The Pro Interview
Getty sports pro shooter Adam Pretty looks back on 20 years in the industry
Adam Pretty shoots hundreds of sporting events around the world every year, and the only way to fit an interview for Photoplus in his busy summer schedule was to do it while he was at an event. So I spoke to him by phone while he sat poolside in a quiet period at the 2017 World Swimming Championships in Budapest.
The 40-year old Australian pro photographer has specialised in sport for two decades and broadened his work to include sports advertising ten years ago. Here he talks about how he got into sports photography, the changes he’s seen in the profession over the years, his favourite Canon kit and what advice he would give aspiring sports photographers.
What were your earliest experiences of photography?
When I was in primary school in Sydney in Australia, around eight or nine years old, I made a pinhole camera with my dad, using an empty Milo [chocolate drink powder] tin. I developed the pictures in the school darkroom. As I got older, I was more interested in drawing, illustration and painting. I also loved doing all kinds of sport, especially swimming and surfing. My school had a good rugby team, and I started taking pictures of them with an
old Olympus I bought for $10. I managed to start selling some of those pictures, so it became a bit of an income earner.
When did you decide you wanted to be a pro sports photographer?
Around the age of 15, I went to an exhibition of sports photography at the Sydney Opera House. The pictures were by Tim Clayton and Craig Golding, who were both working for the Sydney Morning Herald at that point. They were at the exhibition and I managed to meet both of them and have a chat. I took some prints to show them and they gave me some advice. From then on I really went after sports photography.
Did you study it at college?
No, I finished high school and wanted to take a year off, but I couldn’t get a job anywhere. So I started university in 1995 and about two months into it I was offered a job at the Sydney Morning Herald, so I dropped out of university. I worked in the Mac room, scanning analogue film and optimizing pictures for print. There was no opening in the sports photography world at that time and the editor didn’t like me, so instead I took a job shooting news while taking pictures of sport in my free time.
What was that like?
There were a couple of bad news jobs I had to do, which were a bit traumatic. In one of them, two schoolgirls had been murdered and we had to do an interview with the parents. The news organization which interviewed them before us had actually stolen pictures from their house. This wasn’t the dream job I wanted to do. In sport, the athletes are performing and want to be photographed, so you can just go and watch, have a good time and be creative. It was maybe a bit of a cop-out, but I didn’t want to get too emotionally involved. I met other guys who had shot wars for a newspaper and I thought, that’s not really my thing. So for me, sport was a good way to go.
How did you become a sports photographer for Getty?
I became a photographer on the paper in 1997 and then I took a job at the Allsport agency in 1998. Getty Images bought Allsport soon after that. I covered the Summer Olympics in Sydney in 2000, which was probably one of the best I’ve done and the experience was amazing. Since then I’ve covered seven more Olympic Games – every summer games since Sydney and three winter Olympics – and many more major sporting events. I’ve lived around the world but have been in Munich, Germany for about four years.
When did you start incorporating advertising into your work?
I did my first job for Nike while I was still living in Sydney around 2001.
I was offered it because I could shoot underwater. But I didn’t really go after advertising work until I moved to Beijing in 2007. That’s when I started being more focused on it and doing a 50-50 split between sport action and advertising.
Is your advertising work mostly done in the studio?
It is a lot more studio work, just because you often need to have full control over everything. It would make sense if I was doing more action stuff as that’s my background, but I think that’s just the nature of commercial work. You’ve got a celebrity for one day, so you’ve got to get it done on that day, and the studio gives you more control.
Do you like the combination of sports action and advertising?
Yeah, definitely. I think I was getting a little bit jaded shooting only sports action. You just get too comfortable and that’s dangerous because you relax and you lose a bit of edge. You’re not thinking, not using your brain so much. I’m really grateful I’m in photography because it has so many totally different areas. It just keeps you fresh, you learn all the time.
What was your first SLR camera?
The first one I bought was a Canon EOS 630, with the money I got from doing rugby pictures at school. When I joined the Sydney Morning Herald, the Canon EOS 1N had recently come out and it was a game changer, so I bought one of those and used the pool kit for lenses I didn’t have. All the sports guys at the paper were shooting Canon. When I went to Getty and could buy my own gear, I moved to a full Canon kit.
