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Behind The Camera: Howard Lao

Howard Lao, a Portland-based freelance photographer who specializes in sports photography, has an undeniable passion for telling the stories of athletes of all levels. This passion stems from his own personal experience running track in high school and in college at the University of Washington. “I was put into, at that time, a very unique position of being teammates with Olympians and being able to talk to those athletes because they were my peers,” says Howard as he reminisces of a past not too long ago. “I ran against Olympians and I was just, quite literally, a step behind. And while it doesn't seem like one or two steps is a lot, it is in sprint racing,” he says emphatically. “I realized pretty early on that my goal of actually making an Olympic team for track and field was near zero. But I then realized that perhaps one day, I could take photos at the Olympics or have my photo on a billboard instead of me being on the billboard as an athlete,” Howard says with enthusiasm. “I think that dream is still alive. I think it's very doable and it's what gets me out of bed every morning.”

Howard’s self-realization of the limits of his athletic abilities, in combination with the access his camaraderie with high-level athletes gave him, began to foster his passion for documenting the life of an athlete. “The camera came into play because I was traveling with my team and I wanted to document. We were traveling so much and we didn't always have photos and I wanted to capture the memories of my teammates. At the same time, this was right around the rise of Instagram. So getting the photos for the ‘gram was very important,” Howard acknowledges. “The rise of Instagram was taking place at the same time as me being an athlete and having a camera and the images I started to capture just spoke to me…it really snowballed from there.” Howard’s first “real” camera was one he was renting from his school. “I rented because I didn't have any money,” he says. “I was a broke college student and it was a free rental because my tuition technically paid for it,” continues Howard, “I rented a Canon Rebel T5i with the kit lens and a 70mm to 200mm F4, which was essentially a step up from the kit lens. I didn't understand what any of those numbers meant at the same time because I didn't go to school for this. It was trial and error. I went to the top of the list [in his school’s rental department], and I just started renting everything because it was free. Every week I would take out and try a new lens. I remember shooting a meet with a 100-millimeter macro lens. I also remember buying the Canon 55-250mm F4-5.6 zoom lens. It was like 200 bucks. But again, I didn't understand what any of those numbers meant.” Howard was more concerned about the subject matter as he began to dive into documenting his and his teammates’ experiences. “Capturing the photos of my teammates racing complimented the behind-the-scenes of a traveling athlete. We were doing the vlogging before the vlogging,” Howard laughs. Speaking about the short period in which his experience has been normalized, Howard says, “It's just so weird to think about because it was really not that long ago (2014), but at the same time, it feels like it was decades ago. It's a really weird experience seeing how more and more athletes are now creators and it's normalized, especially with the NIL.”

Hayward Field at The Uniersity of Oregon. Photo by Howard Lao

I had to learn a lot on the way along the way in terms of picking up these professional tools because I wasn't taking a class,” says Howard about learning the technical side of documenting his and his teammates' lives. “Everything was auto. I looked at the icons and there was a sports mode on the camera with a guy running on it. So I moved it into sports mode. And I think there was a profile that you could change the camera to, which was more dynamic, colorful, contrasty, and saturated. I had no clue what any of these words meant. But I was like, ‘alright, cool. Sports mode. And it's colorful. That's going to do it.’” Howard admits now that this technique probably wasn’t the best plan. “I didn't understand the exposure triangle. No one told me what each button does,” Howard says matter-of-factly. “I didn't know any of those words. And no one showed me. So while I tried in the early stages to put the camera into manual mode, you know, it's like driving a stick shift, right? You kind of have to know each part, what it moves, and why you have to move it and in what direction, in what scenario, and I just didn't know what any of that meant,” Howard remembers. “I had the toughest time with Aperture. That was the biggest thing that I just didn't understand. It was like, ‘What the heck is an F2.8 versus an F22?’ And why is one WAY more expensive but more appropriate to use in the sports setting?”

Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce leads the pack. Photo by Howard Lao

And while his technical knowledge was lacking, there was no lack of drive to get better when it came to Howard and his photography. “I wanted to apply to be the newspaper photographer for the UW Daily,” he says with a smile, “And I was absolutely declined because my portfolio was not good. And while I really, really wanted to make that happen, my athletic practices were just too much. I just didn't have the time,” Howard explains. “I heavily used my experience as an athlete as a crutch to get me where I was in the beginning. I knew what was going to happen. I knew the anticipation of the hurdles, for example. I knew they were going to take three steps. I knew what leg was going to be the lead leg, you know,” Howard explains. “I knew how they were going to come down. I knew all that. I knew the inside scoop, who the runners were to focus on, the positions, and the best angle for the athlete. I knew these basics as an athlete. And I think that helped me a lot to put my head above water because, from a photography standpoint, I didn't know anything.

A track and field athlete lands at the Pre Classic at Hayward Field at the U of O. Photo by Howard Lao

“In May of 2015, I was helping the University of Washington cover the NCAA West Regional Championships in Texas,” tells Howard. “I missed qualifying for it by like two spots. But because it was my fifth year, I was able to go as both an alternate for the 4x1 [relay] and, more importantly, I was able to go as a media photographer covering my teammates for my school.

Howard at the U.S. Olympic Trials

So I was taking photos and my SID, sports information director, needed those photos to pair with the articles that they were writing. I covered the whole thing, by the way, in auto. It was auto everything.”

“I took those photos because I was an athlete. I had the access. Again, Instagram was very big at that time, and seeing those images and getting what's happening in other parts of the world in terms of images was really huge,” explains Howard about his early influences for track photos. “But I also knew not to beat myself up. I knew not to compare my gear. I knew that their [other photographers] tools were just way better than my tool. I was just using the wrong thing. I had enough awareness that I'm shooting on auto. The people that are using that gear, they're using Canon 1DXs. There's no auto on a 1DX,” laughs Howard, “I knew my limits at that time. And realizing those limits was the jumpstart to dive even deeper.” So that’s what Howard did.

Olympic long-distance runner Galen Rupp.

Photo by Howard Lao

Howard’s frustration with his lack of technical knowledge was building.”My images were passable, they were fine in a sense because they were auto, but I had absolutely hit the ceiling,” laments Howard. “That's the thing, you need to get off auto. You have to take that jump, that step, and realize your photos will suck because you're doing something completely new".

"I think that's a very key part, it's going to get worse before it's going to get better. Auto is always going to cap you and hold you within a box but the potential opens up way more and your images are going to improve dramatically when you get off auto. So to make that jump,” he exclaims excitedly, “I did! I made that jump. It was bad, but the cool thing about it was that it was only bad for like a month.”

Portland Thorns vs. Seattle Reign. Photo by Howard Lao

“I will always love track and field because it's where I came from and that's great,” Howard boldly states. “But at the same time, soccer was my first sport that I ever played. I love sports.” And that love for sports, in general, led to a huge opportunity for Howard in 2019. “September 8th, 2019. I made the paper. That was my first opportunity to shoot for our local paper (The Oregonian), which was very cool,” beams Howard about this accomplishment. “You remember reading the newspaper or seeing a photo in the Sunday paper, reading about what happened in the game. It's a very nostalgic thing. I don't know if everybody will connect with that, but it is a very nostalgic thing to open the Sunday paper. And I knew that I wanted to be in that realm.”

Howard’s start with the Oregonian is the stuff legends are made of. “They approached me, they said, ‘Hey, so and so said that you might be interested in covering some high school sports stuff. Is that true?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely. I want to cover some high school stuff,’” Howard thinks back. “So the opportunity came up to cover high school sports for the Oregonian, and I got football. I love football, this was big,” Howard enthusiastically recalls.

Local high school teams Central Catholic High School and Tualatin High School go head to head. Photo by Howard Lao.

