By Jonah Sharf
John McDonough never wanted to become a sports photographer—he wanted to be a sports writer—until he was handed a camera by a staff photographer during one of his assignments early in his career.
Not long after that, McDonough got a job with the LA Times in San Diego after graduating from Arizona State. Even after becoming a professional sports photographer, he admits it wasn’t what he always dreamed of doing.
“I never thought of myself as a sports photographer,” McDonough said. “I eventually read some books on photography, came out to Arizona State, then got my jobs at the newspapers, and then decided to freelance, but I never really wanted to be just a sports photographer.”
However, as time went on, he came to love photography, and not just sports photography, he sees all photography as an important form of art.
While he was becoming a prominent sports photographer, he developed his photographs traditionally; in a dark room, as digital photography had yet to become mainstream. . Nowadays, spending hours in a dark room developing photographs is practically extinct. When it comes to printing and the way photos are presented, McDonough could be called old school.
“It’s actually to me a lost art, I really loved printing,” McDonough said. “I loved to make beautiful black and white prints, I loved photographing the world in black and white, I still do, I photograph in monochrome all the time.”
McDonough will still photograph in black and white when he sees fit, even if editors won’t use the photos in that form and will have to convert them into color—he sees it as very essential to the art of photography.
Even though he doesn’t always see eye to eye with editors when he shoots in monochrome, he has always managed to make a name for himself. Whether it’s photographing Dennis Rodman half naked with a macaw or being in the right place at the right time and catching Reggie Bush front-flipping into the end zone to cap off a long touchdown run.
“It’s a sense of anticipation,” McDonough said. “You have to situate yourself for this and have best guess, as well as just experience—a lot of this has become intuitive at this point.”
While his decades of experience have contributed to his success in capturing iconic moments, it is impossible to ignore that even when he first started as a sports photographer he was successful due to his hard work and dedication to the craft.
He sets the highest standards for himself and for his photographs, and he recognizes that it is an always evolving art—a new state-of-the-art camera comes out every two years or so. But he also knows that even with his more than 30 years with Sports Illustrated, he needs to continue to study to stay on top of his game.
“You have to have really high standards, and you have to challenge yourself year in and year out,” McDonough said. “There will never be a day where you’ll learn everything about photography, that’s what’s so great about photography.”
One might think that someone with the resume of McDonough would get perfect shots at every game, but he knows that there is always something to learn and there are always adaptations that a photographer will have to make, and that if someone is young and trying to become a sports photographer, they will have to make a strong commitment to the craft.
“You learn way more from your mistakes and what you end up missing than you learn from any of your successes,” McDonough said.