Few photographers work harder than Al Bello, a sports photographer with 26 years of experience under his belt, and by his account the last four months have been his busiest yet. The Getty Images chief sports photographer kicked off the summer covering the Belmont stakes. He then headed to the Rio Olympics for a month, often working up to 18-hour days to cover virtually every aquatic event. From there, he dived head first into the U.S. Open, finishing up just in time for the end of baseball season and the start of hockey and basketball.
Bello started out as a darkroom assistant for a local town paper in Long Island, shooting boxing on weekends. He worked his way up to a sports photographer job for All Sport in Los Angeles until Getty Images acquired the picture agency in 1998. Now, Bello not only shoot, he also helps manage other photographers on the field and acts as a liaison between them and his bosses.
Bello spoke to TIME LightBox about his schedule, his process, and the pictures that took him a quarter of a century to capture.
Josh Raab: You have had a wildly productive past few months. How are you feeling?
Al Bello: It’s been one of the most intense four months of my life as far as work goes. Honestly Josh, in New York, I could work seven days a week if I wanted to. There’s just always something going on. You’ve got two baseball teams, two basketball teams, two football teams, three hockey teams if you include New Jersey. You’ve got boxing coming to the Garden, you’ve got Mixed Martial Arts now licensed here in New York. I’m always doing something, whether it’s here or somewhere else. I don’t have to worry about not having work. I’m busy all the time.
What’s been very evident to me is the amount of hours spent at each event which wore me out a little bit at the end of the summer. It was very stressful on my family. It took a lot out of everybody honestly.
I noticed for the Olympics you covered entirely aquatic sports. Why is that?
Because it’s kind of what I’ve migrated to. It’s a pretty specialized thing to do and requires a whole different mindset then let’s say someone who’s roaming around the Olympics, going from event to event. It’s this very intense dedicated preparation-based job to do, and I’ve done it the last three Olympics. There’s been a team of three of us who just work together and we’re pretty comfortable with each other.
At an event like an Olympics, we’ve got a team of 140 people, all with separate jobs and everybody’s got to do their part. A steady team of editors and a steady team of IT people to help us get the images from the cameras to the editors both at the main press center and back at the office.
What does a typical shoot day at the Olympics look like?
Starting early in the morning, way until the wee hours. So, with swimming we’re out the door at 8:30 in the morning because the swimming starts at 10. That goes till 12:30, 1 o’clock [in the morning].
At sporting events what is the process of getting the images from your camera to viewers?
Our job is to take the pictures and then we have ethernet lines that go directly from the cameras to a box that carries the signal to our editors [who] get them out. So, our goal for let’s say the Men’s 100-meter final was to get the picture out in 120 seconds or less, but we got our first pictures out within a minute.
For the U.S. Open [it is] the same idea, but on a much smaller scale. So instead of having a team of 140 people, we had a team of around sixteen people. Six photographers, three editors, maybe a runner. And then we’d look at the schedule that day. I’ll tell everybody, “You’re going to this court, that court, these are the people playing. These are our assignments, we have to respond to that need, get racket shots of this player or that player.”
When I’m by myself, my computer is in front of me, I take the card, load [it onto] the computer, and transmit within two to five minutes. Easy. Football is different. I have to leave the field, run in the back [to the press tent], get it done there and run back out again because things are happening. There’s a lot of running up and down the field. If it’s a bigger game, a runner would come out, get the card from us, deliver it back to the editor.
What camera gear do you usually bring to each event?
I’ll always have a long lens, medium zoom, and a wide lens with me at all times. These days I’m carrying a 200 to 400 mm lens as my long lens. Sometimes it’s straight up 400. And then I have a 70-200mm medium lens zoom, and I have a 16-35mm or a 24-70mm wide range depending on the event. Sometimes I’ll have a 14mm [ultra wide angle lens] with me.
Lately, I have been bringing studio lighting. I’ve been bringing it to the field with me to try and do some different stuff to keep me happy.
How do you decide where each photographer is going to stand at a sporting event?
There’s no room for just going rogue. For a big event or for a multi-day event, let’s say baseball playoffs, we absolutely will rotate positions every game. Each photographer gets a chance to shoot in what they call the prime position, or a position that might produce the most photos. But then what happens is they put all of the pool agencies together. Getty, Associated Press, Reuters, AFP, and a couple of other agencies.
I’m not going to lie to you. I don’t think anyone’s going to get much better than what we get. Once you’re there, it’s hard to move. Especially for a big event. Let’s say I’m at the finish line at track and field. For the 100-meter Final, we have maybe nine or ten photographers in different positions, plus robot cameras, all that stuff, so, we’re covered.
Do you have advice for photographers shooting the World Series?
It takes incredible concentration. Baseball is a game when nothing will happen for seven innings, and then boom! Home run. If you’re not ready, you miss it. The moment’s gone.
But the problem with shooting baseball is you just kind of sit there and wait for stuff to happen and you’re thinking constantly about situations. And while it looks like they’re just standing around out there, you have to think steps ahead photographically where something might happen and you need to have your correct lenses ready and hope that a third base coach doesn’t get in your way or an umpire. There’s always somebody getting in your way, like television after a big home run, they just run on the field now.
What is the longest you have waited to capture a single moment?
The Catch was years in the making. I hate shooting at MetLife Stadium because they have these scoreboards on either side that kill the background. So, I’m always in the end zone shooting out onto the field because there’s all sorts of security guards with yellow jackets everywhere, and it’s such a pain in the ass to shoot one way or the other, and I like to shoot out from the end zone into the field.
So, it was one of those things where I set up in the end zone and Eli [Manning] launched a perfect spiral to Odell Beckham and it landed right in my lap, and it was great because I put myself there on purpose and I thought maybe if there’s a catch there one day, it’d look pretty nice. And it wasn’t just a catch, it was one of the greatest catches of all time.
I’ve been shooting football since the late ’80s, and I’ve never gotten a catch like that. If you want to talk about years, that took me 26 years, to wait for a picture like that to happen? …yeah, you’ve got to be patient sometimes.
Do you have a favorite sports team?
The only one that I really like love, absolutely, the New York Giants football team. They’re the ones I’m most passionate about.
Are there sports you enjoy shooting the most?
I love to shoot anything that’ll give me a chance to get great photographs. I love being in a situation that I can create, in an arena that’s so unpredictable. I love making something out of nothing. I love creating a picture that’s beautiful with a beautiful background and spectacular light and a great moment of action or a simple reaction, but where I put myself in that position to get that kind of photo.
I feel like I could be surrounded by hundreds of photographers and still try out [new] things. That’s what I get the most out of being a sports photographer. That’s what drives me, that’s what makes me go. That’s what I live for.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity
Al Bello is a Getty Images Chief Sports Photographer. Follow him on Instagram