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Le présent article n'est pas disponible en Français
September 2011

Ron Koch is a native New Yorker who has carved out at least two careers – one as a top basketball and sports photographer and the other photographing the world’s biggest entertainment stars in Las Vegas. A one-time student of Ansel Adams, and a leading proponent of shooting sports in indoor arenas without flash, Ron Koch has had a fascinating career – CPN editor Steve Fairclough spoke to him about it.

© Ron Koch

Basketball superstar ‘Magic’ Johnson (centre) captured in action during an NBA All Star Game.

In the mid-1960s Brooklyn-born Ron Koch attended the School of Visual Arts in New York to learn how to paint and draw, but photography soon became his abiding passion. “My uncle, Ben Schiff, worked for the Associated Press as a photographer and I got more and more interested in what he was doing. So, I switched in the middle of school and went into photography,” explains Koch.

His photographic education also included night-time stints in the Associated Press darkroom: “I had the ‘graveyard shift’; from 12 midnight to 8am in the morning. I developed all sorts of stuff – it didn’t matter how light or dark the negative was, we still did prints. We did it the ‘wet way’; it was incredible – we had to do it at speed, as they needed to get it out over the wires almost immediately.”

Koch had always been a keen sports fan: “I was always good at sports, so that was my key. I was able to start freelancing with the New York Knicks basketball team and, as it progressed, I got a letter from Nick Curren, Director of Public Relations for the NBA [National Basketball Association]. He asked me to do some stuff for the NBA. From that time on I became the Official League Photographer for the NBA, from 1970 to 1983, and from 1983 to 1993 freelance for the NBA. I was also working for the [New York] Yankees, the Mets, the Jets, the Knicks, the Giants, and the NY Rangers – all of the football and hockey teams that there were; just doing lots and lots of sports.”

Koch completed a Fine Arts Program at the School of Visual Arts and, while freelancing for the NBA, was one of the pioneer students for its new Photographic Program. He didn’t complete the final portion of his education because he took a job with the Associated Press (AP) working in the darkroom of their New York office and, during this same time, he also maintained his position as League Photographer for the NBA.

He left AP because he received an offer from SPORT magazine to be the Assistant Photo Editor, working with Dick Schaap and Kevin Fitzgerald, and continued in his position with the NBA as well. He later left SPORT magazine – which was well known for its groundbreaking use of colour photography in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s – when his workload with the NBA eventually demanded all of his time.

The influence of Ansel Adams

Koch had another seminal influence in his career: “When I was in school one of the guest lecturers was Ansel Adams – he taught me everything that there is about light. It got to a point in my career when I was working for the NBA that I would get calls from freelance photographers all around the country [USA] asking me what kind of light there was and what kind of film to use in the arenas that they were going to shoot sports in.”

Clearly Adams was a big influence, as Koch recalls: “When I was at the School of Visual Arts he [Ansel Adams] had a seminar and we went to Yosemite. We had a class of 14 to 15 people and I was one of the few that would get up with him at 4.30 or 5 o’clock in the morning and go out into a meadow just to wait for the perfect light. We always banged heads together because he was [shooting] black and white and I was colour. Today everything I do I can see in black and white, even though I shoot colour – that’s because of him.”

© Ron Koch

Sports superstar Michael Jordan scores a basket for the Chicago Bulls against the New Jersey Nets.

The influence of Ansel Adams seeped into Koch’s approach to always shooting indoor sports without flash. “Through studying light I can go into any arena; just stick my hand out in the light and tell exactly what I have to do without doing any colour corrections, white checks, white balance or whatever. I don’t believe in strobes; I don’t go into an arena and strobe the place because that’s not natural.”

He adds: “The pictures you get with strobes are nice but you can take someone off the street with no photography knowledge, let them shoot at f/8, and get the same photos. To this day I say ‘What would the photographers do if the strobes went out? Would they know how to switch from daylight to tungsten and what the exact readings were in the arena?’ I did. My saying is ‘If you can see it, you can shoot it’.”

