Recapturing the Moment
Scanning and retouching technologies get the save in Sports Illustrated's
winning tribute to sports photography.
Like Ali's left jab, Karl Malone's special-delivery elbows and the top of L.T.'s helmet, a great sports photo hits people in the gut—and leaves a mark. Frozen images of heated moments forever spark memories of plays that immortalize athletes who define eras in which the game inspires passion propagated by generations of fans from whom an entire culture is constructed. Those who photograph sports history afford us the opportunity to repeat it.
Sports Illustrated, which has thrown subscribers a one-two punch of sports-focused prose and images since 1954, recently rolled out a special double issue featuring a commemorative look at "The Century's Greatest Sports Photos."
In the issue, SI Managing Editor Bill Colson revealed that "our photo staff spent months sifting through 100 years of material." Approximately 30 photos made the final cut. "While some pictures—for their epic subject matter or technical brilliance—might be considered the 'best' photos of the century," Colson said, "we were picking a slightly different group—our favorites; the ones, (according to) Senior Editor Chris Hunt, that 'immediately, for whatever reason, strike a chord within.' "
The hard part
After the votes were tallied, SI's imaging department tackled the keepers, scoring the task with a slightly higher degree of difficulty, since every one
of the originals was supplied in hard-copy format.
"We didn't receive any digital files; all of the images were prints or transparencies from many different sources," recalls Director of Imaging Brad Wallick.
"This project required a lot of scanning," he acknowledges.
Fortunately, Sports Illustrated has all the necessary equipment, including three Scitex EverSmart Pro flatbed scanners, along with a Linotype-Hell (now Heidelberg) S3900 drum for oversized originals.
Once the scans were complete, the staff needed to perform quite a bit of retouching in Adobe Photoshop, especially to the older images (which date back to 1909). The challenge, Wallick explains, was to improve quality while preserving original image integrity.
"We had to take out the dirt and scratches that are always present in old photos," he notes. "And, in a lot of the black-and-white photos, we had to work on the contrast—that is, make the images 'more contrasty'—to improve their appearance."
Wallick cites some examples of images that required a little extra manipulation: "We had to do a lot of work to the Bobby Orr spread. You can still see (even on the printed page) where the image is a little grainy due to age of the photograph, and the fact that it went up to a spread in size. We had to open up Bobby Orr's face to make him more recognizable. We did that by opening up all four colors, which would in effect make the face more open and help bring out more detail."
The same process was used to get as much detail as possible out of the 1955 picture of Jackie Robinson sliding into home plate (and Yogi Berra), he adds.
All in all, it took about 12 hours to scan and retouch all of the images used, Wallick calculates. "The EverSmart's speed really helped us," he states. "CCD technology is so much faster (than ever before)."
To ensure reproduction quality, the staff output proofs of each retouched scan on an Iris Realist before dropping the images into the final layout. The corrected images were also saved on a CD. (Although SI is a very digitally savvy operation, it did not employ a digital asset management solution at press time.)
"If we did have a digital asset management system in place, in all likelihood, those images would have been archived already, saving us that scanning step," Wallick surmises.
Wallick was confident that image quality would be retained on press, and the printers didn't disappoint. "We didn't give any special instructions to our printers for this project," he remarks. "Our printers print according to SWOP standards and they printed this issue as they normally would—by the numbers."