Taking Photographs Of Baseball For A Living

Albuquerque, New Mexico

March 8, 2020

Note: This article appeared in a B&H Photo email that I received, It is a wonderful story of ending up with a FANTASTIC job by trying a bunch of different jobs and learning from each. Taking photos of baseball games for a living - now that is something I wouldn't mind doing!

Jean Fruth’s Baseball Roots Run Deep

By Jill Waterman |

Jean Fruth is a diehard baseball fan. “Growing up in New York, with two great hometown teams, how could you not connect with the sport?” she asks. As a teen, she worked in a restaurant owned by serious Mets fans who had season tickets, “And they would take me to games,” she reminisces. “And my grandfather was a Mets fan, listening to games on the radio.”

Such formative influences foreshadow her ultimate path to becoming one of baseball’s preeminent photographers, yet it took many years of exploration for Fruth to put a plan into action. “My path wasn't obvious to me at first,” she notes, “and I did a whole bunch of things trying to figure it out.”

From Portraits to Sports

After discovering the magic of photography during a high school darkroom class in New York, Fruth’s interest in the medium resurfaced in a Northern California portrait studio several years later. She elaborates, “I began my photography in portraiture, not because that was my passion or my chosen path, but it was where the opportunity was.”

She had landed a position in a thriving portrait business with two women who took her under their wing. Recalls Fruth, “It was all black-and-white film, shot on location and very artistic, and they had a darkroom where they printed the portraits on beautiful stock paper.”

Although she only knew a little about the darkroom at the time, she started printing their work, and assisting on shoots, eventually landing a photographer role, while also helping to open a studio as a supplement to their location work. “As I was doing that, I was also taking private and group classes in portraiture and lighting,” Fruth says. “And at the same time, I wanted to explore different types of photography. So, I worked with a wedding photographer, and tried my hand at both landscape and fine art photography. Yet when sports presented itself as an option, I immediately loved it,” she says. “I knew I wanted to figure out how to make this my path.”

Discovering Baseball as an Art Form

Fruth was involved with her son’s youth baseball team, photographing his games while serving as a coach. “Once my son began to play, I developed a much deeper feeling for the game,” she notes. “You really start to understand some of the life lessons that baseball teaches—the patience, the teamwork, the acceptance of failure—all those things were very interesting to me. Also seeing the joy it brought to kids and parents, and how it connects generations, whether it's fathers and sons, fathers and daughters, or mothers and sons. So, I began to think of baseball really as an art form.”

Fruth’s son Simon winding up for a pitch during the 2007 Healdsburg Little League All-Star game, California

She started shooting regularly, covering her son’s games, as well as those played by other teams, all the way to the all-star game. After submitting photos of that game to the local newspaper, the sports editor contacted Fruth, asking for more. “Then he offered me the opportunity to shoot other sports for them,” she says.

Fruth expanded her coverage to high school football, but quickly realized that she didn’t know that sport as well as she had thought. After sharing concerns about the quality of her pictures with a friend, former sports shooter and legendary music photographer Baron Wolman, he introduced her to San Francisco-based sports photographer Michael Zagaris.

“Michael is the 49er’s photographer and the Oakland A’s photographer,” Fruth says. “I met him during the month of September, when football and baseball are going on at the same time. He's really busy then, and that’s when I had my opportunity to start shooting with him.”

Affectionately known as the Z Man, Fruth views him as, “The ultimate behind-the-scenes shooter. He interacts naturally with players, telling stories, making them laugh,” she explains. “He makes that connection. And he also has this incredible knowledge of the game and its history.”

Fruth converses with her mentor, Michael Zagaris, from a shooting position along the first-base line during a game at Oakland Coliseum. Photograph by Doug McWilliams

Zagaris soon became another important mentor to Fruth, introducing her to the world of major league baseball at the Oakland Coliseum, “the first major league ballpark that I worked in,” she says. “Working there with Z as my teacher was one of the best experiences that I can think of,” she adds, “especially shooting in front of the visiting dugout before the game.”

