How To Lift Your Game in Sports Photography
Who better to speak with about sports photography than someone who’s been accredited to not only shoot the past seven Commonwealth Games, but also every summer and winter Olympic Games this century? However, Delly Carr’s career as a professional sports photographer goes back even further, and he founded his agency, Sportshoot, in 1987. With almost four decades of experience, he’s trusted to get the winning shot from the world’s biggest and most important sporting events which have already taken him to 32 countries, and counting.
Recognized for his ability to capture moments that compel you to stop and stare in wonder, he’s amassed countless awards, most notably the HACCI Lifetime Excellence Award and the Sport Development & Peace Honours. In 2018, he was named Sport Photographer of Year, while in 2020 he was included in the prestigious Paper Tiger honour roll, naming him as one of Australia’s Top 60 contemporary photojournalists, with his work celebrated in a special exhibition at the Head On Photo Festival.
His enviable client list includes the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Organising Committee, Coles, Meat and Livestock Australia, Casio G-Shock, Rebel Sports, Oakley, Gatorade, Kellogg’s, ASICS, Speedo, Sydney Olympic Park, and the Bradman Foundation, amongst numerous others. As well as this, he’s the official photographer for Swimming Australia, Triathlon Australia, the Rugby World Cup Organising Committee, and about a dozen other sports and associations. He’s also a brand ambassador for Nikon, Subaru, and Thule. In this feature, Delly shares some of the most important lessons from his career to date.
Hone your skills
Central to an amazing image is the ability of the photographer to be in the right place at the right time, but what makes the equation that much more challenging for sports photographers is that the action they’re capturing unfolds at such a relentless pace. It is this ability to capture something in that moment, in that split second, which divides the great from the mediocre. And what Delly is seeking to capture is a snapshot in time, a historical moment in sport unlikely to ever be captured in quite the same way again.
“You want your pictures to tell stories; stories that will please and amaze the viewer,” he says.
Powerful moments frozen in time have the ability to invoke feelings and reactions from viewers, but the very best sports images rely on more than just a photographer’s ability to capture a fleeting moment. Other than the obvious skills of having a deep understanding of light, timing, exposure, and composition, Delly explains that for photographers to operate at the top of their game, they need to approach an event much like an elite sportsperson.
“An athlete forecasts their moments, the ones which they will anticipate, react to, and live when the day of competition arrives; the same moments that a sports photographer must try to anticipate, react to, and live when they are presented to us,” Delly says. “Photographs are part of a mental process, fixing the moment in time. The images are products of what is perceived and thought, both consciously and unconsciously,” he states.
It should go without saying that solid technical abilities are fundamental and you need to know your gear inside out, along with its limitations. Because of the varying conditions and lighting sports photographers are likely to encounter when covering an event, Delly’s advice is to never trust your camera to choose what it thinks are the correct settings. As such, shooting in Manual is the only viable option.
Stand out from the crowd
With so many photographers all capturing the same event, what is it that makes for an outstanding image, and how can you improve your chances of producing something truly unique? A great start, suggests Delly, is to put a little bit of yourself in each image, a little bit of your soul. “Whether it be your mood, your thoughts, your personality, or your physical effort to get that image; that’s what being creative is all about,” he says.
The images that Delly rates as amongst his favourites are those that have part of his DNA imbedded. He explains: “The DNA that I place in my images is how and why I see things through my personality. And that personality is humour, darkness, form, and will be shaped by how I feel that day, how fatigued I am, my hunger, my hours of sleep, my life experiences, my friends, my yearning to be at home and its comforts, or how my work has progressed through the ongoing hours of competition.”
To differentiate from the masses of sports photographers and the sea of images out there, your skills need to be particularly well honed. And Delly says that a critical success factor is the ability to be in the present, and to respect all the variables that appear before you.
Delly suggests that as a general approach, you should strive to do the exact opposite of the photography clique. “Hide nothing and share everything,” he says. “Add as much value as possible to your perceived opposition as you can. Share your most intimate technical skill and encourage your peers to engage with you wherever possible.”
A firm believer in the universal law of reciprocity, that the more you give the more you get, Delly says it’s important to be kind, as opposed to judgmental, even when you clearly hold the high ground or the technical savvy over your peers. Advice that he’s followed throughout his career has been to be as spontaneous as possible, and to always be brave and give things a try. Another crucial element in his toolbox is to always try to be as intuitive as possible, and he recommends developing your intuition. “Intuition looks for connections between parts and takes in the whole,” he says.
