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Behind the Lens with Vincent Laforet: The Art of Sports

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Vincent Laforet shares fascinating stories of his sports photography, including images of Usain Bolt winning the 100-meter final in the Beijing Olympics, Michael Jordan’s last season with the Chicago Bulls and Michael Phelps winning his 8th gold medal in the 4 X 100 meter relay race at the 2008 Olympics.
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Divers in the 2008 Summer Olympics.

ISO 1600 f/2.8 1/1600 300mm

One thing that can really help make an exceptional sports photograph is research. And in the case of the Olympics, it includes looking at the work of other photographers.

It’s kind of an unspoken thing that we all do. We look at what everyone else is shooting, and we find the good angles because we don’t have time to find them ourselves sometimes.

So, over the weeks before shooting a sports event, you would examine the venue through others’ images and you would think, “Oh, that’s a great angle, let me try to find one when I get there.”

The idea is not to go and duplicate their image. If you do, you’re not really doing anyone any service. It’s kind of dishonest on your part, and you’re not contributing to the photography world.

I was scheduled to photograph volleyball on the last day of the Games, which included the final between China and the United States. I knew that there was one spot in the entire stadium that was dead center that had the Beijing logo. I’m not a big logo fan, but in this case I thought it would work. Trying to use words in photography is seldom very effective.

I got on the very first bus out to the venue and it was pouring rain, a real downpour. I just dashed to this location, and it is one of the times I brought only the equipment I needed. I had three lenses, including a 15mm fisheye in a small camera bag. I didn’t bring a laptop; I didn’t bring a long lens. I knew I wanted this image, and this image alone.

I also knew that if I had to drop off my stuff, someone could beat me to this one spot—the only spot in the stadium like this. I also knew that in the Olympics, once you leave your spot, you lose it. So I knew that once I sat there, I was going to live there for the next four to five hours.

It rained nonstop for the entire time. It just wouldn’t stop. And although initially I kept wiping the water off my camera and lenses, at one point I recognized that sometimes the greatest photographs happen by mistake, or when you accept the adverse conditions.

So I allowed water to accumulate on my 15mm fisheye lens. I set the aperture to f/16 and calculated the hyper focal distance to ensure that both the foreground and background were rendered acceptably sharp. So, I didn’t focus on the girls; I instead focused on this barrier itself, and used the depth of field to render the overall image sharp, especially the water droplets that were collecting on the front element of the lens. I patiently waited to use those droplets as part of my composition during the final.

Five minutes before the match, a Russian photographer walked up to me, looked at the water on my lens, picked up a wet sandy towel, and said, “Oh, no good, no good,” and started to wipe these perfectly accumulated water droplets off of my lens. We nearly had an international incident right then and there.

I let it go. I wiped it clean, and waited almost the entire match for the water to accumulate again in that way, then shot a few frames, getting the shot I’d waited all those hours to capture.

This image is all about layers. You’ve got a foreground, middle ground, and background layer, ideally. You know where you are: you’re in Beijing in 2008. You can see it’s a volleyball court. You can see the players. And what makes this image special is that the unexpected foreground element. How often do you see water droplets in a photograph? It’s pretty rare. But the droplets also convey that the entire match was played in the rain—it’s both factual and visual.

It’s an image that goes right back to marrying the aesthetic with the content.

Sports Beginnings

I got into sports photography pretty haphazardly by working at my college newspaper, the Daily Northwestern. The biggest thing at Northwestern, as at most college campuses, is football. I started photographing football my freshman year. But the reality was I didn’t even know what a first down was. I was a European kid. I had no clue about football. But I had the ability to manually wrack focus and keep the player sharp better than most people. This was before autofocus, so that skill was invaluable.

This was when being a sports photographer was a really sought-after skill because not many people could follow an entire action sequence and get sharp, well-exposed frames. Keeping someone in frame, let alone in focus at f/2.8 using a 400mm lens was no easy feat. I don’t know where the ability came from for me, but it was there.

Though I knew nothing about the game, I watched people around me. I looked at the photographs in the Chicago Tribune and the Sun Times’ every week because those photographers went to the same games I did. I saw how they shot versus how I was shooting, and tried to narrow the gap. I studied them like a hawk and learned that your position relative to the action and your lens choice were critical. I learned to anticipate, and recognized how invaluable that ability was for photographing sports.

Creating great sports photographs is ultimately all about anticipation. You come to realize that for every single moment for every single play in football, there are four likely outcomes for the quarterback. There is a chance of a fumble, which leads to a turnover; a sack, which is a big moment in the game; a simple hand-off to the running back; or a long throw for a 10-yard gain or a touchdown.

So you generally start with the quarterback. Watch his eyes. Figure out where he’s leaning, and then you have to decide whether you’re going to stay on the quarterback or the football. It’s very formulaic. You can start a game and spend the first 15 minutes with the quarterback. Once you have enough stock of him, you then go to the running back and the wide receivers. You have to feel the game and have a sense of how it’s going.

If the team isn’t making any forward progress, you stay close to the quarterback, because it probably means defense is doing well, or the offense is doing poorly. If this is a team that’s known for throwing 20-, 40-, or 50-yard touchdown passes, you stay farther away from the quarterback and get those amazing catches.

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Super Bowl XLI

ISO 800 f/2.8 1/640 45mm

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