According to Fruth, the Oakland Coliseum is the only major league ballpark that doesn't have a rail in front of its dugout. “So, it makes the photos and the interaction with the players much more accessible. We were able to get these candid, fun images and wonderful portraits using a wide-angle lens. I'd be a completely different photographer had it not been for that experience,” she admits. “You’re not allowed to shoot in front of the dugout at other ballparks. If you try to do that at Yankee stadium, they'll take you away.”

Access to the Major Leagues

During Fruth’s early years photographing pro sports, she was preoccupied with issues of shooting positions and access. However, her approach to this matter has matured over time. As she points out, “There are many more photographers shooting professional games today than in the past, resulting in tighter restrictions, and fewer and fewer places to shoot.”

Teams are removing photo positions to add premium seating, leaving photographers jammed into photo wells during playoff games. “We're all making the same picture,” she says. “Yet, these days I'm a lot less likely to settle for a mediocre shot, and I'm much more driven to create something different, and not worry about position anymore. It really is a freeing feeling,” she says. “With planning and creativity, I now know this can be accomplished from all kinds of locations.”

Fruth accessed the patio of a restaurant overlooking the bullpen for an overhead shot of San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Dereck Rodriguez, warming up for a game during spring training, in Scottsdale, Arizona.

A perfect example of Fruth’s change in mindset is solidified in her description of a playoff game she photographed at Yankee stadium a few years back. “The first pitch was slated for 4:00 p.m.,” she says, “and I was in my assigned spot, lined up like a sardine and shooting the same thing as the other 100 photographers.”

As a native New Yorker, she couldn’t help but think about the beautiful light the crystal-clear autumn conditions would create as the sun set. “You don't get that type of light during the regular baseball season,” she explains. “And I'm also thinking the Yankees will probably be in the playoffs again next year, and it'll probably be scheduled for the usual 8:00 p.m. start time. So, I left my spot, and went to the top of the upper deck for an overhead with the incredible low light glowing in the late afternoon.”

Fruth got so excited by that one shot, she decided to leave the stadium altogether, to capture the luminous light falling on the outside façade. She confesses, “I missed half the game making pictures outside, but I really didn't regret a moment of it. That’s something I couldn’t have done in my early years of shooting. But when I did, it was like an ‘A-ha’ moment.”

Golden light reflects off the ornamental grille work atop the upper deck at Yankee Stadium during a late afternoon playoff game, in October 2017.

Further validation came after she posted the pictures to social media, and her mentors immediately chimed in with an enthusiastic, “Yes, yes, yes.” Says Fruth about this experience, “At the end of the day it's really about trying to make an iconic picture, an image that's going to resonate in people's minds long after they shut off their phones, or they close the book.”

An International Pastime, with a Grassroots Soul

According to Fruth, “Baseball is always being played somewhere in the world, every month of the year. The action is exhilarating,” she points out, “But there's so much more than action in baseball. The culture of the sport is so much bigger than what happens on the field. It's dreams, it’s aspiration.”

Baseball has a slower rhythm than a sport like football, which is high intensity from pregame drills to the final seconds on the clock. “There’s a lot more hang time in baseball,” says Fruth. “That’s why you can connect with the players a lot more. And then more than that, there’s the deep history of baseball and all the places it’s played. How small towns connect with their heroes runs deep. I love that, and I’ve experienced that all through my career.”

Stickball player in mid swing on the streets of Bayamo, Cuba

Her early work covering little league games for local papers made her keenly aware of the cultural aspects of the sport. “It's the fans, the parents, the emotions of the kids—especially the emotional kids,” she says. “There's an innocence to these games, it's certainly not about money and contracts.”

