She Gets the Shot: A Michigan State Student’s Journey to Becoming a Sports Photographer

I have always been extremely proud to be a woman. Once I started getting involved in sports photography while in college, I saw my gender as a way to prove something more.

According to data from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, for every two women employed in sports, there are on average just over seven men. This stat confirms the history of the sports industry as a “boys club” – because women don’t know anything about sports, do they? No, very badly.

I grew up playing various sports all my life. Being from Chicago gave me the joy of having several professional sports teams in my city with cult followings. All my life, I’d rather go to a Cubs baseball game than go to the mall or any other so-called “girly” thing.

This early fandom solidified my love for the sport at a very young age. When I got to college, I knew I wanted to work in sports. I didn’t yet know where I stood in the sports industry. However, two years after arriving on campus, I discovered my love for sports photography.

Sarah Smith taking pictures during a 2022 MSU football game.

The first sport I photographed was baseball – my favorite. I was the team photographer for the Kane County Cougars, a minor league baseball team outside of Chicago, and I was scared. I wasn’t just jumping into a new profession that I had only ever considered a hobby, I was entering an extremely male-dominated industry. I was shy and shy when I started, I was afraid of embarrassing anyone. I was afraid people would wonder what a 20-year-old woman was doing on a field with professional baseball players. Confining myself to photo safety well for the first couple games, I started to get bored of the photos I was taking.

One of my greatest photography mentors was fellow Cougars photographer Brad Repplinger. One of the most important pieces of advice he gave me was, “Ask for forgiveness, not permission.”

One of the first photos I’ve ever taken of a sport. Dark, badly cropped and soft.

I soon discovered that my ability and access had nothing to do with my gender. I started getting out of my comfort zone and getting different angles of the players before and during the game. Finding new spots in the stands created different angles, which allowed me to interact with the fans. I was never asked about my abilities. I even ran in the middle of the field, between innings, to get unique warm-up angles from pitchers and receivers. As my confidence grew, my content improved. Players were more aware of where I was with my camera, so I was able to take some really fun shots of them posing. It brought out their personalities for fans to see on social media.

When I came back to MSU to start my freshman year after working for the Cougars, I knew I had to find a way to be a sports photographer at MSU. A friend of mine had been involved with the WDBM-Impact website, and I asked if they needed sports photographers.

The response was, “We don’t have sports photographers.” Well, they did now. I knew this was an opportunity to pursue my newfound passion for sports photography. I became the Impact’s staff sports photographer, taking pictures of all the sporting events I could attend. With each match I shot, I found my shots getting better and better, and I realized that I could really do this.

One of the last sports photos I took. A vast improvement.

I tried to have as much confidence as possible while filming MSU sports, much like I had learned from my time with the Cougars. At smaller sporting events, I understood how everything worked and made connections.

It wasn’t until I photographed my first men’s basketball game that I understood why women are so hesitant to enter this industry.

I was nervous and shy walking through the Breslin Center media entrance, having to ask some people to direct me to the media room. I checked in with everyone I needed and was informed of assigned shooting spots on the floor at basketball games. I found the Impact spot (which I only had for half the game) and went to set up my camera gear before the game started. When I returned to my seat, there was a middle-aged man sitting where I needed to be. I asked him if he could make room for me since it was my place, to which he replied by telling me to find room on the other side of the floor. I was pushed around, and I let him. There’s no way of knowing if he made that comment because I was young, a woman, and a student, but it’s pretty safe to say that it wouldn’t happen if I was a man.

Sarah Smith with the National Championship trophy during the NCAA Photos Men’s Final Four Workshop.

I never really told anyone about this experience, as it seemed minor. For the next two years, I continued to work for the Impact and was even promoted to a paid position as sports photography coordinator. I bonded, I improved my sports photography abilities, but most of all, I felt extremely valued as the only woman on the Impact’s paid sports team.

The incident in my first men’s basketball game seemed minor – at the time – because I hadn’t yet really felt what it was like to be respected by my peers. My photos speak for themselves, and it doesn’t matter that I’m a woman taking them.

My camera took me to some pretty cool places during my time at MSU. I had the chance to shoot the 2021 Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl; 2022 Champions Classic; the first, second and third rounds of Men’s March Madness 2023 and the NCAA Photos Workshop Final Four. A common theme at all of these events was that I was the only or one of the few women taking pictures.

There will always be male photographers who think they can hustle female photographers based solely on their gender, but one of the most special things about being a female in the industry is the women’s network. who support me all around me.

I no longer have to try to prove my abilities to anyone. What remains of my four years at MSU is a desire to prove where my abilities can take me. I feel so lucky to be in a place where I feel valued by my peers, and this validation is going to move me forward. Leaving East Lansing safe haven as a strong woman in a male-dominated industry, confident in my skills and experience, is something I hope every woman who enters the field or field can experience.

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