The Modern Sports Photographer
Like many artistic disciplines sports photography has changed since the introduction of new technology and social media. You just have to look at the Olympics in Rio to appreciate the wealth of photographic talent that exists, but what does it take to be a modern sports photographer? We asked Getty Images sports photographer Dean Mouhtaropoulos, who also runs Photo Philosophy Podcast.
1965: is this the year the greatest sports photograph ever was taken? Neil Leifer snaps Muhammad Ali towering over Sonny Liston during the World Heavyweight Title fight in Maine. With its poetic David and Goliath composition nothing has come close to this iconic image.
Fast-forward to the Rio Olympics; perhaps the most memorable image will be that taken by Cameron Spencer of Usain Bolt smiling mid-race. Based on what it took to get that shot Spencer deserves all the credit, but is the currency of an image based on its proclivity to go viral? You could argue that the quality of an image should determine whether it goes viral or not. However it’s not always the case.
Getty Images had 120 staff at the 2016 Rio Olympics — 40 of them were photographers. You just have to take a look at the image above to understand that sports photography has become about capturing every single moment. At the Olympics Getty used underwater cameras for swimming, overhead robot cameras to capture gymnastics and 360-degree cameras for an immersive photographic experience. So, what does this photographic evolution mean for the conventional sports photographer? We spoke to Getty Images sports photographer Dean Mouhtaropoulos to get his take on how things have changed since he started.
How has sports photography changed since you started?
I will avoid the obvious about camera improvements and say what the main change has been from the clients requests and that’s quantity! When I started at Getty Images in 2003, I would go to a Premier League match and have to send around 15 to 20 images. These images would tell the story of the game, red cards, goals, celebrations, etc. These days we have to send at least 30 images in the first half. When we work at a Champions League match we constantly send images direct to feeds, which our clients get and that can easily hit 100 images from one game. We have to move images so fast as the game or event is going to keep the online demand satisfied. Clients update their live galleries and news outlets want the latest image or a selection of the best images the instant the game is finished, so we have to make sure we deliver. The unfortunate thing about the amount of images required now means that some great images from events get lost in the system because of the amount we have to send.
Personally what is the greatest sports photograph of all time?
Too tough to answer as there are loads of great images that will always stand out to many people. I guess if I am pushed an image like the one of Maradona of Argentina scoring over Peter Shilton of England with his hand has to be mentioned, the ‘Hand of God’ photo as its called. That sounds much more poetic than the ‘Hand of Cheat’ doesn’t it! It’s special because it was manually focused. Out of the massive group of snappers only one guy gets the image, which was so quick that not even the players had seen it happen. I think great images like that are even more special considering the equipment they had to use. Today with amazing auto focus and many frames a second you still need the skill, but for great images of years gone, I think, a little more skill was involved.
Often there seems to be one or two defining photographs in sporting events. For example at the Rio Olympics news outlets singled out Cameron Spencer’s photo of Usain Bolt. What measures do you have to take to stand out from every other sports photographer?
Be in the right place at the right time, and take a risk with exposure or shutter speed to get a different image than the guy or girl standing next to you. Depending on the event you are shooting, I would try to avoid standing with the wall of other photographers to get something different. I am lucky that Getty encourage us to get unique images for our clients, so I would always look for a spot to shoot which is not occupied by other photographers. Sometimes this works and other times not, but having the same images as everyone else at a game or event is not special.
What kind of competition exists between sports photographers?
There is and there isn’t. Many times over my career I have seen or know someone who forgot a piece of kit or a lens stopped working on the job, and you will have many of your colleagues offer you a replacement for the job or help in any way they can. I can’t speak for other agencies, but from what I have seen my European colleagues at Getty are happy to see their friends get great images and email you or share the pictures on social media. When we have our internal portfolio competitions at the end of the year everyone who enters wants to win, but it’s always good-natured and I have never experienced an angry loser. I would call it healthy competition in which we push ourselves to get better images. I like looking at my colleagues images when they have been to a venue or sport I have just been at to see what they got from the same sport, venue, lighting and what angle I didn’t see, so next time I open my mind to more possibilities. As well as speaking to the guys this is how I learn for next time.
