Passion and tech took Terrell Lloyd from 49ers superfan to team photographer

A San Francisco native and lifelong 49ers fan, photographer Terrell Lloyd struck gold in 1994 when he got his first credential to photograph a game from the field after a chance run-in with a former player. He had been a season ticket holder since 1981 and was known for taking pictures from the stands.

It was in 1993 when former player Dana McLemore approached LLoyd at McLemore’s restaurant, Daddy Mac, in San Mateo, California, and told the photographer he should go out onto the field to take pictures. It was a career-defining moment for Lloyd, who has now spent 22 years as the 49ers Senior Manager of Photography Services and Lead Team Photographer.

“I was a small kid in school, so instead of playing football or anything like that, I gravitated to the photography side of it.”

“Man, that’d be great to take pictures with the 49ers!” Lloyd recalled thinking in that fateful moment. But the journey had just begun, and it would be a long and winding one before he landed a permanent position with his home team, taking him through freelance photo jobs and even a career in a high tech. After that first opportunity in 1994, Lloyd was able to start working indirectly with the Niners in 1996, slowly building up contacts and a portfolio of work.

Now, he is responsible for the entirety of the team’s image assets and tasked with producing photos for web, digital, marketing, and partnerships, in addition to simply covering the games. Beyond that, he also covers other events at Levi’s Stadium, shooting everything from live music to food.

It’s a dream job for Lloyd, who now also counts himself among the ranks of Canon’s Explorers of Light, but it had never been his plan — at least not until the ball was already in play. He had studied photography in high school, and even photographed some school football and basketball games, but had never anticipated a career as a sports photographer.

Digital Trends recently spoke with Lloyd about his career path, techniques, and what it takes to succeed as a sports photographer in the modern media landscape. (The interview below has been edited for clarity and length.)

Digital Trends: When did you first realize you wanted to be a sports photographer?

Lloyd: I took photography in high school. A friend of mine was an avid photographer in school and introduced me to photography class. I went in there, saw the dark room, film, and you know, that’s when I first got hooked. I was a small kid in school, so instead of playing football or anything like that, I gravitated to the photography side of it.

It was just fun, but I never thought I was going to be sports photographer, per se.

Aside from football, what is your favorite subject to shoot?

I’m also the athletic photographer for San Jose State. Outside of football, I do all their collegiate sports as well. Baseball, to water polo, to track and field, to tennis.

“In 22 years with 49ers full time, I only missed one game.”

Before I came to the Niners full time, I did weddings back in the day; I did portraits, I did product photography, I traveled a lot for corporate events and corporate photography. And I wanted to learn all aspects of photography. I like to be challenged on things I haven’t shot before. I love travel.

One of my clients was BMW and they took me all around the world. Africa, Australia, Caribbean, Argentina, Italy. In 22 years with 49ers full time, I only missed one game, and that was on the Italy trip.

You have broad experience shooting other subjects beyond sports. Do you think professional photographers need to be adaptable to several different disciplines, or is it still possible to have a single focus and be successful?

My philosophy was to do and learn as much as you can. And it’s like, what’s the saying, like jack of all trades, master of none. But to me, the more things you learn, the more you know how to do, the more valuable you become as photographer and as a business.

Terrell Lloyd 49ers Photographer
Courtesy of Terrell Lloyd

So I think it’s valuable today to learn as much as you can because it’s so competitive out there. The market is so spread out, you want to hone your skills to do a lot of things.

What was your first camera? What do you shoot with now?

Form back in the film days it was a Minolta SLR. After I started to grow, I went to the Canon brand. What I shoot with now, I’m on the Canon 1D X Mark II.

My first digital camera was a DCS520. It cost $12,000 back in 1997. So I was an early adopter in digital. [Editor’s note: The DCS520 was a Kodak digital camera based on a Canon EOS-1n film SLR. Kodak made several such “Frankencameras” throughout the 1990s and early 2000s based on various Nikon and Canon SLRs.]

“I think I was doing things ahead of other photographers in my area, and that’s what made me stand out.”

There were only so many of these cameras they were producing. I had to beg the guy over the phone at this camera store in Texas. They sold me that camera, and that’s what really got me in the door with the 49ers from the digital standpoint. Being in high tech at the time, I knew where the trends were going to go; I could introduce this camera to the 49ers right as the internet was about to go off.

I’ve had every Canon flagship digital camera since.

Comparing the cameras you currently use, to the older cameras you owned: What one feature are you most thankful for that you didn’t have before?

From being in high tech and doing what I do, the one thing I like about the Canon features is their wireless technology. When I shot wirelessly to my laptop, my clients were really impressed by that. I think I was doing things ahead of other photographers in my area, and that’s what made me stand out. And I’ve always been a wireless technology guy.

