“I’m not overly technical,” Robert Beck says as he explains how a digital camera can be taken apart to capture light in the infrared. More than any mechanical breakdown, he just inherently knows what we can all see. “It’s perfect for shooting golf.”
Beck is one of the most decorated photographers at Sports Illustrated. Since his first assignment for the magazine, at the 1986 Ironman Kona triathlon, Beck has shot 10 Super Bowls, six Olympics and more than 200 golf events, including every major since 1987. Brandi Chastain ripping her jersey off after winning the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup? That’s his photo. Barry Bonds’ 756th homer? Got it. Wayne Gretzky’s 802nd goal? Yep. Not bad for a former substitute history and social studies teacher who got his start shooting his surfer buddies in San Diego.
That background has given him an advantage over his peers shooting golf. He’s not a golfer; he lets his sense of the shot guide him rather than any traditional knowledge of the game. “I just go wherever the picture or the design looks better to me,” he says. “So of course I might’ve missed a few shots where I didn’t know what the guy was doing, but I made some nice shots because I looked at it differently.”
All of which led to his experimentation with infrared photography. Unlike wire services and newspapers, Sports Illustrated isn’t on a daily deadline during the early rounds of tournaments, so Beck has the freedom to play with a different style. “One of our guys, Chuck Solomon, had shot some baseball with an infrared camera. I noticed what it did to the grass and I got the bug to try it. I thought it was a no-brainer for golf because that’s what we have: a lot of sky, a lot of trees, a lot of grass.”
But no faces. Beck quickly figured out that infrared is not meant for tight, emotive shots. “Human beings don’t really look that good in infrared,” he says. “If you shoot someone’s face, their eyes are kind of devilish looking and they’re all blacked out.”
That means he’ll never shoot the final round of a tournament in infrared, but early rounds are fair game. Beck has shot infrared for several years, but still loves the contrasts it brings to wider shots and the startling new looks at the pines of Augusta or the heather at Erin Hills.
“I take that camera with me every time I shoot golf.”