Tight Nicheing Works in Professional Sports Photography

Photography: Philip Brown

Philip Brown’s website makes very clear who he is and what he offers. At the top of the page, right next to his name, are the words “specialist cricket photographer.” In terms of nicheing, it doesn’t get much narrower than that. But it’s an approach that appears to have served him well. Philip works regularly for the UK’s Daily Telegraph, thousands of his images have appeared in newspapers, magazines and books, and he has edited two books of sporting photographs himself. It does seem as though there’s something to be said for tight nicheing.

Philip’s specialization however is relatively new. He’s been shooting for more than twenty years and until 2005, covered all sports. These days, he says, cricket makes up about 98 percent of his work. He now spends much of his time shooting in his native Australia, as well as in India, the West Indies and in other test-playing countries. He is currently in South Africa, covering England’s tour, a series that began in November and will continue almost until the end of January. The focus and experience clearly give him a good understanding of how the game operates, what is likely to happen next, and what he needs to do to get the best shot.

“I do think I can anticipate things in cricket after having covered matches for over twenty years,” he told us by email from Durban. “Sometimes I realise just moving six inches (15cms) can improve a picture substantially.”

Anything Can Happen in Sports Photography

While understanding the sport you’re shooting is always vital, it’s particularly important in a game as idiosyncratic as cricket. The action takes place a minimum of 55 meters from the boundary, where the photographers sit, forcing them to use long lenses. Worse, matches can last up to five days, providing plenty of opportunity for boredom and missed moments.

“During a test match there may be over 300 deliveries bowled and you have to be ready to capture the batsmen hitting out or being bowled, the bowler celebrating, someone taking a catch, a collision, etc.” Philip explains. “Literally anything can happen at any time so you just have to be ready with hopefully the right lens, the right background, etc.”

The rise of digital photography has helped. Over five days, Philip says he’ll take thousands of images, many of which he doesn’t even look at. A second camera helps too. Philip usually has a remote camera bolted somewhere else on the boundary, giving him wider shots of the play. And cricket’s own quirks can lend a hand as well. Play stops for lunch and afternoon tea, providing time for editing and uploading. It also stops if the weather gets too cloudy for batsmen to see the ball clearly, and the players come off when it rains. There are no dangers then that expensive camera gear will get soaked.

That wasn’t always the case for Philip though. He began his sports photography career in high school, shooting rugby matches with an Olympus Trip. A big fan of the sport, he wrote to Rugby League Week, a specialist rugby magazine, to ask if he could cover matches for them. They agreed, and Philip agreed to buy a proper camera. Soon, he was supplying sports images for local newspapers.

“I remember I would drive to the free newspaper office on a Monday with my best prints from the weekend and they would normally appear in that week’s paper,” he recalled.

It wasn’t long before the editor was buying him film and paying him “substantial” amounts to cover more matches for him. At the same time, Philip was also supplying a local basketball club with photos for use in their programs for a small fee.

Sports Photography Isn’t as Glamorous as It Looks

It’s not a bad way to begin, honing your skills and building your portfolio through local media outlets and small clubs, and it might just be possible for other photographers to follow a similar route. Philip advises budding sports photographers to get a strong collection of photos together, then approach agencies and publications once you have something impressive to show.

But it’s advice that comes with a strong note of caution. Much of sports photography, he says, is about marketing yourself as well as your images. And it’s not as glamorous as it looks, Philip told us from his South African hotel after shooting a day’s play in a southern hemisphere summer. More importantly, the pay is going down.

“The amount received for photographs published in books and newspapers has decreased significantly over the past five years,” says Philip. “There are so many more images available that publishers are able to put the ‘squeeze’ on photographers.”

That’s a process that new photographers — and photopreneurs — are only going to continue. Perhaps the most important advice Philip was able to offer then was to shoots sports because you enjoy it. And that’s another reason to choose your niche carefully. Specializing can be the best way forward if you have a strong interest in one particular area, Philip says, but it does need to be a sport you like. If you’re going to be sitting from eleven in the morning until six in the evening for stretches of five days at a time and for several months, it helps to enjoy it.

“I don’t think anyone should take up sports photography thinking that they can make a fortune doing it because that is very, very unlikely,” he warns. “If you love taking pictures then that should be the motivation to get involved.”

That’s a depressing thought, even if it is a realistic one. But knowing that you’re going to be taking pictures that will make you proud and which will appear in the world’s newspapers is a pretty good consolation, as is the ability to attend lots of sports events. You also get to call yourself an expert on shooting in your chosen niche, with all that implies for pitching book ideas and photographing covers. Tight nicheing in sports photography might not be a path to athlete-style earnings, but it’s not a bad branch for someone who likes sport and loves photography.

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