How one of sports' most iconic photographers captured the best shots from a historic NCAA women's tournament

·14 min read
national championship
A picture is worth a thousand words. Elsa/Getty Images
  • Getty's Elsa Garrison is one of the most talented sports photographers in the industry.

  • She was in San Antonio, Texas, to capture photos of the 2021 NCAA women's basketball tournament.

  • We spoke to Garrison about how she gets the perfect shot and her favorite photos from this year's tourney.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

If a picture's worth a thousand words, then Elsa Garrison has written many a novel over the course of her illustrious sports photography career.

As the first woman to become a staff photographer at Getty Images and a 25-year sports photography veteran, Garrison has covered every major athletics event a sports fan could dream of, including the Olympics, World Series, Super Bowl, NBA Finals, US Open, FIFA World Cup, NCAA Final Four, and more.

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Elsa captures Simone Biles at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Elsa/Getty Images

Her latest project brought her to San Antonio, Texas, to capture this year's historic NCAA women's basketball tournament. Game after game and round after round, Garrison managed to get The Shot - the controversial no-foul between Baylor and UConn, the last-second potential game winner from Aari McDonald, and the perfect shot of Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer cutting down the nets. As usual, many of her photos from the event were plastered in top newspapers across the country - and all over Insider's coverage of March Madness.

Insider spoke with the documentarian of countless iconic sports moments about her experience at this year's tourney, setting up for each game, capturing emotion from players and coaches, and how COVID-19 impacts her ability to do it all. Check out our interview with the omnipotent Elsa below:

This interview has been slightly edited for clarity.

What were some of your favorite photos from the women's tournament this year, and can you take me through how you positioned yourself to capture each one?

The moments I am drawn to tend to be reactionary images, especially the moments after the play. Reaction imagery shows the human side of sport and the viewer can make that connection much easier than with a great action photo. My approach often involves hanging on and following the player(s) after an action moment whether that's a big play, three-point shot or an incredible block, to see what or if they show any sort of emotion. Championship games and games that come down to the wire are the moments that produce the most emotion from both players and coaches.

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Arizona's Aari McDonald (left) and head coach Adia Barnes react to a confetti cannon firing after the Wildcats' Elite Eight victory over Indiana. Elsa/Getty Images

Two images from this year's tournament that come to mind immediately are the post-game celebrations from the Arizona Wildcats winning the Elite Eight game to advance to the Final Four, as well as the Stanford Cardinal winning the National Championship. The image from Stanford's win was from a remote camera that I placed in the catwalk of the arena before the game and the Arizona celebration was captured from my courtside position. Both images equally had incredible impact and emotion. Remote cameras allow me to be in two places at once so to speak and give me the opportunity to show a moment from different perspectives throughout the arena.

Do any of the athletes or coaches stand out to you as particularly enticing photo subjects?

As a sports photographer, I look for athletes and coaches that are laying it all out on the line. Athletes who push themselves to their limits, whether that's chasing down a loose ball, playing tough defense, or driving fearlessly to the net, these moments always make for enticing images. Also, coaches who are passionately directing their team or reacting to calls (or even non-calls) are especially visually interesting because usually the more expressive the coach, the better the image.

Some coaches who wear their emotions on their sleeves include Adia Barnes, Kim Mulkey, Geno Auriemma, and Vic Schaefer, and Aari McDonald, Haley Jones, Cate Reese, DiJonai Carrington, DiDi Richards, Paige Bueckers, Trinity Baptiste, and Lexie Hull are all athletes who come to mind who are passionate, driven, and electric on and off the court. I'd add that defensively, Aliyah Boston of South Carolina and Cameron Brink of Stanford are extremely captivating as well.

I noticed that you managed to get both the front and back shot of Aari McDonald's last-second game-winning attempt from the title game. How are you in two places at once?

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Aari McDonald's Hail Mary attempt in the national championship game from behind. Elsa/Getty Images

For the Championship game, I had three remote cameras set up which I fired with a trigger attached to a radio device. For this specific moment of Aari McDonald, I triggered the remote I had placed on the stanchion, where the basket arm and stanchion meet or some call it "the elbow." On that same basket, I had a remote camera placed under ESPN's Fletcher Robo camera that was over the shot clock, and how I got the shot of Head Coach Tara VanDerveer cutting down the net after Stanford's win.

I also had one remote placed in the catwalk over the Final Four Logo for opening tip-off, but most importantly for post-game. I often use remote cameras during Championship games as it allows me to capture various moments from all different angles and lenses to add some visual variety to my game take.

