IN THE MIDST OF THE AC­TION

New Zealand D-Photo - - FOLIO | P HIL WALTER - WORDS| ADRIAN HAT WELL

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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