“There is one thing the photograph must contain, the humanity of the moment,” - Robert Frank.
It started on the courts. As a child, Jon Lopez would pour his heart out on the hardwood, putting his all into every shot and defending his opponent like his life was on the line. Earning respect in the parks in the summertime is a rite of passage for any legitimate New York City basketball player. Lopez, like many, faced that task head on. The price of admission was blood, sweat and tears. Jon embraced the task and earned his stripes.
Today, Jon is still married to the courts, but in a different capacity. Lopez is now one of the best photographers in the game. The talented shooter has mastered the art of capturing player in their purest form on the court.
This is his story.
Recently we sat down with Jon Lopez to discuss growing up as a basketball player in NYC, getting published in SLAM Magazine, his keys to success and more. - By Christian Mordi @Thedribbledrop on Instagram and Twitter
TheDribbleDrop: When did you start shooting?
Jon Lopez: I went to Norman Thomas High School in New York and played with Luis Flores. I had a chance to play for the Academic All-Stars. It was an elite program that I had been cut from several times, but my junior year I made the team. I was really excited about that, but I had to choose my high school team or AAU. I chose the AAU team because they traveled and we had a chance to play against prep schools along the east coast. I later got a chance to go to a prep school and reclassified.
That year I had to take an art class. At that time, my grandmother had just bought a camera, so I decided to take a stab at photography. I was a beginner, black and white film class, but I started to love the film room. It slowed me down and helped me focus and enjoy the craft. It was a soothing and similar feeling to being on the basketball court. When I was angry, sad or anything in between, I could go on the court and express myself. For the first time in my life, I found a place that providing me with that same feeling of comfort and release that basketball game me and that was being in the dark room.
I went to college at Colgate University. I fell in love with photography again a year after I was done with school. I was playing basketball in summer leagues in NYC. and Bobbito Garcia actually asked me to cover the team and the league. When I wasn’t playing, I would stick around with my camera and grab photos of the game before or after mine. I would go to other tournaments and do recaps. At that time there were no photographers there, so I would bring my own camera and document the visual side of things. That was when the love affair starting picking up. I was marrying two things I really loved: basketball and photography.
TheDribbleDrop: What grabbed you in regards to covering basketball? Is it a personal passion of yours away from the lens?
Jon Lopez: As a kid, my love for basketball actually came from the playgrounds. I grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I used to play basketball everyday and my mom used to peel me off the court. As a teen I had dreams of playing in the NBA and I was fully enamored with the game of basketball. My love for the game came first and photography came along after.
TheDribbleDrop:What kind of gear do you use? What is your favorite lens?
Jon Lopez: I’ll start by saying that there's a misconception that gear is especially important to photography. Many ask, "what do you use to shoot that allowed you to capture that amazing shot?" It’s kind of like suggesting that Kevin Durant’s sneakers are what had that triple-double in the finals. It was not the shoes, as much as Nike would like it to be.
With that being said, your tools are still very important. My weapons of choice: I’m a Canon shooter. I started out with a Canon digital rebel, XTI back in the day. I elevated to a Canon 5D12 which I used for a long time. I now shoot with a Canon 1DX. My lens I use is a 24x70mm lens and a 70x200 lens. That’s probably my favorite.
TheDribbleDrop:What sports photographers work has influenced you the most?
Jon Lopez: Gordon Parks, who is much more than a sports photographer. He did a lot of iconic photos for Muhammad Ali that really grabbed me the moment I saw them. Neil Leifer, who is a legendary photographer. He is a older guy who is retired, but he grew up in the same neighborhood I grew up in. I thought it was fascinating that he grew up here but in different generations. I went to his website and reached out. I told him my story and that it was interesting that we both chose the same path. He actually responded. I missed the call, but he left me a voicemail. He told me that he checked out the work and was very encouraging. It was amazing to get the support of a living legend. He took time out of his day to checkout my images. I gave me confidence to move on.
TheDribbleDrop: How do you educate yourself to take better pictures? Do you read a lot on your craft?