“I was only doing a few games in 2019 and then of course 2020 was weird,” reminds Howard. “And then in 2021, I covered a few more games, but it wasn't until late 2021 when things really started clicking. I did more high school sports. I started covering basketball, which led to covering March Madness,” lists Howard. “Getting my start in high school sports through the Oregonian opened up a lot of doors and opportunities. It snowballed because other people saw what I could do at the high school level with terrible stadium lighting and terrible backgrounds. When I got to the professional level, it was actually a lot easier.” Howard credits being molded by terrible high school lighting and backgrounds for making photographing professional sports in big stadiums with lots of lighting easier for him.

The Portland Thorns battle the Seattle Reign. Photo by Howard Lao

Most of my gear from 2019 to 2022, for almost a third of my career, was the Canon EF system,” says Howard of his camera gear during his big progression period. “I had the Canon 1DX Mark IIs, the 16mm-35mm lens, the 24mm-70mm lens, the 70mm-200mm lens, and the 300 prime lens. The 300mm Prime IS version 2 is such a crispy lens, so good, so fast, really sharp. It blows out the background. That was the bread and butter for a lot of what I shot,” he continues.

“While I loved the 300 prime, I recently made the switch to mirrorless for the added versatility of the RF 100mm-300mm lens,” Howard swoons. “I shoot maybe 75 percent of my stuff with that 100mm-300mm lens on a Canon R3. Especially because I know I can add a 1. 4 extender on there, which I got, and now that turns into a 140mm-420mm F4. And then my secondary lens is a 24mm-105mm f2.8 and the body that is currently on is the R6, which will be changed out soon.” Acknowledging that his gear is top-notch, Howard makes a recommendation. “I always say invest

in lenses first,” advises Howard. “If I have the opportunity to either keep my 24mm-70mm lens, 70mm-200mm, and 300mm lens and upgrade to, say, an R5 body or keep the R6 and upgrade to a 100mm-300mm F2.8 lens, I always want to do lens upgrades first because there's more versatility in the lens instead of upgrading to an R5, for example.”

Despite his recent switch to the Canon R Mirrorless system, Howard found a use for his old EF system gear. “The 1DXII cameras now are my remotes [remote cameras] because they are built like tanks,” states Howard. “The DSLR systems are just solid-built, so I use those as remotes which will be triggered by Pocket Wizards. I can have it on top of my hot shoe and when my main camera fires, it'll fire the other one at the same time. I can however at the same time have the Pocket Wizard off to the side and fire remotely. I have a custom cable button that is like a little pressure pad

that I could attach to the side of my camera right next to my shutter button. I can then actually press that button, so therefore I can walk around all day shooting without triggering my second camera, and then when I do need to trigger it, I can just press that separate button to trigger it remotely,” Howard briefly explains. “I usually have it on the magic arm and usually with a wide lens,” he continues, “maybe a 16mm-35mm, or 24mm-70mm, or 70mm-200mm, it depends. I did that 70mm-200mm on the finish line camera for some meets.” To haul all this gear around from sporting event to sporting event, Howard uses a Think Tank Airport roller backpack combo.

Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce. Photo by Howard Lao.

Looking at Howard’s action shots, you might wonder if he uses strobes to stop the action as well as he does. “I'm not doing it during live competition because that's frowned upon. It’s distracting and absolutely unnecessary seeing how these camera bodies can handle 128,000 ISO,” I do play with the natural sunlight, shadows, and other light that is naturally available. Howard says. “I'm still incorporating flash, especially off-camera flash, in my sports portraits, my sportraits, I'm still doing that. I do some pop-up studio stuff,” Howard's excitement swells as he remembers another highlight moment. “It was a really cool pop-up studio that I did. I had less than 30 seconds with Shellyann Frazier Pryce as she came out of the press conference and I stopped her for three shots in my pop-up studio. I used two Godox AD200 strobes and MagMod modifiers. Popped it on a blank backdrop and I popped her with three shots and then she was escorted away.”

