Behind the Lens: Observation

by Clint Thayer

People often ask me how I capture "such great shots." That question is difficult for me to answer because I don't think of myself as a great photographer; I just do what I do and photograph what I see.

Maybe Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the world's greatest photographers, had the answer when he said, "the first 10,000 photographs are your worst." As a sports photographer, I (as well as all Focal Flame photographers) have the advantage of capturing several thousand images in a single weekend, so perhaps we have a better-than-average chance that our "worst photographs" are behind us.

But if I have to choose one photographer skill that makes the difference between the average photo and a "great shot," it is the art of observation. As a juggler needs to watch and learn not where the juggled object is but where it is going to be, a sports photographer has to anticipate the shot — read the human body in motion, anticipate the movement, and  know, intuitively, what is going to happen before events actually occur. If the photographer waits to see the shot in the viewfinder, by the time the shutter is pressed and the image created, the defining moment will be long gone.


Just as intense practice makes the difference between a good athlete, dancer, or artist and a great one, intense practice of photography skills makes for a better photographer. Sports photographers certainly get a lot of intense practice, yet you need more — you need heart, soul, and intense focus to anticipate the right moment. That's the power of observation at work and it makes all the difference.

The great mid-century American photographer Elliott Erwittsaid, "To me, photography is an art of observation. It's about finding something interesting in an ordinary place... I've found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them." I heartily agree with that statement.

To create a "great photograph" or - any photograph for that matter - one must cultivate the skill of observation. How do you look at a scene and determine the exact moment to release the shutter? For the most part I just watch people, and based on previous experience, calculate the possible interactions, anticipate the defining moment, and respond to what I see coming.

It takes time and experience to hone that photographer skill, to be able to see the visual details in the overall scene, and anticipate the right time to take the shot. That is why most professional photographers suggest that if you want to improve, you should shoot as much as possible.  By shooting, you are forced to look and by looking you are forced to see the array of possibilities.  By mastering the art of observation, you will master the art of photography.

May all your shots be great ones!

Clint Thayer, is the owner and lead photographer at Focal Flame Photography based in Madison, Wisconsin. He honed his art of observation studying photography at The College of Wooster in Ohio and under Richard Clarkson at the Summit Series of Sports Photography at the U.S. Olympic National Training Center, and by training in Miksang, a form of contemplative photography. He is a member of the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP) and the Center for Photography at Madison (a group of Madison, Wisconsin photographers). Both organizations have helped him to cultivate his skill and vision. Encouraging others to appreciate creative vision as well as find their own unique visual “voice” is deeply satisfying. 

How do you hone the skill of observation? Share your thoughts and perspective!

Sport Art: "Homeward" by Clint Thayer Chosen by National Art Museum of Sport

by Deborah Proctor

The National Art Museum of Sport (NAMOS) offers a unique collection of fine art. Like other art museums, many forms of art are represented — from sculpture and paintings to mosaics and of course photography. Yet, unlike many art museums, the focus is on one thing, and one thing only, sport — or more specifically, the ART of sport.   "Art must depict or evoke sports, celebrating athletics or the athlete as a subject, whether individual or team, competitive or recreational, participant or spectator remembered, or studied still life, figurative, or landscape," states their annual competition materials.


Selected as part of the museum's 3rd annualInternational Commitment to Excellence in Art & Sport Competition is"Homeward," a fine art photograph by Clint Thayer, owner of Focal Flame Photography, Madison, Wisconsin. Thayer's work was selected from among hundreds of sport art entries representing 50 sports from 10 countries around the globe. The exhibition runs September 5-21, 2013 at the ArtCenter Manatee in Bradenton, Florida. The opening reception and awards presentation is on Thursday, September 5, from 5-7 pm.

In "Homeward," Thayer uses light and shadow to depict the Trek Midwest cycling team near the end of a long day's journey. This classic black and white sets the mood, while a strikingly simple composition captures the essence of the cyclists' story and draws the viewer into the scene. The description accompanying “Homeward” reads:

Lengthened shadows sweep across the road at the end of a training ride. A cadre of cyclists from the Trek Midwest Team head homeward after hours of drills over asphalt shared with milk trucks visiting dairy farms. Finely tuned to each other’s cadence, the teammates settle into tight formation as defense against the wind. At the top right corner of the frame, one rider trails behind the others. His presence raises questions: was he dropped from the pack? Is he fighting to keep pace with the others, lungs searing and breath ragged with effort of regaining his place? Will he overtake his teammates? Frozen in time, only shadows remain to tell the riders’ story.

When asked why he enters fine art competitions when his primary focus is capturing athletes participating in events such as 5K runs, cycling races, and triathlons, Thayer commented, "It's important to challenge oneself.  I believe artists need to push past the boundaries of known risks and open ourselves to a higher degree of possible failure...With my camera,...I have an opportunity to welcome an audience into a scene where the known and unknown provide a rich environment for the story...How could I not submit?"