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Aari McDonald's Hail Mary attempt in the national championship game from under the basket. Elsa/Getty Images

I saw on your Instagram story that you have quite the set up pregame. Can you walk me through that?

Through my Instagram stories, I wanted to show all of the preparation and work that goes into capturing stunning imagery. Many people outside of the business may think we just roll up right before game time to snap some photographs, but that's totally not the case! All remote cameras were installed the day before the Championship game. I was at the arena for several hours to make sure that they were at the angle I wanted, pre-focused to where I needed them to be and that they were powered and secure so that all I had to do on game day is turn them all on.

To install the shot clock remote camera, we must work in conjunction with ESPN since we are clamping a camera on their rigging and also need to make sure the camera is out of view of their shot. I focus on where I think the action is going to be and only trigger the camera when there is action in that frame.

The Alamodome ladder leading to the catwalk. Elsa

Every building, arena or stadium is vastly different. The access to the catwalk at the Alamodome [where this year's tournament took place] was a 25-foot ladder attached to the wall that I had to climb up to hop onto the catwalk, all while carrying my remote gear.

This catwalk was grated so it was imperative not to drop any little bit as it would fall through to the ground. This is all done when the court and the stands are clear several hours before the event. On game day, I arrived four and half hours before tipoff to turn everything on and make sure it was all operating properly.

You never seem to miss the big moment, but you also manage to capture fantastic off-ball reactions as well. How do you pick your spots to seemingly get it all?

The NCAA assigns shooting positions for photographers throughout the tournament. For the Championship game, I was working with another Getty Images Staff Photographer Carmen Mandato. On one end of the court, we had a position that was closer to the basket and the other end of the court we had a position that was on the opposite corner near the three-point line. I chose the spot on the corner as I like to see both benches clearly, mostly for coach reaction photos and so I can see the plays develop easily.

This helps because when players are heading to the net, I'm not looking up into them and it's more of a side shot, giving me a few more opportunities for great driving frames, rebounds ,and scrambles. In this spot in the arena, I can get blocked more easily by other players and referees, but I stay on the play, so I am ready when traffic clears so to speak.

I also think knowing the sport, the players, and how a particular team approaches the game is important. This helps anticipate the action or reaction better if you know what or who to look for in the game.

Everyone was talking about whether or not UConn's final defensive stand against DiJonai Carrington and Baylor was a foul. You got multiple shots that I think serve as evidence. What's your take? Foul or no foul?

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Baylor's DiJonai Carrington tries to take a shot as UConn's Aaliyah Edwards and Olivia Nelson-Ododa defend in the controversial final play of their Elite Eight contest. Elsa/Getty Images

In my opinion, I think it was a foul. In one of the frames, you can see Aaliyah Edwards' arm on the ball, but her other arm and that of Olivia Nelson-Ododa is hitting DiJoani Carrington's arm. Post-game there was a lot of talk on Twitter and some of the sport commentary shows about the lack of calls against UConn historically in the tournament. Those discussions may arise from fans of other teams and I am not sure if that is because UConn's success as a program that people feel they need to justify that success or if there is some truth to it.

On one hand I get the idea that the referees should let them play, but when you have a single elimination game like this was, maybe plays should be scrutinized a bit more. It is a fun discussion with a lot of opinions (well if you look at Twitter anyway!)

How have COVID protocols impacted your ability to get the shots you want? Have you had to get creative at all?

Because we were in the NCAA bubble for the tournament, it felt a bit more like pre-pandemic times in that I was shooting from a typical position that I would be in at previous sporting events. For safety of course, we were wearing masks at all times and COVID tested every day.

Elsa installs a camera above the shot clock. Elsa

In other sports and venues, it is way different. Photographers are further away from the action and I find that I am using longer lenses to mimic that sense of intimacy that we used to get. Being courtside or on the field, you can see expressions and moments way better. The lower perspective allows me to shoot in such a way that I can maximize the impact in the frame for an easy read.

Covering sports from an elevated position has a different look and feel. The viewer is a bit more removed from the play or action and less in it like they are from the lower vantage point. From a creativity aspect, working from above forces me to think differently and that is not necessarily a bad thing, it's just different.

The main takeaway for me when covering professional and collegiate sports during this time is to be adaptive and open to the ever changing safety protocols and working areas and to be creative as our access evolves.

