Changing The Game

In sports photography, the biggest challenge is keeping up with the industry, not the athletes

Illustration: Cami Dobrin

Sport photography, like the athletes it documents, doesn’t stand still for very long. For over 150 years now, the great challenge of the field has been to trap movement, to show the human body mid-flight in ways the naked eye is incapable of seeing. That has always made it one of the most technically challenging forms of photography, responsible for a huge number of innovations in camera technology.

The earliest sport photographs were still portraits of athletes taken in the 1840s, whenthe required exposure time was several minutes. By the turn of the 20th century, photographers had worked out how to capture the galloping hooves of a racehorse or the spins of a tumbling gymnast in time-stopping freeze frames.

Heroic photographs of sportsmen and sportswomen in action made the subjects household names and every new advance, from long lenses to autofocus, meant that fans, not just the photographers, became closer to them. Sport and photography developed in tandem and now, two decades after digital cameras changed the game forever, sport photographers are adapting once more.

But, says Matthias Hangst, chief sports photographer at Getty Images, the biggest changes aren’t in technology. “Twenty years ago we went to a football match on a Saturday, delivered on Sunday, printed on Monday. It was all about a print product. Now it’s live. Whatever we do needs to go to the client as soon as possible with the highest quality.”

This makes modern sports photography botha sprint and a marathon. Clients want imagery in real-time, so a photographer might deliver images via wifi, while simultaneously shooting new ones, all the while operating a remote camera with a foot pedal. Before a game has even finished, fans expect professional photos on social media. The pace is relentless, says Matthias.

“We [Getty] do 50,000 events a year and more or less every one of them is live. The speed in sports media is unbelievable, especially football. There are matches every day. That’s great. It creates more opportunities for us but it is an ongoing race.”

At Getty, photographers on the ground are supported by large teams of remote editors who crop, edit and caption the images, before forwarding them to the agency’s clients. That’s the biggest change of all for Clive Mason, an award-winning photographer at Getty who has shot almost every major event over a 30-year career.

“We turn up at an event and 99 per cent of the time there’s a remote editor. You haven’t got to worry about editing or a backlog at the end of the day because it’s all been taken care of for you.”

Clive says this gives him the headspace to get the best images possible, but it can still be stressful. “Once you lose comms or wifi, suddenly it’s the complete opposite. Utter crisis.”

It’s a different kind of stress to the pressures he faced at the start of his career, working with film. “I remember my first time at Wimbledon, when I shot an entire day on film not realising that my timing was slightly out,” he says. “The whole day, I think I only had three pictures with the ball in it.”

The advent of digital photography has, to an extent, made sports photography easier. With today’s technology – Clive shoots with the new Nikon D6 and says its autofocus is the best he’s used – he can get his timing right during the first rally of a day at Wimbledon, during which he covers up to 20 matches.

With convenience, however, comes volume. The endless tide of imagery is forcing the best photographers to become even better. An organisation like Getty relies on specialists, people who know their sport better than anyone and anticipate moments before they happen.

“Sport is so fast. If you just trigger in the moment when something happens, it might be too late,” Matthias says. “If a player wins the next point in a tennis match, I know exactly which way he will turn for a celebration because I have seen it a hundred times.”

The way that audiences consume sports photography has changed as much as how it is created. The rise of social media hasn’t just forced photographers to work faster, it has also alteredthe types of images they capture. Not least because the real estate of a mobile phone screen is different to that of a glossy magazine.

“As we all know, when you pick up a phone, you don’t hold it horizontally,” says Matthias. “If you pick up your phone and look at Instagram or whatever, a lot of the content is vertical. For today’s younger audience it’s about engagement, it’s about emotions and how close you can be to your subject. It’s not just having a nice, wide shot that you can print in a book or that you can stick on the wall. It’s about showing moments with athletes that you couldn’t show before.”

“The scrum in the press pit is so fierce because
the field is more competitive than ever before”

Showing what isn’t often seen is what Alana Paterson’s work in sport is all about. After finding research that said only four per cent of sports media coverage is of female athletes, she set about addressing the imbalance. She focuses her lens on junior female athletes and uses stark indoor flash to replicate an aesthetic reminiscent of 80sor 90s sports photography.

A mix of portraiture and reportage, her work is a reminder that sports photography isn’t just about capturing a photo-finish race or winning goal.

“I kind of shoot art-meets-sports,” she says. “Not many people would hire me for action, I don’t think. I’m more about storytelling within sports. It’s definitely a burgeoning genre.

“There’s always been this division between the jocks and the artists, and sport was almost left alone to a straightforward way of photographing. Now people want to report and tell stories in sport ina unique way and communicate to a broader audience.”

Alana’s photography aims to highlight gender discrepancies in representation and funding, but change is coming slowly. The success of the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2019 is symptomatic of a growing demand for female sport, and for female sport photographers. This is long overdue, with photography’s gender imbalance perhaps at its most pronounced in sport. In 2017, Getty set up a female sports internship for the first time and Alana believes more schemes like that are needed. Without them, getting into the field can literally be a bruising experience for female photographers.

“I would rarely be put in a press pool ,” she says, “but it does happen from time to time and I literally just get pushed out of the way. I couldn’t throw elbows hard enough to stay in the front. There’s this one guy in Canada, who does all the press work and he is so physical. If I wanted to get as physical as him, I’d probably have a bloody nose.”

The scrum in the press pit is so fierce because the field is more competitive than ever before. And photographers aren’t just up against the man or woman standing next to them, but remote cameras behind the goals or above the pole vault and drones in the skies above.

One understandable anxiety is whether further, or total, automation will come for photography like it has for other industries. At Getty and elsewhere, there are drone specialists and remote-camera operators who control multiple cameras inside a stadium from an off-site location. “They’re looking at a computer screen and can zoom and pan and manoeuvre the camera like a remote-controlled car,” says Clive.

Matthias says he’s given up trying to predict the future but now sees the constant change in photography as a good thing.

“We still believe in the human photographer but we also see technology not as a challenge but an opportunity. In our industry you cannot stop learning, you have to be open to new things. If you think you might do another 25 years in the business holding two cameras and two lenses, that might not work out for you.”

Although pro sport has been sidelined by coronavirus, Matthias is looking to the future. In this game, he says,” you can’t stand still.”