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Photographing an RBS 6 Nations rugby match

Photographing an RBS 6 Nations rugby match - Press photographer Sam Furlong was at the Wales vs England rugby match. Here's his account of the day.

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Working as a press photographer is a very challenging and rewarding pastime that takes in a wide variety of jobs from the proverbial 'skateboarding duck' (essentially silly, funny frivolous animal stories) to hard news, war zones and bombings and everything in between. Along that spectrum of events sits one of my personal favourites, sport! From lower league football, spending a cold rainy Saturday afternoon sat on the sidelines of Yeovil Town or Hereford United, right up to Premier league / cup and international football and rugby at some of the best modern sporting arenas such as The Emirates, Wembley, Old Trafford, Twickenham and more. At the core of all this is the same sport,  the same 11 (or 15) men on a team playing the same game to the same rules.
So to St Valentines day 2009, and much to the disgust of my long suffering other half, I find myself driving to Cardiff and the Millennium Stadium for a spot of rugby (probably my favourite sport) as Wales take on England in the RBS 6 Nations.
As with many venues these days there is very little car parking provided even for those of us working so I leave home at 12:00 despite the match not starting until 17:30. The motorways are quiet at this time and I get to Cardiff at 14:00 and park in my usual car park only 5 minutes walk from the stadium even with 30 kilos of gear. Signing in doesn't begin until 14:30 so I use the time to check and double check my gear before I leave the car so I don't forget anything.
My main kit is as follows:
  • 2 Canon 1DMkIII's and a 1DMkIIN,
  • Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L
  • Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L
  • Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS
  • Canon 300mm f/2.8 L IS
  • Canon 500mm f/4 L IS
  • Canon 1.4x and 2x converters
  • 2x Canon 580EX flashguns
  • Dell D420 laptop with extended battery loaded with Photoshop CS3, Photo Mechanic.
  • PDA loaded with pocket phojo (in case it rains and I don't want to get my laptop out and get it soaked)
  • 3G Vodafone dongle and also a 3G mobile phone as backup.
  • Manfrotto monopod
  • Batteries, lots of cards, 2 card readers (in case I manage to bend a pin in the middle of the game)
  • Fishing stool
  • 1 Pair of climbing undergloves (very warm and can operate camera / laptop without taking them off)
  • THERMAL SOCKS!! I cannot overstate how critical these are, especially in February
  • Waterproofs, good breathable ones that don't make you hot and sweaty
  • Camping towel to dry gear in case of rain
With that lot (plus a bit more) I set off to meet up with my comrades and sign in. While other people go in the posh front entrance we go in through a fire door on a side street like the rabble we are. After a quick check that we do in fact have cameras in our bags and not bombs and after signing in it's off to the press room to sit around for a couple of hours, watch sky sports and eat the free food. It is a pain getting here early but I'd rather that than being at the mercy of traffic, fighting for parking spaces and the general stress of cutting it fine. Venues vary in their level of hospitality but I admit that along with Arsenal FC at the Emirates in London, and Twickenham, the Millennium Stadium is among my favourites. Today it's vegetable soup followed by beef stew or a fish dish. I go back for seconds..... then thirds (a bit cheeky I know but what the hell).
The time in the press room is not entirely wasted though, it's a good time to catch up with the other photographers, most of whom have become friends in the preceding years but sadly due to the nomadic solitary type existences we all seem to lead, we don't get together often enough. I see a couple of guys today I haven't seen in a year or more.
This time also gives me a chance to code up the teamsheets. Coding up basically involves typing out the team sheet and then assigning a replacement so that when I type ‘e10 tackles w9’, the computer writes ‘England's Andy Goode tackles Wales Mike Phillips’. Not only do I save the time of typing the characters but I also save the messing around looking at the names and spellings on the teamsheets and then double checking for each image. If your captions are not accurate and cannot be trusted then your pictures will not be used.
About an hour before kick off is the obligatory briefing where we are given the rundown on the afternoon’s proceedings. At many sporting events you can sit where you want but at big internationals and cup finals we are assigned positions and don’t get an awful lot of choice in the matter. I am happy with my position today at the end are Wales attacking in the first half, just wide of the posts, until that is, I see who is sitting near me. I have been sat near a very very good photographer that I know. Generally when you are assigned positions there is an element of luck involved regarding what action happens in range of your lens but have other great photographers sat alongside you makes the job harder. Your pictures have to be better than theirs and you have to move them faster than the 60 other photographers here. Seconds count.
About 15 minutes before kick off I go pitchside to set up. The stadium is getting full and the crowd excited. Big games never lose their magic, the atmosphere is something else. I have a ringside seat that any one of these 80,000 people would kill for and I’m being paid for it!
