Professional Sports Photographer/Education Alumnus Mike Carlson says Lakehead University Changed His Life

Mike Carlson (BEd, 1993) knows firsthand some of the challenges faced by reporters today, especially with many people believing that the news is fake. 

Mike earned a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Bachelor of Education – both at Lakehead University. He is a professional sports photographer who has covered the National Hockey League, the National Basketball Association, the National Football League, and Major League Baseball. 

His advice to prospective journalists is that they must have persistence. 

“Journalism/photojournalism is a truly rewarding career, but with the recent developments in calling everything ‘fake news’ and disdain for the job by many – it does make it more difficult. 

“No one I know, and no one I’ve trained ever goes into it with an ‘agenda.’ I believe in presenting the truth without bias, and it’s an important trait for successful journalists,” he says, adding that it is also important for journalists to be multifaceted – so they can contribute in many different ways.

“I have the rare opportunity in professional sports to work with teams who have writers, videographers, and photographers – in many instances in journalism today one person should be prepared to do all of that,” he says. 

Based in Tampa, Fla., Mike also teaches digital multimedia courses at River Ridge High School. His students learn photography, illustration, graphic design, and video – skills they can eventually use in journalism. The school displays their work on its website and social media pages, among other places.  

It has been an interesting journey since he graduated from Lakehead University in the 1990s. In 1997, he moved to Istanbul to teach and bought a new printer that included a 35 mm film camera. 

“I figured since I was seeing a whole new world I may as well take some photos – and that’s when I became hooked,” he says. 

When Mike moved to Cairo, he would often visit a photography store owned by an Egyptian man who had lived in the US. That man soon recognized Mike had an eye for photography. 

“He gifted me an old Canon T50 – a fully manual film camera, which forced me to slow down and concentrate on all of the settings. This allowed me to really learn how all settings combined in a photo.” 

When his wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer, photography gave Mike a brief break from reality – and photography has continued to do that in the years since her passing.   

Mike, who grew up in Thunder Bay, says his favourite sport to photograph is either football or hockey. 

“I love the challenge of football because so much is potentially happening on every play. It means balancing three cameras and choosing a position carefully while at the same time reacting to the plays and fakes at NFL speed. It moves a lot faster down on field level. 

“But, I also love hockey – it’s the Canadian in me. It’s a different challenge shooting through a small hole in the glass and reacting at NHL speed . . . plus it’s a lot more comfortable in an arena than a 110 degree field in the Florida sunshine,” he says. 

Mike says the introduction of digital photography changed the game for professional sports photographers. 

“The challenge with digital in today’s world is the expectation that the results are delivered instantaneously, especially in sports. There is a constant race to have the photo out first. For most NFL games and big events, we all have internet-connected cameras that transfer photos of big plays to an editor, with the goal to have images available to post within a minute or less of them happening.” 

One of the highlights of Mike’s career occurred in 2013 when his photo of Alex Rodriguez ran on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

When he isn’t photographing winning touch downs or goals, Mike looks back fondly on the years he spent at Lakehead University, which he says changed his life.

“Being able to get into the concurrent education program allowed me to follow my passion at the time and get into education – both of my parents were long-time teachers in Thunder Bay,” he says. 

“It was also at Lakehead where I met and made connections to other teacher grads who headed out on the international school circuit and who introduced it to me.” 

While at Lakehead, he often frequented the Outpost Campus Pub. 

“I lived five minutes from campus, so the Outpost was where I spent time on campus with friends from out of town or who lived on campus. Studying, socializing, it gave me the chance to meet and get to know people who became life-long friends,” he says. 

Not only did Mike love attending school, he also enjoys teaching. Since graduating, Mike has taught in Canada, the United States, Turkey, Egypt, and Tanzania. 

“Through all of the diversity in schools/curricula/countries, the one thing that hasn’t changed is the students. Working with them on projects, on the fields, in the gym, in my studios, I just enjoy the energy and creativity (and chaos) of the teenage mind.

“It’s hard to truly explain, but a teacher will understand,” Mike says. 

Mike would love to hear from friends and former classmates. He is on Instagram (@carlsonphotos) and his website is mcarlson.photoshelter.com.