RAISING THE BAR
Off-the-ground photos take sports photography to new heights
While sports photography lays claim to being the most kinetic genre of photography, the type of sports photo most throbbing with action is the kind in which the athlete momentarily leaves terra firma and takes to the air to make a statement. Sometimes the athlete leaps; other times he is checked or hurled, often rudely and quite involuntarily.
For the photographer, seizing the instant that the athlete traverses the air can add a much-needed touch of visual tonic to what might otherwise be a dormant image. Think Bobby Orr flying through the air, 1970. Most iconic Michael Jordan photos depict him airbound. It is the difference between night and day, between idling and doing donuts, . . . between Charlie Hough and Oil Can Boyd. Even though my own best air shots are, of course, pale imitations of the above, I still feel like Colombo right after cracking the case when I capture my own such moment with my camera, the rare time that it comes at me. Let?s be honest: it?s rewarding, it?s gratifying, and it?s every sports photographer?s proudest moment, a way for us to unfurl our feathers with a mere shutter click. Nothing makes a better case for the still photo, I contend, than seeing that peak moment frozen in time, as the soaring athlete lives suspended forever, extended to the heavens in a visual testament to the athlete?s defiance and non-adherence to our laws of gravity as he soars and goes for broke. Talk about moving the needle. What screams energy more than that photo ?
Okay, I need a few seconds to gather myself.
Too often, we snipers take aim, press the shutter, and find the results to be a let down of sorts. A play transpires and hopes were high that a flurry of activity would yield at least one good frame primed with high-octane, pulse-pounding action, expressing off-the-hook excitement, oozing reckless abandon. Although we?d prefer to see bodies extended headlong, careening off each other, perhaps to find the odd one sent flying, when the dust settles, what we often discover is quite more mundane, if not unredeeming ? bodies may be in motion, yes, but a key element is missing. Most of the time, the subject is earthbound, both feet firmly tethered to the surface. So what could enliven such sterile goings-on ? Any separation between the feet and the mainland is a good start. The more elevation, the better. What else ? It rarely hurts when the body is off-balance, leaning, teetering, the opposite of upright, especially when it?s angling towards the horizontal. Then, throw in flawless composition and a nice background. Put all these ingredients together and it likely augers for a memorable image with a lengthy horizon line in the minds of many editors.
These characteristics ? coupled with tension and strain, with speed and dynamism ? make for an unreal visual construction and have the potential to breathe a thousand watts of energy into an image all at once. There are many ways a photo can convey meaning, but the type of action which depicts a body parting ways with the land that anchors it as it becomes jettisoned skyward is a unique quality that gives a photo unparalleled purpose. Who inhabits a scene in a more mythic way than the athlete flying in a mid-air endeavor ? That to me is weapons-grade sports photography at its most gripping; sports action at its most fully realized level. Examine many great sports photographers? portfolios and you?ll likely find that the crown jewel in the set that they like to hold up as their signature photo, their magnum opus, likely has a player in it flying through the air. Shots of the hero running at top speed, absorbing a body check, celebrating a game-winner are all nice action moments, but they are as common as traffic jams in Toronto. Making great photos is about standing out, not fitting in. The airborne shot sets the bar higher and clearly delineates the good from the great.
So disposed are we to look for all this when making an image that there are even times when ? unless we sense that some sort of impact is imminent, triggering a possible takeoff ? the more jaded photographers among us will refuse to press the shutter. It?s almost a photographic version of writer?s block. It?s not often that you gain entry into a rarefied club, but delivering the goods on a photo like this can sure make people notice. So, do we photogs pine for that airborne shot, or what ?
Short answer: Yes.
Long answer: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes !
Life comes at you fast and these moments tend to be so fleeting that, in order to seize it properly, you have to be alert throughout and usually strain for games on end before being finally rewarded with that eventual bing-bang moment, should it finally happen. And as the pixels gestate, you have to wonder in the immediate wake of that play whether the image, once fully formed, then glimpsed, will live up to the action you watched happen and just how much it will sing to you.