The way you capture the emotion of every moment is second to none. How are you able to A) identify that a reaction is coming and where it's coming from and B) wait for the right moment to elicit peak emotion?

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South Carolina's Aliyah Boston reacts just after her team's Final Four loss to the Stanford Cardinal. Elsa/Getty Images

When it comes to covering close games that come down to a last second shot, I tend to frame it where I can see both reactions. In these moments, I aim to tell the story of the game in one image and most of the time that is with a reaction. I often think that the most compelling images happen just after the peak action moment, so I am laser focused on what happens next. Just because the play is over does not mean the moment is over!

That was advice was given to me early on in my career and it has certainly shaped how I approach events to this day. I am a classic action photographer, but it is the emotional pictures that I am really drawn to capturing. The more you know a sport, the easier to get those kinds of moments. Research does go a long way! I have a game plan for everything I do so that I am not missing moments by overthinking about how I am going to cover it.

Did you have a rooting interest this year?

I just like a great story. Obviously, it would have been a historic win for Arizona since it was the team's first Final Four appearance.

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Arizona star Aari McDonald. Elsa/Getty Images

I have distanced myself from fandom because it makes it easier to cover all sports if you don't have a rooting interest. The only reason I would root for a team over the other is if the outcome of the game meant I got to go cover something else. My alma mater is Mizzou, who obviously didn't make it!

Here are some of Garrison's favorite shots from this year's tournament:

Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey shouts to her team during their Sweet Sixteen matchup against Michigan.

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Elsa/Getty Images

Arizona's Aari McDonald (left) steals the ball from Stanford's Kiana Williams in the National Championship game.

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Elsa/Getty Images

Michigan's Danielle Rauch defends Baylor's DiDi Richards during the fourth quarter of their down-to-the-wire Sweet Sixteen game.

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Elsa/Getty Images

South Carolina and Stanford players react to Gamecocks star Aliyah Boston's missed buzzer-beater to end their Final Four contest.

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Elsa/Getty Images

UConn's Paige Bueckers celebrates hitting a three-pointer during the Huskies' Elite Eight matchup against Baylor.

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Elsa/Getty Images

Arizona's Aari McDonald (left) and head coach Adia Barnes react to a confetti cannon firing after the Wildcats' Elite Eight victory over Indiana.

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Elsa/Getty Images

Baylor's DiJonai Carrington tries to take a shot as UConn's Aaliyah Edwards and Olivia Nelson-Ododa defend in the controversial final play of their Elite Eight contest.

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Baylor's DiJonai Carrington tries to take a shot as UConn's Aaliyah Edwards and Olivia Nelson-Ododa defend in the controversial final play of their Elite Eight contest. Elsa/Getty Images

Indiana's Nicole Cardano-Hillary gets a steal from NC State's Raina Perez during the Sweet Sixteen.

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Elsa/Getty Images

UConn's Aaliyah Edwards looks to pass around Arizona's Trinity Baptiste during the Final Four.

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Arizona star Aari McDonald celebrates her team's Final Four upset over the UConn Huskies.

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Arizona's Aari McDonald celebrates after hitting a step-back three against the UConn Huskies in the Final Four.

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Elsa/Getty Images

Geno Auriemma coaches his UConn team during their Final Four contest against Arizona.

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Elsa/Getty Images

Arizona's Aari McDonald attempts a shot against Paige Bueckers and the UConn Huskies.

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Elsa/Getty Images

Arizona's Aari McDonald attempts a last-second game-winner against the Stanford Cardinal in the NCAA tournament championship game.

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Aari McDonald's Hail Mary attempt in the national championship game from under the basket. Elsa/Getty Images

Arizona's Aari McDonald watches to see if her potential game-winning three pointer will fall.

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Elsa/Getty Images

Stanford's Cameron Brink goes for a block against Arizona's Shaina Pellington during the championship game.

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Elsa/Getty Images

Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer celebrates after the Cardinal cut down the nets as the 2021 national champions.

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Elsa/Getty Images

Stanford's Lexie Hull (left) and Cameron Brink celebrate their team's national championship win while Arizona's Aari McDonald lays on the hardwood after her missed game-winner.

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Elsa/Getty Images

Arizona's Cate Reese (left) and Aari McDonald celebrate their victory over the UConn Huskies to advance to the national championship game.

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Elsa/Getty Images

Stanford Cardinal players (right) celebrate their national championship victory as Arizona's Shaina Pellington walks over to help teammate Aari McDonald up off the court.

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A picture is worth a thousand words. Elsa/Getty Images

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