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|| News Item: Posted 2002-05-02

Kim Komenich: What Is A Good Sports Photo?
"Like the pictures in other parts of the newspaper, peak action sports pictures are dependent on how famous peoples' fortunes rise and fall."

By Kim Komenich

Back in the 80's I remember hearing a story about the photo essayist who was asked to be a POY judge. One day, after a particularly long day of throwing out literally thousands of cliche' pictures he said that he was so depressed he felt like going out and getting drunk. "I just saw 3,000 photographers trying to be exactly like each other," he said.

Close your eyes for a minute and imagine your Monday sports page during the NFL season. Chances are you imagined a three or four-column tight vertical, probably peak action of a key play or key player from a Sunday game. That's the damned problem. You can almost predict the Monday sports cover on the Friday before the game.

Game action sports pictures have a valuable role for the reader on Monday morning, but they are like the ice sculpture at a wedding reception: they serve their purpose for a few hours and then they melt away.

Like the pictures in other parts of the newspaper, peak action sports pictures are dependent on how famous peoples' fortunes rise and fall.


I think POY judges approach their jobs (judging as many as 30,000 images in a week) the same way a reader approaches a newspaper. If they care about sports, they'll head for the sports section. If not, the image on the sports cover has to work a hell of a lot harder to catch their eye.

Before I say the following, I want to make it clear that I am in no way involved with POY, POYi, Edgar Allen Poe, Hawaiian poi, Don Ho or J Lo.

There are only a few sports categories in the big photojournalism contests, but the number of entries in the sports categories is always disproportionately large and full of peak ice sculpture.

Judges in multiple-category contests like POY have always dreaded judging sports. I think it's because the judges think they signed on to judge photojournalism and storytelling, and the photographers entering the sports categories contest think they are entering a sports photography contest.

In my opinion as a former judge, the reason this stuff doesn't get the respect is should is that POY and the other multi-category contests are not sports contests, they are journalism contests.

The bottom line is that 98 percent of the sports pictures entered in photojournalism contests are so specific to the game and what happened and who did what to whom, that they require a damned caption to be an important picture. I think photojournalism contest judges rarely choose an "important" peak picture because the key elements of the peak NFL picture of the year are the same key elements of a peak Pop Warner picture. Ultimately, they all cancel each other out.

Judges are not looking for literal evidence of a key play by an important athlete. I think the judges are looking for a sports picture that says something about photography's ability to communicate, and if it happens to have Kurt Warner in it, that's cool too.


Sometimes I think newspaper sports photography has degenerated to the level of duck hunting, with photographers from competing papers using identical equipment kneeling next to each trying to beat each other out of the same moment. We all have our 400mm f/2.8 lenses and we all kneel five yards back. What ever happened to somebody taking a frickin' chance?

The year I judged POY I remember several instances when what was probably the NFL or MLB peak action shot of the year flashed on the screen. Then it flashed on the screen again and again- the same split-second as seen by five or ten other photographers in separate entries. To the bleary-eyed judges, this was funny.

Even though these pictures probably represented the best of the season's photography, they canceled each other out because it was revealed to us in the judging process that this compelling moment was the result of so much shooting fish in a barrel. They were evidence that five or ten photographers nailed the same fat duck.

And that's the thing. Like most photojournalism, pro sports photography has become as much about how we make lemonade out of lemons (with sideline restrictions and other player access problems) as anything else. Our energy is going into beating the access problems and we're happy as hell to just get a clean, peak action picture.

Peak action photos are important to the coverage of the game as presented in the next day's paper, but don't kid yourself --- they are trophies. They are evidence that the photographer had the access and the timing and the light and the moment under control in that split-second on that day.

I think the judges are looking to choose photos that will teach us something about storytelling, aesthetics and technique. They are not out to choose photos that anybody could have taken if they happened to be at that game and happened to be on their game.


Some photographers will go through an entire season seeking peak action without doing a feature or even trying a new position or lens (I know- I've had seasons like that!) "Well, you don't understand- we gotta transmit at the half and blabadablabadablabada..." That'd be a hell of a way to spend a 30-year career, wouldn't it?

I say we encourage the solid peak-action game coverage while we also encourage the craziest screwball explorations of what a camera and lens can do with sports.

Contests should reward ideas, originality and storytelling, not only equipment, access and reflexes.

(Kim Komenich is a staff photographer at the San Francisco Chronicle and 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner. Kim is a former instructor at the University of Missouri and teaches workshops around the country. In 2001 he was a teaching fellow at the U. C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism's Center for Photography.)

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