Thayer feels it is an honor to be among the artists that represent"some of the best our generation has to offer." NAMOS obviously recognizes Thayer's talent for creating art from sport — his work has been selected as some of the most compelling sport art in the world in the 2nd Annual Competition; in a by-invitation-only Artist for the 2012 NAMOS exhibit entitled Speed and Motion: Racing to the Finish Line, and now the 3rd Annual Competition.

Founded in 1959, NAMOS maintains one of the largest collections of fine art depicting sport in the United States. The museum is dedicated to encouraging artists engaged in the genre, and also to collect, preserve, and share the best examples of sport art NAMOS can acquire. The museum’s first home was in Madison Square Garden in New York. It has been in Indianapolis since 1990 and is currently seeking a new home for its growing permanent collection

About the Photographer:  Clint Thayer’s artistic projects have ranged from following individual athletes throughout months of training, 15-hour Ironman triathlons, and 6-mile ultraswim events to photo essays of speed skaters racing on frozen ponds. He has exhibited and won awards internationally, notably: National Art Museum of Sport, Indianapolis, IN (2011, 2012, 2013); Center for Photography at Madison (2010); Lakeside, OH, Photography Show; Adorama iPhone Photo Contest (2009); and XI Concurso Internacional de Fotografía Apícola.

At Focal Flame Photography, we believe that sport art captures the essence of human perseverance, dedication, and passion. What are your thoughts about sport art? Share them with the Focal Flame community – we’d  love to hear! 

Behind the Lens: Mid-Year Reflection

by Clint Thayer

Where did the year go? It seems like only yesterday that I was just dreaming of business plans for the 2013 year and event season, and here I am right smack in the middle of it. That also means I am half way through the year and it is time to reflect on how my dreams are shaping up.

Just like the athletes I photograph, I track my numbers. Are my numbers better than last year? Are we photographing more races or more athletes? Is our processing time improving? I examined Focal Flame Photography's performance for the first half of 2013 and am pleased to say the answer to all three questions is "YES!"

In terms of our event photography services, as I noted in a previous post, the number of events we covered in 2012 soared 275% over the same period in 2011. In reviewing my numbers so far this year I discovered that:

  • Not only are the number of events we cover growing but the number of athletes we photograph at each event is growing too. This year's Shamrock Shuffle, for example, grew from 3500 racers to 4700, nearly a 35% increase. When you think about what that means in terms of more people getting outside and embracing an active lifestyle, it’s fantastic.
  • We have created more images —38,031 photos so far this year; that is only 5400 images short of the number we created in ALL of 2012.
  • AND even though there are more athletes, more events, and more photos,  we are editing and applying bib numbers faster than ever  — averaging only 5.3 seconds per image. Why? Simply put, skill. Our editors are absolutely amazing – and amazingly efficient - at what they do.

So how do we keep up? Refining our process, learning what we can do better, taking hold of opportunities, and striving to improve. But I did not accomplish all this on my own...

Probably the biggest boon to Focal Flame's increase in productivity is the people we have added to our roster of talent.We are "buying local," hiring talented photographers, editors, writers, and logistical event staff to extend our core philosophy and help us achieve our goals. Focal Flame Photography is not just Clint taking a photograph, it is Josh, and Katie, Austin, and Deb working with Robyn and me to do what we want to do, go where we want to go, and figure out how we are going to do it. In future posts we will tell the stories of our talented staff.


What we want to do is tell your story with photographs.  One unique way we accomplish that is by creating custom photo books that celebrate personal milestones, document professional achievements, or create team memories.Custom photo books combine words, wishes, and photographs that will keep your story alive for future generations. We are currently working on a heart-warming story of a youth soccer team that has been playing together since kindergarten, and is now headed to middle school. Creating such a permanent memory is deeply rewarding to me.

Where do we want to go? My philosophy is to  "Go left when everyone else is going right."   That is why we have added a NEW video service to our Focal Flame gear bag. In the first 6 months of the year, we have produced some amazing videos for race organizers and commercial clients such the University of Wisconsin Master of Science in Biotechnology program. If a picture is worth 1000 words, just imagine what a 1-3 minute video can say.  Stay tuned.

And how do we want to do what we do?

I love creating unique, meaningful images of great athletes running, swimming, biking, diving into mud holes, and crossing the finish line. Editing race photos one day, I looked at all these amazing athletes doing what they do and thought, "What good does it do to capture these moments of exhilaration, determination, and dedication if only a few people see them?" How could I make it possible for these athletes to share these moments with friends, family, and teammates more freely? The answer — FocalShare™ a service for race organizers that allows them to give complimentary digital photographs to all of their athletes. We have completed a number of FocalShare events this season and the response has been extremely positive. Athletes love the free digital photos and share them with friends and family, race organizers love the buzz that sharing creates, and we just love the smiles all around. If you are not sure what FocalShare™ is, watch for a future post that will describe this program in more detail.

In reflecting on the first six months of the year, I see progress. We are photographing more events, providing photographs faster than ever, telling your stories in new ways, and delivering greater customer service and satisfaction to our athletes, event organizers, portrait, custom sport, commercial, and video clients, all while giving back to the community.  Thank you for the part you play in making it all possible.

What are your highlights from the first half of 2013? Share them with the Focal Flame community on Facebook,Google+, or on Twitter!