What Sports Il­lus­trated taught me is to chase the one great pic­ture and not worry about get­ting lots of pic­tures

Leg­endary sports pho­tog­ra­pher Bob Martin

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For some­one who wasn’t that in­ter­ested in sport as a boy, Bob Martin’s jour­ney from the Sur­rey

Comet to Sports Il­lus­trated had many twists and turns. But his pas­sion for pho­tog­ra­phy and de­sire to take great pic­tures has never wa­vered…

When you were a kid, which in­ter­est came first: pho­tog­ra­phy or sport?

Pho­tog­ra­phy. I was 14 when I first got in­ter­ested in pho­tog­ra­phy. I was more in­ter­ested in the pro­cess­ing side, look­ing at prints de­velop in trays, than pho­tog­ra­phy it­self. It was my big hobby at school.

Were you not in­ter­ested in sport?

A lit­tle bit, but not overtly. I wasn’t one of the peo­ple who was play­ing sport ev­ery week­end. I’d lum­ber up to the rugby club, I liked play­ing squash when I was in my 20s, but I was never crazy about sport.

Did you study pho­tog­ra­phy at school?

I thought I was go­ing to be a vet, but I started A-lev­els and didn’t fin­ish. I went off to work part-time for FNG Clarke in Ted­ding­ton, a wed­ding and in­dus­trial pho­tog­ra­phy company, as an as­sis­tant.

How long did that job last?

About a year and a half. I learnt about black-and-white de­vel­op­ing. We just shuf­fled pa­per: say we had a hun­dred prints to do, it was like play­ing cards with a gi­ant tray of de­vel­oper and a great big ro­tary drier. So I was a dark­room per­son dur­ing the week and at week­ends I would go out and help on the oc­ca­sional shoot.

When you left this job, what came next?

I went to work at Im­pe­rial Col­lege London as a pho­to­graphic tech­ni­cian, which was re­ally a step back­wards be­cause it didn’t teach me much about pho­tog­ra­phy, but it did teach me to be tech­ni­cal. I was work­ing for the civil en­gi­neer­ing depart­ment. It was not pho­tog­ra­phy as I think of it to­day, be­cause there wasn’t much cre­ativ­ity in what I was do­ing. How­ever, I’d go off at week­ends and take pic­tures of a bike trial,

or the lo­cal foot­ball match, and just do some pic­tures for my­self.

What was your first break?

A pic­ture of a motorcycle scram­ble pub­lished in the Sur­rey Comet. I don’t think I got any money for it but I was re­ally pleased to have got it pub­lished.

Did more work em­anate from that?

Not re­ally! My next step was straight into the sports world. I got a job at Allsport [the pho­tog­ra­phy agency] as a dark­room ju­nior in 1979. I had a very good back­ground in de­vel­op­ing be­cause of what I had done at FNG Clarke and Im­pe­rial Col­lege, so it was a shoo-in to work in a press dark­room, but th­ese pic­tures were a lot more in­ter­est­ing!

How long did it take you to progress to be­ing a pho­tog­ra­pher?

Well, I started tak­ing pic­tures quite rapidly, be­cause they were quite happy if you went out at week­ends shoot­ing, but I wasn’t re­ally a full-blown pho­tog­ra­pher. I moved on to another company called Sport­ing Pic­tures. After a pe­riod there, I went back to Allsport, and in that sec­ond stint I was a full-blown pho­tog­ra­pher. That was around 1988 for the Seoul Olympics. That was the first Olympics I ever went to.

Wim­ble­don, Olympics or World Cup?

Well, the Olympics is my real thing. I like foot­ball, even though I’m not the mas­sive foot­ball fan that some peo­ple are. For me the Olympics is the big­gest event and the most in­flu­en­tial event for my pho­tog­ra­phy.

Is there one Olympics that par­tic­u­larly stands out for you?

Barcelona 1992.

Why’s that?

It was just the­atre. I took a pre­view pic­ture of a diver over Barcelona with the city in back­ground. I took it dur­ing a test event. I

was the first one to do it. Many peo­ple have done it since then. I felt I was re­ally fir­ing as a pho­tog­ra­pher, shoot­ing good stuff. It was Allsport at its best, in my opin­ion. The other one that was mem­o­rable was Lille­ham­mer, the Win­ter Olympics of 1994.