One thing to note is that just because you shoot a professional sport or it's a professional athlete, doesn't necessarily make it a good photo. Hot take!” exclaims Howard. “Every sport that I've done leverages and plays a role in the next one. One step at a time, one sport at a time,” Howard theorizes.

All that high school stuff got me into [photographing] curling. So I went to Calgary for the Pan Continental Curling Championships. I was shooting that for the World Curling Federation last year. This year, they came back to me, and they're sending me to Korea for the Youth Winter Olympics for curling,” Howard says enthusiastically. “It's so cool, and I'm so happy to be in this position because part one of the goal was to cover an Olympics, and this is a start to that. This is the youth one, but this is a start to it. It's not the Olympic Trials, it's the Olympic Games. So maybe from here, I can leverage this to Milan 2026. Or LA 2028.”

Portland Trail-Blazers vs. San Antonio Spurs.

Photo by Howard Lao

The world of sports photography moves at a very quick pace. A few minutes with a star athlete, if you’re lucky. Milliseconds to capture the peak of action. And if you’re doing it as a business, you have to work just as fast when it comes to delivering the images to your client. “When the meet finished at like seven o'clock and I was getting my photos done by the end of the night, around 12 or 1 AM, I thought I was ahead of the curve,” says Howard. “I thought I was fast. I was only spending five hours editing and wedding photographers or portrait photographers take days,’” he continues. “Wrong! Everything is heightened to the next level of speed, where photos are needed in minutes. When the event is done at 7 o'clock, event producers and publication editors are done by 8 o'clock, if not sooner. I remember I was shooting the Pac-12 Championships. I finished taking the photos and I went back to my wife’s apartment. I was editing, and she saw what I was doing. What I would do is I'd click the photo, look at it and say, ‘No, that's not it,’ and would close the photo and go to the next one. I kept doing that until I opened one and said 'Ah, there it is'. Then I'd drag that photo into another folder because I didn't want to upload everything into Lightroom. I knew that was slow. This was my method to my madness back in the day,” explains Howard. "So my wife, well girlfriend at the time, asked, ‘What are you doing? This is not how you edit photos.’ She looked like she was gonna have a stroke. I responded ‘Oh, well, how are you supposed to edit photos with the workflow?’ because no one told me that there was another way to do it. I mean, I knew that people were fast, I just didn't know what program they used. She told me, ‘Get Photo Mechanic. And learn it.’ Luckily, I had my wife. We have to really give her a lot of flowers in my career, in terms of her critique and telling me about Photo Mechanic. Listening to her really took me to that next level. I think the funny thing is that at that time I was like, ‘Oh man, I better get my act together. Otherwise, she's gonna dump me.’”

XFL football team the Vegas Vipers at the Seattle Sea Dragons. Photo by Howard Lao

Leaving your ego at the door, and being able to take criticism well, and not personally, is really important in this business. Howard remembers the first time his photography was criticized. “We [Howard and his UW teammates] were traveling and taking photos. And this was still at the time when you would upload everything onto Facebook. One of my teammates commented saying, ‘These are so bad.’ And it really hurt my feelings, but they were also right. They [the photos] were bad. The reality of it was that this critique was very important. Because if you really truly want to get better, you need to not take the critique personally. The fire in me kept me going in the sense of where to go from there,” recalls Howard. “Do you want to get better or do you just want to get compliments? When you're able to take critique, you're going to improve much faster and better than being in your own bubble and thinking that you're the best.”

Howard quickly got out of his own bubble as his passion for photography grew. “You know the funniest thing now that I think about it, is the person that gave me the most critique was my wife,” offers Howard. “My wife is a journalist. She went to school for it and worked as a photographer. So when we started dating, she told me all this important stuff (ethics), how to edit a photo, etc. And I think it's very important for me, for what I want to do, that I follow journalism ethics. Especially now that I'm a stringer for AP [Associated Press], and all of the work I do with The Oregonian.

