Life as a Sports Photographer

Still Learning

I've only been shooting football for 5 years and at times it's been a real baptism of fire. Certainly an extremely steep learning curve (both technical and process) and one which I continue to slowly climb. It can also (given my ongoing newbie status) be quite a lonely job - lots of travel, head down working flat out and not a great deal of time to get too social with the fellow togs. I also entered the fray at probably the most difficult time to be a sports photographer given how sales for most are at an all time low and even with a sale the price per image has dropped considerably compared to years gone by. Combine with this the fickle UK weather, the pressure of missing the one second of footage that will be the only talking point from the game and finally the pressures of in-time wiring go together to make it quite a challenge. Certainly nothing like the "oh you are so lucky, you get in to watch football for free" that a lot of people say when I tell them what I do.

So why do I do it? Well it turns out I, for one, am always up for a challenge - the harder the better when it comes to photographer. And secondly, I love all of the above pressures. For me it would not be half as much fun if it was a case of turning up, firing a few shots and walking away with a fat pay-cheque (okay perhaps once in a while that last point may be appreciated)

I thought I'd give you a little insight into my own personal process for a game - I'm sure other sports shooters out there can identify with at least some of these, while I'm sure others have a more detailed ritual. I'm going to split this post up into two - the preparation for a game and then in the second post the game itself.


Yes you read that right - typically as I know where I'll be shooting up to 5 days or so before the game itself I'm already starting to think about it. While each game can bring its own unique challenges there are normally a few things I start to plan as early as possible.

  • Weather - the past few weeks here in the UK there may not have been as much need to actually check the forecast as I could normally predict it was going to be a (very) wet one. Met office weather normally can give me a reasonably close prediction - at the very least the chance of rain. As the days count down I continue to keep a check on this. If the weather is going to be bad then it does have an effect on the kit (or rather protection) I'll bring. I also use the Photographers Ephemeris to give me an idea on where the sun will be before and especially during the game. This can help me decide on my seating position although there are a number of other factors which take precedence on this which I'll come to later. I love how with his application you can scroll through the timing of the game to see the movement of the sun.
  • Travel  - if I've been to the ground before then I normally have a good idea on travel plans, but given I normally get the train to London based grounds the first thing I'm checking for is how they are behaving - weekend travel and trains can be a real pain - planned engineering works just when people are looking to get around London. Still the train is still my preferred mode of transport as it allows for some preparation work before I reach the ground along with some further editing time on the way back home. I need to get to the ground at least 3 hours before kick-off - so working backwards on a 3pm game I'm typically out of the house for 10am. Lunchtime kickoff? Well of course that typically means me leaving the house before 7am.
  • Match Preparation 1 - I start to look at the two teams involved. I check the squad lists with particular focus on playes who have played for both clubs, those who perhaps have a bit of a rivalry towards each other. What about players who are currently in the news, be it for off-the-field antics, contract dispute or something they have commented on twitter (a growing trend). What about the back room staff? Any changes there, especially in the world of the Premier League where we seem to see at least one management change per month. I also check if there are to be any special guests at the game. Would it be likely that the England manager, Roy Hodgson (or in fact any International manager) going to watch? Finally I check to see if we know if there will be any kind of on-pitch presentation, perhaps to a charity of similar. All of the above shots, outside of the match itself, can become good sellers, especially if you have done your homework and manage to get a shot taken, processed and wired before anyone else has even spotted it. As a final check I look to see which side the managers dugout is on and finally where the away fans typically sit.
  • Match Preparation 2 - the second bit of my match preparation tends to focus more on the players and in particular if they have any particular type of celebration when they score. The celebration (or "Cele" as it is known in the business) can be the main seller from the game so the more preparation I can put into this the better. Now of course there is no way to predict how a player will react when they score. Quite often they blow all form out of the water and run in completely the opposite direction to where you expected. I don't know about you but a shot of the back of a player, despite his arm raised aloft, isn't really a true celebration shot - you need to see the face (preferably with the arm aloft pure passion etched across their face). Youtube is great for this  - type in the players name and "celebration" and it will give you a whole host of options. I tend to focus on strikers or attacking midfielders - anyone else scores so infrequently that I think they make up their celebration as they go.


