A couple of Saturdays ago me and about 20 other photographically-inclined members of Archery GB were treated to a masterclass from Dean Alberga at Lilleshall National Sports Centre. There’s no such thing as a free lunch: this lesson from the capo di tutti capi of modern archery photography was organised in the expectation that we would be delivering our much improved photographs to Archery UK, the magazine of Archery GB.
Dean has been working for World Archery since 2006. I can’t replicate his experience (let alone his smiles, geniality, or cracking anecdotes) but I will try and summarise some of what he said in our four hour session in a mostly non-technical way. A fair bit of what he said is applicable to digital and sports photography generally – there may be some unfamiliar areas (there were plenty for me) but if you get stuck just follow any of the links below.
Make sure to have a look at Dean’s website: dutchtarget.com.
1. Get the right equipment. Dean recommends a DSLR with fast auto-focus, capable of taking at least three frames per second. You’ll need at least two lenses: a telephoto zoom, preferably 100-400mm and a wide angle zoom. It may well be more than you need to take photos of your local tournament, but a full rig from Canon or Nikon will set you up to create seriously extraordinary results. This is the ideal setup for getting professional photographs and close-ups of archers from the ‘1.30pm angle’, but will cost you a good deal of money.
If a full-frame camera and two heavy bits of serious glass are out of your range, you should start looking at the range of excellent midrange models which use APS-C format and lenses, or perhaps mirrorless system cameras (sometimes called DSLMs). * [see note below] Definitely avoid so-called ‘bridge’ cameras with a non-removable zoom lens as they are less flexible, make a poorer image due to cheaper glass, and have a low resale value. You want to do this properly, right?
For post-processing, Dean recommends Adobe Lightroom and / or Adobe Photoshop for editing photos (he uses both) and you will need a decent computer with a good, clear, accurate screen (he uses an Apple MacBook Pro with a retina display). You can now rent both Lightroom and Photoshop by the month, and there are other processing software solutions available, such as Aperture for OSX (soon to be replaced) or a variety of free/cheapware solutions for the PC and Linux. All can perform the basic steps required to deliver images to a client, and all have advantages and disadvantages.
You will also, of course, need many accessories as well – memory cards, a tripod or monopod, external drives, and Dean was keen to point out that you shouldn’t skimp on a bag / carry case. Oh, and whether it’s arrows or photographs: always check the weather before you go out to shoot. Planning is vital.
2. Teach yourself how to take photographs. You could spend ten minutes on this or the rest of your life.
Firstly, you should start with learning basic composition and the rule of thirds. Dean recommends looking for different lines and angles and trying to get some depth to the shot by including some of the tournament infrastructure (e.g. targets) in the background. You can, of course, only learn how to break the rules when you know them in the first place!
Next, you are going to have to spend a few sessions learning how to shoot in semi-auto modes and what shutter speed, aperture, and ISO all do and the link between them. Next would be understanding white balancing, the difference between JPG and RAW files, and how to use burst mode (to get that classic arrow-leaving-the-bow shot). YouTube tutorials are definitely your friend here. (For a general introduction to digital photography, I enjoyed this book a lot.)
3. Find out what your client wants. Your client might just be you and your Facebook page, your club’s website, an archery magazine or even a national newspaper. What are they expecting? Poses at full draw, the home country, a specific athlete, the trophy in the air – what are they looking for? There are technical issues too. What ratio are your photos going to be published in? – you may need to crop depending on your sensor size. Are they expecting JPG files or RAW? Should you be editing them first or leaving them as is (answer: the latter!). If your photos are going to end up in magazines, you may even need to get down and dirty with CMYK profiles. Find out what people want, and deliver it to them.
4. Look for something different. Everyone has seen hundreds of shots of archers at full draw, from a dozen angles. Maybe you can try to catch something else. Dean has lain on his back on the grass, shinned up flagpoles, knocked on the doors of apartments overlooking the field and much else to get an interesting photo. Over longer tournaments, he picks a different thing to look for each day to keep things fresh, whether that be close-ups, emotions, colour or something else – but you should always keep an eye out for what might be happening.
