It clicked

How I became a sports photographer

One day it clicked. And I don’t mean my camera. 

30 international photographers gathered at the media briefing. The announcement was: “Three photographers will have exclusive access to the track: Keystone, AFP and Ulf Schiller”. What was going on here? Let me tell step by step.

UCI Hour Record Attempt Sep 18, 2014

For long, I loved shooting sports. My friends, hobby athletes, were my usual victims. However, professional sport has always been my love. So I took a camera to the stands and shot pictures from there. There weren’t many reactions. “Yes I saw this in TV too”, was a typical one.

I desperately needed change. Thus, I started talking to event organizers. I wanted to get close to the athletes and shoot something unusual.

The Tissotvelodrome Grenchen accepted me. So I started shooting track cycling races. A niche sport. Maybe that’s why I made myself a name so quickly. After a few races, every elite track cyclist in Switzerland knew my name.

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Then, a big day was ahead… Jens Voigt, the extremely popular German cycling star, 17-times Tour de France participant, Yellow Jersey holder, permanent attacker in the peloton (quote: «Shut up legs and do what I tell you») planned to retire from professional cycling after a final attack on the official “UCI Hour Record”. Eurosport would broadcast live. The worldwide press would be there. Social media was buzzing. The Tissotvelodrome, my childs’ room, had turned into an arena of world sports. My guts were aching. I wanted to be part of the game.

I used my old trick, and asked the organizer directly. So I wrote an email to Jens’ team, Trek Factory Racing. I introduced myself as photographer of the Tissotvelodrome, asked if I could work for them, and included some of my pictures as reference. The answer was quick and polite. A rejection.

So I submitted an accreditation through the official way. Being one of very many, was the least thing I was hoping for.

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On the race day, Peter (CEO of the Tissotvelodrome) asked me to contact Trek Factory Racing’s media officer. “Is your offer still valid?”, he asked. I was more than surprised: Yes, sure, was the answer. “Good, we saw your pictures in the Tissotvelodrome. You have talent, you know what you are doing. Please deliver the pictures one hour after the race.”

Bang! I didn’t expect that! I came straight from work. That was the only reason I had my laptop with me. What a luck on an evening that I had already written off from a photographic point of view. 

When I came home late at night, my wife was waiting. She hugged me. She had seen me on the TV. And, more importantly, she showed me my pictures. They were all over the Internet! From Australia to California. I had water in my eyes. I didn’t sleep that night. 

It clicked! 

This was what I wanted! During that sleepless night, I decided to become a sports photographer.

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Shooting action using flashes

Recently I did several portrait shootings with internationally successful athletes. The ambition is to set up special lighting using flashes. This blog is about the difficulties that you encounter and how to solve them.

The Basic Setup

First let me explain my typical setup like I used it for this portrait of the European Scratch Champion 2016 Gaël Suter. The customer (Tissot Velodrome) showed me a target picture with a portrait of a 5xOlympic Champion and Tour de France winner (if you know cycling, you know who).  That target picture had side lighting as the main artistic ingredient. So I placed my 120cm soft box with grid on the left hand side. This was my main main source of light. Next, I took my 180cm strip light (with grid too) and placed it on the right hand side behind Gaël. The idea was to create a rim light that would separate Gaël from the background (typical for sports portraits).

The rest was easy: Gaël balanced his bike on the rollers and I ensured that I pressed the shutter exactly when his right foot was in the picture.

Gael Suter, 26.06.2017

Gael Suter am 26.06 2017 im Tissot Velodrome, Grenchen, Schweiz, Foto: Ulf Schiller 2017

 

From still pictures to action pictures

Taking action pictures is considerably harder. This is a shooting that I did with Stephan Wiesner in December 2017 when we met the U23 European Silver medalist Dany Brand. The basic setup was similar, but not identical. One light source (the same 120cm soft box) from Dany’s front (of course now to the side of the photographer). Instead of the strip light we chose five speed lights from the back.

Dany Brand Shooting

Dany Brand (Silver 400mH at the European U23 Championships 2017)

The main problem is to freeze the action. To explain, a flash has a short but not infinitely short burning time. This time gets longer, when the flash is used at higher power. In such cases, the action often won’t be frozen. The usual result is a quite ugly image. So we had to ensure that the burning time was sufficiently short! This meant that the flash had to be at  low power. The usual reaction would have been to shoot with wide aperture. However, there was a second difficulty: we wanted to create the star-like look of the flashes in the back. Hence we had to shoot at F13 which is less than half the light as in Gaëls photo. We solved the problem by increasing the ISO (ISO 400) and moving the flash as close as possible. It was just outside the frame.

Moving the light source close is almost always a good idea in portrait photography. By the law of physics with half of the distance you need just 1/4 of the flash power. Moreover, the light gets softer (which was a potential problem here because we also wanted Dany’s muscles to pop out. But, as you can see, his muscles were bigger than the light source was soft 😛 )

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Me, Dany, Stephan