Anatomy of a Shoot

Anatomy of a Shoot

I am presently covering the Alpine World Championships in Garmisch-Parten­kirchen, Germany — but before I get more into that please allow me to post something which I did about ten days ago.

I got a great compliment from my journalist the other day after I’d shot this assignment: “You know, when I learn that you are going to be the photo­grapher I know 85% of my job is done”. Wow — flattery will get him anywhere — and absolutely not true — but very nice of him to say that… and much appreciated.

Then I remem­bered a conver­sation I had with a friend on the subject “how do you shoot a good sports image”. His argument was that if you are in the right spot at the right time, the good image just happens. While this might be true in some cases, often it is not.

So let me share this with you: one gig, that’s it, nothing more — a very typical assignment for me — and what happened, what came out of it, how did I do.

So, here’s the assignment: Janne Ahonen training on his home hill in Lahti. He hasn’t done so well lately — been kind of lost with his jumping — and the World Championships start in Oslo next week. Time to go back to the roots, so to speak.

I make a plan: I have several custom-made carbon poles for positioning the camera in an elevated position. I plan to set one right over him — from the side with light-weight ball joint — and shoot just when he is starting, with a 15mm rectan­gular fish eye on a full-crop cam (Canon 5D) with a radio remote. Get nice curvature of the horizon, him on the foreground — something you cannot do normally during a compe­tition. Something a bit different.

So I drive to Lahti and come to the stadium: totally overcast and misty. No way you can get the horizon. Crash and burn.

Ok. Plan B, quickly. I decide to set an extreme wide — probably 14mm — as a remote right next to his feet and get the a horizontal shot, a bit sideways.

I head to the large hill — and he heads to the smaller one. So stupid of me not to ask, I just assumed that they’d jump from the big one. I rush after him, knowing that I have no time to set the remote. Fail again.

So, I try to come up with plan C quickly, as I am running after him.

The jump has no elevator. And he is way ahead of me.

Wait: the stairs make nice symbolism, sort of “climbing back to the top”. So I quickly put on a 16–35mm and shoot him going up with both the wide and the 70–200mm which I have already mounted in the other camera.

I climb to the tower behind him, still fixed with the idea that I want to have some nice scenery — his hometown — into the image.

He comes up for the second jump, starts to put the skies on when I hear his coach shouting below: “Hey, photo­grapher, get the hell out of there…”.

For some reason, he does not like me shooting images in the tower. Maybe I interfere with the concent­ration, I don’t know. But: fail again.

Plan D. I decide to wait for him to walk back the stairs, to get some more of that “stairs” symbolism. I put on the 15mm on, to get some extra dynamic into the shot, but I left my 5D below and only have EOS 1 mrk4 — so no full crop, unfortunately.

He has jumped now three times — and I have no images of him actually jumping. How many times is he going to jump, I don’t know.

Plan E. I rush to the jump table. It’s pretty high, about 2.5 meters. Old worn out adver­tizing, looks very ugly. I decide to set a remote on a carbon pole and position it right under the table. I do it — and it’s not working. One of the radios is jammed.

Thank God I have brought three radios with me. I figure out which one is the dead one (I find out later it was the delay setting which had gotten totally off…), replace it and rig the camera back up again. Just in time as he is the next jumper. I shoot ten-fifteen frames — and get one decent one.

I talk to the coach — he says Janne I going to jump once more. I see him sitting in the chairlift, talking to another jumper, smiling.

What, Janne Ahonen smiling? I shoot a couple of frames (I only have up to 200mm) and ask a friend of mine — actually a former jumper Tami Kiuru, who is there to watch the training as well — who is the guy next to him. “His brother”, he say. The image I just took gets a totally new meaning.

I rush to meet him — or them — when they leave the lift. But they do not take the path I antici­pated and the image I had in mind falls flat.

I notice Janne’s path will take him in front of a snowy forest which makes a real nice background. Sort of “loneliness of an athlete” ‑idea. I go very low to get more perspective, shoot it — and then run back to the hill.

I frantically climb the stairs of the other hill next to the one he is jumping so I’d get one image of him actually flying.

I toy with the idea of setting shutter speed down to 1/30th or slower, but decide to go with 1/125th. It’s his last jump, I cannot risk it. Shoot him thru the trees, against the trees, hoping for the best.

Couple of head shots when he comes up, shoot the coach coming down the stairs. Done.

The training is over.

My client (Iltalehti) runs it on their weekend edition. I’m happy with the result. Not bad — considering.