Which bodies do you use now?
The Canon EOS-1D X Mark II is my main camera body and I use the EOS 5DS R for some sports action and a lot of my commercial stuff. I like the 5DS R because it’s quicker than medium format (5fps) and it has the 50-megapixel sensor. It produces great quality files.
What are your main Canon lenses and do you use zooms or primes?
For sport, I always have a Canon EF 400mm f/2.8 lens. I had a 200mm f/1.8 for a long time but the lens motor broke and Canon stopped making them, so I couldn’t get it repaired. So now I use the 200mm f/2, which came out a couple of years ago and is one of my favourites. I also have 16-35mm, 24-70mm and 70-200mm zooms. I prefer the primes but
if I’m doing sport and travelling and can’t take much gear I’ll take the zooms to keep it lighter.
Why do you prefer the primes over zoom lenses for sports?
With experience you know (or hope you know!) where certain things are going to happen, so you can frame it up and go for one shot, rather than trying to get everything. The zoom gives you the opportunity to get everything, but then you probably get nothing great. I tried using the 200-400mm f/4 for a while, but I didn’t like it. I was always zooming when I should have just been framing. I think it’s better to pick and frame a shot and then know which lens to be on.
If I can, I’ll shoot with a prime anytime.
So you visualize the final image?
Yeah, I try to, but it doesn’t always happen. I try to find the background first, before I do anything, then I wait for the subject to come into the background. That’s why I like using the primes, because I know exactly what I’m trying to do, and I can set myself up that way.
getty’s got a strong set of editorial integrity guidelines, so we only use basic darkroom techniques
What gadgets do you use?
I’ll use Pocketwizard wireless triggers for remote shots and I’ve had an underwater robotic camera for over a year, bought for me by Getty Images, which is a gamechanger. It’s linked to a computer so I can sit by the side of the pool with the laptop and control it underwater. I can zoom or move it around; it’s really precise and I can change the camera angle by half a degree if I want. I can also alter the exposure, which is useful because the light can change on cloudy days. With sport, you need to have a good handle on remotes because they give you a lot of pictures you wouldn’t get ordinarily.
How has digital technology affected the way you shoot?
With film you had 36 exposures on a roll, so you had to be really precise. Now you can shoot a lot more and that’s pushed photography forward. I think it’s also made a lot of guys more lazy too, myself included. Now you can see when you’ve got something in the bag, so you take your foot off the gas a bit, whereas with film I liked the fact that you were on edge the whole time. That was one of the things I loved, because it kept the adrenaline up, even if you became a bit of a nervous wreck.
Do you do much post-processing?
I use Photoshop but we’re pretty restricted in what we can do. Getty’s got a strong set of editorial integrity guidelines, so we only use basic darkroom techniques – contrast, dodging and burning and so on. We can’t use cloning or anything like that. Sticking to that approach has probably got me quite a lot of work, just because people know it’s real. It’s good that things have come back around.
What’s your favourite sport to photograph?
That’s a tough question, but water sports have always been my favourites. I like them because they’re so unpredictable. There are still pictures I haven’t been able to get after 20 years in the business. The water, and the light mixed with water, is just amazing – you get something different every time.
What would you say is the most challenging sport to shoot?
I think football’s pretty hard. It’s not so hard to shoot reasonably well, but to get good stuff is a bit of a nightmare. I think there’s more frustration than difficulty about it. You really need to be in the right
water sports have always been my favourites to shoot – the light mixed with water is just amazing
place at the right time. If you’re in the wrong place you can get nothing, no matter how experienced you are. I find that a bit frustrating because you have zero control.
How do you keep your photography fresh?
It helps to do a bit of commercial work for a while then come back to sport, because it’s a competitive industry and you have to keep changing or you’ll get left behind. Sports photography is my job, but I still have a passion for it. That gives me motivation to try to keep coming up with fresh ideas.
Do you feel competitive with other sports photographers?
