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How a Uni Watch Reader Gets Such Great NFL Game Photos

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[Editor’s Note: Over the past two months, I’ve featured a bunch of NFL sideline photos taken by reader Jonathan Safron, who has seats near the visitors’ bench at Bears games. Today he tells us more about his great sports photography. Enjoy! — Paul]

By Jonathan Safron

I’ve been going to Bears games for as long as I can remember. We’ve had the seats in our family since the move from Wrigley Field to Soldier Field in 1971. That’s us in the photo shown above — I’m the one on the right.

Our seats in the “old stadium” (i.e., Soldier Field before the renovation) were high up in the south end zone, and I remember folks bringing in binoculars to the game. My grandfather would take things a step further by bringing a tiny 2-inch portable TV set (which came in particularly handy during the Fog Bowl, because the fog completely obscured the playing field).

Over the years, however, our seat location has improved. We now sit close enough to the visitors’ sideline that there is always something interesting to see — and to photograph. My Canon EOS Rebel T3i does an amazing job of capturing the sideline details, even with the normal zoom lens. This year, I’ve been using a telephoto lens (which, of course, complies with all stadium and league regulations for length).

I took sports photos for my high school paper and loved the thrill of preserving the big moments to look at later, and to share with others. With NFL action, the thrill is even bigger. Zooming in on the quarterback under center, I get a kick out of trying to reproduce shots that companies like Topps and Panini would use for collectible card images.

I’ve used some of those shots for little creative projects. Purely for my own enjoyment, for example, I’ve created a Justin Fields collage in Photoshop, utilizing all the different uni/helmet combinations the team has worn at home this season:

Back when linebacker Roquan Smith was on the team, I would get some great shots just following him around the field — he would inevitably find the ball on every play:

We get a rotating set of people sitting near us, and I’ve had mixed experiences with them regarding my photography. One Cardinals fan last year loved that I had a camera with me and asked me to send him my photos after the game. This year, in the same seats, an Eagles fan asked me what the score of the 0-0 game was, apparently thinking I was somehow not engaged with the action. I wonder, though, would he have asked someone using binoculars the same question? The telephoto lens apparently makes people think I’m with the press — or that I’m a space cadet.

At this point you may be thinking, why does this guy take a (relatively) expensive camera to each game when it’s prohibited to sell any of the images? (Being an attorney, I read the fine print on the tickets!) For starters, it allows me to see tangible evidence of the progress in my photography skills. Looking back through this season’s images, for example, I see that I’ve gotten a couple of shots where I recorded both the throw and the catch on the same play:

I used to think it was impossible to transmit the feeling of being as close to the action as we are fortunate enough to be, but when my friends and family members see my action shots, they say they feel like they were there themselves, which is tremendously satisfying for me.

But maybe it’s not a coincidence that in this three-win season, I’ve focused more and more on the other teams’ gear on the sideline than anything else. In years past, I thought of the sideline as either a place to get good close-ups of the other team’s stars or a place where a bunch of tall stuff and/or people got in the way of my action shots. But getting immersed in Uni Watch — especially Paul’s interviews with A’s equipment manager Steve Vucinich and Trail Blazers broadcaster Travis Demers — has made me realize that sporting events have much more granular levels of detail than immediately meets the eye. So when my girlfriend (someone who totally Gets It™ and even seam-ripped the side logos off of two caps for me) mentioned at a game this year that it looked like there were some funny labels on the Commanders’ gear, I zoomed in with the telephoto and spotted nail clippers, gas pills and Purell.  Looking through my archives, I saw that the Texans had a similar setup.  That was all it took for the sideline gear chronicles to become a “thing.” Now I look for interesting sideline gear at every game, no matter the temperature.

I’ve been happy to submit my findings to Paul, and it has been amazing to see the Uni Watch comm-uni-ty’s response. And now even the battle-hardened guys sitting next to me will point out, “Hey that trunk just opened up and there’s a bunch of helmets — take a photo!” It’s not the same as taking a great action shot, but it’s still an integral part of the game.


Paul here. Great stuff, Jonathan — thanks so much for sharing your story with us, and keep those sideline pics coming!


NBA Shorts Reminder

In case you missed it yesterday, my Substack column this week is an interview with a guy who collects NBA shorts. You can read the first part of the interview here; in order to read the whole thing, you’ll need to become a paying subscriber, which I hope you’ll consider doing. Thanks!

Comments (12)

    1) In the 7th graf, there’s a dropped “fan” after “Eagles.”
    2) Any chance the question of the score of the 0-0 game might have been a “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” reference, in which the answer to the line was “the Bears”?

    Gabe- how did I miss that? You’re absolutely right about the “Ferris Bueller” reference. I owe the Eagles fan an apology- he’s cooler than me!

    Wonderful pictures! I sometimes think of the Bears uniform as being too drab and plain for me, but your pictures really show how the unis still pop on the field. I love the way they look! Thank you.

    Portable TV set! I remember being a kid and sitting in Three Rivers Stadium’s upper deck in the outfield before they tarped that section off wondering why anyone would pay money to sit there when it was near impossible to see the ball cross the plate. (*the tickets were free if I recall correctly*)

    I bet it’s fun to go back and look through the photos you took! What a great idea.

    Very nice contribution. And cool artwork with Fields and the Chicago skyline! The Bears have always been one of my favorite teams, the Super Bowl against the Patriots was the first game I ever saw live on television here in the Netherlands. I just love their history, the colors and the logos (especially the coaches B logo on a hat, I have one too).

    As a Vikings fan, now I’m kinda hoping to see some of his sideline pics of the Vikings equipment setup this weekend!

    Great article. I’m 60. My dad got season tickets in 1984. South end zone also WAY up. Went to all the games living downtown. Now live in Mount Prospect and my aunt owns the seats which are now FIRST ROW North end zone. Hope the plan to move to AH works out but have a feeling the PSL will be too expensive. Thanks for the post.

    Hey Jonathan! Great work with the photographs, I really liked hearing your backstories for your pics. It adds an certain element that makes photos come alive. I am also an amateur photographer and I love sports photos like you. One thing I have done through the years is select a theme each year to give yourself a goal as you are taking pics. Obviously, continue to take the game pics but having a secondary theme keeps your eye alive, like you stated that you have been focusing on the visitors side this year during a down year for Da Bears. I am a lifelong Vikings fan so I do not mind that you have to suffer through a down year for the Bears but that doesn’t have to get in the way of a great photo opp!

    Thanks for the comments all! Any special requests from the Vikings fans for this weekend?

    Great Great read today. Nice amateur photos. Makes me want to get to a hockey game to get some action shots.

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