Fruth became passionate about documenting these types of amateur games, and once she started traveling to photograph professional sports, she began to seek them out everywhere she went. Venturing beyond the familiar structure of Little League, she focused on all flavors of play—from pick-up games in an open field to stick ball in an urban setting. Over time she came to refer to this aspect of her photography as Grassroots Baseball, which she has photographed around the world, from the Caribbean to small town America to Mexico to Japan.

She has a particular affinity for Latin American baseball because of the celebratory style of play, both at the grassroots level and among major league players. Says Fruth, “There are stronger, and more natural displays of emotion and celebration, which is one of the reasons why I was attracted to shooting in Latin American countries early on. It's fun to document them having fun and being playful with each other,” she adds. “They're just always having such a good time.”

The action reaches a high point in Mobile, Alabama’s Tremmier Park, during a high school game between B.C. Rain and LeFlore.

Yet, while capturing the action of these games is very important, Fruth notes, “In my grassroots work, I'm much more interested in a sense of place, geography, topography—cathedrals versus sandlots. These images need to tell the story, and ideally, show the culture if I get it all right and make it happen. Baseball looks different in different places,” she asserts.

Connecting with Baseball Greats

In 2014, Fruth was invited to give a presentation about her grassroots pictures at the Baseball Hall of Fame. “I spent the weekend in Cooperstown and also shot the Hall of Fame Classic game at Doubleday field,” she says.

She had previously photographed an induction ceremony in Cooperstown, as well as one at the Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. “After my presentation, I couldn't stop thinking about the vast differences between the two sports and their respective Halls of Fame,” she says. “Especially, how baseball is so much more steeped in culture.”

This internal dialog became the seed for an innovative pitch. “I approached the Baseball Hall of Fame and proposed the position to be its traveling photographer,” says Fruth. “The initial goal was to add a contemporary voice to the museum's marketing and tie it back to history, to attract a younger audience through social media platforms.”

Dominican baseball great Vladimir Guerrero riding in a caravan to his hometown of Don Gregorio, to celebrate his 2018 election into the Baseball Hall of Fame

What started as a trial run became a cornerstone of the organization’s marketing efforts as the social media platforms grew. “My role in the project ended up being far more reaching,” she says. “It provided almost an open canvas.”

In addition to contributing to social media, Fruth has had the opportunity to shoot for the organization’s magazine, create photo essays for the website, document the annual induction ceremony, add to the museum's permanent archive, and create images for museum exhibitions and special projects with Hall of Famers.

Through this work with these legendary players, she heard stories of their earliest days, which led to a new pitch: That of connecting her grassroots images with these legends and their stories in what would become her first book, Grassroots Baseball: Where Legends Begin. Says Fruth, “People have a lot of pride about where they come from, and these baseball legends are no exception. When you're a Johnny Bench, and you come from a town of 640 people in Binger, Oklahoma, and you make it all the way to the Hall of Fame, that's just a great story. Or Vladimir Guerrero coming from one of the poorest regions of the Dominican Republic, working on a farm and making a bat out of a tree branch. Hank Aaron starting his career at the height of racism and playing in the Negro leagues before becoming the all-time home run leader is a great story.”

The cover of Fruth’s 2019 book Grassroots Baseball: Where Legends Begin, shot on the streets of Old Havana, Cuba. Fruth is currently at work on her next book in this series, Grassroots Baseball: Route 66.

Most importantly, she says, “These were stories that fans had not heard before. And then seeing images of kids just like them playing baseball in that same place where they grew up, it's powerful and it's inspirational in so many ways.”

Passion for the Game

Fruth’s earliest grassroots images date back to 2010. “There wasn't an intention of a book initially, she points out; “it was more of a passion and a personal project. But as I traveled around the world shooting professional baseball, I always took the time to shoot the grassroots game.”

While such informal games generally offer more shooting options than pro sports, one big difference is the fact that, “Your subjects are often not accustomed to having a professional photographer take their picture.” Says Fruth, “Usually they’re just so excited. So, I let things play out a bit when they're posing for the camera. I feel like it's polite to let them do that. It’s important to remember I’m in their house.”

