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Capturing the moment - a snapper's view

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Rob Hodgetts | 10:01 UK time, Sunday, 18 July 2010

If a picture paints a thousands words then the photographers at St Andrews this week are writing a good few novels between them.

You'll have seen them on the telly or here at the course, packs of snappers, kit hanging off them like soldiers in battle, a phalanx of long lenses trained on the action.

Some just want the news story of the day, others need feature pictures, some are after more timeless colour and atmosphere. All are hoping to capture "the moment" in whatever form that may be. But all their images form a history of the sport.

The sixth tee is a favourite spot for snappers at St Andrews. Photo: Matthew Harris, The Golf Picture Library

To find out more about the noble art, I grabbed a chat with Matthew Harris, who runs The Golf Picture Library, and has been a golf photographer since 1979.

"Often in stills photography there is literally a split second that is the moment," says the 50-year-old, who has worked at every major since 1988.

This might be the instant of a celebration, such as a Tiger Woods fist pump, or a grimace of disappointment, or something more subtle such as capturing fleeting light, a shadow or a player's body shape.

"In order for that to then become a really memorable moment, it's all about the background," says Harris.

"It's nothing to do with art or photography or f-stops or anything like that - when your eye sees an image it will get distracted if there is something there to distract it.

"For a great picture, a truly memorable picture, you've got to get the focal point of what makes it so good."

Harris points to the iconic photos of Seve Ballesteros celebrating his birdie putt on the 18th at St Andrews in 1984.

"With Seve, it's the fist, the face, the mouth - but the background was so good you knew it was the Open," he says.

This week's Open has presented problems for the photographers, and not just because of the damp, grey weather at times.

"St Andrews is without any shadow of doubt hardest venue to get a good clean picture," he says. "It's in quite a tight area and has the double greens which from a photographers' point of view is a nightmare. Up the middle of the golf course there's no access to get in and work so we're forced to always shoot from one side of the golfer."

Nevertheless, St Andrews contains the most prized picture of them all.

"Every Open course has its iconic shot but without any question the most iconic across any venue is from behind the 18th tee, down the line at the top of the backswing, with the R&A building, the Swilcan Bridge and the old hotel with the pepper pot top in the background," says Harris.

"If it's of the winner it's a classic historic picture that will be used time and time again."

Woods nearly provided a huge pay-day there on Friday. In perfect evening light conditions, the American very nearly drove into the hole on the par-four 18th.

"All the hardcore working pros were there specifically, just in case," says Harris. "I can assure you if he'd holed that shot it would have given an amazing picture."

Harris reckons most snappers rate Woods as the best to photograph because he will always offer something whether he is playing well or badly, but the shot they all want is the Woods "upper cut". He says the photographers are baffled by calls for the world number one to tone down his celebrations, or "celis" as the snappers know them.

"We find that really puzzling. I never remember reading anything about Seve, saying that his celebrations were disrespectful," says Harris.

"We think we've got the best-case scenario. We've got a number one player who gives you emotion whether he's playing good, bad or indifferent. That passion, to me, is what sport is all about."

If Woods is photography gold - though his lime green T-shirt over a long-sleeve white top had a few scratching their heads on Friday - sometimes the photographers have to work harder for a "selly".

Some players offer little in the way of emotion - Geoff Ogilvy, "a lovely man", is a good example, says Harris. The harsh UK summer sun, typically between about 8.30am and 4pm in the UK, also makes life difficult, plunging faces into deep shadows under their ubiquitous caps.

Photographers then have to go looking for something different. A pre-dawn shoot with greenkeepers, a group of lesser known players early in the morning or late in the evening while the summer light is at its atmospheric best.

The tower at the sixth tee provides a good vantage point. Photo: Matthew Harris, The Golf Picture Library

Bad weather is not all bad either. "The Saturday at Muirfield in 2002 was just the worst I've known it," says Harris. "Only five of us were daft enough to still to be out but it was so extreme that they were good pictures. The shots I've got of Woods are of a man fighting the elements, not just the golf course."

Often the photographers are looking to capture a certain posture. Nick Faldo had a classic way of leaning on his putter, Colin Montgomerie does his "Monty Slump".

"Body language shots are terrific," says Harris. "With Monty, you can see the shoulders drop - he looks like a wounded monkey."

The players and photographers all know each other and often chat about what makes a good picture.

"The hardcore of us are like a travelling family," says Harris. "Everyone is trying to make sure everyone can do their job."

Paul Casey - "great sense of humour " - is apparently always asking, "did you get that?" while Darren Clarke has been known to apologise for his outfit.

"'You might as well go somewhere else, I know it looks rubbish'," Clarke once shouted across to the lensmen.

Sometimes, though, the tension of the game can boil over and every photographer has fired his lens at the wrong time at some stage in his career.

"It's happened to me badly, maybe three times in my career," says Harris. "The rule of thumb is to say nothing. Let the player react in whatever way he needs to. I always go and find him after to apologise.

"On one of the three someone in the crowd leant against my second camera and that's what had fired off at the top of Howard Clarke's backswing."

Another time at a European Tour event in the midlands, Montgomerie tore a strip off Harris for being the first person he saw after hitting a bad shot.

