I was contacted by someone last month who wanted advice about archery photography, which was very flattering. I still don’t consider myself a photographer. Enthusiastic amateur, maybe. But it’s been an fascination of mine since I started writing about archery, and I went to my first World Cup with an tiny little Micro Four Thirds Olympus digital camera and a single 20mm lens – the first camera I owned that wasn’t a point-and-shoot. I wasn’t even planning on using it much. But I took some photos, just snapping away, and I noticed some of them had personality. And it made an image that was vastly better than your phone.
From then on, I’ve been steadily more hooked. I’ve progressed steadily upwards with equipment to full-frame Nikon. A lot of people in archery are fascinated by equipment and what differences this bow or those limbs make, which has never interested me as much as the people in it and how and why they do what they do. Photography, to me, is similar; while it does require you to be more familiar with specific tools, as you improve at it you realise that it’s not really about the equipment. It’s about who you are. How you are interacting with people and the environment that has the biggest effect on your photographs and crucially, their impact on other people. There’s a million examples, but I’m going to tell you about just one.
The much-decorated Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkestra’s Beach Portraits were taken at beaches in Europe and America. She mostly photographed adolescents, using a large, heavy large-format camera on a tripod, the old-fashioned kind. There’s a little fill-in flash, but technically, it’s not complicated. The portraits work because of the interaction between photographer and subject. Someone asks to take your picture and tells you to stand in front of the camera. The girl is a willing participant, but you can sense that that’s about it; not a lot of time has been been spent making her feel comfortable. Dijkestra specialises in this kind of work, setting up formal portraits in emotionally charged or vulnerable situations. There’s other factors at play too; a male photographer asking to photograph kids would probably have got chased off the beach. She could do it.
Also, people respond very differently to different cameras, too. Think how you would respond, how you would pose, what you would do if someone asked to take your picture with something like this:
In the international archery world, Dean Alberga knows pretty much everybody on the field, and this builds trust between him and his subjects. This trust allows him to ask people to pose for him, and also means they behave more naturally when he’s around, because they know who he is and what he’s doing there. All of this has a bigger effect on his work for World Archery than what lens / body combination he is using at the time. His position as the official photographer also allows him access that other photographers don’t get and places other people can’t go.
My favourite shot of Dean’s is this one of Brady Ellison at the World Cup Final in Lausanne in 2014:
It has incredible energy. The essential Brady-ness about it. It has motion. You can sense the crowd are there, making a noise. It says a lot about the man, but it’s a great sports photograph anyway. Anyone can understand it and what it means. It may have been a lucky moment, but it wasn’t an accident. Dean knew exactly where to stand, and positioned himself specifically to give himself the opportunity to get lucky. It’s a little like fishing. You may not always catch something, but you try and use all your experience to give yourself the best possible chance at catching something.
The best pictures I have taken of archers have less to do with sport. I suppose I’m more of a documentary/street type photographer who happens to focus on one thing. If I have a style (and I feel I’m kind of fumbling towards one) it’s trying to capture the essence of a person or situation, and I like people to behave naturally, so they’re not (usually) aware they’re having their picture taken. The better pics I took in Rio were like this.
So, if you want to be an archery photographer – or any type of photographer – lucky you. There’s never been a time in history where you can own equipment capable of taking astonishingly high-quality images for the lowest cost, and with automatic modes that allow you to work in almost any way you’d like.
For a general introduction to digital and sport photography, read this thing I wrote a couple of years ago, which sums up the masterclass Dean Alberga gave at ArcheryGB.
Archery does require some specialist lenses. Because you can’t get very up close and personal to an archer unless you’re in a private setting, you will need a lens at least capable of a 200mm reach, preferably more, and the fastest you can afford. A common problem in archery situations is that the backgrounds are often very busy/noisy with people and colour, which needs a fast, long lens to focus attention on the subject. Careful use of vignetting, cropping and/or exposure dodging up and down to push the background away is important too.
The one good thing about expensive, heavy lenses like this is that they are an investment which could last you decades without losing a great deal of their value (unlike camera bodies).
Archery comes broadly under the category of ‘sport photography’, which is of course a specialist discipline in itself. It demands particular equipment and techniques, usually around capturing motion. But a lot of it is knowing the sport well. Have a watch of this video to see how pro sports photographer Tom Jenkins captures cycling:
Some of the special issues around professionally photographing the Olympics are in this fascinating short documentary, showing how images from the men’s 100 metre race are available to clients within a minute of the race finishing:
In the wider world of photography, one of the best documentaries I’ve seen is in this recent Netflix series, called Abstract: The Art Of Design. The photography episode focuses on a photographer called Platon, who has taken distinctive portraits for some of the most famous people in the world. He discusses, in great detail, his technique for getting what he wants onto film. The equipment he uses, while high-end and specialist, isn’t the reason he is one of the highest paid and most sought-after photographers in the world. It’s the interaction between himself and his subject that makes the difference. If you have Netflix and any interest in photography at all, watch it immediately.
Read and look, always. There’s almost limitless resources available online. Don’t read them all. If you want to know how a particular lens can do, try searching for it on Flickr. Read Ken Rockwell’s blog – a most extraordinary resource. Read this book and that book – even if you only do it in the bookstore. They will introduce you to a range of some of the greatest photographers of the past 100 years. Buy second-hand equipment and flip it on eBay if it’s not for you. Don’t worry about whether Nikon or Canon is better. Just pick one and run with it. Read about Vivian Maier – a classic outsider art tale – and watch the documentary. Read this extraordinary dissection of Melania Trumps’ photographs. But most of all: get out there, shoot, reflect, and repeat.
Even if it’s just you and your smartphone (and/or your Instagram account) photography is always something that you can practice and do better. For the rest of your natural life, most likely, you will have a camera in your pocket capable of making images that can dazzle and fascinate. It’s at least worth learning a little about how the magic is made.