The day before is normally split between two separate themes;

  • Kit - getting the kit ready the day before is an absolute must. There is no point in preparing this any earlier as quite often I'll be using at least part of my setup for other photography pursuits. I normally have two bags with me - one with the 400mm + some clothing in and the other with pretty much everything else. Batteries go on charge the packed kit gets checked several times over. If it's going to be wet then that kit gets put on and confirmed that it all looks okay. If I've had a particular issue with any part of my kit or process in the previous game then I check that a few times - making sure the game itself is free of issues is my number one priority here. Memory cards cleaned down, all backup accessories packed. Check and double check. It has become somewhat of a ritual now - Friday nights at least 90 minutes spent on match preparation. All I need is my pre-match meal :)
  • Further Match Preparation - A further check on weather and now, if I've not been to the ground before I check on connectivity. Does it have wi-fi or wired connections. How will my 3G connectivity work. Again the Internet is fantastic for this kind of information. I may have also emailed the club contact in the days leading up to this to find out a bit more about the services on offer for the photographer. By this stage I will have received a file from Action Plus which allows me to plug in the common keywords relating to the game (XMP). These along with the player name replacement file are both plugged into Photo Mechanic and I check the wording is working as expected with a couple of test shots (more on my workflow with Photo Mechanic in a later blog post). The more I can get done before arriving at the ground means the more time I have to get out with the Camera and hopefully bag a couple of sellers.


Okay so it's time to get my game face on. I normally start match day with a run - it actually helps me clear my mind a little to focus on the day ahead. During the 2012-2013 season I was also training for a few Ultra Marathons so my little Saturday morning pre-match run would quite often be 20+ miles. I have to admit looking back I'm not quite sure how I managed to train for Ultras and hold down a day shooting football (normally in pretty cramped conditions). This season while still having a few Ultras in the works they are not until later in the year so my Saturday morning runs are now a little more normal - half marathon will do.

Travel time, by car or train and I'm typically listening to Talk Sport - again can sometimes be useful to get any last minute updates on the game itself. Who is playing, any updates form the managers. Sometimes they already have a man on the ground with some further information regarding the game. I'm also starting to run through the list of shots I want to make sure I get - the more I can have these running through my mind the more chance I have of getting them when the pressure is on.


As I said earlier I normally arrive at the ground at least 3 hours before kickoff - this generally is the earliest you can be let into most grounds although some have shorted this to 2 hours (but arriving 3 before still affords you an early position in the queue which in turn should mean you have the best pick of positions). As I queue up outside I'm on a final check with the weather, especially the sun and this, along with my knowledge of the ground, the teams involved and my considerations of the shots I hope to bag mean I have my primary and backup position in my head. As soon as we have signed in and picked up our passes the race is on (and in some cases it really does feel like a race) to bag your position - you normally mark your territory by laying down you monopod .. although how some spots at grounds are coveted I'm surprised there isn't a bit of pissing to mark ones place as well. Once my position has been chosen I take a walk around the ground.

I normally have my Fuji+Fisheye slung around my neck - if I've not been to the ground before then I certainly want to get some shots of the stadium, especially if it's a large one. The fisheye at this point can yield come pleasing shots. Once my walk around is over it's back to the photographers room, laptop out and another check on all the bits that will go towards making my process as pain-free as possible.

Depending on the club there is normally an array of food available - ranging from 3 day old sandwiches to a swanky roast dinner. It would seem the rivalry between Tottenham and Arsenal is not just on the pitch but in the kitchen as well as I regularly hear people comparing the food at both grounds - with a preference for one or the other. I'm not sure they are aware both get their food from the same catering company :)

It's now about 90 minutes before kick-off ... time to get my kit ready and get out there.

Next Up: The Match and Follow-up