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|| News Item: Posted 2002-05-02

Todd Korol: What Is A Good Sports Photo?
"Sports photographs should capture the essence of sports, the act of competing, the sorrow of defeat "

By Todd Korol

I have to admit, until this year I didn't think a whole lot of what makes a great sports action photo. For the past year I have been trying to shoot sports action photos with a littlebit of a different twist, trying odd angles and looking for great light.

Shooting great action is not as easy as sitting on the sidelines with the latest and greatest auto-focus cameras and lenses. It's now taken for granted that the majority of photos a good sports photographer shoots will be in focus. So what makes that one photo stand out, the difference between gold and silver. We all know the controversy at the recent Best of Photojournalism competition, but it hit home for me when I had the privilege of judging the Western Canadian News Photographers Association annual pictures of the year contest. It all went well until...the sports category came up. It became a hung jury of 6 judges battling over the merits of 2 different sports photos. And it really heated up like no other category did.

When we got to the judging of the sports category, one judge made a statement to us all of what he thought was a good sports photograph, and it didn't involve peek action. He wanted to see the behind the scenes angles or something different, but not the pure action photos. He was a documentary photographer and almost dismissed pure action photographs. That is what seems to have happened at the recent BOY competition.

The Leica toting crowd (which I have two myself), immediately dismissed a great sports action photograph as it was too easy. It's funny because the same photographers that will accept documentary photographs for what they are, will not accept sports photographs for what they should be. Sports photographs should capture the essence of sports, the act of competing, the sorrow of defeat, Muhammad Ali's KO of Sonny Liston goddam it. That was a great, great sports photograph Neil Leifer took. PERIOD.

Great sports photos are not that easy nowadays. Access is becoming more limited, well you all know the story. As photography is becoming more and more stylized, maybe that's what judges want to see, the photographers sense of style coming out in their sports photographs. Maybe they don't like the long lens toting crowd because they feel anyone with autofocus and a 400 2.8 can get those pictures. But I really think Walter Iooss has great style to his work and some incredible action images.

I am lucky, I get to shoot with some of the best sports photographers that are working today. I freelance for Sports Illustrated on a regular basis up here in Canada. Day after day these photographers produce some of the most arresting sports images taken. If you follow the magazine during football season, photographers like John Biever make some of the most amazing action images ever. We all want to be able to shoot football like Biever, but some how his images of solid action are rarely beat. He continues to some up with action that is both compelling, poignant and riveting.

Heinz Kluetmeier will always come up with new angles and new ways of photographing the classic sports action photo without making it gimmicky. I will always remember the first time I saw one of his underwater cameras at an Olympic swimming event. The images had everybody saying, "why didn't I think of that?" At the press center at the recent Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, I overheard photographers still talking about Carl Yarbrourgh's image of the skier Herman Meier wiping out in Nagano winter Olympics. It was a photograph that I still remember vividly: Meier flying out of control, half upside down. I not only remember watching that wipe out on television, but saying to my wife that if somebody got that picture it would be a hell of a photo. It was, and it was the cover of S.I. that week.

Photographers are always looking for that different angle at the big events, the one that really sings. But what's wrong with a great action photo of Michael Jordan doing a slam or Sarah Hughes flying through the air en route to a gold medal or Patrick Roy getting nailed in the head with a puck. And did you see Al Tielemans' shot last week in S.I. of Philly's catcher Mike Lieberthal's bat breaking, you can see the damned splinters flying through the air! That's a great sports photo.

We are all trying to do something a little different these days, capture the peak moment with that perfect, clean background and wonderful golden light - or find that angle that nobody else is in and the stars align and the photo gods smile on you. But some of us make our luck and push all the limits, no more is this true than the Marion Jones photograph Bill Frakes and assistant David Callow took at the Summer Olympics in Australia. Shot with a strip camera it was a pan that was completely different: it captured how far ahead she won by, it captured the thrill of victory and was a new way of looking at the race. It will no doubt go down as one of the greatest track and field photographs ever.

When it comes right down to it, I still l want compelling wonderful action photographs shot in a way that brings out the passion and action in sports. I don't necessarily want to see pictures shot at a 1/4 of a second just because it looks cool and has nothing to do with the game or the story of the game. We are supposed to be journalists as well, telling the story of sport.

Now that the National Hockey League playoffs are here, I want to see that big hit from last night's game in my morning paper. I want a sports photograph that's clean with lot's of impact. I don't want to see some arty shot from game seven that would have no hope in hell of getting published anywhere except on some photographers web site. Send the Leica crowd to bowling or something. But then again, it will probably be a nice grainy black and white photo taken through a teammates legs of Herb, from the Ally Alligators, when he misses the 5 pin. Look for that on the medal podium next year in the sports category.

(Todd Korol lives in Canada and freelances for a variety of magazines including Sports Illustrated.Check out his web site at:

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