With an increased use of professional iPhone photography. Do you think sports photography can translate effectively on iPhone?
No. I have people come up to me when I am working with my Canons and large zoom lenses and tell me they are photographers, to which I reply what do you shoot and what kit do you use. If I hear they use a smart phone I don’t consider them a photographer. Yes, you can take a nice image on a phone, but the lens in your phone costs a fraction of what a real lens costs and the results are clear to anyone with a trained eye. I use a Canon 400mm 2.8 for about 90% of my work, and no matter how happy you are with your smart phone camera you cannot compare the quality difference. Maybe 4K video or some sort of software where within the phone you can make a shallow depth of field it might start to bridge the massive gap, but then are you a photographer or an editor – the line between the two gets closer. Smart phones are great for looking at images, but getting the results that pro kit gets. I am yet to be convinced.
Instagram seems to be producing many amateur sports photographers. Do you think that Instagram sports photography could ever contend with conventional sports photography?
Maybe at amateur events, but at a professional sports event you need to be close to the action with equipment which can react as quick as the operator can. Also digital filters in Instagram and other apps like it really make average images look good. Call me old-fashioned, but I think these algorithm-based image enhancers cheat the viewer. If you want a 70’s look or wet plate style image then learn to use cameras that can produce that look, not a swipe function which you look at until you find one that you think looks good. For a while I used a digital filter on some of my Getty Images work, but always sent the original file to the site first. These days I try to do old fashioned sports photography (with the latest digital cameras), with images where I control the light and shutter speed in camera. Even my Instagram handle (@AllSportSnapper), all the images are from the Getty website and if you see the original file out of the camera and the final product you will see that they are the same frame. Some Instagram images have been so heavily processed that they are a different image entirely.
Is every sports photographer fighting for relevance or the ‘relevant’ image?
Every sports photographer has different ideas and objectives to achieve at an event. In Rio Getty had two large groups of photographers – one shooting for our editorial clients and one for the Olympic sponsors. I was standing next to a Getty photographer at an event focusing on the editorial needs and the other Getty photographer standing right next to me had to shoot a sponsor board or a particular athlete, so the relevant image for us was different. Every photographer needs to get what their boss or client(s) need, simple as that really. At my job we have clients all over the world so we must get, for example, the American, the Aussie or British athlete, but my Dutch sports photographer friends I spoke to at the Olympics had to get the Dutch only, win or lose. OK, so they shoot Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps while they are there but their office, assigning editor, client(s) or boss in Holland wants to get the Dutch athlete no matter where they came in. An example would be, the Dutch athlete celebrating her bronze medal being more interesting to the news in Holland than the Jamaican who won, but for Getty we would be more focused on the Jamaican winner so ‘relevant’ is a very specific term.
What are your hopes for the future of sports photography?
I will just say that I don’t think my hopes for the future of sports photography is a good question because my ‘hopes’ are irrelevant. The million dollar question we all ask is: ‘What IS the future for sports photographers…and the answer…I have no idea! So many factors come into this that I don’t think anyone can answer with confidence. Will technology in the next camera bodies change the way we work? Will television rights which are becoming a larger part of sport change access to events? Will TV deals eventually kick still photographers out? Will 4K or 8K video affect the stills industry? Will demand for quality sports photography grow or decrease with video streaming on phones? Will the value of images drop making the industry change? All questions I have heard since I started shooting and I still have no answers for any of them. I would love to think that sports photography will be around for years and decades to come, but if just one of those questions I ask had an answer, then the industry would change a great deal. I think that things like VR and 360 images will have an impact in the coming years. I love shooting sports and can’t really picture shooting anything else, but know that some guys who didn’t move with the times like the manual to auto focus change or the film to digital change meant they got left behind. My job is to shoot sports photography and also to learn about new tech and keep up with industry changes, so I move with it!