IN THE MIDST OF THE ACTION
When the pressure is on and expectations are high, how do you get the shot? We talk to seasoned sports photographer Phil Walter to find out what it takes to be a top shooter
Sports photography is a fast-moving game. Before the ascension of digital cameras, sports shooters played at a much different tempo. In the last few years, the many new technologies have meant that today’s sports photographers shoot from impossible vantages at blistering speeds, and fulfil demands that seem to increase exponentially each year. Phil Walter plays for one of the most prestigious teams in the league — Getty Images — and has been in the midst of these rapid industry changes for over 20 years. In that time, he has travelled the globe to shoot the biggest international sporting events, including the Olympic Games, the Commonwealth Games, Wimbledon, golf majors, and the Rugby and Cricket World Cups. Throughout his career, Phil has had to remain photographically fit in order to keep pace with the demands of the industry. “The advent of digital is far and away the biggest change I’ve seen,” he says. “When I first started working with the earliest digital cameras, it was amazing, even though the quality was absolutely terrible.” He first entered the field working for a professional black-and-white film processor in the 1990s, but his ambition soon landed him a photographer job at Auckland-based picture agency Fotopress. It was here that he first encountered digital photography, with the agency adopting cameras that produced somewhat dubious images with gamechanging speed and convenience. While most photographers only had to weather the digital switch once, Phil got to endure it twice. After a few years at Fotopress, he was poached by Empics, a sports photo agency in the UK. This new job would give him access to larger events across the globe, but the British agency wasn’t yet ready to dabble in the new-fangled digital world, so he migrated back to the labour-intensive arena of film. “For me to go from the ease of digital, back to shooting film and having to hand-process film at half-time in bathrooms at football grounds, it was tough,” the photographer recalls. Working internationally, he got to shoot some of the biggest sporting events on the planet, but once the allure of constant travel began to wane, Phil returned to Aotearoa, a job at Fotopress, and the rapid march of digital technology. Since then, Fotopress has been taken over by Getty Images, the photographer has five Olympic Games under his belt, and the technological capabilities of sports shooting have continued to evolve. As one of Getty Images’ trusted sports and editorial shooters, Phil has an enviable degree of access to some very high-profile subjects. His portfolio includes iconic shots from the locker rooms of sporting heroes, political events of international import, and candid portraits of world leaders. Working with one of the biggest agencies in the business, however, also comes with its share of obligations. Getty Images is the official imaging
agency for many of the big sporting sponsors, and, as such, its photographers are required to capture imagery for all manner of stakeholders. “There might be a pre-match function or an after-match function to shoot, and, during the game, they might need pictures of some signage, or ball boys, or half-time entertainment,” Phil explains. “Ten years ago, you’d go and photograph the action and the tries, and that would be all you had to worry about. There’s a lot more going on now.” There are also a lot more ways to capture what is going on. Sophisticated remote cameras allow photographers to shoot from high above an arena, or up from the depths at a watersport event. Immersive, interactive 360-degree images allow viewers to experience events in entirely new ways. Even the simple act of getting a photo from the camera to its destination has been supercharged. “On the technical side, the speed we can deliver images now is massively different to where it was 10, even five years ago,” the photographer says. “You now go to major events, Olympic Games and that sort of thing, where you’ve got a team of editors who are pretty much sending your stuff out to clients the second you shoot … [it].” But it’s a good thing that Getty Images’ workflow is as quick as it is, because, for the most recent Olympic Games in Rio, the agency photographers produced 1.5 million images over 18 days. And while the Olympics might be a bit of an exception, Phil says the process isn’t so very different wherever he’s working. After shooting an image and tagging it with pertinent details through the camera back, the image is sent wirelessly to a 4G network dongle in his pocket, which then pipes the image to Getty’s editors in London, ready to be adjusted, sorted, and sent out. All in a matter of seconds. Of course, it’s not just the infrastructure around photography that has changed: the power of the digital cameras themselves has continued to develop at an intimidating clip. But when it comes to speed, accuracy, and versatility, many recent DSLR developments are real blessings for busy sports photographers. Phil’s arsenal consists of four bodies — two each of the Canon 1D X Mark I and Mark II. It’s the superior autofocus accuracy and low-light capabilities that make these models essential, as he is often shooting night games, and needs to climb to higher ISO settings without too much noise. “The quality from these cameras, in terms of where my pictures actually appear, is probably more than I need,” Phil admits. “But you still want to have that RAW file as a backup, if someone wants to use it as a large poster or advertisement.” And if you’ve seen Vodafone’s recent billboards featuring his shot of All Black Kieran Read doing the haka, you’ll know just what he is on about.
When it comes to glass, Phil has a trusty kit for sports shooting, including a 400mm, a 70–200mm, and a wider 16–35mm or 24–70mm. These would accompany two camera bodies (with the addition of a third if he’s using remotes), a flash, monopod, and laptop for file managing. For news images, he likes to introduce prime lenses to the kit to shoot with a shallow depth of field. “With the political stuff, a lot of what they do is actually really boring, but if you can shoot it on a nice prime lens, wide open at f/1.2, sometimes it can make an average situation look a lot better.” And there is a fair amount of that on his plate currently, as he covers the upcoming general election. The photographer is obliged to shoot the endless parade of press conferences and policy announcements coming from all parties, but also enjoys creating stock imagery for key issues of the election, such as housing and poverty. Just like an anticipated sporting final, the big job comes on election night. Months’ worth of work culminates in what Phil describes as an “elbows-out” media scrum, with much of country’s press jammed into a few metres of space to cover the winner’s speech. “That evening is something I look forward to, but I’m also really glad when it’s over,” he says with a laugh. Whatever election night brings, you can be sure this veteran of the sideline will be ready for it, because working on sports photography at this level demands he keep in peak photographic condition, all season through.
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