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Skills for sport photography

Jonathan Newman spoke to a number of sports photographers to find out what drives them and how to capture those special sporting moments.

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Photo by Jason Dodd

By Jason Dodd

Though the weather may have yet again been a huge disappointment, what this summer lacked in sun it has made up for in great sporting action. Whether you are a sports lover or a sports loather you would have been unable to avoid the sports coverage which really has dominated the summer.

With the European football championships, Wimbledon and most recently the Beijing Olympics all taking place within the space of a few months, it really has been a sporting feast that us spectators have been able to gorge ourselves.

With so much sporting action going on it has enabled sports photographers to once again put their skills into action and bring us a plethora of images covering all the highs and lows of these great sporting events.

Whether it's the ecstasy of triumph or the agony of defeat. Whether it's Usain Bolt smashing the world record or Andy Murray crashing out of Wimbledon. Whether it's the Spanish football team lifting the trophy or Paula Radcliffe breaking down in tears. Sports photography has captured every single emotion and enabled the viewer to witness the unmissable moments that have defined this summer.

With both sporting coverage and popularity ever increasing it is little surprise that more and more photographers are taking their talents into the stadiums and moving into the world of sports photography.

What makes sports photography different from many other forms of imagery is the speed in which the photographer must react to a situation in order to perfectly capture the moment. A landscape photographer has many more opportunities to take a picture, however a sports photographer cannot afford such luxuries.

In order to capture the exact moment a sprinter crosses the line or a striker leaping to head the ball into the goal a photographer needs a mixture of quick instincts, intuition and of course a great deal of practise.

This sentiment was shared by professional photographer James Prickett. James is best known for women's football photography and his work has appeared on the official F.A (Football Association) website and a number of newspapers.

 Photo by Jason Dodd

By Jason Dodd

"There is no one way to do it - just practise, practise, practise, you get luckier that way", said James.

So the old cliché of practice makes perfect certainly seems to be applicable to sports photography and it is this application to the craft and of course that little bit of luck which is needed to become a success in what is a very competitive profession.

A key skill for any sports photography is the ability to read the play and in many ways know what the sportsman will do before they do, which is as difficult a task.

The ability to wait for the precise moment during a sporting event is a matter that all the photographers I spoke to mentioned, including freelance sports photographer Michael Fortune. Michael applies his talents to many sports including cricket, rugby and football, and he spoke of how anticipation is a vital tool for any sport photographer.

"During a cricket match you can wait a whole day for just a few seconds of match changing action and this is why you need to stay ahead of the game and anticipate the next action." Michael continued, "You need to know what the player will do so you can almost predict the photo.".

The ability to predict future events in play, whether it be during a tennis match or a Formula One race, only comes through an intimate knowledge of the sport to begin with. Jason Dodd had the prestigious honour of being an official photographer at the 2007 Tour De France and I discussed the matter of sport understanding with him.

"It is important to have an understanding of the sport, that way you can anticipate when to fire the shutter. I don't like to keep my finger depressed and fire thirty odd shots and hope to get a handful of decent images," said Jason.

A mixture of instinct and understanding are clearly crucial to any budding sport photographer, but each sport represents a different challenge both aesthetically and technically. And with so many sports out there it would appear that a photographer needs a number of different approaches in their repertoire.

Matthew Ashton runs the AMA Sport Photography Agency is Shrewsbury and he shared his views with me regarding the subject. Matthew knows all too well the challenges that each sport imposes on a photographer; however his number one tip is a passion for the sport rather than any specific techniques or equipment.

"I don't feel I have a technique, it just happens! It is very hard to suggest a sport that is good for photography; I would prefer to encourage the enthusiasm someone has for the subject," said Matthew.

 Photo by Jason Dodd

By Jason Dodd

"I greatly admire sports photographers for their all round ability but I also admire those who specialise on one sport and are dedicated to it."

This all round ability that Matthew speaks of is a crucial element for any photographer who is hoping to follow a number of sports through a camera lens and each game requires a different approach.

Jason Dodd's favourite sport to photograph is Rugby due to it "fast, aggressive and unpredictable" nature and for best results he recommends that you "follow the action through the camera as much as possible".

The crunching tackles that take place on the rugby field are a million miles away from the graceful action that occurs on a basketball court but none the less offers just as many great photographic opportunities.

This sentiment is shared by Michael Fortune who is of the opinion that basketball allows a photography to be more creative by using "wide angle shots from the floor or shooting from above the basket".

While the main purpose of sports photography is to display the action from the game or event, a photographer must also use a degree of creativity and style in order to communicate the aesthetic features of the sport. Each sport is different and therefore each sport has its own qualities and beauty and it is the job of the photographer to convey this to the viewer

For a photographer to achieve this they must not only have knowledge of the game but also knowledge of the equipment and camera they are using.

"The ability to track action is vital and this is made easier by auto-focusing such as Canon's Al Servo" Michael Fortune explained.

He added, "Knowing your camera is inside out is a must! You don't want to be looking for the ISO button because the light has changed while a goal is scored, the action will always move faster than you"  

So in order to get the right photo you need the right equipment, which sadly comes at a cost, Jason Dodd admitted that the camera he currently uses costs in excess of £1500. However, unfortunately not all budding sport photographers are able to part with such vast sums of money and so Jason informed me of a cheaper alternative.

"Invest in something like a 70-300mm lens, this is what I started with before I could afford the 2.8 zoom, but remember equipment is important but not as critical as skill and technique", said Jason.

 Photo by Jason Dodd

By Jason Dodd

Skill and technique does not come overnight, it comes through training and hard graft. All the photographers I discussed the subject with all agreed that the number one piece of advice they would give to a novice sport photographer is simply practice, practice and more practice.

You can read and talk about taking a great photo all day but it is all meaningless if you don't actually put it into practice. And Matthew Ashton is particularly adamant about the matter, "As easy as it is to sit behind a desk and read about photography and get a degree, being a sport photographer is all about training your brain to work instinctively".

"Becoming a football photographer is like learning a new language, you have to train your brain to think differently," Matthew added.

Though it is important to pick the right sport, to us the appropriate equipment and to read up on the latest techniques, the best advice for any budding sports photographer is simply to get out there and do it.

It doesn't matter whether it's an F.A Cup match at Old Trafford or a Sunday game down the local park the opportunity to take a great photograph is always there and it is up to sports photographers to take advantage of it.


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