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Sports photography is the goal

Sports photography is the goal - Ninety minutes on a Saturday can be full of joy, heartache and injury and it's John Sibley's job to capture it all. Here he tells ePHOTOzine what it's like to be a professional sports photographer.

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Action images: European Cup Final

Action Images/John Sibley: Fabrizio Ravanelli celebrates scoring for Juvent

John Sibley works for a sports based photographic agency whose name is quite fitting when it comes to describing this mans career. His work has taken him to two Olympic games and to many football matches at all levels and age groups all over the world. He has also covered other UK sporting events including the Open Golf championships, the Grand National and Wimbledon. Not bad for someone who started off wanting to be a designer.

"I did two years of a four year course learning to be a designer and I decided it wasn't really for me," said John.

One of John's friends worked on a local paper in Essex as a photographer and he decided to work part time on the same newspaper to get a bit of extra money. After a while John began to enjoy taking pictures and he realised he was actually good at it so he just carried on.

His freelance work led to a full-time job and for a year he stayed locally, learning and nurturing his new trade.

"I was always photographing Mayor's dinners and old people's get togethers and after doing it for a year I realised I would probably have another year of the same thing so I decided to leave."

An advert in BJP led John to a photography job at junior level and from there he worked up to the position he has today where he specialises in the nations favourite game.

"Football serves the nationals, it's the sport that makes the most money. It will always be on the back of newspapers."

Football has taken John to many events which begins with the popular Saturday league games and FA Cup Finals and finishes in Europe with the Champions League and European Championships. He will also be travelling further afield to cover the Womens World Cup, something which John says is getting harder to do.

"I'm traveling to New Zealand to cover the Womens World Cup which means two months out of the country.  Champions league games take you away for a couple of days four times a month and when you have a young family it doesn't seem as appealing as it once was when I was single."

Missing family isn't the only problem European or worldwide games can cause, the matches can also be tough. At some games such as the European finals, photographers are given a seat where there's only elbow room and there's also the chance that someone will block your shot. A crowd of 30-40 photographers also gives you the added challenge of capturing something unique.

Action Images: FIFA U-17 ChampionshipsAction images/John Sibley: Australia'sMatthew Hunter is challenged by Trinidad's Andre Alexis 

"It's hard work to get something other people don't have sometimes. Take an FA Cup Final for example.  There will be so many people there it makes it hard to get something others don't have. It can be a struggle but I always get something, I just have to work hard."

To some, a football match wouldn't seem like the obvious place to get creative when taking photographs but if you ask John it certainly can. Anything can happen in ninety minutes, it's interesting and challenging and if you just happen to be at a game that isn't all that exciting it doesn't matter as the likelihood of the match appearing as a story is slim. Standing in the cold is something both the photographer and the fan will agree is not the nicest but the game and what can happen make it worth while.

"Football is interesting to photograph, ok standing in Middlesborough's ground on a January evening when the snow is falling isn't as nice as reporting the cricket in the Caribbean but it's still good. I love it, to me it's not like going to work.  Don't get me wrong it's hard work but I never wake up and think I can't be bothered to go in today."

As well as football John has taken photographs at two Olympic games, the first in Atlanta and then he went to Athens two years ago to cover the football.

"I have had one Olympics that was just normal hard work and one that was very hard work," said John.

Covering the football allowed John to have a break as they played football for a day or two and then had a rest but the downside to this was not feeling part of the actual games. Many of the matches were held outside of the main stadiums, one match John attended was even in Crete, a place where outside the stadium you wouldn't even know the games were going on. Atlanta was a total flip of the coin with 19-20 hour days for two to two and a half weeks covering anything and everything.

"It's quite a unique experience covering all of the events. You work so hard and for so long at such a hectic pace. You're constantly trying to find a place among 200-300 other photographers. It's constant hassle all day, which at the time is hard work but when I look back it was fun."

Coffee and chocolate bars were what kept John going and it wasn't until the end of the games that he realised how hard he had worked.

"At the time you just get on and do it but when it's finished you just collapse, you just don't want to do anything."

But even though the Olympics is known as the greatest sporting event on earth it still fights for space on the back pages when football is around.

Photo by Action images and John SibleyAction Image/John Sibley

"People really like it," said John.

All his work is shot on Canon 1d's, both the mark twos and threes and he uses a variety of lenses from 16mm up to 400mm. His office also has a stock of specialist lenses such as fish eyes and longer lenses for sports such as cricket. John carries three bodies with him usually and even though his kit maybe the same for every shoot, his technique certainly isn't. Motor sports and athletics give you the chance to slow the shutter speeds right down and use panning shots not appropriate for something such as football.  But most of the time a sports photographers aim is to create an image that is visually sharp with hardly any movement. A freeze frame in focus is usually a good starting point. Of course your day also shapes what techniques you use as not one day is the same as the next.

"Everyday is different, there are so many types of images that can be taken so it depends on what you are doing. In a day I could be doing a studio shoot, football, PR shoots about athletes, it's varied."

Busy days and long hours have been slightly eased with the introduction of digital technology, it has certainly made the job easier. Suitcases of equipment and film chemicals are no longer needed to be carried to games to make sure you get your pictures in on time.

"Now I just use my phone and a laptop, it's so much easier. Years ago some of the grounds didn't have anywhere to process pictures.  So I used to go and knock on doors near the ground and offer people cash in exchange for a little bit of space in their front room to set my darkroom up."

Action Images: rugby player and fire Action Images/John Sibley

Digital photography also means you no longer have to shoot a full day of film before you realise your lens is damaged as you have the option to view your images as you take them. The quality of images has also improved from the days of colour negative film.  But as with every technology there's always a downside and digital photography is no different. Tighter deadlines and a wanting to return to the old ways are a couple of problems many photographers including John face.

"Sometimes I think it would be nice to shoot on film and look back at it on the light box. There's something nice about waiting for an image to develop. The wondering is actually quite nice, the waiting actually made you appreciate the image more and I sometimes kind of miss it. Also years ago travelling abroad was an adventure. Sometimes the stadiums and grounds didn't even have sockets to plug things into. Looking back it was fun but at the time when you had to get to a match 4-5 hours before just to see if they had water to process the film it was hard. Now I only have to worry about getting a phone signal."

The internet is another modern tool that many photographers have embraced. It has revolutionised office work and allows photographers to have a website which clients can access. The internet also lets you keep an eye on the opposition or simply lets you access information, something John thinks is fantastic.

"If I want to find out about lenses after a few seconds on Google you can find 200 views on it, which is nice. It's opened up the world, when someone used to get a lens from America you couldn't do anything to find out about it.  Now you have the internet to research on, its great. Email is nice too but that does mean the office can hassle you all day now!"

Find out more about John and Action here.

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