Capturing the limits of the sublime and the extreme… Welcome to the world of sports photography.
Remember that image of Cathy Freeman, flush with Olympic triumph, wrapped in the Aboriginal flag? Or how about the photograph of Muhammad Ali, seconds after he delivered the knockout punch to Sonny Liston? What about a young Jim Pike crossing the finishing line on the mighty Phar Lap during the 1930 Melbourne Cup? All great moments in sporting history; all frozen in time thanks to the art of sports photographers.
Sports photography is photojournalism in its purist form. What often looks like the result of a happy accident – being at the right place at the right time – is more often than not the result of meticulous planning; from lens choice to shutter speed to position on the field. Great sports photographers are not only blessed with a natural talent for photography but seem to have an innate sympathy for shooting athletes at the peak of their game.
Unlike other forms of photography, such as landscape and portraiture, the sports photographer is in many ways at the mercy of the whims of fate. A sports photographer needs to be on top of their game, committed and fully focused in order to achieve the shot. Sports action can’t be repeated – you either get the shot or you miss it… There is no instant replay.
So you wanna be a sports photographer? Make no mistake, it’s hard work. Yes you get free tickets to games, you get to meet famous athletes and travel the world but it’s an exacting profession where many try but few succeed.
Delly Carr is one photographer that has bucked the odds to carve out a niche as a sports photographer. A Nikon Ambassador and – IASCI Spirit Of Sport Photo of the Year winner, Carr has been a professional photographer for the past 22 years. As a teenager Carr conned his athletics teacher into letting him go along to the local football games to take photos of the team and a lifelong interest in photography was unleashed. Although it wasn’t until he was made redundant from his corporate job that Carr decided to turn his passion for photography into his day job.
“I left with some money in my pocket and with my single-minded aim to become a fulltime sports photographer,” says Carr. “That was 22 years ago, and I can say that I am now blessed in having my hobby as my work profession.”
Carr believes his underlying love for sport has stood him in good stead when it comes to his profession and whilst he believes talent is innate – he does think there is always room to improve your skills.
“I know that all the sports photographers I work alongside genuinely love sport. So that is a big start to becoming a good sport photographer. With time however you can get to think like a sportsman and therefore become one with the action which helps you to anticipate and react. But I guess if you can learn to be a great photographer through experience, then I can’t see why you can’t learn to be a great sports photographer as well.”
AAP photographer, Martin Philbey, who started his photographic career as a crime scene photographer agrees; though he does think that anyone wanting to make a career in the field should be prepared for some hard graft, despite the helping hand that all the advances in technology have brought to the biz.
“The Internet and pro digital SLR cameras have changed the landscape of the industry forever,” comments Philbey. “It’s an extremely competitive and tough market to try to break into – traditionally papers hired young cadets and you learnt your craft from more experienced senior photographers, but papers and magazines are now struggling to sell and just not hiring staffers. I guess if you take excellent and inspirational pictures you’ll always find a way but again – the new top end pro cameras are so good and the autofocus so fast and accurate that you really don’t need to know so much about shutter speeds and f-stops any more.
“A lot of the skill that used to be required to be a good photographer has been superseded by technology and often you feel more like a technician. “
Still, both photographers agree having a reliable camera and a selection of lenses are essential to getting the best shots.
“If you’re a pro you are expected to get the picture that matters every time you’re sent on a job so you need equipment that is robust and reliable, with fast lenses and high frames per second rates.” says Philbey. “In optimal conditions my [camera] bodies shoot at faster than 10 frames per second and even then you’d be amazed at what can happen in between frames. The best shot these days is a good picture that nobody else got!”
Carr concurs; having shot with Nikon cameras for the duration of his career he says that “solid dependable equipment is an absolute must for the rough and tumble world of freelance sports photography”. Adding: “Sports photography needs hard wearing, fast reacting, and dependable equipment. If you can and your budget allows it, buy gear of a brand name such as Nikon that represents quality, performance, and excellence.”
Carr also believes a familiarity with the sports that you shoot is an invaluable tool when it comes to getting the best possible shot. “You only have a limited time to shoot an event, match, or game. So you don’t want to be wasting time, energy and thought during play in working out what is about to happen, where you should be, what lens you should have on. Knowing a sport allows you the comfort of being part of the play, allowing you to react quickly to the peak action, allowing you to anticipate a key movement before it happens, and gives your ‘photographic eye’ time to relax and see new opportunities.
“The pieces of work I am most proud of are those that I have had some significant input into getting that shot. The best pictures are those where there has been a bit of me within. It could be some forethought, some vision, an effort beyond what is the norm, an emotion, or a part of my personality. By doing research you therefore have the luxury to anticipate what will happen and how you can put your own little touch to it.”
Meanwhile Philbey suggests that the “five Ps” provide him with a great rule of thumb. “When you cover something like the Olympics or Commonwealth games you inevitably shoot sports you rarely shoot ordinarily, so you just have to look for pictures where you can. I like to try and follow the five P’s… Prior Preparation Prevents Pisspoor Performance!”.
Philbey believes “timing and framing” are the essential ingredients of a good sports photo though he doesn’t deny that luck sometimes plays a part. “For some pictures it’s everything – especially with some sports like Motorsports for example. Race tracks are big places with lots of corners, so if something happens where you aren’t – there’s no way you can get a frame.”
“The ‘right place at the right time’ can happen quite by accident” says Carr. “But 99% of the time, ‘the right place at the right time’ has happened because you had some knowledge of the sport and anticipated it. That makes a great sports photographer stand out from the rest.”
As for what the essential ingredients are to a great photo Carr is adamant that it’s about capturing a moment. “I want my pictures to tell stories, stories that will please and amaze the viewer,” states Carr. “My world is about moments, quick fleeting moments that are otherwise missed but brought into existence by the physical photograph. And the moments are many, the moments are quick, and the moments all exist with different biologies to each other. The biology is determined by the vision and portrayal that I judge as being part of its outer skin. I try to put a little of my own self into the grand vision, and ultimately the exhibition of that captured moment.
“And as soon as there is a spectator for the photograph,the photograph and moment exists.”
Image by Delly Carr / Sportshoot