Sports photography can seem as competitive as anything on the pitch, and the typical stereotype is a line of edgy photographers along the touchline with bulky telephoto lenses vying for the shot of the day. It doesn't have to be like that, though. Just as sports can be about challenging yourself rather than beating an opponent, sports photography can entail working together with others to raise your game.
In the latest Young Photographer collaboration between Getty Images and Canon, seasoned sports photographer Julian Finney teamed up with emerging talent Francis Augusto. The pair photographed the booming grassroots sport of bouldering – rope-free rock climbing – and improved their skills by learning from each other.
Francis, who has a personal interest in climbing, has long been inspired by the work of American street photographer Vivian Maier. Because of this, his focus has always been on people, and he has more recently turned to sport. "I'm really interested in human stories and how I can document people and life in different sports," says Francis. "I passionately want people to look at photos and have the subjects resonate with them."
Francis photographed the human side of athletes in action in his shoot with a master of sports photography, Julian. A Getty Images sports photographer, Julian has more than 20 years' experience shooting top-level sport, including football World Cups, Olympic Games and Wimbledon tennis tournaments.
Instead of a traditional pitch or court, the pair headed to Yonder Climbing Centre in Walthamstow, London, to document the up-and-coming sport of bouldering. The sport has enjoyed a popularity surge in recent years among hobbyists and makes its Olympic Games debut at Tokyo 2020.
"It was important to photograph something community-based and accessible, which is exactly what bouldering is," says Julian. "Now is a great time to shoot a sport that's booming and is going to have an even wider reach after it hits Tokyo. It's something I've never photographed."
With their subjects mostly facing the climbing wall, photographing bouldering came with challenges. But being indoors and close to the action meant the photographers could shoot using prime lenses, which professional photographers normally avoid when covering major sports events.
"Usually, if you go for a fixed lens, you might get the better picture, but you're more likely to miss something," says Julian, who works with a base of two Canon EOS-1D X Mark II bodies. "On this shoot I was mainly using a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens and a Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM lens, because you can shoot them with the aperture wide open at f/1.2 and f/1.4, which gives you more light. I like the look of images produced by the fixed lenses, with the lovely drop-off backgrounds. I also used the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens for the freedom to move in and out."
The climbing wall, with its multi-coloured holds, provided the ideal backdrop for Julian to experiment with making animated GIFs. He made these by stitching together a series of images shot in a burst using his Canon EOS-1D X Mark II's Continuous Shooting mode (as seen in the video above). "It's still imagery but it creates movement," he says. "I've tried them in a few other places and thought it would work well here because the abstract wall itself was interesting, and then you had someone going up and down a climb."
Francis focused on getting detail shots, such as chalk on climbers' hands, as well as documentary-style captures of behind-the-scenes moments with athletes Imogen Horrocks (a member of the senior Great Britain climbing team) and her climbing partner Declan Rounthwaite. "Some of my favourite shots are those of the athletes wrapping up for the day and decompressing, because they have that narrative of the struggles of being an athlete," says Francis. "That's what I was looking for."
Photographing fast action, such as the moment Imogen leapt from one colourful hold to another, required fast reflexes and technical know-how. "You need to know what aperture to use, so you get enough of what's happening but are neither completely in focus nor too blurry," continues Francis. "Shutter speed needs to be relatively high, so you get photos of the interaction between the hand and the hold, but also get the moment she leaves. It was interesting trying to get that to work."
Francis also favoured prime lenses, paired with his Canon EOS 5D Mark IV. "I predominately use a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM lens and a Canon EF 135mm f/2L USM lens. The 35mm is a versatile lens with a nice wide aperture that makes things look clean, while the 135mm is just slick and beautiful, really quick and reactive.
"I think it's really important as a photographer to see the camera and lens as an extension of your limbs, and prime lenses encourage you to do more physically and to use your body," he says. He concedes, though, that this approach has to change when covering match sports, where you can't move towards the action. "Then I'll have to take off my purist hat and accept that having zoom lenses might have to be a move I make."
In addition to packing the right kit, Julian advises that covering sports means being a step ahead of the players. "Sports photography is all about the anticipation of what people are going to do next," he says. "The challenge is adapting to the action – it can happen anywhere. When you're outside, the light also changes all the time. The sun can go behind the clouds and all your settings are completely flipped, so you have to react extremely quickly because the game doesn't stop.
