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Snapshots: NBA photographer for a day

9/24/2010 - NBA

Ever wonder what it's like to be a courtside photographer at an NBA game? I had a chance to go shot-for-shot with one of the NBA's top picture-takers at a game last season.

Game time! My goal isn't to outscore Stephen Curry, Corey Maggette, Baron Davis, Eric Gordon or any other Warrior or Clipper. I've got higher aspirations than that -- trying to outdo a guy who puts up bigger numbers than even LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant.

Photo credit: J.A. Adande/ESPN.com

Meet Andrew Bernstein, the NBA's senior director of photos and the most prolific shooter in the league. He regularly gets off 1,000 shots a night. In the old days, that meant about 36 rolls of film. In the digital age, it's about a gigabyte's worth of memory.

Photo credit: J.A. Adande/ESPN.com

You might not recognize Bernstein's name or face, but any basketball fan is familiar with his work in his 28 years with the NBA. Here's a classic shot of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson from Bernstein's archives.

Photo credit: Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

Bernstein's love of photography began when he went on a tour of national parks with his father at age 14 -- and noticed that he took better pictures than his dad. The Brooklyn native wound up going to school at Art Center College in Pasadena, Calif., and landed his first gig with the Los Angeles Aztecs of the now-defunct North American Soccer League.

Photo credit: J.A. Adande/ESPN.com

The job does carry its risks, as you can see by Bernstein's attempt to ward off Ronny Turiaf. During the 2000 Western Conference finals, Bernstein found himself buried beneath Shaquille O'Neal, who didn't even realize he had someone under him until he heard muffled cries from a familiar voice. "Is that you?" Shaq asked. "Get the [expletive] off me!" Bernstein replied. Bernstein stayed in the game, but it took him a few minutes to regain his bearings.

Photo credit: J.A. Adande/ESPN.com

Bernstein keeps three cameras with various length lenses by his side, and has a red button that sends out a wireless signal to half a dozen cameras set up around the arena. There are cameras mounted on the catwalks high above the floor and on tripods at the back of sections 104 and 107, a camera on the side of the basket support, one on the bar extending to the backboard, one above the basket, and a floor-view, wide-angle lens in a hole in the bottom of the basket support.

Photo credit: J.A. Adande/ESPN.com

One of the first and still most famous uses of the behind-the-backboard camera was this picture of Michael Jordan taken during an exhibition game in 1987. It was used on the cover of the "Come Fly With Me" home video.

Photo credit: Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

In addition to the mounted cameras, Bernstein has assistants hold cameras, focus and zoom them and get them all ready for Bernstein to activate the shutter remotely. It came in handy here. For this definitive picture from the 1998 NBA Finals, Bernstein was on the baseline, his own view blocked by players. But he knew Jordan had the ball, and he knew he would shoot it. "I watched his feet," Bernstein said. "As soon as his feet went up, I banged it." Fernando Medina had a clear view from the opposite baseline and composed this iconic photo.

Photo credit: Fernando Medina/NBAE/Getty Images

As if Bernstein's 28 years of shooting NBA games for a living weren't enough advantage, I had to go against his arsenal with only one camera: a top-of-the-line Nikon D3 that Bernstein let me use.

Photo credit: Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

I did enjoy one technological edge: My camera had a motor drive, which allowed me to shoot up to six frames a second and capture sequences such as this.

Photo credit: J.A. Adande/ESPN.com

Bernstein has to be more selective because he is connected to the strobe lights mounted in the Staples Center rafters, and it takes the lights four seconds to recharge after firing. There are eight of these five-light banks positioned around the arena, which allows the professional photographers to get detail-enhancing, balanced light without in-your-face distractions to the players. (Flashes aren't allowed on courtside cameras, unlike the Buffalo Wild Wings commercials.)

Photo credit: J.A. Adande/ESPN.com

The signal to the strobe lights is sent by radio transmitters mounted on the back of the basket support. They're pretty reliable transmitters, which is a good thing because the equipment Bernstein uses isn't manufactured anymore. But every so often the signal doesn't go. That's what happened to Bernstein when Robert Horry took this game-winning shot in the 2002 Western Conference finals. It's still a touchy subject. "I shot it but my strobes didn't go off," Bernstein said. "I had a black frame."

Photo credit: J.A. Adande/ESPN.com

The strobes are worth the risk and the hassle because they allow photographers to get richer detail in their shots. A professional's instinct allows him to overcome the once-every-four-seconds limitations. Notice how Bernstein captures Chris Kaman at the perfect moment, just before the release of the ball.

Photo credit: Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

Even with the motor drive, I couldn't get that same shot. I caught Kaman too early, when his hand was blocking his face, and too late, after the ball was out of the frame.

Photo credit: J.A. Adande/ESPN.com

Other problems I had: Getting the basket in the frame and keeping players in focus. The camera's autofocus target is so small it's easy for it to lock onto the background and focus on the crowd. Bernstein gave me a couple of quick tips, such as zooming in closer and shooting vertical shots instead of horizontal.

Photo credit: J.A. Adande/ESPN.com

There. Much better.

Photo credit: J.A. Adande/ESPN.com

The best advice Bernstein gave me: "If you see it, it means you're not shooting it." In other words, you have to anticipate, not react. At NBA speed, by the time you think something would make a good picture, the shot's gone. I went into "trust the Force" mode, like Luke Skywalker trying to blow up the Death Star. I used my judgment to determine when something's about to happen, then started clicking. That's how I got this sequence of Corey Maggette dunking on Chris Kaman.

Photo credit: J.A. Adande/ESPN.com

I was drawn to Stephen Curry because from his face you can see he's still trying to figure out the NBA ... even though he's off to a great start.

Photo credit: J.A. Adande/ESPN.com

I wanted to see if I could capture the frustration of the Clippers' season in a single shot. This picture of Eric Gordon came close. What could be more frustrating than having the Golden State Warriors celebrate at your expense?

Photo credit: J.A. Adande/ESPN.com

One of the perks of sitting under the basket is hearing the conversations. Ronny Turiaf likes to yell "Come on!" as he did here and several other times when calls didn't go his way. It's too bad Bernstein couldn't have recorded a soundtrack for all of his shots from back in the day. "I used to love listening to Barkley and Bird and those guys go at it," he said. "[Sam] Cassell and [Gary] Payton were unbelievable. They never stopped talking."

Photo credit: J.A. Adande/ESPN.com

I managed to catch a blocked shot. Bernstein said these are the hardest pictures to get. They're so rare that when he snapped one earlier in the game he emitted the same "Oooooo!" sound my grandfather used to make when he hooked a fish.

Photo credit: J.A. Adande/ESPN.com

It's tough to compete with the array of shots Bernstein gets from all of his remote cameras. So how am I going to beat him?

Photo credit: Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

Well, remember that Robert Horry shot that Bernstein didn't get?

Yeah, I'm cold. Take that, Andrew Bernstein.

Photo credit: J.A. Adande/ESPN.com