Coming back was another story.
“They took my camera bag,” explains the Annapolis-based divorce attorney, whose part-time job as a professional sports photographer entails frequent air travel. “They opened it up and took every single lens out. They took the caps off of both ends of every single lens. They took the cover off the camera – which exposes the sensor to anything that’s floating around. And they wiped all of it, whatever they do the wiping for – terror dust or something. I said, ‘Wait! Be careful!’”
She sighs. “They ignored me.”
But as with each new assignment, Billman treats the experience as simply one more learning experience. “It nearly made me late, because I certainly wasn’t counting on having to go through all of that,” she notes dryly. “But live and learn – I’ve now built that into my schedule.”
While Billman’s foray into the world of photographing professional sports is a relatively recent one, her general interest in taking pictures dates back to childhood.
“My grandfather was a dentist, but he was [also] a freelance photographer,” Billman recalls. “He had a darkroom down in his basement, and I used to love to go with him to take his pictures and do the developing. All those chemicals and things – the smell is still kind of in my nostrils.”
By high school, Billman was applying an enterprising nature to her own camera and darkroom.
“I put my camera on a tripod in front of the TV and took pictures of the Beatles when they were on The Ed Sullivan Show,” she recalls. Cropping out everything but the musicians’ faces, Billman enlarged the resulting images to 11” x 14”. “I had these headshots of the Beatles, and I took them to school and sold them for exorbitant [prices]! It was horrible – I made a fortune! It was the best per-hour fee I think I’ve made in my entire life.”
But when the demands of law school overshadowed her onetime passion, Billman admits she “kind of let it go” – that is, until the advent of digital photography sparked a renewed interest within her.
“I love computers,” she explains. “I saw this connection between computers and photography, and began working with a digital camera.”
Billman brushed up on her long-dormant photo skills with a refresher course offered by an online photo school. Shooting professional sports, however, only came about due to “completely serendipitous timing – and nepotism.”
“My husband’s niece is married to [tennis star] Pete Sampras’s brother Gus,” she explains. “Gus was the director for the Bank of the West Classic [in Stanford, California]. He knew I was doing photography [and that] I’m just crazy about tennis. I play tennis. I watch tennis. So, he called me one time and said, ‘We need an event photographer. Do you want to come out and do it?’”
Gus didn’t have to ask her twice. Moreover, to broaden the gig’s potential, Billman spent the run-up to her California trip “trolling the Internet” for photo agencies and outlets that might prove to be just as interested in the pictures she was set to take. She found one in a company called Wire Image.
“They placed images with good publications frequently,” Billman explains. “I just sent them an e-mail and said, ‘I’m going out there and taking photographs. Have you got anybody covering it and, if not, would you like shots?’”
Wire Image expressed interest and subsequently contracted Billman to shoot the event, establishing a fruitful working relationship that lasted for the next several years.
“It’s like any resume: you do it once and everybody thinks you know what you’re doing,” Billman quips. “So, I just kind of persevered. I kept on the Wire Image people, kept sending them requests to go to different events – and they kept sending me.”
And so it went – until last year, when Getty Images acquired Wire Image.
“Getty doesn’t have any use at all for part-time or freelance people, or, at least, not for me and most of the Wire Image shooters,” notes Billman. “So, Getty said, ‘Sorry – see you!’ But I’d been in the loop and in the circuit long enough that I knew people. I put the word out, and a friend of mine said, ‘If you want to check in with my editor, I think he’d probably take you on.’ He did, and so now I’m shooting for a wire service called AI Wire (www.aiwire.com).”
For the sports enthusiast, Billman explains, there are both pros and cons to attending games in such a capacity. “You’ve got the best seat in the house for whatever you’re doing,” she says. “You’re on the sidelines or you’re on the court – and there’s no better perspective for watching sports than being right there with it. The downside of that is [that] all you see is whatever you’ve got your lens focused on.”
From Miami to New Haven, from Newport Beach to Cincinnati, Billman shoots an estimated 20 events each year, ranging from tennis to basketball to soccer; closer to home, she keeps her hand in by shooting local events, wildlife – even the occasional wedding – through her own freelance business (www.billmanphotography.com). However, there is a delicate balance to be struck between such extracurricular employment and a busy law practice.
“Doing what I do know is just about as much as I can handle photographically while maintaining any credibility at all in the law practice,” she admits. Alternately, she notes the difficulties of being a professional picture-taker in an increasingly crowded field.
“Because of digital, everybody is a professional photographer nowadays,” she explains. “It’s an overloaded industry, and you really have to find a way to differentiate yourself, or have some good luck…” Billman pauses.
“Or,” she chuckles, “know somebody with a good last name.”