A Lesson in Sports Photography

Best light of the weekend was on the plane on the way over

Best light of the weekend was on the plane on the way over

This past weekend I was back in London covering two games in the English Premiership. Tottenham vs Arsenal in the North London Derby and then C.Palace v Liverpool. Even before I set foot on the plane I knew this weekend would throw up quite a few emotions for me as I was planning on using it as a gauge as to my future plans in the sports photography industry.  A very difficult industry to support yourself financially becomes quite a bit tougher when you are factoring in flights to get to the grounds. 

During the weekend I had the opportunity to read a book by, and then listen to words from, two of the most well respected sports photographers over the past 50 years. 

Firstly, my host for the weekend had a copy of the Bob Martin book 1/1000th The large format book is presented beautifully with images which suck you in from the very first page.  What immediately struck me was how few standard 'celebration shots' were included in the book. Each image, while captured in a split second, had it's own story and a sense of place. Many took me right back to the moment I would have been watching the event unfold on my television screen. Powerful, evocative story telling in a single image. And of course, as one would expect, technically first class.  This is a book every sports photographer needs to own. 

Secondly, on the plane on the way back home, I lisented to a podcast by Dean Mouhtaropoulos in which he interviewed Mark Leech, owner of Well Offside Sports agency. I have had the privilege of sitting beside Mark at a few games over the years and I love it when he gets going about a match from way back then. He seems to be able to recall seemingly nothing matches, recalling moments from the games, the characters and of course the images. Some fantastic thoughts by Mark during the interview (I agree, we do indeed need more photogenic rain) and when I got home I made a point of going through his archive. Once again images which have stood the test of time. And once again none of your standard shots we see gracing the back pages of today's newspapers. 

This morning I made a point of going through the images from the weekends matches, which filled our national newspapers, and while each (or rather most) were technically very good, none really left me thinking wow. Certainly it would be unlikely that any of these images would be remembered in weeks let alone years to come. 

We all capture the same images. The same goals. The same celebrations. The same pinup hairstyles. Not one image outside or inside the ground of interesting characters (well apart from the handbags at Tottenham which quite frankly were blown out of proportion by some of the papers). The stories within the story. 

Whose fault is this?  The Photographer? The Picture Desks? A bit of both? 

Certainly I'm not sure how long I'd be asked to cover games if I didn't get these same shots. The goals from the far end of the pitch. The managers on a 400mm then cropped on and sent. I need to spend more time looking behind me, potentially at the expense of missing the goal. Getting to my seat 10 minutes after kickoff and leaving 10 minutes before the end. The story of the day. Commercial suicide perhaps.  

Perhaps the picture desks need to take a stand and stop publishing second rate pictures, just because it's the norm. We need more characters from the game. We need the passion. We need the blood, sweat and tears. We need more images like this adorning the back pages of our nationals.  We need something different otherwise we are simply going along, almost in robotic fashion, and shooting the same images week in, week out. In 50 years time will the generation of today's sports photographers be able to publish a book like Bobs or have an image archive like Marks? I fear not. That's a sad reflection of photography in general I fear. 

Okay okay .. it's a goal celebration ... but really, who cares? 

Okay okay .. it's a goal celebration ... but really, who cares? 

50 images like this I'm sure from the day ! 

50 images like this I'm sure from the day ! 

Now I know there are plenty of photographers out there who are shooting the story of the day. The images which perhaps never get a second look by the nationals. The images which are full of their creative eye.  Images I know they are personally very proud of, and for good reason. I'd however argue than 90% of these photographers have been in the industry for at least 10 years or more. What about those coming into the industry. What are we teaching them? Two bodies, a 400 and 70-200, a laptop, 4G. Images of managers shaking hands. Images of goals. The celebrations. Head stuck in the laptop. Wired in super quick time. Job done. It's what I was always taught.  It's not right. We need more encouragement for those who are trying something different. The industry does indeed need a shake up. 

I love photography. Second to my family it's my life's passion. As ridiculous as this may sound to most I'm not in this game to make money. Never have been. Sure money does help make the world go round but I'd far rather be fulfilled by what I'm doing than simply turning up, shooting the same old stuff and getting paid. I feel this is the only option I have right now however as doing anything different would result in harsh words from those back in the office. And in a way I don't blame those words as without the standard shots we won't get a look in from the nationals as standard is what they are looking for. 

The weekend has left me both inspired and flat in equal proportions. Inspired as I know there are still beautiful images out there to be created. Images which will stand the test of time. Images which will help me develop as a photographer. It would be impossible to not be inspired having read and listened to these two fantastic photographers. I want to look back on my own archive in years to come and be proud of the images. Not have 99% of them lost in a sea of mediocrity. Which is exactly what is happening today. 

Me looking rather perplexed with it all 

Me looking rather perplexed with it all 

I'm feeling flat however as I don't feel the standard circuit of top level sports is where I will be able to express myself in such a way. Not if I want to keep being asked back to shoot. Standard, for the most part, is what sells. What is required. I feel some of the best images, while perhaps not commercially viable straight away are in the lower ends of sport. The grass roots. Non league. Strange leagues. Back street cafes over a cup of mediocre coffee served in a polystyrene cup. Obscure grounds with fans in questionable attire. The less prestigious events. The quirky events. 

Some serious soul searching to be done over the coming weeks I think.