A Third of the Way Through: Time for a Little Introspection.

United States Women's Gymnastics team member Nastia Liukin (412) consoles teammate Alicia Sacramone (415) who fell twice in the competition at the conclusion of the Women's Team Gymnastics Final where the narrowly missed the Gold Medal - coming in with Silver.  Photograph by Vincent Laforet for NEWSWEEK

United States Women's Gymnastics team member Nastia Liukin (412) consoles teammate Alicia Sacramone (415) who fell twice in the competition at the conclusion of the Women's Team Gymnastics Final where the narrowly missed the Gold Medal - coming in with Silver. Photograph by Vincent Laforet for NEWSWEEK

 

We’re about a third of the way through the Olympic Games as of the end of today – and I’ve always found this to be a good point to look back through the images I’ve made so far, and to make adjustments on how I will shoot from here on out.

This of course has put me in a very introspective mood. Truth be told I’m not thrilled with any of the images I’ve taken so far, and as a result my head has been in the clouds for most of the day.  I’m trying to figure out how I can change my approach from this point on, in an effort to produce images that I will be proud of, and that hopefully this blog’s readers will appreciate throughout the rest of the games.  

Trying to figure out what to do next has led me to asking one of the most basic questions that most sports photographers ask themselves on a regular basis:  How exactly do you define a great sports photograph?

I can tell you that in the 17 years that I’ve shot news and sports in this business, the answer to that question has changed radically many times, often in relation to the type of organization I was working for and what they expected of me. I’d like to go into that for a little bit.  Some of you may not have time, so please just go ahead and enjoy the photographs from today. For the others, please read on.

United States Women's Gymnastics team members  Shawn Johnson (411) performed a near flawless routine on the balance beam helping her team win the Silver Medal  in the Women's Team Gymnastics Final. Photograph by Vincent Laforet for NEWSWEEK

United States Women's Gymnastics team members Shawn Johnson (411) performed a near flawless routine on the balance beam helping her team win the Silver Medal in the Women's Team Gymnastics Final. Photograph by Vincent Laforet for NEWSWEEK

 First, one of the biggest factors that I should mention is how much of an impact technology has had on sports photography in the past decade. Autofocus has had more of an impact than perhaps any other specialty in the photography profession. When I started to shoot sports in 1993, I fell into it rather haphazardly, because I had a knack for manually focusing a 300mm or 400mm lens. I was a French kid who didn’t know what a first down was, but was able to get more sharp images than not. At the time, if you got more than 60% of your shots in focus, you were the exception to the rule–and you could count only a few dozen photographers in the country, who could get higher percentages then that on a regular basis. An amateur who picked up one of these lenses would often get less than 5-15% of their images in focus–if any at all.  It was definitely an acquired skill.   These day having 80%-90% of shots–if not close to 95% for the best sports photographers–is not uncommon.  The technology has become that good, and therefore the playing field has been leveled, making it more difficult than perhaps ever for the top photographers to stand out.

United States Women's Gymnastics team member Alicia Sacramone lost her balance just as she mounted the balance beam in the Women's Team Gymnastics Final. Photograph by Vincent Laforet for NEWSWEEK

United States Women's Gymnastics team member Alicia Sacramone lost her balance just as she mounted the balance beam in the Women's Team Gymnastics Final. Photograph by Vincent Laforet for NEWSWEEK

Therefore simply “getting” the shot (in focus and well framed) is no longer an accomplishment–you need to push yourself more than ever to find unique images that no one else is making. You can no longer stand out simply because you shoot with longer lenses (the longer they are, the exponentially harder they are to focus and the more likely it is you’ll crop an important element out because you have shot the image too tightly) or by having better timing than the next photographer. Doing things the old way simply won’t do.