Ideally, you should get to a new venue early and look for good spots. You might find a shot at all sorts of odd times (like I did at official equipment inspection or warm-ups). Dean takes around 1000 photographs a day at major tournaments.
5. Make friends. With the athletes, with the team managers, with the coaches, with the judges, and definitely with the security guards on the gate. This can open up all sorts of photographic doors. Dean illustrated this with a pic he took at London 2012, where in a press pack scrum after Im Dong-Hyun had broken the ranking round world record, he asked Im (a friend) to turn round and got the shot everyone else was looking for:
6. Get up early. Being up and about at first light is a staple of photography, and essential for catching one of the magic hours. One of Dean’s favourite images was taken early in the morning at the tournament in Ogden, Utah in an atmospheric shot that captures both the tournament and the spectacular backdrop:
7. Always keep an eye out for what could be happening elsewhere – this could be particularly applicable in head-to-heads, when the archer not currently shooting is preparing themselves. Your point of focus need not always be the athlete currently in ‘action’. Dean demonstrated this with a picture of Aida Roman preparing herself to shoot, but this picture taken after the final of the 2015 Australian Open artfully demonstrates it too:
8. The real work is done afterwards. Digital photography in recent years is as much about editing as getting the shots in the first place.
Firstly and most importantly, Dean recommends a process to protect your photographs. After you’ve finished a shoot, copy all the shots from your memory card onto your computer and into a clearly marked folder saying something like “2015 Telford Shoot Day 1- original files” or whatever. When you have copied them into you editing software library and edited them, print the edited photographs to another folder clearly marked “edited files”. Then copy both folders onto an external drive or memory stick. Only then should you delete the photographs on the memory card. In this way you always have a backup if something goes wrong.
There are whole books and websites – and indeed, careers – devoted to digital photo editing, and it’s way beyond the scope of this (or any) one article. Cropping is the most important, but in order to deliver the best photographs you can, you will need to learn about noise reduction, dodging and burning, spot removal, using the adjustment brush, sharpening, reading histograms and correcting colour casts, amongst much else. Again, YouTube is your friend here; there are a gazillion tutorials available with a quick search. Take the time.
This could be a long process of learning, but it will ultimately improve your photographic output enormously, and enable you to save photographs which appear unsalvageable. Dean suggests that if you have a photo that isn’t magazine-cover-quality but which otherwise works, it may still be useful as a background, or it may work in monochrome. Basically, if in doubt: keep it.
9. If there are sponsors banners visible, try to get them in the frame. This might even lead to a handy sale down the line.
10. Getting it out there. When you are happy with your results, you need some way of sharing it with the world. Dean uses SmugMug for both World Archery work and his own Dutch Target website. This charges an annual fee, but is easy to use for both photographers and customers alike. There are other professional portfolio sites (such as PhotoShelter) and many other photo-sharing services, of which Flickr remains the most popular amongst amateurs. Then you might try and find a market for your work – but that’s a whole other chapter…
Finally, I think this shot of Brady Ellison at the 2014 World Cup Final is my favourite shot of Dean’s. Just seems to express everything glorious about sport:
Anyway, thanks very much indeed, Mr. Alberga! We will all try and do you proud.
*I’ve been very happy with and produced some decent images with cameras and lenses from the Micro Four Thirds system developed by Panasonic and Olympus. MFT and other ‘mirrorless’ system cameras have the advantage of getting DSLR-like-or-as-near-as-makes-no-difference-to-most-of-us results from a system that is usually smaller, lighter and cheaper. The system has a large range of zoom and primes available, although unlike a DSLR they do not use a full-frame sensor, which may ultimately be limiting, particularly from a professional angle. As usual, it all depends on your expectations and what you want to achieve!
Special thanks to bimble at AIUK for the lift.