Sports photography: capturing that special moment

It is still about reading body language and sensing when the key moment will happen

Sat, Jul 26, 2014, 08:18

Photographer Bill Frakes, who has been on the masthead of Sports Illustrated since 1993, has taken up some odd positions to “get the picture” for his picture editor. He’s hung off girders. He’s flown overhead in hot-air balloons, helicopters, and been at the bottom of a swimming pool.

“I’m always looking at things in micro because you can’t go backwards,” he says. “A sportswriter, when the play has happened, can turn to a colleague and ask, ‘What do you think happened there?’ He can get the gist of it and write it in. With a sports photographer, once it’s gone, it’s gone. But once you’ve done it a lot, there’s a lot of muscle memory. I see things in slower motion, I suspect [than the average Joe].”

Frakes cites an example from the men’s 100 metres final at the 2012 Olympic Games in London. He was at the start line alongside Anja Niedringhaus from Associated Press. The pair had been beside each other at the finish line of every important track-and-field event since 1988. Niedringhaus was also a war photojournalist, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her coverage of the Iraq War. She was killed while waiting to pass through a checkpoint in Afghanistan last April.

“I’m in subterranean mode, looking straight down the track,” recalls Frakes. “I can see the action. It’s easy for me to judge depth perception of something head on, which is a difficult thing to do. I’m sitting next to Anja. Yohan Blake and Usain Bolt were separated by two lanes. At 40 metres out, I said, ‘Blake’s ahead.’ And Anja said, ‘Yeah, I hate his haircut’.

“Hundreds of millions of people saw our pictures the next day, but there is some jocularity. There’s a lot of camaraderie, a lot of competition, and communication and coordination.”

At that 100 metres final, Frakes and Niedringhaus were running eight remote, automated cameras. Frakes says sometimes at the Kentucky Derby horse race, he’ll have 65 remote cameras on the go. The pressure not to miss a piece of action is immense.

The technology has become so good; there are so many photographers hunting for the picture, more staff on a newspaper’s picture desk yelling for images. This wasn’t always the case.

Billy Stickland, the founder of Inpho Photography, remembers taking a leisurely trip to Paris by boat and train for the Irish rugby team’s tilt at a Grand Slam in 1982.

He was away for four days without getting a picture used from the match for about two years. He says the demands of television have changed the nature of still photography. It’s become more news-based, which means photographers have less of an opportunity to go off-piste and look for an unusual picture.

“Nowadays, with big sporting events, television controls what people want to see afterwards. Photographers are much more restricted in that you’re putting yourself in the best position to get what you think people will want.

“In a soccer match, people will want the goal. They’ll want the yellow card or the red card, or the particular ferocious tackle because they’ll have seen it on television. That will be the story of the match.

Camera angles

“Just look at the recent soccer World Cup on telly and the number of camera angles on everything. For instance, Neymar for Brazil getting the knee in the back – that’s what all the picture desks would want. “I was at the “Hand of God” match – the England v Argentina game in Mexico in 1986. I wasn’t at the right end for the handball incident, but I remember afterwards, I was working for an agency, and there were no repercussions if you didn’t actually get that picture because people accepted it. But today that would have been the one picture you would have had to get, and if you didn’t it would have been seen as a failure.”

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