by Clint Thayer
Event photography isn't the only type of photography that I do - but it is perhaps the most visible type. Unlike my commercial or portrait photography work, event photography is, like photojournalism, a public affair.
But, here's a secret: Sports event photographers are looked down upon in some circles. Unless, perhaps, you are a Sports Illustrated photographer on an editorial assignment, with a seemingly mile-long lens that can take a photograph of a single drop of sweat across a 100-yard football field, the perception is that you are just taking the same old boring shot over and over again.
Photographing athletes gritting their teeth as they "hit the wall" in that marathon run or slathered in sweat as they cross the finish line may not have the polished, glamorous atmosphere of photographing a bride and groom on their special day. During an event, photographers do not have the luxury of time to get every hair in place or recreate the shot for a better angle as might occur in portrait or commercial photography. Sporting event photographers live and work in the moment (photo credit for image at right: Anne Stack Connor). Timing is everything. There are no second chances, no do-overs — you either get the shot or the opportunity is lost — FOREVER!
I see each race and the need to get it right every time as a way to hone my skills technically. I need to be in tune with every athlete throughout the event, from starting point to finish line. And that takes experience, timing, and practice. My goal at an event is to take a unique, meaningful picture of everyone crossing the finish line, to capture that moment and the one characteristic action — arms up, high five a friend, or beaming smile — that signifies each athlete as an individual. And I do that in camera. These moments simply can't be photoshopped into reality.
To focus on the athletes, capturing their story, also takes persistence. Just like them, I endure hot sun and bone chilling cold, drenching rain, mud, insects, and whatever other uncomfortable circumstances or distractions are thrown my way.
When it rains, there is the fear of water getting into the camera or on the lens, ruining the camera or distorting the shot. But when I focus on the athletes, on their accomplishments rather than my worries or discomfort, the rain turns into a positive opportunity — offering soft, beautiful light and intriguing reflections gifted by the water.
At one recent race I was plagued with gnats swarming around me, flying up my nose and into my eyes. Thankfully they didn't bite or sting, but there was absolutely no way of evading them. They buzzed between my face and glasses, in my beard...I did my best not to ingest them, but it was impossible not to end up with a few extra six-legged calories that day.
When in a situation like that, I must come to peace with the annoyance, filter out the chatter in my mind, stick it in an imaginary box and duct tape it shut. I must put the distractions out of my mind and stay focused on the rewarding experience — getting the shots!
The ability to focus on the job at hand and turn potential negatives into positives is just one more tool in my gear bag, as important as my camera, lens, lighting, and angle, if not more so. It is part of my personal customer service. It's as important as my trying to cheer everyone on, giving them a high five or calling their name as they cross finish line.
The rewards of persistence are great. Despite sun, rain, wind, cold, or those annoying gnats, the opportunity to celebrate amazing athletes and the satisfaction of helping them tell their story is really an uplifting place to be. It's a journey from an almost meditative state of concentration to celebration of each racer - over and over again.
Event photography takes focus and persistence. It can be a challenge. But, about that secret regarding event photographers being held in low esteem? I'll let you in on a secret of my own: photographing events is deeply rewarding and insanely fun. It's real. It's authentic. And it's all about keeping your wits sharp enough to perceive THE moment for every shot, all day long.