Which brings me back to my simple question: What makes a great sports photograph? As I’ve found out, a lot of the answer to that depends on your audience, or almost just as importantly, who you’re working for. Different types of organizations consider different types of images to be the “pinnacle” of sports photographs. And very often your client and/or editor is the ultimate judge of how good of a job you’ve done. If they’re happy, you’re happy and hopefully they’ll hire you again and you can make a living in this very odd profession. That is a big factor of how we come to judge our success as photographers–it’s often more important than what contest one might win or what your peers think of your photography.

Photograph by Vincent Laforet for NEWSWEEK

The first "impact damage" a.k.a. my "first victim" of these Olympics. We carry too much gear because once we're in position there's no running back to get the missing piece... and when I ran from one place to another, one camera body knocked into my 135mm f2 - "That'll leave a mark" I remember thinking, with no time to actually check the lens out. When I got to the next position I saw the front filter was completely cracked... that's why you have filters, I guess. The lens is still in pristine condition. (We don't use lens hoods as a courtesy to other photographers, as it can block their photographs) ©Vincent Laforet for NEWSWEEK

When I worked at my first job at Agence France-Presse, I was given very specific guidelines as to what they (and most wire services still do) look for: shoot tight action photographs–of the play of the game or the athlete of the game–and almost more import than how good your photograph is how fast you can get it on the wire (all too often the first image on the wire–not necessarily the best one–is the one that gets published, and getting published is the ultimate goal.)  If you get an amazing action photograph of a player who is not relevant to the story, don’t even both sending it in–it will never get onto the wire.  

A few years later, I found myself at my next job, at a photo agency named Allsport (now Getty Images) and the rules couldn’t have been more different: they were not always looking for the play of the game. In fact, very often, they couldn’t care less about those moments. What they were looking for were the quintessential agency sports photograph: an image that was shot full frame (anything that involved more than a 10% crop and the slide would be thrown into the bin) a perfectly clean background, perfect timing, color and light. The quote I’ll never forget from those days is “It’s not quite there mate” as the slide sailed into the trash bin. (The definition of full frame is an image that literally fills the frame in your viewfinder–there is no need to crop into the image.) 

Xiao Mei Liu of China scores a goal as she is defended by #6 Bombo Madalena Calandula of Angola in the handball preliminaries.

Xiao Mei Liu of China scores a goal as she is defended by #2 Eduardo Maria Teresa of Angola in the handball preliminaries.

This was a radically different approach to sports photography than what I had been trained in by Agence France-Presse.  In some ways you took a clinical approach to sports photography – you learned to look at the sport with an incredibly keen eye.  You’d study just exactly how each athlete would move so that you could shoot them full frame with a very tight lens and not cut off any relevant parts of their anatomy. You’d learn every move in a gymnast’s routine, trying to find the perfect moment where you could frame just the gymnast’s head with the Olympic logo on the balance beam below–again full frame (cropping was not an option.) You would know exactly what direction Michael Phelps turns his head to breathe in during freestyle, or how far from the finish line he pops his head out from beneath the surface in the butterfly. You would go one or two days in advance to study a venue and to see how the light moved throughout it as the time of day changed and plan out your shooting schedule based on that movement. It was a very different approach to sports photography. If you had a shot of Tiger Woods jumping in the air as he won the Masters and there was someone wearing a distracting orange shirt in the background–the image would never have a chance. Again it would end up in the bin. The Allsport photographers were the “experts” at making the “perfect” sports image if you will.

My next career move brought me to The New York Times–and there once again, I had a rude awakening during my first few months of shooting sports for them.  I’d describe their style as somewhere in between Allsport and Agence France-Presse, with a heavy bias toward getting the “moment.” This isn’t that surprising given that the Times is often referred to as “the paper of record.”  I would come back from baseball with images that were shot full frame and perfectly lit–a photograph of an outfielder perfectly outstretched missing a catch, say. And often the editors would say: oh, that play wasn’t really a deciding factor, we don’t need it, but did you get the image of Derek Jeter hitting the game-winning home run? My response would be: who in the world would want to see another  photograph of yet another guy swinging a bat? Those photographs are a dime a dozen…  and people surely the readers get tired of seeing them every day! Don’t they? 

