13 Questions with a Sports Card Photo Editor
by Drew Pelto aka *censored*
Back in January I was incredibly frustrated. I was the play by play broadcaster for a junior hockey team. While I figured it was the first step in landing my dream job, I felt like I was going nowhere. The team I was working for was on its way to missing the playoffs for the third time in four seasons, I was having problems with some fans who made it no secret that they wanted me out of my job, and I just wasn’t enjoying it anymore.
In February, I applied for a photo editor job with Panini. They were looking for a baseball and hockey expert, and I was called in for an interview; I was so confident it went well that I drove around looking at apartments for the rest of the day. A week later, I was offered the position and accepted it, starting in April.
I was asked to write a little about my job for SCF, but I had some trouble– how do I keep it from being pedantic while also not cutting it super-short? And so, I opened the floor to the readers, letting you ask what you wanted to know about my job. And so, here are a baker’s dozen questions on what I do as a photo editor for Panini.
Q. Briefly describe what you do on your job.
A. My job primarily revolves around two areas: identifying photos and selecting them for use on cards. We get a ton of football and basketball photos and once they’re put into our computer system, we have to identify who is in the picture, what team they’re with, and what jersey they’re wearing. I’ll get into more about image selection later in this article.
Q. In the process of making a set, how many pictures of any one player are taken? Do you guys just work with what the photograph brings back or you actually have a choice?
A. It varies, really. For baseball, basketball, and football, the vast majority of our images come in bulk from photographers around the country who will shoot games and send them to us on a CD or through a FTP upload. Hockey images are most often purchased from an online company, though we have started having game photos sent directly to us. Also, one of our other photo editors is a photographer so he can occasionally shoot games for us. So it’s not like it’s a case of us saying “Okay, get us a photo of each of these 100 players,” but rather we’ll get them from an entire game several times during the season, giving us a large pool from which to choose. We do have to work with what the photographers give us, but we often end up with many that we can use.
Q. How long is the process to create a set from start to finish (i.e. selecting a checklist, photos and everything that goes with it)?
A. This is another piece that varies a lot. Lower-end sets with few-to-no autograph and memorabilia cards can be put out relatively quickly. The higher-end sets take a while longer. It involves a lot of communication between departments to figure out what we have in stock for memorabilia, who can quickly sign cards, and how quickly we can find a photo if a specific one is requested. Sometimes we have to do some major digging to find exactly what we’re asked to pick out. Some products can be done from development to hitting the shelves in 4 months. Others may take upwards of 8.
Q. Does your job involves focusing on one product at the time or do you work on multiple sets in the course of a day?
A. Most of the time I’ll be focusing on one set at a time, though often products will overlap. When I first started, I was working on 2012-13 Prime, followed quickly by 2013-14 Select, Prizm, and Dominion all overlapping to some degree. Most of the time I’ll be handed an insert to work on for a day, finish it off, then do some ID’ing for a day or two. If two inserts are similar in player content, I may get asked to do two or three at a time. Working on those all at once helps to ensure a good variety of photos. There are two hockey programs I’m bouncing back and forth on right now. They haven’t been formally announced yet, so I probably shouldn’t say much more than that.
Q. Given the sheer volume of photos taken by fans, has Panini ever considered using player photos from non-professional photographers? For that matter, does a photographer have to have some sort of license to be able to sell their own photos of professional athletes?
A. We have had to occasionally. In hockey for example, if we can’t get a photo of a player from Getty or the Hall of Fame, we may put a call out to other professional photographers to buy an image from them. If that fails, we’ll try to find if someone else has what we’re looking for. The problem is that our images need to be of the highest quality possible. There are even some professionals out there who just aren’t up to snuff for what we can use. The best quality shots come from professional photographers with cameras that sometimes cost close to $7,000. So the chances of a random fan having a high enough quality image for us is practically zero. As far as I know, there’s no license required as long as the photo is one that the owner of the photo took themselves, or at least owns the rights to its reproduction. Don’t quote me on that though.
Q. How does it really go card to card? I know there is a basic format, but other than that, is each individual card done separately? Can some things be brought over, like the logo (as in the Panini logo) and the background, or is each card a lot of work?
A. This is something I’m not heavily involved in, as we have separate departments for Photo, Color, and Assembly, all falling under the heading of Prepress. This is something Assembly does. Of what I’ve seen in passing by the desks for people in Assembly, a lot can be carried over. If there’s a certain element that repeats on every card (such as company/product/set logo, space for a player’s name, team name, area for a position to be listed, or common backgrounds), it can carry over easily. It’s rare that a card has to be created totally from scratch every time.
