read how the famous Texas sports photographer, Jimmy Laughead, told of the same technique in all the posed action pictures he made for teams across the country for many years. Jimmy said the low camera angle made the players seem bigger and more heroic.
In the 1970s when I was doing the Final Four for Sports Illustrated every year, I placed one motorized Hasselblad on the floor right against the padded basket standard, also alerting the game officials running the baseline that I had a camera there — not to kick it. That was how informal things were in those years. I tripped it with a wire to where I sat with another eye-level camera just a few feet away — but the low angle made almost all the good pictures. From the UCLA years, there was a memorable picture of Bill Walton in the Los Angeles Sports Arena that has been republished many times.
It was in the 90s when one of the NCAA tournament directors asked me what I thought of painting the apron black or deep blue. Right off, I said it was a good idea for I envisioned from the low camera angle providing a mirror image — which was exactly what it did. Only then, I moved to the far outside position on the baselilne to get more of the floor in the foreground — and the mirror image. Over those more recent years, I got three different double truck openers in SI from that position which every now and then, provided something more than just the reflected image. In 2001, Duke’s Mike Dunleavy hit two threes from my outside corner to wrap up the game for the Blue Devils. That low corner position was perfect for his shots right from my corner. A little luck never hurts.
But it did hurt — a little — in 1998 when two Kentucky players chasing a loose ball going out of bounds right in front of me dived right into the camera and me. It didn’t hurt that much because I knew it was going to be a really good picture.
Most of those pictures were made with the Hasselblad which I have always considered the best basketball camera. It’s 2 1/4 format lets you choose either a vertical or horizontal final version, depending on the action. And it also enabled me to get that floor reflection, if it worked out. However, the Hasselblad had no rising front like the Speed Graphic and somehow, you had to point the camera slightly up and I wanted it as close to the floor as possible. So from 1969 until 2004 — my Hasselblad years — I always raised the camera just the right amount. By putting a boxed roll of 120 film under the front of the camera.
I really miss the film years.