I set up my kit, one camera on a 500mm f/4L IS on a Manfrotto monopod, set to aperture priority at maximum aperture using ISO1600  giving me around 1/1000th second and AI servo autofocus. To begin with I use cloudy white balance as this is the closest to the daylight balanced film that I learned photography on and which is pretty much my reference point for everything. During the game as darkness falls and the colour balance shifts I will change the colours, eventually ending up on 4800K and ISO6400 under floodlights. The other cameras are attached to a 300mm f/2.8 L IS and a 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS respectively, using the same settings. In my camera bag I remove the caps from my 24-70mm f/2.8L and 16-35mm f/2.8L in case I need them in a hurry. I am shooting top jpeg, giving a file on the card of about 7Mb which will open out to about 29Mb. This gives me some latitude to crop into images a bit and also helps keep the quality good. It is a case of striking a balance between buffer size, speed of editing and image quality. In each camera there is a 4Gb CF card and a 2 Gb SD card and on the floor at my feet I empty my case of cards, numerous CF and SD cards in case I need a quick change.
I fire up the laptop and start up Adobe Photoshop CS3 for editing and Photo Mechanic for captioning and ftp-ing the images out to the newspapers. I also open up the BBC website and their minute by minute synopsis of the game which is very useful for double checking names of players who foul, score, etc.. I usually use my Vodafone 3G plus modem for fast transmission of images but here we have a BT Openzone WIFI hotspot so I log into that instead and test my FTP connection, it works fine... I’m ready.
The teams run out and the predominately Welsh crowd, buoyed by England’s indifferent form of late, are in fine voice today. It’s almost enough to make you want to be Welsh, no one does rugby like this lot!
I usually try and get two or three pictures shot and sent in the first 5 minutes of a game but it’s a slow start today. Picture desks in London will be sat watching their screens and it’s a scramble to grab their attention first. I shoot and then tag images on the back of the cameras using the lock key, then using photo mechanic I can copy the locked files to the computer and attach a pre-written caption to them with a keystroke! As I remove each card from the camera, the camera will automatically switch to shooting to the remaining card. All that is required is a little cropping and straightening of wonky horizons thanks to my astigmatism of the eye and the application of the appropriate player names to the images. With a few clicks the images are off to London and I watch those little green progress bars anxiously to ensure there are no breaks in transmission resulting in corrupt image files but fortunately all is fine. All this means my attention is taken off the game for a couple of minutes but it is worth it to get the edge on the competition. I keep one camera around my neck with the 70-200mm ready to drop the computer and shoot if a try is run in right in front of me. Once or twice during the first half the laptop literally hits the dirt as the Welsh score.
As the second half gets underway the newspaper deadlines count down, Wales are on top as England stage a late resurgence and I shoot at 10fps with a 1DMkIII and 300mm lens as Delon Armitage storms over the try line and straight towards me producing my best images of the game, great!!! Unfortunately England’s resurgence does not last and they do not reflect the general flow of the game and so probably will not be used, it has not been my day! I have been sending pictures throughout the game and by the time the final whistle goes I only have a couple left to go. By the time I have sent these the stadium is emptying and I retire to the press room.
I sit in the press room with tea and biscuits and get out my memory cards that I have used during the game and carefully go through them on the laptop for anything amazing I might have missed on the tiny 3 inch screens the backs of the cameras. I also pick out any good stock shots of the players, especially the higher profile ones such as Mike Tindall. Good fresh stock shots are always in demand so it’s a good idea to have them all captioned and keyworded so they can be found easily if a newspaper asks for them, otherwise they will get lost in the sea of images sitting on the archives hard drives. I have shot a little over 6Gb of images today.
By the time I have finished all the fans have left the stadium and the traffic has pretty much cleared so I have an easy drive home to recharge batteries and clear memory cards ahead of my trip on Monday to north London for Arsenals long awaited 4th round replay against Cardiff City and possibly more importantly, to begin making up to my other half for leaving her all alone on Valentines day!

Visit Sam Furlong's website for more details.
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Gaucho 16 2.8k 2 United Kingdom
11 Mar 2009 1:31PM
As a rugby fanatic I really enjoyed that, though being Argentine I'm more of a Pumas fan! It's fascinating to see how you operate and cope with all the technology. You will be too young to remember Chris Smith, Sunday Times sports photographer and probably the best in Britain in his day, but it would be interesting to compare how he operated in the seventies with today. I used to keep an eye out for him at Twickenham and would see him position himself in the ground completely divorced from the rest of the press (not possible now, I guess). The following day his photographs would stand out from the rest. Interestingly, he claimed never to use a motor drive and preferred to catch the moment. If you get a chance, look at his photograph of Severiano Ballesteros at Sandwich. Classic. Thanks again.

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mr g 13 403 3 United Kingdom
11 Mar 2009 8:39PM
A very interesting and informative article. Superb images too. Thanks for the insight
Geraint 11 715 34 Wales
18 Mar 2009 6:09PM
Fascinating Sam. Thanks for sharing.

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