With pucks blasting off of sticks at speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour, and skaters often traveling at more than 20 MPH, hockey’s fast moving nature is a large part of its appeal.
Hockey’s unrivaled speed, however, is exactly what makes the game one of the most challenging assignments a photographer can draw. Stopping the action in a hockey game can be almost as challenging as initiating it. (Check out some of their work in the new LAKings.com photo galleries
Fortunately for the Kings, they have Andrew D. Bernstein and Noah Graham as their team photographers, both widely regarded as the top working sports/hockey shooters. The pair’s work goes a long way toward defining the Kings’ image in everything from pocket schedules to marketing collateral to club publications.
“Hockey is very, very difficult to shoot,” said Bernstein, a guy known for making it look very easy.
Bernstein has an impressive body of work that has appeared on everything from magazine covers to billboards. Getting picture perfect results, however, is never as easy as it appears.
“Things happen so quickly in hockey,” Bernstein explained, “that from the time you pick up the puck at the red line, to when it’s in front of the goalie, it could be a matter of two seconds.”
Said Graham: “You have to have your head in the game and know what’s going on. You can’t fake shooting hockey.”
In addition to being a sport that moves at a mind-numbingly rapid pace, hockey is the kind of game where the action can take place almost anywhere on the ice. While the object of the game is to put the puck in the net, oftentimes, the most intense action takes place away from the play.
“You have to anticipate the action,” Bernstein said. “That’s just something that comes from experience and from knowing the team and the players you are shooting. It also comes from relying on your instincts.”
Bernstein developed his instincts while growing up in Brooklyn, where his father was a longtime New York Ranger season ticket holder.
“I was a huge hockey fan,” he said, “because my dad had season tickets to the Rangers my whole life growing up. From when I was seven, until I went to college at 17, I went to almost every Rangers game. We were huge, diehard hockey fans.
“We lived and breathed hockey, so for me to work for the Kings was like a dream come true.”
Graham was also steeped in the sport thanks to a family member. In his case, it was his grandfather, a one-time semi-pro hockey player who got him hooked on the game.
“When I was a young little buck,” the Colorado-born, Santa Cruz-raised Graham said, “me and my mom would go back to New Jersey to visit my grandfather for Christmas. He had a lot of friends that he had played hockey with. He knew one of the coaches and an announcer, so we would go to the Devils’ training facility, meet the guys, hang out with them and watch practice.
“It started me as a hockey fan and it really stuck with me through the years.”
The two photographers are charged with capturing all the Kings action from two different shooting locations at STAPLES Center: Ice level and from center ice, halfway up the building.
It is also a family affair, as Graham and Bernstein are cousins (Graham’s grandfather, the one who took him to those Devils games, and Bernstein’s father are brothers).
“The good thing about ice level,” Bernstein says, “is that you are in the action. When you see a shot taken at ice level, you actually feel like you are right there, in the shot. When I shoot at ice level, part of what I do is try and bring the fan into the play.”
Positioning and anticipating the action aren’t the only challenges a hockey photographer faces.
“You have to factor in an extra wrinkle,” Bernstein said.
“We shoot on a set of strobes — electronic flashes — that are installed in the catwalk of STAPLES Center. That’s good and bad. The good is that you are able to get tremendous light that comes out of the flashes, the problem is that we only get one shot every four seconds.” Newspapers and wire services, Bernstein explained, are able to fire off more shots in rapid succession.
“They have the luxury of a motor drive and can shoot nine frames per second,” Bernstein said. “That means they can follow a player in across the blue line and just keep banging on the shutter until the puck goes in the net or the goalie makes the save. We get one shot, so that makes it extremely difficult to shoot hockey. It just takes it to another level of difficulty.”
For all the technical difficulty that goes along with stopping the action, Bernstein and Graham – along with fellow Bernstein Associates photographers who work Kings games like Juan Ocampo, Jeff Bottari and Wendi Kaminski – must call upon a largely different skill set when shooting portraits of Kings players.
