Striking the balance on the pitch

Every trip to Wembley Stadium where football is played is a passionate affair. The preparation, expectation, the rise of tension, the meeting of friends and foes, fear of not being match-fit, your position, good luck or bad luck, missing opportunities, grabbing at a half opportunity and making it work, a flash of inspiration, getting the goal (Oh joy! Oh joy!), missing the goal (let the pitch open and swallow me whole) and of course the team. Always team; will you win or lose? And that is just the photographers.

Recently a picture editor told me he receives about 27,000 images every day. He looks for short cuts to be able to see the best pictures that tell the whole story without getting snowed under looking at hundreds of pictures he doesn’t need. How can we help?

I am very preoccupied with the future of news pictures. Questions I ask myself are “is coverage at major events very different now from the past? And what will be relevant in the future?” I decided to apply this question to the Borussia Dortmund v Bayern Munich Champions League final at Wembley Stadium. What pictures are needed? Simple to answer, the fans, great action, the goals, the celebration, the dejection, the match changing incident, the final whistle moment, the personalities and of course the trophy.

Putting this into context the first final I ever shot at Wembley was totally covered by two photographers, one at each end and on three rolls of film each – first bike back to the office after 20 minutes action and then he’d return to speed me back to the office to process and print my other two rolls that contained all of the above – hopefully sharp – and all in 108 frames. Often there were gaps in content and to win you had to have less gaps than your competitors. The sense was the more you shot the less gaps and the better the coverage.

Today every corner is covered and the technology that is used now allows skilled and clever sports photographers (who actually understand the story of the game) to capture every moment with the pictures transmitted within seconds. There should be no gaps in the coverage. Everything should be there for the editor to chose from. With every incident covered the question is how many pictures do we need to send from this final to satisfy client needs – a quick search reveals that Reuters moved about 280 pictures.

Looking at the data, the five photographers in the stadium filed to the editor a total 4274 frames. Bring in remotes to the calculation (they can’t be edited in camera), each photographer will have a least one, the editor probably looked at between 18,000 and 20,000 pictures. In short we moved to the wire 6.5% of all pictures filed to the editor that were not shot on a remote. 1.5% if you include remotes. A hard and fast night for the editor

A publication picture editor needs to decide what the key moment is and which key moment makes the best picture for their own publication. Each editor will try to differentiate their own publication from their competitors by using different pictures. What is very interesting is looking at the selection of fronts and sports pages from Germany the Monday after the game.

International publications will of course take a different look at the Bayern Munich v Borussia Dortmund final and I think the winning goal celebration is a key international image. It has everything – the team hero, international star, and man of match celebrating his winning goal, his teammate runs with him, arms in air, mouth wide open while in the background the slumped defeated Dortmund defenders. The boldness of the image will allow it to still make visual sense used small, either in print or on hand-held devices.

What is important to know is that each photographer has this key moment from their own angle as you can never predict where the best angle can be seen from. This is the editor’s desktop of that moment.

On one hand, picture editors need more choice but on the other hand, they need less pictures to look at. What editors actually want are different images and not more of the same. Was the first goal important to have? Of course, but less important once the equalizer went in. Looking at the whole game retrospectively how important was Ilkay Guendogan penalty equalizer? Probably not important at all. Should it have been moved? Yes, because it’s a great picture of a key moment up until the winning goal by Robben. Do they want lots of versions of this – no, just the best.

So what is my conclusion? Well, we can’t get any faster. Transmission from pitch to clients is now about 90 seconds for key moments. Can we move any less pictures during the match? Not without a crystal ball. What can we do to stop adding to the 27,000 pictures every day. We could wait until the end of the game and just file the key moments. Is that an option? Print editors not on deadline would, maybe, say yes while online live editors would scream “No!”

So what can we do to strike the balance needed? Firstly, photographers have to understand the news story at the sporting event. It’s not only about winning and losing, it’s about why the game was won and lost. Next, capturing the moments, if you don’t have the pictures the editor can’t chose them so without these you might as well not have bothered to turn up. Technology – if you don’t understand the technology you are using, you will be too slow so you might as well file all at the end. And there is the overriding importance of the edit. Too tight and the publications don’t have the choice they need; too loose and the good images are lost in a sea of secondary, irrelevant pictures.