Point being: you gotta be prepared, plan things, look for something different — and then be prepared to improvise, throw all your great ideas into the trash and quickly come up with something else. And I mean quickly.

Have your technique down, know your gear, know which combi­nation of iso/shutter/aperture/lens choice gives you the result you want.

The most important thing: not to do the easy, obvious picture but to have the enthusiasm to try to push your own limits. Even if you have done this over and over again thru the years.

Sometimes you succeed — sometimes you don’t. But you have to push it — otherwise … well, you’d be better doing something else for your living. If for nothing else, then for your own sake. It’s not getting or not getting “the image” — but failing to try which is tragic.

12 Replies to “Anatomy of a Shoot”

    1. Hey -

      Thanks for reading and taking the trouble to comment. Yes, althought what I wrote is very simple I thought it might be interesting. Often people think that it is a matter of just having fancy camera and snapping away… when the real challenge is seeing, antici­pating and telling a story thru your images.

      I’ll be getting back to this when I post my next thing from here, talking about what it is like shooting alpine. So much going on one does not usually think about.


    1. Cheers Aku — I post some more stuff on the same theme as soon as I have a break here in Garmisch… Men’s GS second round in one hour and I have to start getting my stuff together. Been on the skies the whole morning following Tanja training.


  1. Thanks and congra­tu­la­tions Kari, a piece like this is pure gold for anyone in any way into sports photo­graphy, or photo­jour­nalism for that matter. What you write here covers so many aspects of what goes on out there, starting from the fact that life doesn’t happen for photo­graphers, it goes on at its own pace, and the photo­grapher is thrown in there to try to make sense of it as best they can and extract a coherent narrative. Which then leads to all the need for prepa­ration and all the unexpected, with your gear, your vision, the action you end up taking.

    As for the right timing and the image just happening, with my very modest experience, I’m inclined to think you do need to look for the image happening, think beforehand what you would like to do and also “hunt” for it among all the action, rather than just waiting. I’m thinking team sports for example, you try to read the action, anticipate, maybe pick a player you want to capture at a key moment. While you do that, you may get the image, or miss another one while trying.

    Another thing your piece shows is that sports photo­graphy can be a “sport” in itself, apart from the moving target shooting aspect of it, you can hardly dash around and climb stairs like that if you’re not reaso­nably fit!

    1. Sami -

      I always enjoy reading your commentary; you got a way with words.
      I like your expression “extract a a coherent narrative” — yes, that is what you get to do in the best possible scenario.
      The worst possible one: you are being used only to illustrate a point the writer is trying to make… which happens way too often. In this respect, for the past couple of days, I’ve been spoiled. Great co-working with my two journalists.

      As for your last paragraph, being reaso­nably fit, you do make an important point. For instance, as funny as it might seem, I actually do train for the Olympics. For Vancouver it meant a lot of X‑country skiing prior to the games. Otherwise, no way you can handle three weeks of that kind of work. Sure, you could maybe shoot some images sitting down in the press seats, or limit your days to 7,5 hours… but that’s not me. Nor will ever be.
      Here now in Garmish-Parten­kirchen I have been on skies for three days in a row now — and if you want to shoot alpine properly, that’s what you gotta do. And believe me, the surface (=ice) on the Kandahar slope is something else compared to the bunny-hills we have back home… ;-)

  2. great anatomy of a shoot Kari! love to read your comments… hard work, improvise, be prepared every second when your a holding that camera.…nice.
    hope we’ll can read some more in the future of your “anatomy lessons” :))

  3. Nice post once again. You discuss the methods you use in great detail and you do share the info of equipment being used as well. I truly admire your open attitude. One thing that I’ve been wondering is what kind of a camera/equipment bag do you have that keeps up with your pace? I have been shooting in downhill slopes as well as snowboard parks, but I’ve been bothered that a shoulder bag doesn’t neces­serely hold all the equipment I need and backpack is a mess in a quick situation. If you would comment on this even shortly it would be a great help. Especially when you yourself do hilight that being fit helps to last through a long event, I see a bag(or any other peace of equipment for that matter) that doesn’t come in your way does the same thing.