Terrell Lloyd 49ers Photographer
San Francisco 49ers team photographer Terrell Lloyd (right) chatting with safety Vinnie Sunseri (#40) on the sidelines of Levi Stadium. Courtesy of Terrell Lloyd and Michael Zagaris

I can shoot wirelessly anywhere around the stadium here. Hit the button, it goes to the FTP server, social media people monitor the folder, boom. They doctor it up and it’s going to social or the web in less than a minute.

I still always think I was a leader in doing [wireless image transfer]. That’s why I talk about learning as much as you can; to enhance what you do as a photographer.

How many lenses do you use to shoot a game?

I work with five cameras on a game day. I started out with two, but as time went on, I went to five. Five cameras, eight lenses.

There was an increased demand for certain things. Candlestick Park [the former home of the 49ers until 2013] had maybe 20 people in stadium operations, 40-to-50 people in the front office. Now, here at Levi’s, we have over 300-to-400 employees, and we’re doing a lot more.

“It’s a matter of creating multiple shots instead of just one or two.”

On a gameday, I have to think about things other than the action — marketing, partnerships, community relations, sideline guests on the field, intros, pregame. So the mindset is, I’m in the locker room shooting and I have to use a certain lens there. I may be using my fisheye lens, the 8-15mm fisheye, or the 11-24, 16-35, 24-70, 70-200.

I use the ThinkTank Modulus system [a modular belt and pouch system that keeps cameras and lenses more accessible than a backpack or other type of camera bag]. I’m able to be versatile and not just get in there with one lens.

United Airlines is one of our partners and they like showing group pictures, so if I have a nice wide huddle with the 11-24mm, they can use that. It’s a matter of creating multiple shots instead of just one or two.

I do have two assistants with me, carrying the 600mm, 400mm, and 300mm. During the game, I’ll start off in the end zone and let the action come to me. I’ll start off with the 600 and as they get closer, I’ll have my assistant hand me the 400. It’s a stepping process. Breaking it down from 600 to 400 to 300. Then I have the 24-70 on a camera to my right, and the 70-200 on one to my left.

“You gotta create those opportunities and do whatever it takes. It’s a process …”

Compared to working for a newspaper or agency, what’s different about actually being employed by a team as a photographer?

Compared to news photographers, they have assignments. They might have certain shots they have to get, but it’s specific. Me, I gotta get everybody.

What advice would you give to budding sports photographers?

It’s a matter of getting the opportunity and also creating the opportunity. You have to assist if you can. Meet the other sports photographers that are out there doing stuff for college. See if there’s any way you can assist, or run [memory] cards, or be an editor.

Courtesy of Terrell Lloyd

As an example, Getty has editors that will run out and get cards from the photographer [and physically run them back to the editing station]. You know why? Because they’re not shooting wirelessly [to Wi-Fi], that’s why.

Learn how to be an editor. Learn how to identify a good shot. I had two [assistants] at Candlestick, they were my grips for maybe two, three years. They learned everything I was doing. And then I went off and had them shoot. And those two photographers, they’ve been with me for 10 years now.

You gotta create those opportunities and do whatever it takes. It’s a process — you just don’t go from first grade to graduating from college. You gotta take those steps to get to that point.

Terrell Lloyd 49ers PhotographerCourtesy of Terrell Lloyd

What job or assignment is still on your bucket list — is there anything you’ve really wanted to shoot that you haven’t had the chance to yet?

I’ve always wanted to shoot the Olympics. I don’t care what sport. I mean, I love figure skating. If someone said, “We want you to shoot figure skating at the Olympics,” I’m in!

The Niners won five Super Bowls before I got here. We had some runs in 2011, 2013. A photographer’s dream is to get the winning picture of the catch in the Super Bowl. [In 2013 versus the Baltimore Ravens, the 49ers are] first and goal at the 7-yard line. Handoff to Frank Gore, it gets to the 5. Place is going crazy. I swear, that Super Bowl, my heart was pounding every play. The first pass is to Crabtree, misses. The second pass, misses again.

It’s like two minutes left in the game, fourth and goal at the 5 — and you’re at the Super Bowl! My heart’s beating and I’m looking up at my assistant, and she looks at me like, “I can’t help you!” I got the 70-200mm in my hand. Play comes at me again, and he misses again — and we lose the Super Bowl. It was devastating.

Next year, we make a run again, but we lose the NFC championship against Seattle. Then we fell off the grid a bit.

So my goal is to shoot more Super Bowls. I’ve shot the last three or four with NFL.com. But on my bucket list, it’s to be an Olympics shooter — whatever sport.

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