© Ron Koch

Legendary American Football quarterback Joe Namath in action for the New York Jets.

A switch to Canon

Koch originally shot with Pentax gear but then a faulty motordrive unit threatened to prevent him covering an NBA All Star Game in the late 1960s. He reveals: “Luckily a Canon representative was there who loaned me some equipment to shoot at the All Star Game. From that day on I never had a piece of anybody else’s equipment in my hand – that was it!”

Over the years Koch has been supported by Canon USA and its CPS programme in a close working relationship that has spanned many technological advances. He recalls his journey through the Canon SLR camera range. “I owned the Canon AE-1 the F-1, the T90, the EOS 620, and then the EOS-1. From the EOS-1 I went to the EOS 3 and then I went digital. I started my digital work with a D30; then the EOS-1D, the 10D and the 20D; from the 20D I went to the 50D, which I have right now. With the 50D I lock the mirror up and focus manually. I find that the 50D works faster with the mirror locked up than when it’s not. So that gets the speed out of the 50D that way.”

As Lead NBA Photographer Koch travelled all over the USA – New York, Portland, Seattle, LA, San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, New Orleans and more – shooting all of the teams in the league and racking up between 150,000 and 200,000 miles every year whilst spending nine months on the road. His deep love for basketball meant he sometimes practiced with the players and he admits: “I developed this sort of anticipation where I could almost think as a ball player and know what they were doing ahead of time before they even did it. That’s what put me ahead of most of the photographers in the game.”   

He adds: “I keep things simple, but in the NBA at one point I was using the Canon High Speed motordrive at 14 frames per second with the Canon F-1. When the NBA had the Slam Dunk contest I could almost get a guy going in and doing the 360 [degrees] ‘Tomahawk Jam’ and not miss any one of his moves. You had to be spot-on; if you were off just a degree the whole thing wouldn’t work.” He adds: “The greatest camera I ever had in my hand was the Canon F-1 High Speed.”

His abilities were featured in a feature in the US magazine ‘Popular Photography’ which highlighted the fact that Koch was shooting indoor basketball action with the Canon EOS-1 SLR and the EF50mm f/1.0L USM lens, using Kodachrome 200 film and a shutter speed of 1/320sec. He recalls: “I was the only one in the NBA that ever shot Kodachrome in an arena without using flash. That [50mm] lens was that good – it opened up a whole new world for photographers that didn’t want to use strobes.”

So what is the secret of his non-flash technique? He explains: “The technique is I’ve studied action all my life. The one thing I’ve learned is that ‘what goes up must come down’. No matter how fast a person’s going, when they jump they always hit the peak and at that split second they’re always stopped – that’s your chance to take a picture. This is how I learned to shoot sports and not use strobes or high ISO [values].”

© Ron Koch

New York Yankee baseball legends Joe DiMaggio (left) and Mickey Mantle (right). Ron Koch explains: “One of my most famous pictures was of Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio – the very last time Joe DiMaggio wore a Yankee uniform and that was used by the New York Yankees as a presentation to him. It’s one of my favourites.”

Koch adds mysteriously: “When I walk into Grand Garden Arena [Las Vegas] my hand is like a light meter – I put my hand up in the air and I look at it. I’m able to see what exposures need to be made in available light and I want to also teach that to people. I just don’t know how to go about trying to make them understand what I see. You have to understand what you see. That would make people better photographers.”

© Ron Koch

Rock superstar Jon Bon Jovi on stage in Las Vegas, 2011. Shot on an EOS 50D with an EF-S55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS lens, the exposure was 1/200sec at f/5.6, ISO 800.

A new beginning

After over two decades shooting the NBA, having two books published, and establishing friendships with the likes of Phil Jackson, Bill Walton, Julius Erving and Michael Jordan, Koch had become tired of living out of a suitcase and wanted a new challenge.

He recalls: “One time during an NBA exhibition game the producer put on a half-time show and I was the only photographer that stayed out at half-time to photograph the show. We became good friends and he said if I ever wanted to come down to Vegas he would have me ‘work’ the show. That’s what happened – the show was ‘Legends in Concert’ and from that time on MGM picked me up and I became their official in-house photographer.”  