At certain times, Fruth’s presence on the field can even put a stop to the game. “I probably look like a Martian on the baseball field to them,” she says with a laugh. “You can hear the coaches yelling, ‘Please ignore her, keep playing.’”

She describes a game in Cuba when all the players suddenly stopped. “A group of kids started running toward me while I was shooting with my 70-200 mm lens,” she recounts. “I saw them coming, so, I grabbed my wide angle, and I got one shot before they toppled me.”

When a situation gets too out of hand, she’ll walk away and put her camera down for a few minutes. “I might go back to my camera bag, change a lens, just take a break from shooting. They’re kids, so in no time, they're back to playing their game and they forget all about me, so I can go back to shooting. Sometimes I’ll change positions, maybe take a long lens and go to the outfield and let them calm down that way.”

From the Ball Field to the Printed Page

Once Fruth decided to turn her pictures into a book project, it took her a bit less than two years to put all the pieces together—from selecting a publisher, to editing the pictures, to layout, to printing. She also had to approach the Hall of Famers about writing essays for the project. “We asked 16 legends to participate by telling their stories in the book and all 16 said yes,” she mentions.

As she started laying out the pages, the sense of place became vital to the flow. This is perhaps best illustrated in a comment from Hall of Famer Hank Aaron, who wrote an essay on growing up in Mobile. “Aaron was born and raised in Mobile, Alabama,” says Fruth. “As he was looking at that chapter of my book, he said, ‘Wow, this brings back so many incredible memories. This is really Mobile.’ That's all I want grassroots to be,” she adds. “Showing that culture, and capturing what baseball looks like in different places.”

In the world of book publishing, two years goes by in a flash, and as Fruth admits, “It was a steep learning curve. But now that I have one book under my belt, I'm always thinking about how pictures tell a story and work together in layouts,” she says. “You need to make all these decisions to avoid redundancy and repetition. I learned the importance of shooting details, which helped make chapter openers richer. I also learned about changes in scale, shooting tight and shooting wide. The variety of pacing in chapters are key, and both have been incorporated into my shooting style.”

Gear Talk

Fruth has been shooting with Sony gear since 2018, and she was named a Sony Artisan of Imagery in 2019. When shooting pro sports, she packs four bodies: a Sony a7R IV, two Sony a9s, and a Sony a9 II, which she likes for its voice-tagging feature. She says, “I use voice tagging to describe a play, identify a player, or even a location if I’m shooting grassroots baseball.”

To complement her cameras, she carries several zooms: a Sony FE 16-35 mm f/2.8, and FE 70-200 mm f/2.8, two of her mainstays when shooting pro baseball and football, an FE 24-105 mm f/4, which she uses when she wants to wander the streets with a single camera and lens, and an FE 12-24 mm f/4, “which makes beautiful stadium shots,” she says.

While she is often considered queen of the wide angle, Fruth considers her 70-200 mm lens to be the most versatile. “If I could only use one lens for shooting action, portraits, and to walk around and do what I do, I’d pick the 70-200 f/2.8,” she says. “That lens can do a lot, and it’s also fast. But generally, I don't want to have to choose just one.”

Fruth steadies herself for a long shot with a 400mm lens atop a Gitzo monopod, while two other cameras remain at the ready on each shoulder. Photo by Randy Vazquez.

She also carries three primes, a Sony FE 85 mm f/1.4, an FE 135 mm f/1.8 and an FE 400 mm f/2.8. When shooting pro games, the 400 is her third mainstay, which she stabilizes with a Gitzo carbon fiber monopod. She appreciates the light weight of both the monopod and lens, “Weight is a big deal to me,” Fruth admits. “One of the nice things about Sony cameras and lenses is that they’re half the weight of most other brands. I'm a pretty tiny person and putting gear in the overhead bin gets to be a little bit more of a challenge every year. It catches up to everybody, and I'm there.”