What’s your desert is­land lens?

The 400mm f/2.8 is the de facto sports pho­tog­ra­pher’s lens. Nikon has just come out with a new one, which is fan­tas­tic – it’s lighter, eas­ier to han­dle. Gen­er­ally, it’s on a mono­pod. When you’re shoot­ing sport and pack­ing your kit bag, 90 per cent of the time you’re pack­ing the 400mm first and pack­ing the other stuff around it. For some events you might go with a 300mm and a 500mm. But if some­one told me I

was go­ing to shoot sport, but didn’t tell me ex­actly what it was, and I could only take one lens, then I’d take the 400mm f/2.8. Which has been your all-time favourite Nikon cam­era? The Nikon D3 was the one that made me think ‘Dig­i­tal is here and it’s bet­ter than

Un­less you’re shoot­ing away you’re not go­ing to get the key mo­ment if some­thing hap­pens un­ex­pect­edly Bob Martin Sports pho­tog­ra­pher

film.’ I like film cam­eras. The F3 was a great cam­era. But the D3 was the gamechanger, the first real press dig­i­tal cam­era that made you re­alise that film was a thing of the past.

Which cam­era bod­ies do you use now?

The D4s. I also have the D800e and D810. The D800e is a nice lit­tle cam­era for when you want to be less ob­tru­sive than car­ry­ing a D4s. I use the D800e for por­traits, fea­ture pic­tures, any­thing that’s not ac­tion. For some com­mer­cial jobs it’s worth it be­cause peo­ple want the big file.

What’s in your bag for a foot­ball match?

I’ve got so much gear I tend to cher­ryp­ick. I’ve got three 70-200mm zooms, for in­stance: two f/2.8s and one f/4, which is a light­weight one for fea­ture stuff. I’ve got all the nor­mal zooms: the 14-24mm f/2.8, the new 16-35mm f/4, the 24-70mm f/2.8 and three 70-200mms. On most jobs I take two 70-200mm zooms be­cause it’s such an im­por­tant range. In the old days you had an 85mm, 135mm and 180mm.

What will you use next week­end?

For a foot­ball match, the 400mm f/2.8 would be my main lens, a 70-200mm f/2.8, and prob­a­bly a 16-35mm on a spare body, in case some­thing hap­pens in front of me.

Do you put a cam­era in the net?

There’s a re­mote in the net and it would prob­a­bly be the 14-24mm f/2.8. You could

use two of those quite hap­pily, one at the back of each net, all on D4s bod­ies. So how many D4s cam­eras do you take to a match? Well, I’ve got six! I would take five. If there are two re­motes it’s five cam­eras.

What size mem­ory cards do you use? They’re Lexar, all far big­ger than I need. Nowa­days you can’t re­ally buy a small one, but they’re 16Gb or 32Gb, 1000x speed. In a typ­i­cal Premier League foot­ball match how many images do you take? The na­ture of sport pho­tog­ra­phy means you shoot ev­ery build-up that runs to­wards you, be­cause un­less you’re shoot­ing away you’re not go­ing to get the key mo­ment if some­thing hap­pens un­ex­pect­edly. Not count­ing re­motes, be­cause with re­motes you get tons of wasted frames, I would think 200 frames a half, so 400 frames a match. The re­motes would prob­a­bly be another 400 frames per cam­era, and there’d be one frame that you’d keep.

What per­cent­age of shots do you delete? Loads. Sports pho­tog­ra­phy is all about shoot­ing away. From the mo­ment you pick the cam­era up at an event the first thing you do is get a pic­ture in the bag. Then all you’re do­ing is try­ing to im­prove on it. You don’t think, ‘I’ve nailed that, I don’t need to shoot any more.’ You keep go­ing, you’re try­ing to take the best pos­si­ble sports pic­ture, so you’re there try­ing to im­prove on it. That’s your job.

