Senior Photo Editor and lead photographer for the NFL, Ben Liebenberg on creating and curating images for the iconic sports league.  

It wasn’t until he started taking photography classes in college that Senior Photo Editor and lead photographer for the NFL Ben Liebenberg realized that, “Hey, I can actually do this for a living.” But his interest in photography started long before then–during childhood summers spent with his grandparents. “I always spent summers with my grandparents and my grandfather always had a camera so at a very young age, I was running around taking pictures on vacation.”

An interest in learning more about photographic techniques led to photo classes in high school, which continued through to college when he decided to get a degree in photojournalism.

Ben Liebenberg, Photo Editor and lead photographer for the NFL

It was during college that Liebenberg started shooting sports—as an assistant for Sports Illustrated, no small achievement for any shooter let alone a young man in college. SI “didn’t have any staffers in the Bay area at the time so 3-4 guys from all over the country would fly in to shoot a 49ers game or Raiders game and  I did a lot of assisting work with them,” Liebenberg recalls.

After graduating from college, Liebenberg started interning at newspapers but it was the height of layoffs in the early 2000’s and newspapers weren’t hiring. At the same time, he was doing music photography locally, which soon turned into two years of traveling around the world and nationwide photographing musical artists on tour.

Following an exciting couple of years of touring, Liebenberg’s career continued to evolve and things got really interesting when, remembering his sports photography experience, a college friend, who worked at WireImage called about a job at the agency. At the time, WireImage handled all of NFL’s analogue archives while Getty Images also had an NFL license (this was before Getty acquired WireImage) and provided images for stock clients.

Given his background in sports photography, Liebenberg was brought on board at WireImage to help get the NFL archives up and running. And because WireImage’s west coast photographer was on the road all the time, Liebenberg also shot a lot of sports for the agency.

After 3 ½ years, Getty scooped up WireImage, laid off the WireImage sports department but kept Liebenberg on for an additional 3 months. Although he wasn’t looking for work at the time, the NFL contacted him directly, invited him in for an interview and hired him the same day to act as photo editor for the new

Liebenberg’s responsibilities grew quickly at this new venture, where he started as a photo editor to get the website up and running, and to source images for the site. Soon he was shooting “and doing a lot more than just getting photos for the website.” In fact, the first week he was there, Liebenberg was tasked with recommending what photo equipment to buy. Since Liebenberg had been shooting Canon since the late 1990’s and already had a lot of gear—and Canon was an NFL partner—it only made sense to add more Canon cameras and lenses to the mix. He also slowly began accumulating lighting equipment. “I inherited some things from friends, who gave me a few Chimera lightbanks and those extra small, medium and large lightbanks were the starting point for me,” Liebenberg explains, “That’s what I used for a long time,” as he continued expanding his knowledge of portraiture.

Demarcus Ware, by Ben Liebenberg for the NFL

Demarcus Ware, photographed by Ben Liebenburg for the NFL.

There have been a lot of changes during the nine seasons that Liebenberg has been with NFL Digital Media. “I’ve seen a lot of changes in the digital media landscape,” Liebenberg explains. “We went from a very small staff and now we have hundreds of people here in the L.A. office—including 6 photo editors and a photo desk that’s manned nearly 24 hours a day. And, we have league offices in New York and NFL Films in New Jersey.”

As Senior Photo Editor and lead photographer for the NFL, Liebenberg essentially runs the photo department for the league, “focusing mostly on digital media with the NFL Network and but my group also works with nearly every department, especially around events like the Super Bowl.” He and his team handle everything from internal photography and making sure they get the appropriate coverage of games and events, as well as supplying imagery to photo partners like the Associated Press.

Working out of the L.A. office, which occupies two buildings, but has no dedicated still photo studio, Liebenberg gets creative when photographing football players on site. “We do a lot of portrait work, especially during the off season,” he explains. While two large, and two smaller, sound stages provide open spaces where he can set up production shoots, “we also have live shows going on during the day, so you have to get creative and think outside the box.” He goes on to say that, “we might schedule 2-3 portraits a day if people are coming through, so we look for different, unique places to shoot.”

