Nathaniel Butler has been an N.B.A. senior photographer since 1984. Those were the days of shooting on film and developing photos in hotel rooms after games. Today, players text Butler as they arrive at the arena so he can be in position to capture a perfect arena entrance shot for them to post on Instagram.
The job isn’t what it used to be.
When Andrew D. Bernstein became an official N.B.A. photographer in 1986, he was continually thwarted in his attempts to get his camera into in-game huddles to capture the interactions between players and coaches. Pat Riley, who was the coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, made sure to obscure all viewpoints.
Halfway through the season, Riley asked Bernstein why he wanted to be in the huddle. People want to see what’s happening on the inside, Bernstein told Riley, who reasoned with the explanation and agreed to give Bernstein a chance. If you screw up, Riley said, you are never coming back.
More than three decades later, Bernstein is still photographing N.B.A. players, huddles and pretty much whatever he pleases as the league’s longest tenured senior photographer.
Photographers have long played a critical role in shaping narratives in a league defined by faces and moments. The most iconic posters are the finished works of the photographers who position themselves along the baseline each game, often contorting their bodies and forgetting about personal comfort to get closer and take countless snaps, in hopes of capturing a masterpiece.
In today’s N.B.A., they allow players to use those photographs as building blocks for their social media profiles. They have adapted to an ever-changing digital world that has presented new opportunities and a whole new set of challenges.
On game day, Butler uses a combination of tethered remotes and custom phone apps to operate any number of cameras in an arena.
He sends photographs to a team of editors in Secaucus, N.J., with the press of a button. In seconds, they can be published on the league’s official social media feeds and reach millions of people around the world.
Despite the technological advances, shooting an N.B.A. game can be more difficult than one would think. “A basketball game is a complex situation,” said Bruce Ely, the lead photographer of the Portland Trail Blazers. “There are a lot of moving parts.”
Like a fan’s arms waving across the frame just as Damian Lillard makes a 3-pointer. Or the leg of another player sneaking into the edge of the image, ruining a portrait. Another time, it might be a referee walking into a perfect shot.
Despite the challenges, some N.B.A. photographers do not consider it their most difficult assignment. Nelson Campana, the team photographer for the Toronto Raptors, regularly shoots weddings as well. The pressure of game night is nothing compared with the responsibility of chronicling a couple’s special day.
“You have one night to make it right,” Campana said. “There’s a list of things you need to get, and you don’t get another chance. At a basketball game, you’re just hoping things happen.”
Some nights, there is too much happening at the same time. As the Oklahoma City Thunder eliminated the San Antonio Spurs in the 2016 playoffs, Butler had to make a split-second decision about what to photograph at the buzzer. He focused on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook embracing, and then got a shot of Durant with Tim Duncan. He stayed with Durant afterward, but that meant missing a chance to capture Duncan walking off an N.B.A. court for the final time.
“Ideally,” Butler said, “I would like to be in two places at one time.”
While some players enjoy being on the other side of these photographers’ lenses, others say it is an adjustment. Aaron Gordon of the Orlando Magic first remembers being in front of a camera as a high schooler being interviewed after winning a basketball tournament.
“You have to live in a way where you’re O.K. with being seen,” Gordon said. “You’re always being watched these days.”
Because so many photos are being taken, players have to accept that they can control only so much of what is shared online.
“You want to nitpick every single picture,” said John Collins, a second-year forward with the Atlanta Hawks. “But it just can’t work that way. You can’t read everything about yourself and see every photo of yourself.”
To take more control over their visual narratives on social media, players are working with photographers to shoot them outside basketball arenas.
Cassy Athena is a professional photographer who has earned the trust of players around the league. Last season, at All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles, Athena followed Stephen Curry and his wife, Ayesha, for the entire weekend. She was also invited by Indiana Pacers guard Victor Oladipo to shoot him at New York Fashion Week in 2018.
Athena says it takes time to convince certain players of the value of her photographs.
“It’s not so much they don’t understand the importance of the moment,” she said. “It’s convincing them why they should share it with the world. When it clicks, you get guys who might not be the best N.B.A. player, but they use this” — meaning Instagram and professional photos — “to build their own brand and further their careers.”
Older, more established players worry less about their online persona but more about how the images carry a nostalgic value as their careers wind down.
“What photographers do may seem minute,” said Vince Carter, 42, who just ended his 21st season in the league. “But I’ve seen so many shots of the best moments of my career, and in some ways, they’ve helped me remember those moments.”
Many of these iconic images can now be seen on the Instagram pages of the photographers themselves. Bernstein said he was the last guy dragged kicking and screaming into the social media era. He now enjoys posting classic pictures for Throwback Thursday.
Butler adds watermarks to the photographs he posts on his feed because other accounts and publications will often publish them without giving him credit. But he recognizes the value of being online. “It opens you up to a whole other audience,” Butler said.
The rise of social media accounts means there are now more photographers at N.B.A. games. Butler prefers to use a camera lens that does not require him to be right in the face of players to capture them up close. In the modern era, he has noticed a lot of camera phones being shoved into players’ faces.
“There’s an etiquette that doesn’t exist anymore,” Butler said. “Not just in sports, but in society.”
Even though photographers want to capture every moment, some also realize that there are boundaries. A few months ago, Kyrie Irving and Durant had a private conversation at All-Star Weekend in Charlotte, N.C., which was captured on film. It was circulated online, and many believed the two were discussing their heavily rumored plans to join the Knicks together this summer.
“If I was a player, that would bother me,” Butler said. “You don’t have to document every second of their existence.”
Bernstein had a similar decision to make more than 30 years ago, during the 1988 N.B.A. finals, when he walked through the Lakers’ locker room after a loss and found Magic Johnson and Michael Cooper with their uniforms on, dejected as the showers were running around them.
It was a one-of-a-kind moment, but Bernstein opted against taking the photograph.
“That was their time,” Bernstein said. “That didn’t need to be documented. I have that picture in my mind, and that’s enough.”