By Nate Thompson

MUSKEGON–If Leo Valdez could label his preferred style of photography, it would be something like “Crowd Pleasing.”

When shooting high school or college sports, the longtime Muskegon-area photographer takes pride in capturing expressions in the stands – mostly smiles. He loves taking photos of student sections screaming at the top of their lungs, or anxious parents watching their children compete in athletics.

“I like taking pictures of kids at the game and the parents,” he said. “And I like sharing my photos with them (on social media). Whether it be the parents or all the fans together, a whole group of them, I really like bringing a lot of people in.

“Really, that’s what sports is all about – the kids,” Valdez said “Sometimes, I’ll get a shot of a mom just smiling or they may be emotional after a game. I think It’s important for parents and kids to get pictures because they’ll be able to look back at those years later. That’s what it’s all about.”

Valdez, 66, knows a thing or two about being a spectator at sporting events. He watched his five children compete – and excel – in numerous sports during their playing days at  Whitehall High School. Valdez, and his wife of 46 years, Rose, were high school sweethearts at Whitehall, and together raised Leo Jr., Vanessa, Bambi, Anthony and Adrian.

Valdez has been an institution for taking photos of local sports including this photo used by the Muskegon Clippers on a billboard along US Business 31.

Valdez grew up in Shelby, but moved to Whitehall during his high school days. A local photographer who owned his own shop in the city, sparked Valdez’s interest in the craft and he pursued it later in school, first working in the darkroom developing photos and then later submitting a large number of photos for the school’s yearbook.

“Between my junior and senior years I started working at the Montague Observer,” he said. “At one point, they gave me a whole spread, which for a kid my age, was a big deal. But it was a lot of development work.”

Valdez graduated from Muskegon Community College and then enlisted in the United

States Army. He was stationed, initially, at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, but also traveled to Korea and Fort Polk in Louisiana. Valdez said a highlight of his service was when he was handpicked to travel to Germany for a goodwill mission.

“I went to Germany for almost 2 months,” he said “I even stayed with the German soldiers. At one point, the artillery units had a competition where we would shoot cannons and try to hit designated targets. My group won the battalion competition, which was pretty neat.”

Upon his completion of his service in the armed forces, Valdez went back to photography in Muskegon, balanced with his job at Howmet Aerospace, where he worked for 35 years.

He freelanced as a sports photographer for the Muskegon Chronicle and also began shooting a number of weddings and senior pictures. He also enjoys shooting landscape pictures, which are plentifully eye-pleasing along Lake Michigan.

Most recently, he’s been a long-standing staff photographer with Local Sports Journal, and has become a common fixture on the sidelines at numerous gyms, fields, diamonds and tracks around the Muskegon area.

He said he’s also cherished working at much bigger venues, such as shooting the University of Michigan spring football game in Ann Arbor; the Purdue University spring game and Ohio State’s football game in Columbus, Ohio, against Purdue, last November where he snapped several photos of the Buckeyes’ Cameron Martinez, a Muskegon graduate, and the Boilermakers’ Jacob Wahlberg, a Mona Shores graduate.

Veteran LSJ Photographer Leo Valdez has fun posing on a track podium after the West Michigan All-Star Track Invitational concluded on May 25. “1st-Place Photographer” was photoshopped into the photo for social media embellishment.

“When I was at the Big House this year (Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor), I met Spike Lee,” Valdez said of the famed movie director. “I told him it was a thrill to be able to take a picture with him.”

Valdez said he’s always learning new tricks of the trade, but he said a key to being successful in sports photography is being dependable.

“To me, it’s not work,” he said. “It does often take some time to get (to the event), but time goes so fast when you’re shooting.”

Anticipation of plays developing in a blink of an eye and a knowledge of the sport are also critical traits, he said, and it helps that he grew up playing football, baseball, wrestling and ran track. He also helped coach his sons in wrestling.

“Every picture I take, I try to do the best I can to take it for the parents or the kids,” he said. “I pray before I go out, because at the end of the day, I’m serving for God.”

If you want evidence that his hard work is coming to fruition, one of his shots is now even larger than life. A photo he took of the Muskegon Clippers promoting their upcoming season can be viewed on a billboard in Muskegon.

“When I found out about that, that brought a smile to my face,” he said.