Koch has shot at all of the MGM properties – MGM, New York New York, the Mandalay Bay, the Bellagio, Mirage, and Circus Circus – but now photographs events for MGM Grand Garden Arena. He explains his approach: “Once again it is [natural] lighting, as we’re not allowed to use flash. I study the entertainer and watch a video before I go and photograph them. I watch their moves and anticipate where they’re going to be and what they’re going to do. It’s pretty hard because of the stage light, the spotlights and the red lights. It’s a hard thing to do without using a flash but study makes perfect – the more you study the easier it gets.”     

Koch notes: “I’m not a paparazzi, so the entertainers feel very comfortable being around me because they know that my pictures go nowhere. I’m able to do a lot of things that the other photographers are not able to do. Through the years I've developed great relationships with the performers and their roadies.”     

When possible, Ron Koch shares his images with performers. “It’s what I grew up doing. I did that in the NBA – I always managed to give players some prints and it followed through to the entertainment world. If I couldn’t do it on the day of the event the next time they came in [to perform] I handed them a package. They’re giving me the privilege of photographing them, so I’m giving something back to them. I say: ‘use it as you will, anything you want to do with it, go ahead’. I did something for the group The Eagles and I got a letter back from Larry Solters [the group’s manager] saying that The Eagles were using my pictures in their new CD. That’s absolutely phenomenal!”    

Whilst shooting top performers sounds fantastic it can throw up tricky situations. Koch has twice been bounced to the ground by burly bodyguards – once when shooting Frank Sinatra at the Meadowlands in New Jersey and the other time when shooting George Bush Senior talking backstage to country singer Wynnona Judd at the MGM. Thankfully on both occasions things were smoothed out quickly and Koch recalls: “Then he [George Bush] posed for a great shot, which is hanging on the wall of MGM. What MGM did was hang my pictures all over the hotel – they put some plaques up for me and they call it ‘The Walk of Fame’. In the hotel over 200 images are on the walls – they’re constantly updated.”

The one performer he hasn’t photographed is Barbra Streisand: “She doesn’t like photographs being taken of her and I have to honour her wishes.” In 1999 Streisand played the Millennium Concert at the MGM but there was a ‘no photograph’ rule. After a rehearsal Koch got the chance to talk to her about their shared roots in Brooklyn: “Then I told her I was the house photographer, and she said: ‘You understand that there are no photos allowed today?’ What she did was give me a ticket, third row, stage centre for the millennium night and I thought that was so gracious of her.”

Workflow and printing

Koch has made friends with some stars, such as Bill Medley and Cher, but it’s not always a glamorous life. He reveals: “Everybody says ‘What a great job’. It’s great going to a concert, but people forget there’s still work after the show is over. You’ve got to download, colour correct – it’s not like going into the darkroom and doing what you used to do.”

He adds: “At an event I average about 800 to 1,000 pictures; at a nightclub I average between 100 and 300 pictures. I have to touch pictures up a little bit because if I’m shooting a nightclub there are certain things that we cannot allow to go on the club website. I have to edit really well, whereas for a paparazzi its ‘Bam’ and it’s all over the Internet. I can’t do that because I represent the property that I’m working for that night. My job is to protect the entertainers, not exploit them. I honour the privacy of celebrities and entertainers.”

Koch explains: “I shoot in JPEG and go to Adobe Photoshop CS5 and process my work in RAW. If I shoot in nightclubs, they need the stuff immediately. If I go home at 2am or 3am I’m on the computer until 7am getting them the stuff that I normally shoot. As far as re-touching the images, I’ll do whatever is needed to make the picture flattering.”   

He uses the Canon PIXMA iP14700 [printer] for his nightclub work and reveals: “For my special projects I have the PIXMA Pro9000 Mark II. The reason I use that printer is that performers love it. Very few photographers – I don’t know of any here in Vegas – will hand a performer pictures after a concert. I do.” He will also delete images at a performer’s request: “If they don’t like something: it’s gone. They love that.”

