Sports photography: capturing that special moment

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


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.”

Tom Jenkins, who has been getting, to borrow Henri Cartier-Bresson’s phrase, “the decisive moment” for the Guardian newspaper since 1991, recalls having a motorbike courier sitting beside him at Arsenal’s old Highbury stadium for matches, ready to scurry the two miles to the newspaper’s office with two rolls of film. The first roll of film had to be sent on its way after 15 minutes of play so Jenkins tended to take a shot “the first time two players came towards you with the ball”.

With the advent of mobile transmitters, Jenkins had to lug around a small suitcase of chemicals, a scanner and hairdryer to dry negatives. If he didn’t have the appropriate facilities at the sports ground he was working at, he’d cajole the residents of a household nearby to use their bathroom and phone line for a few quid. When covering Gloucester’s rugby matches at Kingsholm, he used to work out of a neighbouring chip shop where his films would be developed next to a chip fryer.

Film to digital

The switch from film to digital in 2000 altered the landscape. Gone are the rolls of film and the need to mix chemicals at 36 degrees on the fly. Hundreds of pictures can now be taken at a match, with the ability to spirit them to a picture desk thousands of miles away within minutes, although competing with thousands of spectators’ smartphones at a stadium for a wifi connection creates its own headaches.

It’s difficult, too, these days to compose a clean shot – except in a sport like tennis – with so many TV cameras and sponsors’ signage creating “noise” in the background.

The essence of good sports photography hasn’t changed, though. It’s still about reading body language, and anticipating where the key moment will happen.

Jenkins remembers his conundrum during the 2006 World Cup final at Berlin’s Olympiastadion. Late in the game, he sensed that Zinedine Zidane had become unhinged.

“When you’re watching a game, you notice little things going on, off-the-ball stuff, and I could tell that Zidane was being followed by his man-marker, this guy called Marco Materazzi, and that he was getting niggled. Materazzi was pulling him here, there and everywhere.

“It was into extra-time and it was 1-1. France were attacking my end, and Zidane had this fantastic header. It was flying into the top corner and the Italian keeper Buffon made this amazing save to keep the ball out. I kept on Zidane. I thought ‘he’s really frustrated’.

“At full pelt, he just walked straight into the goalpost like a Benny Hill scene. I couldn’t believe it.

“I’d never seen anything like that – such an amazing figure; he’d been fantastic that World Cup, the star of it, but I thought, ‘Hang on, he’s really losing it here. Why did he do that? What’s happening?’

“Then I had this choice. Do I keep on him all the time or do I follow the ball like I normally do because it’s 1-1 in extra-time in the World Cup final? A goal could be a winning goal in the World Cup final; it’s pretty important. I had one eye on him and one eye on the ball, but I thought I have to follow the ball. “Then, less than a minute after I’d kept my focus on the ball, he head-butted Materazzi and was sent off. It’s one of the biggest regrets in my career that I didn’t keep on Zidane the whole time because not many people got that head-butt picture, and, of course, that was the image of the World Cup.”

In the Moment: The Sports Photography of Tom Jenkins is published by Guardian Books.


Alex Higgins, Goffs, 1988
“They used to have snooker tournaments in Goffs down in Kildare. The players didn’t take them as seriously as the World Championships.

“They would drink. Alex Higgins was being delivered vodka and oranges all the time he was playing. You were allowed to smoke. I think it was even called the Benson & Hedges.

“This picture was taken at the half-time break. Emily O’Reilly, who is now the European Ombudsman, was a journalist for the Sunday Tribune at the time. We both went down, and just followed him around. He was pissed, really, with a second set of snooker to come.

“Then he started showing off because Emily was an attractive female journalist. He came out the door with his arms up, and what was good about it were the stains under his armpits.” – BILLY STICKLAND

Tiger Woods, The Belfry, 2002
“Tiger was irresistible as a sportsman when he was in his pomp – instantly recognisable, fabulously wealthy and with the aura of a superstar. The trouble with Tiger was that when he was on top of his game he was, from a photographer’s point of view, quite boring effortlessly [marching] from one green to the next.

“I thought long and hard about how best to depict Tiger’s sporting elegance and found that he was wonderful in silhouette, his distinctive stance and tell-tale cap identifying him instantly. He was not always a winner or trouble-free on the course.

“At the Ryder Cup in 2002, a team competition he did not always relish, the Americans were already beaten and he was playing a “dead” match, when his usually reliable security was breached: a Tiger held up by a procession of mallard ducks. Just the sort of scene we photographers hoped for!” – TOM JENKINS

Scrumhalf, Anglesea Road, 2011 Winner of a 2012 World Press Photo award
“It was just another match – Old Belvedere v Blackrock at Anglesea Road – but it had a nice bit of lighting, loads of action, loads of rain. Ultimately, it was a picture of a scrumhalf, which I didn’t send out on the day as part of my action pictures.

“The reason is most photographers wouldn’t send out a picture of a scrumhalf throwing a ball out because he’s going to do it every time there’s a ruck, maul or a scrum. They’re 10 a penny.

“ It was months later. I knew I had some nice pictures from that day, and I had a second look at them, and I was targeting a different market. If it was appearing in a double column in The Irish Times the next day, it wouldn’t have been the same if it had been appearing in the World Press Photo – it needed space to show it.” – RAY McMANUS

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