Rounding out her Sony gear is a Sony HVL-F60RM Wireless Radio Flash, which she uses occasionally for fill under harsh light. She’s also a big fan of Sony’s Tough series of 128GB SD cards with maximum read speeds of 300 MB/s and write speeds of up to 299 MB/s. “Currently, I have one Sony tough card and as I need new cards, I’ll probably switch over,” she says.

When traveling, Fruth brings all her gear along, packing most of her lenses and accessories in Think Tank Photo’s Airport International roller bag and using the StreetWalker Pro Backpack for the camera bodies. “I always carry all my gear on the plane, I never check it,” she says. “The roller bag works for the overhead bin in most full-sized planes, including international travel. And the backpack can go under the seat, if necessary,” she adds.

And to protect her most valuable glass, she packs a Think Tank Photo Emergency Rain Cover for her 400 mm lens. “It doesn’t require too much work to put it on, so you can get it on fast,” she says.

Finally, she relies on an Apple MacBook Pro 15" laptop, and two Sony XQD/SD card readers for backing up her photos on a 4TB Lacie Rugged Hard Drive, to manage her workflow on the road.

Camera Features

When it comes to functionality, one of Fruth’s favorite features of Sony’s mirrorless technology is the electronic viewfinder, “which lets me see the image in real time,” she points out, “This helps me adjust quickly, sun to shade, so I’m properly exposing, and I make fewer mistakes.”

Oakland relief pitcher Jake Diekman delivers a pitch to Tigers superstar Miguel Cabrera at the Oakland Coliseum.

She also appreciates Sony’s real-time autofocus tracking, noting, “This is a game changer for me in every way. It really frees me up when I’m concentrating on framing the image, because it does such a good job locking in on the eyes and the face. It’s so spot-on,” she says enthusiastically. “You’re locked on your subject, and now you can spend your time creating, and concentrating on how you want to frame that image. It really helps you do a better job and get the results that you're looking for.”

When shooting the action, Fruth often finds her best angle is lying flat out in the dirt. “That’s probably not going to change,” she admits, “but pulling up the screen, and being able to put the camera completely on the ground and hit the autofocus is a neat feature.”

And, last but not least, a feature that allows Fruth to up her game with social media is the ability to connect her camera to a phone and send images via Bluetooth. “Now you can send an image quickly, even multiple images,” she says. “It allows you to get work out there faster.”

Looking Back and Paying it Forward

In recent years, Fruth has learned a lot about social media from the young photographers who are now a part of her Sony family. “There's this whole group called the Alpha Imaging Collective who are very inspiring in the work they do,” she says. “I do social media, but not like they do. They grew up with it, and it's just so second nature to them. I know they’d probably laugh at my social media workflow, they're just so more adept at it than I am.”

Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, Jr. joins Fruth for a book signing dedicated to Grassroots Baseball: Where Legends Begin. Photograph courtesy of the Aberdeen IronBirds.

Fruth’s own “very positive and nurturing experience while growing in the industry” has taught her the value of giving back to the communities in which she lives and works. Her early mentorships that were so fundamental to her growth and success are now coming full circle as she embarks on a new role as part of Sony’s Alpha Female Creator in Residence program, now in its second year. Fruth was selected to mentor portrait photographer Monica Sigmon, with a mission to raise her career and craft to the next level. She says, “Our job is to support, give advice, and then help them execute.”

When asked about the advice she’d give other women seeking to embark on a photo career, Fruth comes straight to the point. “Make sure your portfolio is good and have a strong range of images that show you can handle any situation,” she says. “At the end of the day, I think a photographer is judged based on merit, not gender. You're going to be hired because you're good, and you show you can tackle the job. Create a website where you can store, show, sell, deliver, and organize your pictures. And, my biggest piece of advice would be to network, and find mentors,” she counsels. “Networking is what got me through my entire career. That's how I got to sports—and interning and working with seasoned photographers has been invaluable to me.”

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