"You're always thinking about the light and the backgrounds. It's an ongoing thought process, so there's a lot of concentration involved. These sports are really quick, so you've got to know your sport, do your research and use the right lens at the right time."
Julian's lightning reflexes were evident to Francis even on their slower-paced shoot. "He's able to react so quickly," Francis says. "The way he was able to anticipate a situation – to know if an athlete is going this way or the other, or is maybe hesitant to do something – and how he adjusted, was really cool."
Francis learned valuable lessons from Julian on this shoot, such as the importance of exploring an environment. "When we got to the centre, I spent a few minutes looking around and taking photos, whereas Julian did that for a good 20 minutes before the athletes came in," he says. "I haven't done as much of this methodical work in terms of pre-production. It helps your understanding of where a subject needs to stand to make a photo work best and to help the shoot run more efficiently."
The learning process went both ways, though, with Julian also gaining insights from his mentee. "The most interesting thing was seeing the different way Francis approached the shoot to me, including the portraiture. I like to have it all planned and then try to shoot what I have in my head, whereas Francis goes into it more casually. I think it happens more naturally for him, and he gets something different from the model or athlete," Julian says.
"I'm always learning as a photographer, so I like to collaborate with other people and hear their opinions. It's healthy to not assume your way is the best way."
The collaboration came at a time when Julian is trying to challenge his own photography. "When you keep going back to the same grounds or events year after year, and you're quite restricted with your position, you can end up taking the same sort of picture," he says. "A lot of elements are luck, because things happen on the pitch and you don't really control it. To push myself, I'm trying to work more creatively around sport, like shooting in studios and setting up ideas."
"Apart from the camera," adds Francis, "we have another thing in common: our interest in documenting people. Julian's been doing it for years and still wants to figure out interesting ways to take pictures of people. We really bonded over that."
1. Know your sport
"The best sports photographers are the ones who know as many sports as possible. Football and tennis are my two favourites, because I played them most when I was growing up and I still play tennis now. I can relate to the shapes the players are making, because I see that kind of backhand on the court or that type of kick on the pitch when I'm playing, so I can react quickly to them."
2. Get used to working at speed
"It's not just about being a sports fan and loving sport. You also need to be a good photographer and to understand what you're doing technically – such as how to use a fast shutter speed around 1/1600 or 1/2000 sec to react to fast movement quickly, with your camera moving. Things happen rapidly and it's down to the photographer to react very quickly. I don't think we're born with that ability – the more you do it, the quicker you become. Don't feel bad if you're missing stuff at the beginning, because everyone does. I did."
3. Build a portfolio with community sport
"It's hard to access big events, but you don't have to. Community sport is going on all the time so there's a lot out there. Try to see lots of different sports, experiment with your photography and find which sports you like. Most community sport is on the weekends and evenings, but that's what it takes to become a sports photographer. Save your best work until the summer or when the sun's out and the light is nice; put that extra hour in and go to get these pictures for your portfolio."
1. Be mentored and mentor others
"What I was most excited about with this shoot was the mentorship element and the conversations that Julian and I had before, during and after it. He led by example and was open to all of my questions. It's always good to hear someone who's been doing what you're doing for years tell you that your photos are good. If you respect someone and they're in the same industry as you, that always feels good and that validation can go a long way. I have been a mentor myself, and for me a mentorship is the most fruitful when the mentor continues that relationship and pushes, and is honest with whoever they are mentoring."
2. Don't worry about changing genre
"People are multifaceted and – especially as artists and creatives – can give so much more than they might initially show. You can continuously try to grow until you get to a point where people are approaching you for work. You might have to take a pay cut to change to a different style of photography, but it's all about thinking forward to the future and what you want. The rewards you will gain will far outweigh what you have to go through to get there."
3. Collaborate with your subjects
"One thing I really like to do whenever I have time is to ask a subject what photos they would take if they were the photographer. It allows you to have interesting blue sky thinking. I ask them what, to them, looks cool and then say, 'Let's capture that.' I wanted to use this shoot to get to know the athletes and not just to take nice portraits of them but to capture them as they are in different situations that are interesting to them. Imogen really wanted to capture the moment when she's jumping between holds, so we worked on that for a while where she jumps up and kind of claws away at a hold and a lot of chalk is in the air."