Covering Tennis

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(5 March 2016)

Every year I cover the BNP Paribas Masters Tennis Open in Indian Wells, California.  This is the first of the master tennis tournaments for the year, and the one with the biggest prize money.  After the four majors (US Open, French Open, Australian Open and Wimbledon), many tennis aficionados consider the tournament in Indian Wells to be the most important.

Tennis is relatively easy to cover.  Basically, during the preliminary rounds at the beginning, you are looking for good action pictures.  The exception is when a ranked player looks to be upset and is losing.  Then you concentrate on reaction pictures of him or her looking upset.  So, a good action picture generally means a photo with the ball in the picture and, preferably, with the ball close to the racket and their head.   For the wire services, newspapers and on-line publications will use photos that are relatively small, so concentrating as much information in the smallest amount of space near the face is optimal.

Of course, we send a variety of action and reaction pictures.  There are certain players that make for excellent pictures.  Novak Djokovic is great for photos of an outstretched and twisting body.  Rafael Nadal is great for his facial expressions, which some of us refer to as “clown face” photos.  Both usually react very well when they win a match, particularly in the final rounds.  Serena Williams can be quite mechanical and almost bored during play, but she is very expressive with her reactions.  Roger Federer is difficult to photograph.  He rarely reacts and his action pictures are generally quite routine.

So, in the beginning rounds, we need to provide images to a large variety of subscribers.  There are days where I will cover up to 10 matches in a day.  This does not allow you much time to spend on each match.  You are looking for a couple of nice action images…forehand and backhand…maybe a serving photo and, if you are desperate, then a shot of the player throwing the ball up to serve.  The preliminary round photos are a matter of getting pictures for your client’s needs.  The lighting on most matches are poor as they start at 11am and you have the harsh noon sunlight.

The other type of shot we look for (time permitting) is artistic photography, and this generally means dramatic lighting, which means late afternoon light.  There is about a 30 minute window around 5pm where you get nice shadows and richer, softer light before the sun is blocked by the stadium.  Here is when tennis photography can be fun.  You can get nice solid dark backgrounds as a player runs into a shadowed area but is still lit by the sun.  Or the shadows cast by the players can make for some unusual forms and compositions. Often I will shoot these pictures from what we call “overhead positions”.  These are places above court level…generally walkways, and even from the media center.  If you decide to shoot court-side, you can get some very nice definition on faces, and this is where the ‘tossing the ball to serve’ pictures can actually work.

Backgrounds are always important when shooting anything, particularly sports.  With tennis, you want as uncluttered a background as possible.  This is hard as there are ball boys, line judges, flowers, television cameras, advertising panels and, of course, spectators in the background.  During harsh middle-of-the-day matches, I like to shoot court-side from one of the corners of the court.  In Indian Wells, there are planters you can shoot behind which require a stool or box to stand on in order to see over the flowers.  I prefer shooting with the players backlit for a number of reasons.  One, the background is dark and the players stand out more.  Two, if they are wearing baseball caps (which most of them do, including the women), their faces are completely in shadow which makes it easier to see their facial expressions.   Three, though the action is not as dramatic, in terms of the ball being near their faces, it is much easier to get the ball in the frame from the corner-court positions.  Fourth (and unfortunately, these days this does not happen often, particularly with women players), from this angle you can get some very nice net volley action pictures.  From the corner position, you need at least a 400mm lens.

So as the tournament progresses and the field of players is narrowing, particularly starting with the quarterfinals, you are looking more for reaction pictures.  Good action is always necessary, but now publications are more interested in reaction photos, both from the winners and losers.  Good reaction pictures, particularly those we call “dejection shots”, can happen any time during a match.  Most often at a break point, you will get both “dejection” and “jubo” (jubilation) photos.

Since you can’t shoot both players (unless you have more than one photographer covering the match), you need to decide which player to focus in on.  My rule is the following….if a top ranked player is losing then he/she is the primary story and I focus on the dejection of that player.  However, once I have adequate dejection photos, I will concentrate on “jubo” photos of the winner.  If both are top ranked players, then “jubo” comes first and “dejection” second.  For match point, I am always focused on the winner.

Now we come to the semi-finals and the finals, which are almost always reaction photos.  And here is where the challenge comes, because most players react towards their coaches, family, girlfriend, wife, boyfriend, husband.  The players’ entourages sit on the side of the chair umpire, which means one side of the court is usually blocked by the chair, the players seats, and the large iced beverage container.  This is why you will see migration of photographers from one side to the other, so they can get as clear a shot as possible. You can only move during change overs, so sometimes you time it right and sometimes you don’t.

This is why, when covering the final in particular, you will have one photographer in an overhead position.  From the overhead position, you can move much more easily to make sure you are in the optimal position for reaction and you have an unobstructed view.  Generally, a minimum of a 500mm lens, or better a 600mm lens, is needed from this position…though on the final point of the final it is sometimes better to shoot loose, because players will throw up their arms or  leap in the air.  You sacrifice quality, but you are less likely to cut off rackets and arms.

Finally, there is the trophy presentation.  Lighting is terrible, as the match usually ends at 3 or 4 PM.  The players will sometimes continue to wear their caps (not all the time), so a telephoto zoom with flash is necessary in order to fill in the shadows.  The presentation is made, and then the winner poses for the photographers holding the trophy up and usually kissing it.

That’s about it for covering tennis.

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