The Next-Level Sports Grandparent
It’s pretty special when grandparents come and watch their grandkids play sports. And while we all appreciate the effort, sometimes, it can be a little rough. They’re not prepared – no chairs, no sun shades, no water, no clue. Or they are over-prepared and you find yourself helping them schlep 2 bags of unneeded and unwanted snacks, sunblock, hats, and who knows what, to the sidelines. They clap at the wrong times, or OVER-cheer, as my mom does – “Mom, in a practice we don’t typically stand up and clap when they do something good.” Or even worse, they are overly critical and harass the ref, the coach, or both. Yes, they are doing their best, but sometimes it can be a little “clunky.”
But then I met Tila Meinhart. She is a next-level sports grandparent.
A former professor, her love of sports runs deep and started early. She played volleyball and college field hockey and even became certified and coached her daughter in club soccer because she said there were no good female coaches out there at that time. But her main focus these days is on her five grandkids, ranging in age from 11 to 17. For the last forty years, she has rarely missed a game of her own kids and now her grandkids. But Tila doesn’t just come and watch these games, she snaps awe-inspiring photos at every one. You can’t miss her, she looks like the paparazzi on the sideline, holding a 2-foot long lens that’s almost as big as she
“There is no place I would rather be than at the kids’ games. My husband walks in from work on Fridays and always asks ‘what games we have this weekend?’. We need to juggle games sometimes, but try to go to all of them. We have driven thousands of miles and flown thousands of miles to get to games.”
When Tila first started taking pictures of her own kids, she studied the sports page and sports magazines to see what she should be aiming for.
As time went on, she took a few photography classes to hone her skills. Eventually she moved from a point-and-shoot to an 8 mm. In the early days, she would wait days for her film to be developed and there was no way to edit the photos back then; they were what they were. Still, she managed to help fill up yearbooks with photos for several schools’ sports sections. Finally, when digital cameras came out, she could get immediate feedback. But it still wasn’t enough.
“I wanted to be where the action was and to see the emotions and personalities of the kids. I could not be in the surf, pool or field, but a lens could capture that moment in time. My dream came true when I bought an SP 150-600 mm lens. I still experiment with the lens, shutter speed and zooming. And I continue to grow and learn every year.”
Despite spending a lot of her time behind the camera, she also manages to step back and enjoy these precious moments. “I love seeing my grandkids play and I feel proud. I enjoy faces of proud parents and friends and family cheering them on. And I have seen the most beautiful sunrises, sunsets and blue skies. I have been on the beach watching surreal scenes of surfers riding waves alongside a surfing porpoise. I have stood in the rain, in ankle deep mud, endured wind and snow, but what adventures and memories. There is no place I would rather be than at my grandkids’ games.”
Through her lens, Tila experiences the same emotional roller-coaster ride her grandkids are experiencing. It’s a unique experience that many grandparents wouldn’t be able to relate to.
“I have learned many things about my children and grandkids through photos. Being involved in the games so closely, never taking my eye off of them because I am shooting, I can see those little faces. I have seen struggles, battles, efforts, desperation, tears but I also have seen glee, happiness, accomplishment and pride on their faces. I am happier than happy when they break their best time, make a goal or conquer a wave. I am beaming when I see Jamesy, our grandson with Down syndrome, ski without safety ropes, do his karate or receive a trophy for surfing. I have learned I can only feel prouder of my children, grandchildren, and their teammates.”
The photos Tila takes, which she describes as “frozen moments from the day or time capsules to connect us to our past,” have also allowed her to connect with her grandkids in deeper and more meaningful ways.
“My favorite thing about photographing my grandkids is the opportunity it gives me to share time with them. I love the closeness it creates and the conversations that are shared. They always ask if I am going to the game and that gives me a warm smile. After the game is over and we are walking to the car they always ask if they can see the pictures. Then we relive the game. The comments are great. I hear, ‘Nana, you got my goal,’ ’I was not going to let her have that shot!’ ’Nana, you got me in the tube!’ and the conversations and laughter go on and on. I have had the best times looking and telling stories about old sports pictures of my children with my grandkids, their parents. Many times, I could tell that they were proud of their parents’ accomplishments. Photos become old even when they were taken yesterday. They become new and exciting when viewed again in the years to come. My favorite thing about photographing my grandkids is that the pictures I take of them fill my treasure box with great memories. It has been a most wonderful and fulfilling hobby.”
Tila’s Tips For Shooting Sports:
1) Nothing is still when shooting sports. There is always something happening, and many shooting opportunities can arise in a second. I begin by looking at the area where the event will be. I need to study the sun because of glare and reflection. I need to find a place where I can get good angles and be free of obstructions, like referees. The direction the action will be happening or the direction the players I want to shoot will be approaching the camera is important. I need to adjust distance constantly by zooming in and out as players move closer or farther away. You cannot shoot or focus close objects with the big lens I use. That means, I need to adjust were I am standing.
2) Good action pictures come with concentration. My eye is always on the viewer and following the action of the game. If you take your eye off the action, you may miss a good shot. There are no second chances. My camera settings are set up for consecutive shooting, so I can take multiple seconds of frames. This is how I can capture a millisecond of time.
4) Have a creative eye. I look for action, battles happening and plays developing. I try to focus on expressions, emotions and the spirit of the team. I love to capture warrior-tough faces giving every effort. I enjoy taking fun pictures too. These are the pictures that stories are made from.
5) Understand the differences in each sport. I prepare for each event the same, but there are big differences between venues, for example, a pool versus a soccer field. Taking action shots, you need to get as close as possible to the subjects. At a soccer game I find myself walking from sideline to the end line as the game is played. Soccer fields are big, similar to an American football field, and it takes time to walk back and forth and I could be missing some great shots. Usually I change position during time outs or half time. A pool is much smaller, so usually I do not have to move as much, and my lens can easily compensate for the distance. Having a good knowledge of the rules of the game is important. When you know the rules, you can anticipate time outs, quarters or half time. You can use that time to move or chip [look at what you have shot]. Experience taking action shots helps, but it is a learning process.
6) Every sport has a challenge, so plan ahead. There are some more difficult sports to photograph, for example, skiing. It’s difficult because you’re dealing with speed, varying terrain, sun, shade and different backgrounds. There is a lot of lag time because you must wait for your skier to go up the lift and then they have to ski down to where you are going to shoot. I need to hike up in the snow to the spot I will be photographing. That sometimes is the biggest challenge.