Built to Perfection

‘Ali’s not going to knock him out again if you didn’t get it’: what makes a great sports photo? | Sport

“You make your own luck in this game, kid.” That was the mantra of the celebrated photographer Eamonn McCabe, who died last year. McCabe made his name as a sports photographer, and the saying couldn’t be truer of his specialism. Talk to any top sports photographer and you’ll discover the huge amount of work and knowledge that goes into capturing a microsecond on camera.

Sports photos can be memorable as action shots, portraits, art, comedy, news. They move us because they capture emotional extremes, historical events and the wonderful – occasionally tragic – chaos of live action.

I’ve been lucky enough to work with two of Britain’s greatest sports photographers, McCabe and his protege Tom Jenkins, when interviewing athletes. But the real sports photography – capturing the action at an arena – is a solitary pursuit. No matter how many fellow snappers are there, sports photographers are alone behind their lens, hoping that their angle will be the unique one.

Jenkins dreamed of being a professional sportsman. When he realised he wasn’t good enough to make it at any sport (snooker was the closest he got), he turned to photography. McCabe visited his school to talk about sports photography, and Jenkins discovered you could get the same buzz from taking photos of great events as competing in them. “It’s as close to being a sportsperson as you can get because, like them, you’ve got no second chances. Ali’s not going to knock that guy out again if you didn’t get it first time. There are no action replays here.”

McCabe and Chris Smith revolutionised sports photography in Britain. “They showed me it didn’t always have to be peak-of-the-action stuff,” Jenkins says. “They made sports photography more featuresy.” For him, the American Neil Leifer is the greatest sports photographer. He talks about two astonishing pictures of Muhammad Ali: one (above) of him towering over the defeated Sonny Liston; the other a gorgeous shot, taken from the rafters, of Cleveland Williams flat on his back and a triumphant Ali at the far end of the ring. The picture is simply beautiful – the colours, the choreography, the symmetry, the ring white as a ski slope, surrounded by rows of colourful press photographers. (It’s surprising how often the great photos not only capture the action, but also capture the capturing of the action.) “This is why Leifer’s images are constantly voted the greatest sports pictures of all time,” Jenkins says. “All the stars have aligned in that moment. It took a huge amount of work for him to get that camera into the roof. But he set that camera up hoping there’d be a knockout. He was putting himself and his camera in a position so if the luck did go for him that day, he would get a beautiful picture.”

‘I knew one of these days the luck would go for me’: Nina Carberry’s fall at the Grand National in 2016. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Jenkins won sports photo of the year at the World Press Photo awards in 2017 for his shot of jockey Nina Carberry going flying at the Grand National. He says this photo was 25 years in the making. Every year he’d set up remote cameras at different angles at the Chair, the biggest fence on the course. “I knew one of these days the luck would go for me. Where the cameras were positioned was too dangerous for me to be. They wouldn’t have let me lie on the grass beneath the fence, but they didn’t mind the cameras being there.”

Many of Jenkins’s favourite photos have a surreal element. Take Bob Martin’s image of the Paralympic swimmer Javier Torres diving into the pool, with his prosthetic legs parked in the background, or the American school football match being played while the school building burns in the background. The second looks like a film still, a set-up, but it isn’t. Even the title, Bad Day at Mount Hermon, could be a movie.

Some of the best sports photos are funny: the policeman using his helmet to cover a streaker’s privates or Vinnie Jones squeezing Paul Gascoigne’s balls. But being funny isn’t enough to make it a classic. Both photos are perfectly framed, and the Jones/Gazza pic tells you everything you need to know about the two men – Jones looks positively malign, while Gazza could be the wronged half of a comedy double act.

Streaker Michael O’Brien sprints into the arms of awaiting policemen during half time at the Rugby Union International match at Twickenham. 20/04/1974
A policeman covers up a streaker at Twickenham in 1974. Photograph: Bradshaw Ian/Mirrorpix

Sports photos can be memorable for their humanity. Jenkins’s beautifully composed shot of England cricketer Andrew Flintoff comforting Australia’s Brett Lee reminds us of one of the key elements of sport – sporting behaviour. England have just won the second Ashes Test of 2005 by two runs, and while the rest of the team are celebrating, Flintoff comforts Lee. Beautiful.

Some of the most powerful photos aren’t necessarily great ones. Oscar Pistorius running in the Olympics is memorable now for what came next – a few months later he was charged with murder. Nelson Mandela presenting the Rugby World Cup to the South African team in 1995 is famous because it was the first major sporting event held post-apartheid. Jesse Owens saluting at the 1936 Olympics surrounded by Sieg Heiling Germans may not be a great photo, but it is a great image.

Sports imagery can be horrifying. Look at Evander Holyfield’s ear after Mike Tyson has bitten a chunk out of it. What makes it a great photo is not just the blood and missing flesh, but the angle, the beads of sweat, the action. Perhaps the most traumatic image in sports photography was taken by McCabe, at the Heysel stadium in 1985, of supporters trying to escape the fatal crush. “After that night I thought, if this is sport you can have it.” He gave up sports photography after Heysel.

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Sometimes it is difficult to define what a sports photograph is. Jenkins says ultimately it has to be taken at an event and not be pre-planned. “Portraiture and sports photography are at opposite ends of the scale. Portraiture is about the photographer being in control, creating whatever they want in front of their lens, whereas in sport you have no control.”

Sport is the toughest photography genre to excel in. To capture the fastest athletes in the world, the photographer’s got to be fast. When manufacturers produce new kit, they look to sports photographers to try it out. “They know how punishing sports photography is to a camera,” Jenkins says. “We’re out in extremes of heat and cold – all the things electronics hate. Sports photographers need incredible lenses and the fastest shutter speeds, and are pushing the limits of cameras as far as they can go.”

Technology advances all the time, which means photographers can now take pictures that would have been impossible a few years ago. (Oli Scarff’s photo of synchronised swimmer Anita Álvarez being rescued underwater was taken by a robotic camera fixed to the bottom of the pool.) Equipment has become cheaper and more accessible, which has democratised sports photography. “It was so white and male-dominated, but it’s beginning to change,” Jenkins says. “People don’t think it’s a closed shop now whereas in the past it might have been because the prices of the equipment were so high that it ruled out many people.”

Lionel Messi of Argentina shows off the trophy to fans as he is carried around the pitch during the celebrations after the FIFA World Cup 2022 Final between Argentina and France at Lusail Iconic Stadium on December 18th 2022 in Doha, Qatar
‘I was waiting behind the goal, hoping something might happen’: Lionel Messi carrying the World Cup last year. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Jenkins has worked at the Guardian for 33 years. Does sports photography still give him the same thrill? Yes, and then some, he says. He tells me of capturing Lionel Messi carrying the World Cup on the shoulders of Sergio Agüero at last year’s final – another photo he had hoped for, and one that echoes Maradona being carried by fans around the pitch in 1986 after winning the World Cup. “I was waiting behind the goal, hoping something might happen, then suddenly this tidal wave of people comes through the goal they’ve dismantled and right in front of me, on Sergio’s shoulders at the top of this wave, is Lionel holding up the trophy.” And he’s getting the buzz all over again, just thinking about it. “The World Cup final is the biggest sporting event on the planet. It has more eyeballs on it than any other event, and as a photographer you’re right there at the centre of it. It’s just the most amazing feeling!”