Jon Lopez: I firmly believe that “if you can’t learn, you can’t thrive.” In my life I am constantly reading on top of always practicing. I’m always tinkering with my craft and reading on different perspectives on things.
When I started out, I wasn’t a traditionally trained photographer. I started out by reading articles. I went to workshops and conferences. I watched Youtube videos. I found a balance between reading, working and watching. I knew I wanted to be a sports photographer and I wanted to focus on basketball in particular. I begin thinking about who are the best in the world and what’s on their ranking list. NBA photographers have to be up there, Olympic photographers as well. I begin thinking: how do they get to that point? What’s the process? How do you get access to those events?
I decided to focus my energy to what I had access to, which were the leagues I played basketball in and the playgrounds. That’s where I got my practice in and cut my teeth. Practiced my timing, how light works, how to shoot in dark parks, etc. I was talking to a friend recently and we said that if you can make it in New York you can make it anywhere. I feel like if you can do basketball photography in New York in the summertime, you can do it anywhere. The conditions are very difficult in New York. The sun goes down and the conditions can become very harsh. To the naked eye it all looks good but on camera it is very difficult to get good shots. With that being said, the training grounds I had here in New York was great. I learned a lot and it helped me grow and groom my craft.
TheDribbleDrop: What is one thing you wish you knew when you started taking photos that you know now?
Jon Lopez: I would tell myself to be patient and not to strive so early on for perfection. Everything doesn’t have to be by the book exactly. To go out there and embrace failure. To embrace the imperfect. To continue to learn and find ways to invest in yourself.
Photography is not a cheap hobby or profession. Cameras can cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars. Photographers spend that money because it helps them achieve the goals and looks they are going for. With that being said, the education factor is just as important. If you can spend thousands on a camera, be willing to spend 500 on a workshop. To invest in yourself.
So I would say patience, embracing the imperfect and always look to learn something new.
TheDribbleDrop: Everyone's photographs tell a story. A photograph often tells the viewer the shooters style. What is it that you are trying to say and how do your photos accomplish that?
Jon Lopez: The word I would use to describe my style would be raw. I try to capture raw emotion. Raw action. When I’m on the sidelines I envision a younger version of myself. Still passionate, elusive and imaginative. I think about how I would want that to look. I try to capture those moments in time. I try to create that for the people in front of my lens and I hope they appreciate that same vision.
TheDribbleDrop: Your work has been in SLAM Magazine. Tell me about that experience.
Jon Lopez: When I was a kid I used to get my hands on the SLAM posters. I had them hanging up on the wall in my house. The first time I partnered up with SLAM was not as a photographer, but as a writer. I did a story on Angelo "Monchito" Cruz, who was a legendary Puerto Rican national player who just mysteriously vanished. I went down there, interviewed his son and other people. It was cool because I got to write the article but my photo was also published to accompany the piece. It was great felt good to be in something as credible as SLAM when I was younger. It made me know I was doing something right and was very encouraging. It made me only work harder towards my goals.
TheDribbleDrop: Tell us one question you wished you were asked in interviews that have never come to pass. To share something new and different about yourself and your craft.
Jon Lopez: I think the art is learning is something that translates to all factors of life with many successful people. On the court, if you can’t learn how to handle a double team or play out of the pick and roll, then no matter how gifted you may be naturally you’re not going to make it too far. In a sense, the same can be said about photography.
It may sound a bit cliche, but learning and embracing failure part is very big. I would come home from my day job and spend 6 more hours a night reading and absorbing. Playing around with my camera and understanding it in and out. It’s important that your tool is an extension of yourself. When I’m out there shooting a portrait or action, I want my instrument to flawlessly perform as an extension of myself.
Another part I would mention is goals. Setting goals and work towards them. I knew if I wanted to get somewhere I needed to set goals. First I set a goal to be the best basketball photographer in New York City. That was a big goal, but why stop there? Why not pursue becoming the best basketball photographer in the world? The interesting thing about it is I will never be that as I don’t even think that title exists. The beauty in that is that I will always be striving to be better than I was yesterday.