Photo Op


As a researcher here at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I am fortunate to be in involved in a variety of different ventures and projects throughout the year. Included among my many responsibilities is the planning, organization and implementation of the Hall of Fame’s annual Photo Contest.

{GALLERY}As a huge photography buff, the photo contest is something that I look forward to every year. Our contest, which is in its 42nd year, is one of the oldest and most respected contests in the country. The judging for the 2009 NFL Season occurred in April and we announced the winners shortly thereafter. You may have seen the winning images on our website.

Many people ask me about the process so I thought I would write a short synopsis of what happens each year.

The contest is open to professional photographers on assignment to cover NFL games. Photos taken during the NFL season, including the postseason and the Pro Bowl are eligible for submission.

This year we received around 1,000 submissions for the contest. This number is down a bit from recent years where we have seen as many 1,500-2,000 images submitted for judging. I believe there are several reasons for this decline. The NFL has tighter restrictions in terms of the number of people it credentials for NFL sidelines and the economy which has forced many media outlets to reduce the amount of people they send to cover games.

Nevertheless, the entries entered into this contest are spectacular. Each image that is submitted is carefully vetted and sorted into two categories - action or feature. Action is considered to be any photo during the act of a play while a feature is considered a photo of anything outside of an actual play during a game.

We bring in judges from around the country to perform the difficult task of determining the winners. Each year I personally invite a panel of five people to serve as our judges. They consist of some of the most respected photographers and photo editors in the field of sports photography. This year’s judges included Ron Kuntz, a long-time wire service photographer for UPI & Reuters news pictures; Ben Liebenberg, the Photo Editor/Lead Photographer at; Paul Nisely, the Senior Photo Editor at The Sporting News; Brad Smith, the Senior Sports Photo Editor for The New York Times; and Tony Tomsic, a freelance photographer who has shot every Super Bowl and one of the most well-known names in the business.

Here's a video that I did for our Facebook and YouTube fans giving a behind-the-scenes look at the photo contest.

Before the judging, we all meet for dinner. This is one of the highlights of the contest because conversation with this group is always interesting to say the least. From great stories as experienced from NFL sidelines over the years, to just some general football talk, to a few good jokes, it’s a fun evening. Since many of these shooters/editors have been to Canton before, I always try to pick a different and unique restaurant. So, this year we ventured out to a local place called Ninety One which none of the group had been to before. So, if you ever visit the Hall of Fame, you just might want to try a meal at 91.

I run a tight ship at least in the judges’ minds! We all meet at the Hall of Fame early on Friday morning to begin the judging. Actually, other than Ben who had to fly in from the West coast, most of the other judges didn’t mind the early wake-up call.

The judges carefully scrutinize every image before they trim the entries down to a healthy group of 25-30 in both the action and feature category. From there each photo’s merits are hotly debated until a consensus can be reached as to each category’s first, second and third place winner. Photos that did not place in the top three but are deemed noteworthy are given Honorable Mentions. The hard work is not done, however, as the judges still need to determine the Grand Prize winner between the two first place images.

Observing the judging is always interesting. Each year I try to determine which images will come out on top and invariably I’m wrong. The judges always seem to key in on several factors on each photo that only a trained eye can see.

The judging ended by early afternoon. So, it was off to feed our special guests. This time I took them to one of our local favorites, John’s Bar & Grille, a three-generation establishment that’s a few long football throws away from the Hall. Again, if you’re visiting the Hall sometime be sure to grab a bite there, you won’t be disappointed.

From there, the judges travel back home and I get the pleasure of informing the winners of their award-winning image. I find that each photographer, most notably the grand prize winner, has a different reaction. It’s not often that you call someone out of the blue to notify them that they have won $3,000 and a trip to Canton to be honored during the Hall of Fame Enshrinement Festival. This year’s winner, Ron Cortes of the Philadelphia Inquirer, seemed to take the news in stride. That may be because he is one of the most decorated photographers ever to win the contest. In 1997 he won the Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism as a photojournalist.

As this year’s winner of the Dave Boss Award of Excellence, he will be honored this summer at the GameDay Luncheon that takes part on the day of the Hall of Fame Game (Bengals vs. Cowboys).

It is a fitting end to a year-long process which starts all over again when the NFL season begins shortly thereafter.

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