But to the Times, their job was to report on the news, not just show pretty pictures. Your job there was clearly delineated:  get the play of the game, a nice shot of the most valuable player–and if you can come back with these moments captured with a good amount of aesthetics, more often than not you were considered a star photographer. What your backgrounds looked like, how tightly you shot the image (and how much of a crop you later applied to the original) was completely irrelevant. If it was shot full frame and the background was more out of focus as a result, that was a nice bonus. You learned to shoot defensively–you learned to play the odds. You’d push the envelope, but only so far. If you decided to shoot with a 600mm instead of a much looser 300mm and cut off the player’s limb as a result, tough luck–the paper would without hesitation run a wire photo instead. But you also became an expert at playing those odds, and became very strong in making sure you were at the right place at the right time and to find angles that would maximize your ability to capture a variety of outcomes. So getting the perfect image was not as important as getting the moment of the game.  Some photographers at the Times were able to do both on a regular basis however–Doug Mills and Chang Lee come to mind–both are covering the games together for the paper here in Beijing. The fact that they’re able to do both is a testament to their skill as sports photographers. It’s a very very tough thing to do day in an day out.  Especially when you are keenly aware that The New York Times–and all newspapers and magazines out there–subscribe to all of the major wire services. If you didn’t get the moment, your entire day was shot, as they would never hesitate to use a wire service photograph instead.  

When I left the Times more than two years ago I started to shoot significantly fewer sports and started to shoot more commercial work and other types of assignments. This gave me a chance to take a step back from sports photography and to gain some form of perspective given that I wasn’t busy churning out sports photos on a daily basis. What I’ve found during that time is that sports photographs have become incredibly homogeneous, in large part to the technology that I mentioned above and given how easily disseminated they are through the Internet. Every photographer can see what other photographers have shot just minutes ago on Yahoo! News–and try to either copy that image or work on making it better. As a result, a lot of the photography starts to look the same. It’s no longer just a handful of photographers making different images. Don’t forget that before digital and the Internet, film had to be processed and published.  By the time you saw the image published, it was the next day and the event was over.

It’s very rare for me to see a sports image that stops me in my tracks these days. A lot of this of course has to do with the fact that I’m slightly jaded. I’ve been surrounded by some of the best sports photographers throughout my career and witnessed them produce some of the most awe-inspiring photography in person, and I’ve seen how they accomplished those photographs and learned from them. Naturally, my definition of what makes a great sports photograph will be much different then that of the average person. That’s true of any professional in any field, of course: The standards become much higher the more you perfect your craft, and the more you are exposed to great work. You also become biased because you are aware of how difficult it is to pull of certain images, and this in turn means that you tend to look down a bit on the great photographs that might not be so difficult to pull off technically. That’s a very dangerous path to fall into.

To be honest, there is very little photography that I see out there today that I find very impressive.  Even in the nation’s top sports magazines and by the sports photographers, I can count the photographers that I am regularly impressed by on one or two hands: Donald Miralle being one of them (Donald is one of the three photographers photographing these Olympics for Newsweek and also contributing to this series of blogs.)  These few photographers routinely come back with images than none of the other photographers do–images that no one else even sees.  

Bing Li  is defended by #6 Bombo Madalena Calandula of Angola in the handball preliminaries.

Bing Li is defended by #6 Bombo Madalena Calandula of Angola in the handball preliminaries.