You’re the only Sports Il­lus­trated pho­tog­ra­pher based out­side of the USA. Well, I’m the only one that’s reg­u­larly used by them who’s based out­side of the US. I was the only one out­side of the US as a staff pho­tog­ra­pher for many years. They closed down the London of­fice, so I was put on con­tract. Bud­get cuts con­tin­ued apace. Now, I’m a reg­u­lar free­lance for them. What’s the most im­por­tant les­son you learned from your time there?

What Sports Il­lus­trated taught me was that it’s all about the best pic­ture. I think my pho­tog­ra­phy im­proved through work­ing

with Sports Il­lus­trated be­cause ev­ery­thing about that mag­a­zine was about the qual­ity of the pic­tures that ran. For ex­am­ple, you’d go to Wim­ble­don for two weeks and they’d run maybe five pic­tures. What Sports

Il­lus­trated taught me is to chase the one great pic­ture and not worry about get­ting lots of pic­tures.

What Sports Il­lus­trated taught me is to chase the one great pic­ture and not worry about get­ting lots of pic­tures Bob Martin Sports pho­tog­ra­pher

Which as­sign­ment has pre­sented the big­gest chal­lenge? It’s a dif­fi­cult ques­tion to an­swer. What I con­sider one of my big­gest achieve­ments is the pic­ture from the 2004 Par­a­lympics of the swimmer swimming away hav­ing left his ar­ti­fi­cial legs be­hind the chair. To get up into the roof to get that po­si­tion took maybe three trips to Athens, talk­ing to peo­ple, ne­go­ti­at­ing and so on. I was work­ing for Sports Il­lus­trated then and when I went up into the roof they only let two peo­ple up on the cat­walk at any time. You had to time when you asked to make sure you were up there when the event you wanted was on. If you in­clude the let­ters that were writ­ten be­fore­hand; the ne­go­ti­at­ing with the photo man­agers; the trips to Athens to talk about it; the ef­fort to pro­duce that pic­ture, which is ar­guably my best; it was the most I’d ever done for one as­sign­ment. The re­ward of hav­ing that set of pic­tures win­ning loads of awards, in­clud­ing World Press Photo, that for me was my big­gest achieve­ment. It sounds like ev­ery­thing came to­gether for you at that time? To a de­gree it came to­gether. You know,

Sports Il­lus­trated hadn’t pub­lished a Par­a­lympic pic­ture. They sent me to Athens for two weeks with an as­sis­tant for some­thing they didn’t even have space in the mag­a­zine for! It was in the golden days of the mag­a­zine when they would send you some­where on the off-chance of get­ting a

pic­ture. Half­way through it I got a phone call say­ing, “You’ve prob­a­bly got enough now, how about com­ing back?”

I said, “No, this is re­ally go­ing to be a great set, you’ve got to leave me here.”

I con­vinced them and they said, “We may have space for one dou­ble page this week.” They ended up run­ning three dou­ble-page spreads at the front of the mag­a­zine with Par­a­lympic pic­tures, which was un­heard of. It’s nor­mally for events like the Su­per Bowl. It doesn’t of­ten hap­pen, and it’s even rarer for one pho­tog­ra­pher to have all three. What has been your most em­bar­rass­ing pho­to­graphic ex­pe­ri­ence? I was in Gothen­burg for the World Ath­let­ics Cham­pi­onships in 1995. Kim Bat­ten had just fin­ished the 400m hur­dles. She broke the world record. I tucked in front of her with a wide-an­gle and flash to shoot her cel­e­brat­ing as she ran round and I for­got the hur­dles were still out. Run­ning back­wards, I hit the first hur­dle half­way down the fin­ish­ing straight, fell over up­side down, landed on my head, almost knocked my­self out, smashed the cam­eras and laid there won­der­ing if any­one had no­ticed! When I started to get up the crowd started to cheer and my col­leagues in the photo stand were all pho­tograph­ing me get­ting up with bits of cam­era drop­ping off. It was used on EuroSport in their end-of-year wrap-up silly bit, played in slow mo­tion and rev­ers­ing it, so fall­ing to pieces and get­ting up, fall­ing to pieces and get­ting up.