"I was the easy target," says Harris. "He gave me a verbal hosing down. He came to find me afterwards in the media centre to apologise profusely. 'You know how I get sometimes,' he said."

Harris typically carries two camera bodies and three lenses (17mm-40mm wide angle, 70mm-200mm zoom and 500mm fixed telephoto.) On a good day at the Open, with good light and some good reactions, he reckons he might shoot 600 frames, actually not that dissimilar to the days of film.

He edits his pictures down to 20, maybe 40 on the final day. For the news snappers out on the course, there will usually be a runner who will ferry memory cards back to the edit suite.

St Andrews might have its difficulties but there are a number of favourite spots.
The tower behind the sixth tee gives a good vantage point for colour, with a sea of spectators, all the furniture of a group of big-name golfers, and the view back to the Auld Grey Toon.

"You can also get great shots of the double greens, beautiful shadows and dust kicking up off the links turf from punch shots into the seventh green, and beyond that the 12th tee with the coastline of Fife in the background or the ninth tee and the line of surf out in St Andrews Bay," he says.

But while all those make pretty pictures, the money shot is back at the 18th on the final afternoon.

The problem with a new winner, as could happen on Sunday, is the snappers don't have much of a clue how he will react, making positioning difficult.

"The biggest worry is, yes, you've recorded history, but it's not a very good picture," says Harris.

It's all about the moment.


  • Comment number 1.

    Why can't we be shown any live golf on the BBC. It's 11.45, the programme has been on for 45 minutes and we see the awful woman talking to men and kids playing crazy golf. A complaint to the BBC has been sent.

  • Comment number 2.

    Try using your red button! I can't believe you have actually complained

  • Comment number 3.

    Sadly it's the way sports television seems to be going. And I think it's the septics who started it. During the Olympics they will dedicate a good half an hour of a two hour primetime "what went on today" slot to "back stories"... stories of redemption etc... *yawn*... just show us the action and the atmosphere! Then you have something left to run should wind stop play. And does everyone have the option of the red button? (Don't know myself, as an expat in the States).

  • Comment number 4.

    Nice article - but its a shame that us keen amature sports photographers can't share this great sport - We are banned from taking our cameras in which is a shame for those of us who aren't just "pointing and shooting" but have an appreciation not to use the flash or fire off a burst during the backswing.

    I'd love to shoot more golf, like i shoot motorsport or tennis, or cricket etc but i feer that if i tried to get my camera into the carpark i'd get shot!

    I remember being at Turnbury last year, the light was amazing, the angles were great, the shadows perfect and the backgrounds/framing stunning, but i didnt have my camera and i would have been thrown out if i had it.

    I once managed to sneak my SLR and lenses into the belfry for the British Masters, I had a great day, but i was always on edge and wary of being thrown out - thats not right in my opinion and a great shame for those of us who enjoy photography.

  • Comment number 5.

    @ villasronaldo - Being a professional sports photographer, what most people spectacularly fail to grasp is that Tiger Woods teeing off is just a bloke teeing off at St Andrews just like Ryan Giggs is just a speedy and talented winger in a Man U kit. Just because a picture of Tiger or Ryan, it does not make it a good one. Most of the time mass advertising ruins it anyway!

    The actual discipline of photography is the same regardless of if you are shooting the World Cup Final or a Sunday League game. Football is 11 men kicking a ball. Professionals would probably argue that you get better pictures at a Sunday League match as you have more freedom.

    Hope you take this the right way, but if you have such talent then shoot amazing pictures where there are no rules or crazy regulations, prove yourself and become a professional. When I employ photographers I look at the image, the light, the composition and the picture and not what sportsman or women is in the picture.

    Pop concerts are ruined these days with concert goers using iphones filming performers singing songs and then putting terrible quality movies on the internet. I'm glad Golf Courses stick to only letting professionals taking pictures. The vibe and energy of being at such sporting events and indeed concerts is sadly being lost due to this culture of filming everything.

  • Comment number 6.

    Good Article, Mike Stevens has way too much time to be sending a complaint to the bbc. Just use that little red button which would have solved all your problems!! lol

  • Comment number 7.

    I've always wondered why sports events have a phalanx of photographers snapping all the time when the number of published photographs is actually quite miniscule. This article helped explain some of that, thanks.

    But it doesn't explain one thing - aren't photographers a dying breed? Photography came into its own because video hadn't been invented yet. How can a single snapshot in time capture a moving event? Much as its defenders would like to say otherwise, it really can't.

    There are some good photographs out there, but it really is second best - at best.

  • Comment number 8.

    I'm an amateur photographer and I have to disagree strongly with the above post! (buymespresso)
    I think that a photograph can capture a moment and convey an emotion that a video cannot.
    It obviously doesn't capture a moving event but what a great photograph can do is capture the exact instant, that explosion of power and skill that is gone in an instant and not even noticed on a video. That is why I love photography, a good photo can capture a moment you will have totally missed in real time.

  • Comment number 9.

    @prosnapper - villasrenaldo doesn't actually talk about taking photos of the players, so why mention it? They talk about light, angles, shadows and backgrounds, the very things you say you look for so I don't quite understand the point of your comment?

    I was leaving yesterday and there was a great shot (in my opinion) as one of the deserted stands around the 14th had been taken over by seagulls, all lined up in a neat row...of course I had no camera.


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