Seattle Times staff photographer Bettina Hansen talks about photographing the 2015 Seattle Mariners spring training in Peoria, Arizona.
The most terrifying thing about photographing spring training with the Seattle Mariners is shooting the portraits. In photojournalism, we are mostly left to make the best out of whatever we’re given. Bad light, unlucky timing, uncooperative subjects – all serve as perfectly good excuses for not “hitting a homer,” if you like. Portraits are the one arena where we have almost total control — within reason — of lighting, lens choice, setting, mood … the list goes on. This amount of control stresses me out like no other.
I had never photographed spring training before this year. However, as an Arizona native, I was familiar with the meaningless games, cheap beers and legions of Northerners who use baseball as an excuse to flock to a spring eternally 75 and sunny.
First order of business when shooting for a special section: Who is on the cover? Nelson Cruz, of course. First stop: a Google Image search. One of the first things I found was Cruz on a 2012 Topps Heritage baseball card. The photo is perfect for what I have in mind. It has the essence, the natural, classic feel that immediately clicks.
The vintage theme immediately sticks in my head. Slight desaturation, classic poses, hopeful timelessness. This year also coincides with the 20-year anniversary of the Mariners’ 1995 fervor, and the christening of new cream and royal blue “throwback’ style uniforms. A new spin on old-time success. With the blessing of the boss, sports designer Rich Boudet, I marched on.
I got in touch with Tim Hevly, senior director of baseball information for the Mariners, and told him what we were thinking. Throwback uniforms. Most importantly, Nelson Cruz for the cover. But also Kyle Seager and Robinson Cano. And Manager Lloyd McClendon. All individually, during the first week of training. Then I crossed my fingers.
Not much was set in place when I got on the plane for Phoenix. But, as I had learned from my last two Super Bowl experiences, things tend to fall into place and make much more sense once you get on the ground. Best laid plans fall to the wayside for better ideas.
I had been stressing about how to give the portraits visual “pop.” I brought a reflector, but without the use of lights to add depth, I was afraid the bright hot Arizona sun might blast the bejeezus out of the images. Vintage view cameras like 4x5s allow for perspective shift for super shallow depth-of-field. I called Tempe Camera, the camera shop where I bought my first digital DSLR at while in college at Arizona State University, to see if they rented Canon tilt-shift lenses. Yes – and they had a 45mm, great focal length for the environmental portraits I had planned. With editor approval, done deal.
Once I arrived in Peoria, I was welcomed in and started seeing pictures everywhere. There is no better feeling for a nervous photojournalist than that. I did my best every day to find interesting interactions and moments that told the stories of the team, and illustrated the stories that Times beat writer Ryan Divish and columnists Larry Stone and Jerry Brewer were working on.
The first several mornings, I arrived at sunrise to scout locations at different times, because I still wasn’t sure when or where or even whom I would be photographing. This made for a lot of photographs of my left hand. Because when you need to test out the light, the best skintone is the one available to you.
I have to give a huge thank you to Tim Hevly and Kevin Martinez from the Mariners for getting the throwback uniforms shipped down for the portraits. They looked great, and I’m glad that the special section is running on a Sunday, which is going to be the day they’ll be wearing them for home games. Hevly also took a photo of me making portraits of McClendon, Seager and Cano.
I photographed about two weeks of spring training, the first week was at the end of February and beginning of March where I took photos of the workouts and took portraits. The second week was the last week of March, where I photographed workouts and games. When I returned the second time, I was greeted warmly by everyone on staff. Many of the players remembered me and asked where I had gone, and said they were happy to see me back. After covering Seahawks on the road and at home for much of the past two seasons and barely getting a nod of recognition from the players, this was bonkers to me. Totally, completely different environment.
My favorite moments came from this closeness to the team, whether it was Fernando Rodney talking on his shoe phone and dancing around nonstop, or Los Marineros joking around the dugout in Spanish. I hope it comes through in the images you’ve been seeing online and in print over the course of this spring. On to Opening Day!