Architecture and design of all kinds have always been something that my camera has been drawn to. Buildings, homes, interiors, sports stadiums—even satelite dish arrays have a beautiful architectural quality to them. But there was one kind of architecture that I’d never been commisioned to photograph until a few years ago. The architecture of the golf course.
Golf is often a part of travel stories, it’s a huge part of the vacation industry, and it is a muli-million dollar opportunity for photographers. Golf is everywhere. And the chance that you’ll be asked to photograph a golf course at some point in your career is fairly likely. All it takes is some beautiful light, the right equipment, and some dry shoes.
Since extending my tripod legs on that first course in Phoenix, Arizona, I’ve found myself on hundreds of golf links both in the States and abroad. But, despite the fact that all of them have eighteen holes, grass, bunkers, and usually water of some kind, no two have ever looked or felt the same. There have been courses with cactus along the fairways, courses on the ocean, courses built into the shell of a hollowed out gravel quarry, courses at 10,000 feet, and courses built entirely on sand. There has even been the occasional golf hole built in someone’s backyard on a surface of recycled tires. I’ve also had the opportunity to photograph the architects of some of these masterpieces as well and they’re generally as eccentric and brilliant to meet as their courses are to play.
The many undulations created by a golf course architect can seem almost cruel to the poor bastard who must tee up his ball and navigate the treachery that the architect has created. Still, this can be something beautiful to photograph. The light that shapes and sculpts those treacherous features are what can turn an ordinary golf hole at noon into a thing of beauty at sunset. Still, how a photographer interprets a golf course philosophically lies somewhere between the architect’s vision of how a golf course should play, and the photographer’s vision of how best to communicate that vision to the viewer. For me, part of that comes through my own experiences with the game.
I played golf as a boy—my father having the good sense to take a six year-old to a professional for lessons—and I enjoyed my pre-teen Sundays rounding out a foursome that included three gray-haired men. I played local courses as a teen, and in high school I joined the golf team. One member of our varsity squad even went on to a fine career on the PGA tour. Spending much of my youth on the golf course was unknowingly preparing me for a twelve-year relationship with Golf Digest that still exists today.
The tools necessary for golf course photography are minimal, but having the right equipment makes all the difference. Foundationally, a sturdy tripod, a precision ball head, and a rugged bag that can either be carried or strapped to a golf cart are the minimal requirements for me. For a tripod, my two workhorses are the Gitzo GT5531 Carbon Fiber Tripod and the smaller Gitzo 2541 Carbon Fiber Tripod. I carry two because sometimes it’s nice to have a second platform to capture the exact same hole with a completely different lens and not have to switch back and forth between one tripod when the light is momentarily spectacular.
I use the Really Right Stuff BH-55 Pro Ball Heads as well as their L-Camera Plates and individual lens plates to secure the camera to the tripods. Finally, the ThinkTank Airport Acceleration Backpack is perfect when strapped to the frame of a golf cart—which prevents it from sailing out as I’m wildly carreening from hole to hole—deperately attempting to use as much of the last light of a day. It also is perfect when attached to my back when I have to hike to a high vantage point or other remote location on the course.
The lenses I use run the gamut from ultra-wide to super-telphoto—14mm-400mm. I always prefer to use prime lenses—24mm, 85mm, 135mm and 200mm being the lenses I use most—but I will occasionally use zooms for speed and framing accuracy when the primes are just a little too long or a little too short. I rarely use filters, but I often use a flag or gobo to sheild the lens when I’m shooting directly into the sun. I always carry waterproof shoes because the fairways are always wet in the morning after watering. I also pack several layers of clothes and warm gloves because once the sun goes down after that final shot, it’s usually a very cold cart ride back to the clubhouse.
Finally, I use several iPad and iPhone apps to help me with planning the shoot. Three of my favorites are LightTrac, which shows me on a satelite view of the course exactly where the light will be coming from at any time of day; Observatory, which shows me when I can expect the various phases of sunrise and sunset; and The Weather Channel, which tells me whether I’ll be shooting that day or reading a book until the rain clears.
Digital capture—and the ability to blend multiple exposures together to extend the dynamic range—has enhanced the possibilities of landscape photography in general, and golf course photography in particular. Because of that, I can now precisely convey what I saw on the course and sometimes even what I couldn’t see. I try to capture as much of the essence of the course as I can in a single exposure, but more often than not, I know I am likely to spend as much time in front of the computer as I did on the course while coaxing the final master images out of Photoshop. The tonal range of a golf course in the first light of the day, or just before the sun sets, is just too great to capture what the eye can see. To solve that problem, I usually make multiple exposures—five or six of them, one f/stop apart—in order to capture the entire tonal range of the scene. Once I return to the office, I carefully assemble them in the computer into an interpretation of what I saw when I was standing on the course.
I’ve used HDR programs like Nik HDR Efex Pro, Photomatix Pro, and HDR Expose 2 to blend the exposures with mixed results. I currently use both HDR Efex Pro and Photomatix for tone mapping and special effects. But most of the the time, I prefer the finesse that’s possible with bracketed exposures, multiple layer masks in Photoshop, lots of time—and a Wacom tablet. The resulting images sometimes take nearly an hour to perfect, but it’s the closest I think I will ever get to feeling like a painter.
Photographing golf courses is a peaceful and calming endeavor. It’s usually just me and the birds waiting for the sun to rise and show off the architect’s genius and the challenges that await the day’s first foursome. Unless it’s an ugly course. And I’ve shot a few of them too.