If I see someone get a great picture, it makes me inspired, gets me fired up. I won’t try to do that same picture, I’ll want to do something else and beat them some other way. The problem with the digital world today is that everyone can see everything instantly. If I shoot something from a unique angle, it can be copied almost straight away. I know imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but I sometimes wish others would have a bit more self-confidence and find something different.
What would you say makes a great sports photograph, in your opinion?
It’s a combination of things. It doesn’t need to be taken at an Olympics, but that increases the news value of a picture. It definitely helps if you’ve got amazing light, great graphics, shapes, and the action’s good. You need to have a number of different elements. A great sports picture is not a one-dimensional shot you can digest in one second; it’s deeper, with much more going on.
It’s tempting to think that luck plays a big part – do you agree?
Things happen and you can put it down to luck, but it’s often the same guys who are lucky a lot. So it comes down to preparing and predicting and thinking where that picture is going to happen. When you’ve put yourself in a particular spot and you get a great picture, whether it’s through experience or whatever, that’s not luck. As the saying goes, luck is where preparation meets opportunity.
What’s the best advice you could offer someone who wants to be a sports photographer?
I’d say it’s a great career, and I’d highly recommend being a photographer. It’s competitive – you’ve got to work at it and it can be tough – but the rewards are pretty amazing. So if someone wants to shoot sport, I’d say they need to look at as many pictures as they can, and not just sports pictures. That’s one danger: if you look at sports pictures, you end up making carbon copies of those pictures. It would definitely help a lot more if they looked at paintings, different artworks, news photography, documentary photography and so on. It also stops that temptation of just reproducing good work you’ve seen. Creating fresh work is going to be tougher because you’re not standing on everyone else’s shoulders and doing things that you already know will work when shooting certain sports. But at the end of the day, if you’ve got your own style and vision you’ll get recognized. It’s harder, but it pays off.
01 michael phelps American Michael Phelps leads South Africa’s Chad le Clos in the Men’s 200m Butterfly Final, Rio 2016. Lens Canon EF 200-400mm f/4l IS USM exposure 1/2000 sec, f/4, ISO3200
02 butterfly effect Polish swimmer Jan Switkowski competing in the Men’s 200m Butterfly Semi-finals at the FINA World Championships in Kazan, Russia, 2015. Lens 50mm f/1.4 exposure 1/1600 sec, f/4.5, ISO3200 03 synchronized swimming The French synchronized swimming team in front of Vajdahunyad Castle in Budapest. Lens Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8l III USM exposure 1/500 sec, f/11, ISO400 04 off the blocks Swimmers dive into the pool at the start of the Men’s 4x100m Freestyle relay during the 2013 FINA World Championships. Lens Canon EF 400mm f/2.8l IS II USM exposure 1/2000 sec, f/3.2, ISO2500 02
05 ski spectacular Japanese ski jumper Ryoyu Kobayashi competing in the Four Hills Tournament in Obertsdorf, Germany, 2016. Lens Canon EF 400mm f/2.8l IS II USM exposure 1/2000 sec, f/3.2, ISO2500 06 Janda’s Jump Jakub Janda during his qualifying jump in the 2016 Four Hills Tournament in Austria. Lens Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8l IS II USM exposure 1/20 sec, f/8, ISO1250 07 carrying the torch 16-year-old Darren Choy carries the Youth Olympic torch at the Opening Ceremony of the 2010 Youth Olympics in Singapore. Lens Canon EF 400mm f/2.8l IS II USM exposure 1/1000 sec, f/2.8, ISO800 05
08 yamilé aldama The Team GB athlete after her last jump in the Women’s Triple Jump final at the London 2012 Olympics. Lens Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8l IS II USM exposure 1/1300 sec, f/3.5, ISO3200 09 100m final 2012 Men’s 100m Final at the London 2012 Olympics as Usain Bolt, second from right, heads for the gold medal. Lens Canon EF 400mm f/2.8l IS II USM exposure 1/1300 sec, f/4, ISO3200 10 pool plunge A diver plunging into the pool during warm-ups for the 16th Asian Games in Guangzhou, China, 2010. Lens Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8l IS II USM exposure 1/1300 sec, f/3.5, ISO3200