“It’s definitely a challenge,” says Liebenberg, but they’ve shot “in pretty much any place on the property—inside and outdoors” including green rooms, against cement walls and even the side of one building that features a large NFL logo. In fact, Liebenberg once captured a great portrait of Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater in a 5-foot long alley between buildings.

With a far larger assortment of lighting products than nine years ago—including the Chimera OctaPlus, strip banks and, more recently, the Chimera Octa Beauty collapsible beauty dish –Liebenberg and his team are well-equipped to set up lighting regardless of the location. “We have a lot of large scale lighting modifiers, big scrims, C Stands, large lighting stands and background support, along with a lot of grip products.” Creativity for these shoots extends to building moveable backdrops as well.

But what happens when the action—and the players—are off-site? They load up a truck with gear and send it off. “At every marquee event, we send a truck from the studios in L.A.—so you don’t have to rent and you know what gear you have.” For the Super Bowl, for example, they send desks, set material and all their lighting gear. “It makes it a lot easier and I know where everything’s going to be and we can just grab the gear and go to work.” Even then, space and convenience are considerations but being able to “put the [collapsible] Chimera Octa Beauty Dish into a bag and on the truck” is a real benefit.

Liebenberg has some special plans for the upcoming Super Bowl 50 (the NFL didn’t use Roman numerals this year) with the Chimera RingMAXX, but you’ll have to wait to learn more until after the game. But long before kickoff, Liebenberg does a style guide, photographing a logo-emblazoned football in iconic locations of the host city. Super Bowl 50 was the second style guide the NFL did in house (and the first that Liebenberg shot), setting up and photographing the football in and around San Francisco. To keep the setup simple and portable, Liebenberg used the Chimera Pro II XS (extra small) softbox or the Chimera collapsible Octa Beauty Dish. The latter, Liebenberg notes, “spreads the light out a little more, making the shot a little softer where the the Pro II XS softbox is a little more spot on and falls off more quickly,” providing perfect options whether shooting the football on the Golden Gate Bridge or against the beautiful nightscape of the city.

Another annual project is the Draft Combine where Liebenberg will shoot about 20-25 portraits in 2 days and about 350 headshots over 5 days. Liebenberg, who shoots about 80% of the portraits for the NFL, tries to keep the background and lighting consistent for these headshots. He might use two Chimera medium softboxes at about a 45-degree angle to the subject against a light grey, 4-foot wide seamless background. Last year, they had two collapsible Octa Beauty dishes that Chimera sent out (they ended up buying the larger one), used strip banks and a specially designed metallic background. The photos are used in multiple places, including, the Madden video game and in the scouting Combine app that coaches and scouts use as a fact book for each player, so consistency in the headshots is key.

While technical expertise and the right equipment go a long way for a great portrait session, the connection between the photographer and the subject is equally as important. “Some guys are really great—they’re used to speaking with the media and having their picture taken.” But, he cautions, “Other guys aren’t in the spotlight as much.”

Quarterbacks, he goes on to say, “are usually used to being in front of the camera. But people may not be seeking out defensive linemen as often and it may be difficult to coax them out of their shell in order to capture their personalities.” Often, Liebenberg will remember a player from photographing him at another event or game, providing a common ground and references to chat about. Other times, Liebenberg will do a little more homework: “I’ll look up what school they went to. A lot of times it’s talking to them about past games they’ve played in.”

Over time, says Liebenberg, you build up a rapport. And, with access to an amazing archive of images, Liebenberg might surprise his subject with a print of a memorable play—a gift that’s sure to get the portrait session off to a great start.

With Super Bowl 50 just around the corner, Liebenberg is super excited about working with the RingMAXX to shoot portraits for the NFL Honors awards program, the night before the Super Bowl. He won’t say much about his plans right now but we’ll report on his experiences in the near future, so stay tuned.

Our thanks to Ben for the amazing insight!  Make sure to check out his personal website and follow him on Twitter and Instagram.