When Sierra Prescott got her first professional 35mm film camera in the summer of 2004, she had to pretend to know what all the functions did and how the settings worked so her mother would believe it was a worthwhile $1000 purchase.
She took the camera with her on a trip to Hawaii with a friend's family, promising to take numerous family shots and portraits on the scenic beaches.
But instead of tropical colors and smiling faces, her film revealed nothing but blank white space when it was developed upon her return back home to La Cañada.
"I thought it was really cool to play with the shutter speed," Sierra remembers. "And I didn't really know what the light meter was at the time."
Sierra, now a senior at La Cañada High School, has shown amazing skill behind the lens of the Nikon D200 she currently uses. Shooting countless Spartan sporting events, as well as her school and personal photo assignments, prepared her for her most exciting shoot to date: last weekend's Kentucky Derby.
Sierra spent four days in Kentucky assisting Dave Black, a well-known sports and commercial photographer who was covering the horse racing series for the magazine Blood-Horse.
"I assumed I would be getting coffee or helping with his equipment," Sierra said. "I had lowered my expectations so I wouldn't be disappointed if I didn't get to actually shoot. But it turned out that I was more like his partner than an intern."
Sierra helped with light meters, setting up shots at the starting gate, and she controlled several camera shutters by wireless remote during both Friday's Kentucky Oaks series and the derby races on Saturday.
"I would set up the shot right by the feet of the horses so we would get them coming out of the gates," Sierra said. "As soon as the chutes opened I would just 'click click click' hold down the shutter remote and fire off shots until the horses were out of frame, grab the camera and tripod out of the dirt, toss it behind me, and whip out my own camera to get some more shots of my own."
Overall Sierra captured more than 350 of her own images at the races in addition to the hundreds she helped with on Black's cameras.
"It was awesome, we were using a fish-eye lens for some of the shots and when I saw it I was like 'cool, I have that same lens!'" Sierra said. "But I was also really nervous about the whole thing—it was so busy in the media room and everyone was on deadline for that night. I think I was standing for about 14 hours on Saturday."
One of her favorite moments of the experience was meeting Heinz Kluetmeier, one of the most esteemed sports photographers in the United States.
Kluetmeier has shot more than 100 cover photos for Sports Illustrated magazine, the publication Sierra dreams of working for one day.
"He has done it all. He is basically doing exactly what I want to do in life: travel and take pictures of everything," Sierra said.
In order to pursue her dream, Sierra will begin a three-year Brooks Institute of Photography program starting in July.
"I like Brooks because it is a technical school and I will learn how to do everything there," Sierra said. "I have the rest of my life to be creative and I am so excited to learn all the basics and know how to do all the technical stuff. Then I can use that to be creative."
Sierra enjoys sports photography best because she says with sports, the athletes move so fast it is hard to see the individual moments that make up the competition.
"Photos help you see the players' expressions and help you remember that exact moment," Sierra says. "My favorite part is when someone enjoys a picture I have taken."
And she's definitely not short on people enjoying her work.
She started shooting for the Valley Sun in September 2006, and the paper's staff has been known to gather around the computer screen when a new disc of Sierra's images appears in the front office.
Sierra's skill for angles, composition and timing are apparent in nearly every issue in which her photos have been featured.
"All my friends, my church, my family, they all save my pictures from the paper," Sierra says, blushing just a little. "My teachers even have my cutouts lying around the house.
"My church has my photos up on the bulletin board, my grandma has multiple copies of every newspaper I am in, and my friend in Utah has the Valley Sun mailed to her so she can see what I have every week. I think other people get more out of it than I do."
Her mother has been very supportive of Sierra's hobby-turned-profession.
"Even though I bought my own camera body, she helps me out [financially] with other equipment, and of course Brooks," Sierra says. "She even made me quit my other job so I could spend more time taking pictures. She really thinks I am on to something and she has spent a lot of time, effort and money on my photography."
Sierra, though obviously talented, speaks modestly about her work. She thinks she has potential, "but there are so many pictures I have yet to take.
"As far as I know, I don't know that much," she says. "And I can't wait to learn more."