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|| News Item: Posted 2002-05-02

Tommy Metthe: What Is A Good Sports Photo?
"If my photo doesn't tell the story, what is the point?"

By Tommy Metthe

When I was asked to write this I thought it would be really easy, just state my opinion, right? I quickly found out I wasn't quite sure what my opinion was. I went back and looked at my sports clips for the last few months, and the one thing I realized is my idea of good sports photography has changed quite a bit since my college days just three years ago.

While I was in college, I thought the most important thing was to get "the shot" --- that great award winning photo that would get me noticed. While I'm still searching for "the shot" I'm also very mindful about what the reader is looking for, if my photo doesn't tell the story, what is the point? I think people need to remember that photographers are just as much storytellers as reporters. The only difference is that quite often we have to tell our story in one or two photos.

I think the biggest thing I've learned since starting my professional career is a great shot is not as important as getting the shot that tells the story. Working at a medium-sized daily paper, with no professional sports teams or major Division I colleges within 150 miles of here, our major focus is high school sports and small colleges (Division II and III). (Yes, high school football is huge in West Texas, in fact, high school sports as a whole are big here.)

I get a lot of feedback, and I've noticed that other than readers having lower standards about what makes a great shot, the great peak action photo will never be dead. While I'm always trying to find "something different" the reader still wants to see great action, they want to see the shots they can never take.

Sometimes that "different" shot doesn't necessarily have to be all that different. Sometimes it's just taking a different seat: whether climbing up in the catwalk during a basketball game or just sitting up in the stands with a long lens. My favorite times to experiment are during practices. I used to hate to go to practices, because there is never the intensity of a game situation. But often you get a lot better access and can do things, and set up in places that could never be done in a game.

To me, sports photography is the epitome of multi-tasking. While you constantly have to watch the game, looking for the "peak action" you are also keeping an eye on the sidelines for reaction and feature stuff. On top of all that, you're looking for that "something different."

The advancement of autofocus hasn't done anything but help our profession. Yes, it helps you "cheat"- you don't have to constantly worry about focusing. This allows you to concentrate on composition, watching the game, while keeping your mind on the rest of your "multitasking." The new Ultrasonic/ AF-S lenses gives you the power to keep your AF on while being able to switch to manual focus whenever you want only helps make us better photographers. But if you can't compose your shot, being in focus doesn't matter. The advancement of autofocus doesn't make the classic action shot moot, it only makes me expect more of myself. Besides, autofocus isn't perfect, I'm willing to bet that nobody can go back through their film/disks and find everything is in focus!

I'm not sure the Pictures of the Year and Best of Photojournalism contests are really a good gauge of measuring trends. I think they are great for arguing over a beer with friends, I'm sure the judges always feel they picked the best shots, but this is such a subjective business. Sure, there are always the "great" standout shots, but those don't happen every year, that's what makes them great shots. So, whether I agree or disagree with the winner doesn't matter, not everyone will always be happy. I do think the judges are always looking for that "something different." I think the bottom line is you'll always hear "My shot was better than that one."

I think the trend to "look for something different" may have killed the "classic action shot" as far as contests go, especially the big ones. But it will never and should never replace the action shot in publication. If it does, we are doing a great disservice to our readers. The "pretty" shot is always nice once in a while, but overused it becomes a gimmick, and we're not telling the story. Just because judges have seen thousands of "peak action" shots that doesn't mean the reader doesn't want to see it.

I guess my feeling is, if I win awards for my photos, great, but isn't it more important to practice good journalism? I can think of many shots that I've liked, that never made it to publication because it didn't tell the story. In the end, you never know exactly what the judges are looking for from year to year, so I'll just go out and shoot what I like and hope for a win.

(Tommy Metthe is a staff Photographer at the Abilene Reporter-News. He recently won Sports Photo of the Year in the annual Sports Shooter Contest.)

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