Nail the shot
Unlike working in a studio, shooting family portraits in your regular park, or covering corporate events and launches, sports photographers are required to be comfortable working in a multitude of different venues, locations, and conditions: indoor, outdoor, artificial light, natural light, scorching sun, pelting rain, snow storms, and pretty much every other weather condition you care to imagine. And what’s more, in almost every situation you get only one chance to get it right and capture what may well be a once-in-a-lifetime achievement for an athlete.
Like the world’s best athletes that Delly is tasked to capture performing feats that appear impossible to the rest of us, his view is that photographers also need to rise to the challenge and be operating at the very highest level. “You need to be on your game from the first minute to the last,” Delly says. “As a photographer, you really only have one chance to capture the moment. So, to meet that challenge, you must also be like an athlete, and not get tired emotionally or physically.”
Shooting sport is unlike most other genres and Delly says that it requires a great deal from photographers to get the perfect shot, especially in a world of sport that is defined and restricted by sponsors, sporting bodies, organisers, security, TV, and intellectual property of athletes and sporting organisations. And then there’s all the environmental constraints presented when covering sport, such a touch lines, walls, signage, and concrete. “Sport photographers are faced with these and other challenges to get the images that the general public think are easy to capture with just a DSLR and an 80-200mm lens. It is not easy, and it shouldn’t be,” he says.
Delly’s kit includes two Nikon D6 bodies along with everything from an 8mm fisheye lens to a 600mm f/4 super telephoto. He says that while his kit changes depending on the sport he’s covering, it’s the big telephoto lenses that are his favourites as they allow him to be right in the action, producing very tight, very close-up images. When he needs to be more agile, covering something like, say, a triathlon, he’ll typically rely on a 24-70mm and an 80-400mm. But when he’s at the finish line, it’s a 14-24mm that he’ll use.
To really get the most out of every event you shoot, Delly says that it’s crucial to learn and understand the capabilities of each camera, lens, and accessory you buy. “Make them work for you to achieve the grand vision you have in your mind,” he says. Delly says that capturing the perfect shot involves your eyes seeing, and your mind then translating that into a reflex so that your index finger presses the shutter button accordingly.
Given the challenging and variable conditions he’s likely to face, Delly always includes wet weather gear for his equipment so that even when the rain is bucketing down, he can concentrate on capturing the action and not worry about his gear getting ruined.
Know your game
Having a solid understanding of the sport you’re shooting is the first step in being able to capture those fleeting, often never-to-be repeated moments. In fact, some might argue that this is almost as important as your gear, if not more so. If you’re passionate about the sport you’re covering, it follows that you’re more likely to produce better work. But lack of passion for a sport shouldn’t hinder you from shooting great work. Take time to learn the rules and understand when important moments are likely to unfold. Doing so will put you in a far better position to be able to anticipate the action.
“Understand the way the sport flows, what the athletes are likely to do, and how they may react,” Delly says. “And know the basic rules. The greater the affinity you have with a sport, the more likely your mind will flow with the game, which then moves into a physical translation by pressing the shutter at the exact time.”
By knowing the sport, Delly says that it allows him the comfort of being part of the play, allowing him to react quickly to the peak action, so that he can anticipate a key movement before it happens, and give his ‘photographic eye’ time to relax and see new opportunities.
Pearls of wisdom
Below, Delly shares a number of valuable lessons in the hope that they will also help you along on your journey.
- Don’t be afraid to take risks.
- Spend more time working on the artist than the art.
- Be heartbreakingly vulnerable with the world and your art.
- Work hard to create your own recognizable style, rather than copying that of others.
- Do your work. Always do your work. Even when it’s rubbish. Keep doing it. Because, making lots of bad art is the only way to get to a place where you’ll one day make great art.
- At any sporting event, always take safety seriously.
- Understand what’s missing when you take a photo.
- The very action of progressing with the greatest passion, with the greatest energy, is a kind of enlightenment.
- Look at, and study, the work of the masters. Form strong opinions about that work, and be willing to change them.
Delly Carr is an Australian-based specialist photographer, focused on a lifetime of redefining and reimagining professional Sports Photography.
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