Q. Which is better, in your opinion – A college/USA uniform or a pro uniform airbrushed out?
A. It really depends on the set. Much of it comes down to licensing. As you may know, Panini only has half of the required baseball licensing due to Major League Baseball’s exclusive deal with Topps. We have the MLB Players’ Association though, so we can show the players, just no logos. We often take it a step further and have the Color department remove piping from jerseys, multi-coloring from numbers, and won’t even use team names in print. Instead of the Cleveland Indians, they just get called the Cleveland Baseball Club, or just Cleveland. Much of that is hoping that Major League Baseball might see that we’re playing by their rules and grant us full licensing once the Topps deal runs out in 2020. If we’re doing a set with recent draft picks, usually we’ll stick with college uniforms– though even those often get cloned out in Photoshop so that we don’t have to secure that extra NCAA licensing. Having a full deal with USA Baseball, we can stick with the USA logo as long as it is a Team USA themed set. I like the full uniform use of Team USA items; unfortunately we don’t have too much of a choice in the matter.
Q. Did you start as a photo editor with sports as a hobby or a sports fan who then got into photo editing?
A. I started out as a sports fan who just happens to be decent with photos. I’ve been following the big four leagues since I was in elementary school, worked as a yearbook photographer in middle school, and did some photo editing, layout, and even card making work in my previous career as a broadcaster at the junior hockey level. When I read the job description to my wife, she said: “So basically they’re looking to hire YOU?” With a degree in journalism, I feel I have an excellent attention to detail and that can really help out in selecting photos.
Q. How much input do you have? If you had a great idea for a set, would there be a good way of passing it on?
A. I don’t have much input. However, I have a good relationship with the people in Product Development. I actually have lunch with one of the main hockey guys almost every day and I play fantasy hockey with him and a couple others in that area. So if I had some revolutionary idea, I could certainly pitch it to them. I’m not the super-creative type, so I’ll probably leave the earth-shattering, ground-breaking ideas up to those guys.
Q. Are baseball and hockey products harder to edit because of how thin bats/sticks are?
A. The cropping work is done by the Color department, so I don’t get into that at all. However, having done some of this in my amateur work and in my previous job, it’s not too tough if you know what you’re doing, and the Photoshop mavens over in Color know what they’re doing quite well. The magnetic lasso tool is one of your best friends in cutting through even the thinnest parts.
Q. Have/do you ever get to meet players while doing your job?
A. I have! Once in a while players will come through to do some signings for products and get a tour of the facilities. I’ve seen Derek Roy, Reilly Smith, Quincy Acy, C.J. Miles, Rex Burkhead, and a few others. I had a long chat with former goalie and Dallas Stars color commentator, Daryl “Razor” Reaugh a few months ago, swapping war stories of our junior and minor league broadcasting careers. Panini actually had organized meet-and-greet signings with Rangers’ pitcher Nick Tepesch and Mavericks’ guard and recent draft pick Ricky Ledo for all our employees. My boss goes to the basketball, football, and hockey Rookie Photo Shoots every year, so he’s met all the prospects who come in for those. I also am going to have a brief appearance on NHL Network soon, showing off my job as part of a story on the entire card-making process.
Q. Is there a procedure for getting the photo approved by the players or allowing the player to see it early (to prevent issues like the Billy Ripken)?
A. Every card we make must be approved by the league (or the MLBPA in the case of baseball). They can reject photos for various reasons, mostly related to jersey or number changes, or if a player is on a different team or even a different league. With Ilya Kovalchuk’s sudden “retirement,” we pulled him from every product that we could. If we hadn’t, the NHL likely would have requested he be removed. The leagues want to keep the products as fresh as possible, making sure the players shown are all current, or at least well-known retired players. Some players have it in their contracts that they have the right to approve every image. I won’t name them specifically, but there is at least one member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, and at least one well-known current basketball player who have the right to request changes to any and all images of them. Additionally, due to sponsorship deals with a razor company, two of hockey’s biggest names can’t be shown with facial hair, unless it’s for a playoff beard themed insert or something of that sort. We also can’t show advertisements for alcohol, tobacco, or gambling, so scoreboard or dasher board ads showing beer companies, casinos, or state lotteries have to be removed. We also can’t show blood or fighting.
Q. What is the toughest thing about the job?
A. Player who chew on their mouthguards or have their tongue dangling out. The best standard we use in picking photos is to ask ourselves “Would you appreciate this card if it was a photo of you?” We try to keep the players looking at least dignified, and it’s hard to look good if your tongue is hanging out, your mouthguard is halfway outside where it’s supposed to be, or if you make some of the crazy faces Jay Bouwmeester makes. It’s true you can’t always control your faces when you’re focused on your sport, but what good does a mouthguard do if you’re chewing on it instead of wearing it?
So, there you have it. You now have an industry insider posting and writing here. Use it wisely. Just don’t ask for any of our secrets.
And no, I can’t get you any free stuff.
About the author: Drew Pelto has been a photo editor with Panini for a little over six months. He resides in Arlington, TX in an apartment that occasionally leaks when it rains. Fortunately that is rare because it’s Texas.
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