Of all the stars you have pho­tographed, who do you re­gard as the great­est? I re­ally liked pho­tograph­ing Lin­ford Christie. He was in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult to deal with, in­cred­i­bly ar­ro­gant, yet if you got your pic­tures right and took good pic­tures of him he was so great to deal with. I did three or four pic­tures of him, which I still re­gard as some of my best sports por­traits.

As a sports­man, the great­est has got to be Roger Fed­erer. He’s al­ways po­lite, and many sports peo­ple you pho­to­graph are not. But Roger Fed­erer is the con­sum­mate pro­fes­sional when you pho­to­graph him. He poses as well as a model does. He is al­ways po­lite, on time and re­spect­ful. I re­mem­ber watch­ing him in a press con­fer­ence in Paris, and he was an­swer­ing ques­tions

in English, Ger­man, French, Swiss Ger­man and Ital­ian, so he man­aged to learn five lan­guages and still win more Grand Slams than any­body else has ever done. I’ve pho­tographed him a lot of times and he amazes me with how he plays and with how he con­ducts him­self. So, he’s got to be the great­est, I sup­pose.

Roger Fed­erer is the con­sum­mate pro­fes­sional when you pho­to­graph him. He poses as well as a model does. He is al­ways po­lite, on time and re­spect­ful Bob Martin Sports pho­tog­ra­pher

What is the big­gest change you have seen in your pro­fes­sion? The great­est change is a re­cent one. It’s the demise of the printed prod­uct, how news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines are dy­ing as we speak. My an­swer three or four years ago would have been dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy, but now the whole business is in tur­moil.

Sports Il­lus­trated used to throw money at pho­tog­ra­phy, but the bud­gets for pho­tog­ra­phy are be­com­ing smaller.

The prob­lem is, if you have a mag­a­zine or a news­pa­per the pic­ture is all-im­por­tant to the front cover, but on a web­site how of­ten does the pic­ture sell the prod­uct? Very rarely, is my view, and be­cause of that the pic­ture is less valu­able. They need lots of pic­tures, but they’re not so wor­ried about ex­clu­siv­ity, and the user glances at the pic­ture and moves onto another one. The pic­tures are nec­es­sary but only as part of the process, so there­fore they are less valu­able. That change is go­ing to wreck the pro­fes­sion of be­ing a sports pho­tog­ra­pher be­cause there’s not the money for many peo­ple to make a liv­ing out of it to­day. So, what is the best piece of ad­vice you can give to some­one start­ing out? Try and get a job in the big­gest of the agen­cies that you can. As much as I hate to say it, your goal to­day has got to be to work for Getty, AP, Reuters or AFP if you want to be an ed­i­to­rial pho­tog­ra­pher, which is my love. I love be­ing an ed­i­to­rial pho­tog­ra­pher. I just can’t re­ally be one any more.

Golden feet Bob shoots con­stantly – there’s no sec­ond chance for a shot at Usain Bolt’s speed

Down­hill from here… Bob Martin photographs the Win­ter as well as Sum­mer Olympic Games

Blue sky think­ing Clean patches of colour are another reg­u­lar fea­ture of Bob’s sports images

Snowy night in turin Get­ting a sense of place as well as ac­tion is an im­por­tant part of Bob’s shots

Ac­tion! You don’t need to see the spec­ta­tors: Venus Wil­liams and the ball are all that counts

The win­ner This shot, which took a lot of plan­ning to make pos­si­ble, won Bob the World Press Photo prize for Sports Ac­tion in 2004

Need for speed Bob’s images were the first of the Par­a­lympics to be pub­lished in Sport­sIl­lus­trated

Yes, we pan! A pan­ning shot like this is tech­ni­cally dif­fi­cult, but blurs out the dis­tract­ing crowd

He shoots, he scores! (Ab ove right)

Bob uses five cam­eras – cur­rently all Nikon D4s bod­ies – when he’s pho­tograph­ing a foot­ball match

Long jump (Be­low right)

A shot like this re­quires split-sec­ond tim­ing – or, as Bob ad­vises, con­stant shoot­ing to get the one you want

Ship ahoy (left)

Shoot­ing the Olympics means know­ing where and how to pho­to­graph an in­cred­i­ble range of high-ac­tion sports

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