In life, if you’re lucky, there are moments of clarity. Moments that establish a life path. For AVP photographer Mpu Dinani, founder of A-Game photography, it happened during a pre-MBA interview at Pepperdine University in 2009.
“What are some things you like to do personally?” the Pepperdine counselor asked.
“I love sports, and I love photography,” Dinani replied.
Evidently, the passion in his voice gave him away.
“It doesn’t sound like you want to be a financial analyst,” the counselor said.
Her reply surprised Dinani a bit, but “It stuck with me. Over the course of the next two years at Pepperdine, I decided to get serious about photography.”
Dinani served in the Army from 1996-1999 as a supply specialist before pursuing a career as a financial analyst. His dream job was sports photography. So he began to build his portfolio by shooting high school football, motocross, mountain bike racing, surfing and beach volleyball.
He reached out to the US Open of Surfing at Huntington Beach 2012, which was managed by IMG. They didn’t have any paid positions, but he got to work for swag.
And it was during that event that Dinani captured an “aha!” image of the legendary Kelly Slater.
“Kelly came out and walked right by me and then went to the left about 10, 20 feet away from me, and had a moment. It was a meditation or prayer or whatever you want to call it,” Dinani recalled. “He just lowered his head and he held his surfboard, you can see the fins on the bottom of his board, and just meditated before he went in.
“And I thought, ‘Oh my god, look at this moment.’ So I just grabbed my second camera and snapped the photo. The photos was underexposed, technically it’s not my best photo, but it looks angelic.
“And to me, on my first real big gig, that photo just sticks to me. That was the photo that sealed it for me.”
His images at the US Open of Surfing were good enough to lead to an opportunity to shoot the Jose Cuervo Manhattan Beach tournament on a volunteer basis.
And that in turn earned a promotion to head photographer for the next event in Huntington Beach, as well as a foot in the door at IMG’s action sports division.
Dinani would parlay those opportunities into shooting the UFC, X Games, San Diego State football, motocross and golf. Today he is probably best known for his work with the AVP, which he began in 2013.
“I reached out on the website, and honestly, didn’t expect to hear anything back. Then Josh (Glazebrook, AVP creative director) called back and said, ‘We have two photographers working this weekend, but would love to meet you if you can come up to Santa Barbara,” Dinani recalled.
“I drove up to Santa Barbara on a Friday, and Josh and I talked. It was a great introduction, and then he said, ‘My photographer backed out on Sunday, can you come back and shoot?’ ”
The following year Dinani got a call from AVP COO Al Lau, who invited him to photograph AVP Cincinnati.
Dinani, who is a financial analyst, lives in Upland, California, with his wife Christine, who was his high school sweetheart, and sons Aiden (11) and Aaron (6). Christine now works as an attorney in insurance defense.
When that opportunity came along to shoot in Cincinnati, Dinani had exhausted all of his vacation days to photograph other events that year. But because he was on paternity leave with the birth of his youngest child Aaron, he was able to go to Cincinnati.
And there AVP CEO Donald Sun invited him to shoot the remainder of the tour. With his vacation days exhausted, Dinani became a full-time sports photographer.
As a child, Dinani never imagined he was headed towards a career in sports photography.
“I was a really good basketball player. I wasn’t the tallest, but I was still really good,” he said. “I thought I was going to be one of those kids that were going to make it to the NBA.
“I remember my freshman year I got a “D” in math and so my mom said ‘Well, you don’t get to play basketball.’ So I didn’t play basketball that year and then I just lost interest.”
Dinani credits two former Sports Illustrated photographers, Donald Miralle and Robert Beck, for their mentorship. Beck is his partner at the AVP, who has praise for Dinani’s work and growth as a photographer.
“Mpu has come a long way,” Beck said. “I rode him a bit the first year. He was pretty green and raring to go … sometimes, seemingly, without thinking about what he was actually doing. Now he is much more dialed in. His imagery has improved a ton in the past few years. He’s a great asset for the AVP.”
When shooting an event, Dinani’s thought process begins with the background.
“A lot of photographers, like the big guys, for a magazine, they’re looking for the light, the front-lit shots,” Dinani said. “With AVP we have to try to capture the event, make it look good and make it look well-attended. So that’s how I start, capturing good imagery for the brand.
“Background for us is probably pivotal. Sometimes I don’t have like the best light, but you kind of make do with it. If you can play with light, we’ll try to do that early mornings, you know, it’s always nice.”
Dinani offers the following tip for the volleymoms and volleydads photographing their children.
“Without getting too technical, when I see like parents shooting volleyball or even other sports, learn where the focus point is. Where your focus point on your camera and how to adjust that, not just leave it in the center depending on where you want to focus, and the different types of focus.
“Parents will always ask me ‘How are your shots focused?” Basically I tell them that there’s a point in your camera and you can move that point on where you want to focus. That’s the one thing I’m usually showing people. That’s a good place to start that a lot of people don’t know or use.”
Dinani has built strong relationships with the players. And the most rewarding part of his job?
“it’s a number of things. As a photographer, you always want to see that look in someone’s face that, you know, they love your imagery and you know, and their reaction from what you’ve captured.,” he said.
“But the thing that drives me the most in beach volleyball is really trying to make the athletes look the best they can, and that’s off the sand.
“If the athletes have a sponsor, they’ll say, ‘I need to get some sponsor shots, can you help me?’ I’ll charge the athletes a little or no money for a photo shoot just to help them out. It really drives me and motivates me to make them look the best they can.”
Dinani’s eldest son Aiden is an 11-year-old golf prodigy. The proud father in Mpu comes out when discussing Aiden’s budding golf career.
“He picked up golf early on. He first picked up a club at a year and a half. At 2, he would wake me up in the morning, and he would spend hours just hitting balls back and forth. I think it was at 4 or 5 that he decided that he wanted to get lessons, and he played his first tournament at 5 and a half.
“I thought that was way too early, but his coach said that he was ready, and he got fourth place.
“Three months later, we were being invited to the state and world championships in junior golf and it never stopped from there.”
Aiden, who weighs 80 pounds, stands 5-foot-2, making him one of the taller golfers in his age group. He routinely drives 220-230 yards, Dinani said, with his longest measured drive at 256 yards. He has already scored three hole-in-ones in his young career.
“Aiden has well over 40 junior wins, he might have reached 50 now,” Dinani said. “I want to say that he finishes in the top five 75% of the time, which is really tough in California, it’s such a competitive state.”
Aiden is already receiving a number of top-level sponsorships.
“Calloway sponsored him in 2018, I think that at the time they only had 40 kids in the program. Normally they only bring in kids at 12 or 13, Aiden was only 8 at the time. That was pretty crazy. And Under Armour, they didn’t really have a junior program, but they would send him stuff since he was 7. And he joined the Nike program in 2019.”
Aiden even has a TV credit, featured on the Jimmy Kimmel show in 2017, playing golf skee-ball against Jason Day and Jordan Spieth.