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|| SportsShooter.com: News Item: Posted 2002-05-02

Robert Seale: What Is A Good Sports Photo?
"The real message they are sending is that what most of us do, day in and day out, is irrelevant."

By Robert Seale

I'm of the school that believes there are sports feature pictures, (jubo, dejection, reaction, access stories,and artsy shadow stuff...), and then there are sports action pictures (peak action, NOT reaction, taken during actual games). Facial expressions, quality of light, technical perfection, clean background, oddity of body language and conflict are all key elements in a great peak action photograph.

Although there is nothing pertaining to this in the rules of the NPPA contest, the case could be made that a truly great peak action photograph has all of the elements that I just mentioned, plus some context or significance. In other words, with virtually identical football catch photos: Is the winning catch from the Super Bowl a better photo than a similar photo of an incomplete pass at a high school game?

Black and white photos of a kid hitting baseball off a tee, photos of the "Running of the Bulls" in Spain, and pictorials of people swimming the English Channel are not peak action photographs.

Are contests like BOP and Mizzou a good gauge for photographers to measure what's good and not so good out there these days?

Answer: NO. Contests have become irrelevant for most working photographers out there. They no longer measure what we really do. Let's think about this. Let's look at how a typical newspaper shooter spends his time

(Obviously there are variations on this depending on your shift/size of the paper/age/etc....but this is typical for most of the photographers I know):

30% - Sports action
30% - set up lighting/portraiture (business page portraits/sports portraits/feature portraits/food/fashion)
30% - Pseudo news events(PR events/news conferences/courtroom/campaign stuff)
5%-Actual news (fires/shootings/explosions/etc.)
5%-Photojournalism long term projects, etc.

There is a lot of good photojournalism work in the contests. Eugene Richards and James Nachtwey do fabulous work I look at their work with admiration - I buy their books. If the purpose of the contest is to measure the best photography taken by newspaper and magazine photographers in the past year then it is not doing a very good job. I'm not knocking the contests, I still enter from time to time. But when judges throw out an entire category (with 80 entries) because they are "trying to send a message," the real message they are sending is that what most of us do, day in and day out, is irrelevant. That is very discouraging to a lot of people.

Judges should read the category descriptions for the contests and follow the instructions given by the contest organizers. Photos of people swimming the English Channel, black and white photos of kids hitting a baseball from a tee and the bulls running in Pamplona winning in recent years are obviously not the result of the judges following the directions.

Perhaps the judges are trying to read something more into the contest. Perhaps they are looking for something different.

Perhaps there is a bias against actual organized professional and college sports because we are barraged with peak action images in newspapers every day. Perhaps the judges are " trying to send a message." The sending a message stuff has completely gotten out of hand. It isn't just sports either, the "portrait/personality" category has nothing to do with portraiture. All newspaper shooters spend a reasonable chunk of their time shooting portraits, yet the winners are always single features, usually pulled from picture stories.

Judges need to judge the contest based on what it is. If there are 1500 football receiver photos entered, and nothing else - then judge the top three and quit trying to "set standards. " POY is not a Middle East peace negotiation, it's a freaking photo contest!

Has good action photography become moot because of the advancement of auto focus cameras.

Absolutely not. Certainly the pool of people that can shoot sports adequately is larger. You can send a photographer who normally doesn't cover sports out on assignment now with an autofocus 400/2.8, and he or she can come back with in-focus pictures. There is a big difference between being adequate and being a great sports shooter. The same guys that were the kings of manual focus (John Biever, Peter Read Miller, et al) are still the bestsports shooters in the world - with or without autofocus.

Is the trend to "look for something different" diluting and making the classic action photo obsolete?

In the context of these contests, yes, peak action has become obsolete. There seems to be a need to read something else into the photos in order for them to be winners. Again, the judges need to actually judge what is before them. Just because there are 1000 football or basketball entries doesn't mean you have to throw them all out of the contest.

There should be a new rule: when judging each category, the contest chairman should ask out loud, "Is this the best sports action photo taken in the world last year? Is this the second best sports action photo taken etc."

There is a tendency to discount mainstream professional and college sports in the search for an oddball lacrosse or steeplechase picture. If the judges really want to look for something different - something with meaning, then look at the story behind some of the photos. Was tit he photo the game-winning touchdown from the Super Bowl, was it Barry Bonds breaking the home run record or was it just an incomplete pass from some regular season game.

I am not saying that judges shouldn't try to find something different. Co Rentmeester and John Zimmerman shot sports in an interesting way. They were thinking of atypical ways to look at sports through remotes, etc....and they showed their readers something they couldn't see with their own eyes - something we should all be trying to do.

(Robert Seale is a staff photographer with the Sporting News. You can check out his work at: http://www.robertseale.net)


Related Links:
www.robertseale.net

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