    1. Hi -

      sorry it took a while to get back to you. Thank you for your nice words; yes, I’m totally with Chase Jarvis on this one i.e one should share infor­mation as openly as possible — that is the only way you can hope for some progress. Being self-centered egoistic SOB who only tries to protect his own foxhole… no, does not work in the long run. One thing which has become totally clear in my head now during the past couple of years I’ve been getting more and more into multi­media and rich media is that nobody can do this by himself. You need to share — be part of the evolution, so to speak…
      But — big words, and maybe this is not the time to throw them around just like this… Let me discuss this more in depth in some later post.
      As to your question about the bags: I always use a backpack or a sort f harness (Newswear) we used to have in the military. Never a shoulder bag. I have (and I’m not exagge­rating here…) about ten different size backpacks, two different set-ups of fanny-packs and a Newswear harness. The latter is really nice because if the weather really gets bad on the slope you can have it under your jacket. It stores extenders, an extra lens (up to 70–200mm), flash, glasses etc. Raincovers, etc. I usually have in lightweight a back-pack. If I carry a super tele (in the slope etc. I might use a special backpack (Lowe alpine) which stores up to 800mm with the body.

      The choice of the backpack depends on what do I need: how many cameras/lenses/super tele /computer/ crampons, etc. In the slope one of my favorite ones is one model of lowe pro which has the zip on the “wrong” side, i.e. you can put it in the snow and still open it. In the plane I typically use couple of different models by think-tank (allowed size and they store lots of stuff + 17″ Mac. If I work lightly (with 5d mk2’s) I might use Kata’s throw over shoulder backpack; when in a boat/kayak I might use lowe’s totally water­tight backpack or then a pelicase.

      Typically I do not take a computer with me to the slope or when I know I am running around. I might have an iPad — and presently I am consi­dering getting an 11″ MacAir just to carry around while my 17″ MBP is in the press center. Thing is that like here in Holmen­kollen there is so much stuff depending on my computer working (as I do all the editing and multi­media stuff myself) that I do need a back up — and carrying two 17″ MBP’s is pretty heavy.

      And yes, I do use pelicases for trans­porting in the plane if I am using more than normal amount of equipment. Like here I do have four cameras, lenses from 8mm to 400mm, remotes, clamps, panoramic head and all kind of this and that… so it was way too much to take as carry on.

      An older photo­grapher working for Newsweek in Athens games said to me” You know, the experience of the photo­grapher is manifested in the minimal amount of equipment he carries” and that is true. One should only take the stuff one really needs and not tire oneself under unnecessary load of stuff…

      But choosing the right set up — that only comes with experience.

      I hope this was of some help. I might do a piece at some point on the equipment ‑including bags etc. — that I use.

      1. Thanks.

        That enligh­tened your methods. I’ll have to consider the fanny-pack solution. Number of your backpacks is easy to imagine, I have three different shoul­der­packs and have found them handy while working on flat ground.

        Good luck for Holmenkollen!

  4. Thanks Kari! My way with words is also a rather long way, I can’t say anything in brief… Yeah, with all this writing, I wonder why I insist on wanting to take pictures too ;D — I guess I just enjoy the whole process more.

    Interesting commentary about the minimalism with the gear. That’s probably true, although some people say they’d rather carry what they don’t end up needing than need what they don’t carry. But I guess that comes back to the matter of experience and knowing what you will need. More so out in the snowy mountain I’m sure. The right equipment and acces­sories is a perpetual issue, it’s always good to learn more about that.

    About the fitness aspect and the work ethic: I have noticed in the sporting events I’ve shot lately (different ball games mainly), that I must seem the fussiest of all photo­graphers there. I sit, kneel, stand up, balance this way and that, half run (half, because I don’t want to bother the audience or other people working at the venue) to the other side of the court or to the top row for a general view or whatever (if changing positions is allowed). You probably could get just as good or better photos with less gymnastics, and I’m sure everyone there does. But my point is that from the beginnig, this down-and-dirty approach has been important for me. If I’m convinced the best thing to do is to sit there and shoot, I’ll stay put. But more often than not, I feel I can both better get the shots I want and have more fun if I sweat it a bit.

    Another thing I was wondering when reading your recent posts is the editing part and how that works, especially with the hectic press deadlines. Do you have any pre-settings in your camera, and then quickly crop and adjust before delivery? Do you go back to the press center several times a day to do that, or just once to end the day? Do you know if it’s a common procedure that the photo­grapher sends fully edited files, or can media houses also just want RAWs and edit themselves? I perso­nally shoot RAW with neutral camera settings and crop and process with Lightroom. I’ve had requests not to crop though, since the client’s graphic designer may want to add their text or other items etc. My deadlines so far have mostly been more flexible, since I haven’t worked for the media. Editing is a big chunk of work though, and I find it a challenge to learn how to select the keepers quickly among the large quantity of frames typically shot at a sporting event and process them swiftly, without jeopar­dizing quality.

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