As well as Canon printers he is also a fan of the PowerShot G10 compact and carries one everywhere: “You just put it in your shirt pocket; take it out and ‘pop, pop’ – it’s done. It’s a 14.7 Megapixel camera and the pictures come out really well.”

© Ron Koch

Singer/songwriter Rick Springfield performing in Las Vegas, 2009. Shot on an EOS 400D at a focal length of 189mm, the exposure was 1/400sec at f/4, ISO 800.

As for lenses when CPN first spoke to Ron Koch he had the 50mm f/1.0, an 85mm f/1.2, a 135mm f/2, a 200mm f/1.8 and three zoom lenses – an 18-55mm, a 20-35mm and a 55-250mm. He notes: “The 200mm f/1.8 is the best thing I’ve ever used in my life outside of the 50mm f/1.0. I will never get rid of that lens – it’s the best thing ever made.” Before our second chat some of his equipment was stolen, so he is rebuilding his kitbag and is currently working with the EF50mm f/1.4 USM, EF85mm f/1.2L II USM, EF135mm f/2L USM, and EF200mm f/1.8L USM prime lenses.

Outdoor photography

Besides his sports and entertainment photography Ron Koch also has a love for outdoor photography. “That has to do with Ansel Adams. He instilled the love of the outdoors in me. After entertainment I will evolve to do wildlife and nature photography just to see all the land before it all goes away,” he reveals.     

© Ron Koch

Laguna Beach, Orange County, California, USA. Shot on an EOS 50D at a focal length of 109mm, the exposure was 1/640sec at f/10, ISO 200.

“I go two times a year to Yellowstone National Park, usually the last week of April and the beginning of May, when the babies are born, and the last week of October before the park closes down because there are no tourists. If I need to be at peace I go and do wildlife photography. If I need to get away from Vegas for a week I go out even to Laguna Beach, California – you can shoot the porpoises and seals. It’s just so peaceful it’s unbelievable.”  

Koch still loves using film but admits his work is 98% digital: “I use film for wildlife when I go out and do my own stuff. If I feel I really need to push perfection, where I really need to handle everything myself, then I’ll use film. I just hope that film doesn’t die – it’s a way to teach. Before anybody puts a digital camera in their hands they should have at least one year of shooting film – that would teach them light, exposures and colour. Then they can do whatever they want in digital.”

With so many photographic strings to his bow does Ron Koch have any unfulfilled photographic ambitions? “I’d like to do a book and share all my images with people. Maybe do some seminars where I can teach people not to be afraid of cameras: not to be afraid of new technology: to teach people how to see light and how to see colour. I’d love to teach the new generation about photo ethics. It’s a whole big thing about peoples’ privacy. I’d love to do seminars – just go out and teach people, to give back everything photography has given to me.”

And as to whether he will ever quit, Ron Koch says resolutely: “I don’t ever see myself putting my camera down, ever.” 


Ron Koch’s equipment:

PowerShot G10

EF50mm f/1.4 USM
EF85mm f/1.2L II USM
EF135mm f/2L USM
EF200mm f/1.8L USM

2x Speedlite 580EX II flashguns

Biographie: Ron Koch

Ron Koch

In the late 1960s Ron Koch left the New York School of Visual Arts to begin his career shooting sports teams and working in the Associated Press darkrooms at night. From 1970 to 1983 he was the official lead photographer for the National Basketball Association (NBA) and then shot freelance for the NBA for 10 years. Since 1993 he has been the house photographer for the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas photographing the world’s top entertainment stars performing, whilst shooting outdoor photography in his spare time. His work has been published in SPORT magazine, Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, Hoop magazine and many other publications, as well as in two basketball books. His photographs hang in the ‘Basketball Hall of Fame’ in Springfield, Massachusetts, and in the ‘Walk of Fame’ in the MGM Grand Hotel, Las Vegas.


Quarterback Archie Manning throws the ball while playing for the New Orleans Saints.