The goal of the portraiture shoot is the same as capturing action, according to Bernstein.
“It’s still photography,” he said, “and it’s still the art of photography and the art of creating a photographic image and trying to illicit an emotional response from the person that is looking at the photograph. That part remains the same.”
Although the destination does not change, the avenue traveled does tend to be different for a portrait.
“The skill of having a rapport with a player, of being able to direct him, of having interesting lighting, of being able to work quickly – those are all factors you have to factor in when you do portrait. It is a completely different set of ground rules from when you do shoot action.”
Hockey portraits tend to be simplified by the almost universal easy-going nature of the sport’s players.
“In 25 years of shooting hockey players,” Bernstein said, “they have been the easiest and most cooperative players to shoot, bar none. It’s basically an egoless sport. I’ve shot athletes in all different sports, and any time I’ve shot a hockey player, Wayne Gretzky included, they’ve been extremely patient, gracious, respectful and very easy to work with.
“No complaints, ever, when you’re on a hockey shoot.” Both Bernstein and Graham suggest the profession found them more than they found it.
“I went to UMass,” Bernstein said, “and I was a little disappointed that they didn’t have a photography program there. But they did have a newspaper called The Daily Collegian, which is a pretty prestigious college paper. I worked for them and became assistant photo editor in my freshman year. I got to shoot all kinds of stuff, including news, sports and portraits.
“That really wet my appetite to pursue photography as a career. That’s when I transferred in my junior year to Art Center in Pasadena, where I got my degree. I’ve been here ever since.”
Graham, meanwhile, was drawn to photography at Cabrillo College in Northern California.
“I started college not thinking that I was going to be a photographer,” Graham said. “I took photography courses as electives to get me through my general Ed. It got to the point where it was the only thing I was really interested in. I was skipping class to go to the lab and do work, so I asked myself, ‘Why not focus on something that I love to do?’”
Both photographers cite timeless images of Kings’ icons among their favorites.
For Bernstein, a 1988 shot of Wayne Gretzky comes to mind; Graham is particularly fond of a photo from Luc Robitaille’s last game in Los Angeles. The images serve as bookends, one celebrating the beginning of an exciting new chapter in Kings hockey, the other shining a light on the end of a glorious era. That Bernstein managed to turn a simple shot of Gretzky stepping onto the Forum ice into a timeless symbol of the superstar’s time in Los Angeles, speaks volumes about unique vision.
“It was during Gretzky’s first season with the Kings,” Bernstein said. “In my head, I needed to get this picture of Wayne going onto the ice. The best way to do it was to actually be on the ice and shoot him actually coming out, but I wanted to do it where you had the ice and the famous scoreboard in the background.” Bernstein said everything fell into place to create a memorable image.
“This particular picture was shot with a fisheye lens,” he says. “I was probably six inches from his elbow. It was just a matter of timing, composition, focus and getting all the elements to work correctly. I was really proud of that picture.
“I love that picture.”
Graham’s personal favorite, on the other hand, is an image of Robitaille walking away from his Kings career and into his post-hockey life.
“It’s a shot I took last year after Luc’s last game,” Graham said. “He was walking down the hallway with his son. They were both wearing Robitaille jerseys. It was after his interviews, they were taking him back to the locker room. It was him and his son in a long hallway. It felt like a really cool moment that I was able to be there for.”
Those great moments are typically the culmination of years of training, and even then, it doesn’t hurt to have the photography gods smiling down on you.
“It’s knowledge of the game,” Bernstein said, “a trust in your instincts, complete knowledge and confidence in your equipment, technically speaking, and a pretty good element of luck.”
In Bernstein and Graham, and the entire Bernstein Associates photography family, the Kings feel like they’ve been lucky, too.
Check out some of their work in the new LAKings.com photo galleries.
-Written by Doug Ward. Originally printed in the 2006-07 Kings Yearbook.