The Portland Timbers huddle before the match kicks off. Photo by Howard Lao

“Everyone makes mistakes,” Howard asserts, “It's okay to make mistakes when you don't know something. Lord knows I've done it, and I'm going to do it. But then once somebody tells you, or you read it, and you figure out how you're supposed to do it, but you choose not to do it, then it's not a mistake anymore. You're just choosing not to do that. And when you choose not to do that, you're limiting yourself to your future potential. And that's the biggest thing to learn from. I could have totally said, ‘No, this is my way or the highway. I'm gonna edit this way, and I’m not learning Photo Mechanic.’ Photo Mechanic is the gold standard, the industry standard, and if you want to be in this industry, you have to learn what people are using. If I didn't learn Photo Mechanic back then, then future jobs like shooting for the World Curling Championships or shooting for AP, or the Timbers, or Hillsboro Hops wouldn’t have happened. Photo Mechanic knowledge is a must.”

The sun sets on the Hillsboro Hops. Photo by Howard Lao

“I don't want to freak people out but freelance photography is extremely hard. It is very demanding. You don't get to where I am now without working your ass off,” Howard says truthfully. “I want to be inspiring and the reality of it is you buying the newest gear, it's not going to cut it. Nowadays you can buy even the R50 or another entry level camera for about $500. It's 12 frames per second, raw images, mirrorless. Buying the newest gear just to buy your way in and shooting for free is not going to cut it. It is not going to be sustainable,” Howard warns.

Runners are unphased by the mud puddles at the Nike NXN meet. Photo by Howard Lao

Now when do I shoot for free?” Howard asks himself. “As a coaching incentive, when my state qualifiers make it to state, they get a professional photo shoot from me so the athlete gets a proper photo. The photos get used for posters and announcements. As a coach, that's one of my incentives,” he says. “I will also go ahead and do it for a nonprofit. When everyone there is there for a nonprofit and it's a volunteer position and I know it's a volunteer-based position, then I’ll also volunteer my skills. I will go ahead and capture that event because I want to give back to the community.”

Shooting for free is such a fine and a thin gray area line, I just don't think it's a sustainable business model. And a lot of this is business,” explains Howard. “I know a lot of people are practicing, but we are getting into a very alarming situation where people not only will have to shoot for free, but pay for a credential and businesses are going to take even more advantage of photographers. There has to be a stop. This cycle is gonna get out of hand very soon and photographers, we're losing more rights every day, every year.”

“I think more photographers are talking about it and saying, ‘You know, you should be charging for this stuff.’ And you really should be because you're investing thousands and thousands of dollars worth of your equipment and your time and all that is really important. Realizing this is a key thing,” Howard proclaims. “Be more vocal. That's why I'm so vocal. I hope people realize and consider that they should make more money. I'm trying to make money. I'm trying to help people make money. That’s why I’m doing these workshops!”

The Portland Timbers about to take on the Minnesota United. Photo by Howard Lao

Photography is more than the technical side or just pressing a button,” says Howard. “It’s learning and figuring out that it is a business and learning how to network and maintain those relationships is how you get the opportunities. Shooting for free and undercutting somebody is a damn good way to make sure that you don't get called back for anything else. And it's such a small community that that word gets around.”

One thing I definitely want to talk about is knowing your role. I've worked on a lot of teams. I've worked with a lot of different types of sports and people, big and small,” tells Howard. “Knowing your role is extremely important and why I'm successful today. If I'm a backup shooter, or there is a specific space I'm going to operate in, I'm going to do the best job that I can in that space.”

The Portland Thorns triumphantly exit the field. Photo by Howard Lao

Howard’s tendency to not let limits define him, maintaining a strong drive to better himself, and finding the balance of knowing his worth but not letting the money drive him have helped him build a successful career. One which he says is finally hitting it’s stride this past year. At the heart of Howard’s passion for telling stories is community. I'm Portland born and raised. I love Portland. I love being in this community and working with other photographers and local teams and stores to build and share the resources so everybody levels up at the same time. I always come back to this is my community.”

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