Mike Powell (also one of the three of us shooting and blogging for NEWSWEEK) and I are doing a lot more commercial work these days and have distanced ourselves a bit from shooting in the “standard” sports style that is very prevalent today in editorial photography.  “Tight is Right” is one way to describe that standard–and that’s what Mike was referring to when he said he had returned to his “long lens repertoire” in a previous post.  Our clients are looking for images that have a bit more of a setting or sense of place and as a result we are often looking for images with much more atmosphere or shot from a different angle.  Last year I shot an entire series of sports image with tilt-shift lenses (you can see them on my site)–trying to find a different approach to sports photography. One of the big frustrations for me (and I’m guessing for Mike as well) is that there is so much clutter at the Olympics–so many television cameras, security guards, and empty seats in the backgrounds of your photographs–so making these more atmospheric can prove to be very difficult.

Here I am now photographing for the NEWSWEK blog, and it’s kind of the wild west out

here. There are no rules, and Simon Barnett (the NEWSWEEK director of photography, a.k.a. El Jeffe)  has given us complete freedom as to what type of images we shoot. Some might be of the defining moment of the Olympics, or the gold medal winner–but images of the last place finisher or some team you’ve never heard of are also welcome, as long as the image stands on its own merits. It’s a new place for me–frankly, it’s a dream job. Basically just go out there and make pictures without the fear of your editor calling you at the end of the day asking you for “this play” or “that athlete” because that’s the news of the day or the lead of the article they’re working on. And in many ways such freedom can be a little crippling. 

Which is of course quite ironic. Another factor of course is writing for the blog: with each day it gets tougher and tougher to come up with new things to write about. After all, not every sport is humorous, not every day brings forth new interesting anecdotes. Often you deal with the same logistics issues and headaches day after day. Some days you have amazing images–and on others you’d just as soon not publish anything.

In these past two days of photographing gymnastics, for example, I’ve been swaying back and forth between trying to make the perfect (beautiful) gymnastics photograph, versus getting the shot of the fall that may have cost the U.S. the gold medal. I’ve never had the liberty in my 17-year-career to decide purely for myself just what it is that I want shoot (with the exception of personal work.) As for the blog, we edit the image that we make out here ourselves–no one is looking over our shoulders. It’s an incredible level of freedom that few photographers have. We have no editors to answer to, or stories to shoot for. As long as we keep the readers (you) interested, we’re accomplishing our jobs (I think.)   The Internet is opening up news avenues and taking us to new territories, and we are now shooting for a new audience with more freedom than ever.  

Xiao Mei Liu of China scores a goal as she is defended by #6 Bombo Madalena Calandula of Angola in the handball preliminaries.

Xiao Mei Liu of China scores a goal as she is defended by #6 Bombo Madalena Calandula of Angola in the handball preliminaries.

Yet having such freedom leads you to ask yourself, what it is that you consider to be the ultimate photograph–is it the news of the day?  Is it the slow start off of the blocks that cost the relay team the gold? Or the most beautiful photograph of the day that may be completely irrelevant in grand scheme of sports history? (Ultimately, of course, getting all of the above in one frame is the goal–but that happens once an Olympics if you’re lucky.)  Are you shooting for yourself or to inform the reader?  Is there a difference between the two–and what does the reader (as opposed to your publication or editor) want to see? 

Finding that answer has proven much more difficult for me to answer than I ever would have thought… especially given this new role as a blogging photographer. But that’s what I’ll be attempting to do over the remaining two-thirds of these games. In case you haven’t figured it out by now, the reason that I haven’t been thrilled with any of the photographs that I’ve made so far is that I’ve found that I somehow returned to these old ways of shooting. It’s almost as if through I have been hardwired or programmed to do so over the years and it’s proven much tougher to shake off than I had anticipated. All of the endless rules and craziness that is involved in photographing a chaotic event such as the Olympics has thrown me right back into these old habits. Today marks the day that I come to terms with that, and hopefully let go and move on to making what I consider great photographs–if I’m lucky. So much of this ultimately involves a lot of luck.

As always, your comments and feedback are more than welcome–you after all are the ultimate audience that we’re working our butts off for.  So let us know what you think. Or, you can just follow along as I try to work through these questions via photographs over the next 11 days.