Ryu: Emotionally challenged

As you already know, this month’s You Win is emotion. More of it, if you want to really get into the details. It may come as a surprise to some, but I am disappointed by the images that have been entered into the competition thus far. It’s as if you don’t understand the meaning of emotion and as Matt pointed out rather succinctly, “we’re looking for emotion and not funny faces”.

In essence, sports photography is comprised of two components: action and emotional reaction the said action. Action: Game winning goal. Emotion: Winner celebrating, losers crying. It baffles me to the nth degree that that the veterans of the You Win competition are failing to grasp the reason why people play competitive sports and why we are there as photographers to capture them.

Since there are couple more weeks left in the competition, I am hoping to make you an emotional wreck, by getting down to the basics of capturing emotions.

1. Anticipation and planning
90% of the time, you can plan these emotional shots, because if you understand the sports you are shooting, you inevitably know when and where these emotions happen. I will blurt out couple off the top of my head.

A. Someone scores a goal in football. They go around like crazy and the other team looks disappointed.

B. Someone punches a batter out. The pitcher fist pumps and the batter sulks.

C. Someone wins a race. The winner does a victory lap and the losers go down on their knees.

D. Someone wins a weight lifting competition. The winner howls the losers … they don’t do anything.

E. Someone dunks. The dunker makes stares down and the dunkee is on the floor.

F. Someone catches a TD pass. The receiver celebrates with his team mate and the defenders punch the turf in frustration.

G. Someone gets an ippon. The winner jumps in the air and the loser stares at the ceiling.

H. You see what I’m doing here?

If you know the sport you are shooting, you know when and where these emotions occur during the course of the game. If you don’t, hey, I can’t help you from here on out because this is sports photography 101.

But the images I have seen thus far on You Win do not convey that you understand what you should be doing. It’s precisely the opposite. Is it crazy for me to assume that you are too hung up in trying to take an action shot that by the time you realised that there are celebrations and frustrations going on, you are too late?

Goto any flickr sports photography group and 90% of the photos are action. Are we that averse to emotions in sports? In my mind, you are forgetting why people play competitively. It is about the winning and the losing. You are there to capture the raw emotion that explodes all over the place when a big play happens. Besides photojournalism, there is no other photography genre that gives you this amount of emotion. The fact that you decide to ignore them makes absolutely no sense to me. For me, the emotion is the story of the game and not an action shot of the game winning goal.

Once again, if you think you cannot react to the emotion fast enough, plan ahead. Forget that you will miss yet another shot of a player kicking the ball or making a catch. Who cares. If you are at a sporting event where the athlete doesn’t move at all (ie weight lifting) or they are competing in a limited space (ie judo), just wait and follow the athlete until the end of the match. Keep calm and don’t start blasting until the moment comes. If you are that locked on, you can then think about composition and lighting, making that emotion shot even better.

For sports where you have no idea which direction they will be fist pumping / mobbed rather too harshly by the teammates / crying / dancing / Tebowing, you can at least make an educated guess on which side they will be going. In football, they usually goto the corner to celebrate. If it is an away team, they will celebrate towards their fans, unless you are a douche and he will be giving it up towards the home fans. If the celebration is happening on the other side of the goal (not the other end, but the same end opposite side), get up and run towards the celebration. Your parents gave you legs for this particular reason. Run.

Here’s a short case study:
Just recently I shot Arsenal v AC Milan. Arsenal lost 0-4 in the first leg in Milan and they were coming home to mount a come back. Since they had to at least score 4 goals to get on the same playing field as Milan, I knew the first 3 goals were not going to be accompanied by any celebrations. You’re losing, you score 3 goals, you’re still losing, you are not going to celebrate. I also assumed that they wouldn’t score 4 goals in the first 45 minutes and therefore I will be on Milan end to see if Milan will score in the first 45 minutes. If they scored, they will be celebrating, because the match will pretty much be over. Then in the 2nd half, if there is any chance of a miraculous come back, I will be on the Arsenal end getting ready to shoot the tying goal and the game winning goal and the emotional reaction that will subsequently engulf the stadium.

That is planning.

2. Reflex and reaction
Kind of the same thing. Very often, sports don’t go according to your plan. You think they will be celebrating at your side of the pitch looking at you and striking a pose for you and only you. But more often than not, they are the runaway bride and you’re the groom left at the alter clutching a DSLR.

Unfortunately, there is no fool proof way against random acts of emotion in sports. I could just end this by saying that “You should be ready”, but you know that already. I hope you do. But I’m here to help you and not to make you cry too much.

A. Go wide
If you are shooting any ball sports, go wide if you are looking for an emotional shot. The reason is that if you are shooting very tight and long, it only takes one missed focus and the moment you’ve waited the entire match is gone forever. But if you are shooting wide, you will at least have them in your frame and in focus.

B. Face time
What is the easiest way to tell how the person is feeling? No, you don’t ask them, but, you check out the mug. Face, face, face. I understand that you can do emotions from the back and some action conveys emotions but the basic will and always will be the face. So, what you got to do is that you must be locked-on on the athlete’s face. Triple match point to win the tournament? Who gives toss about another volley or a forehand? Forget everything else and just lock yourself on to the athlete’s face until she wins or she doesn’t. Track every movement she makes. You might miss a great shot or two, but they all look the same anyway. What you wont’ miss is her face and the emotion that is displayed.

C. Andrew…
Luck. Either you got it or you don’t. Sometimes they will come towards you and sometimes they don’t. So if you’ve done everything to get the emotional downpour from the losing athlete, but he decided to give you his ass instead of his face, make the best out of it.

There you have it. Emotion is the holy grail of sports. I do think it is the best thing about sports. The good thing about it is that the less professional the sport, the better it is because they are not making it up. Professional athletes sometimes do it because they feel like they have to for the media and the fans. But amateurs do it because they feel like doing it. So don’t come back to me saying that you can’t get these shots because you aren’t shooting EURO this year in Poland / Ukraine.

Oh and don’t forget the losers. They’re important too. :)


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14 thoughts on “Ryu: Emotionally challenged

  1. Thank you so much for this post. As the sports momtographer, I find myself capturing the same action shots over and over again. I’ve been trying to focus lately on the emotions of the players. It hasn’t been easy (given the small, crowded fields I have to work with), but its been a fun challenge.

    1. Lisa,

      It’s not easy to get out of your comfort zone. Had a conversation with a photographer yesterday about exactly that. But you do have to push through and become the best momtographer you can possibly be. :) For the next game, just ignore everything but all the emotional stuff on the pitch You’ll be surprised what kind of pictures you can get.


  2. I wish this competition took place last summer during baseball season. I have plenty of emotion shots, but they are more than 3 months old of course. Oh well, baseball season starts next month.

  3. You would have thought that was obvious. But I played a lot of sports and it was all about emotion for me, so maybe that’s why. We always had the attitude of “Win as a team, lose as a team. Go hard or go home”. That attitude makes you feel the pain and the euphoria that the sport rollercoaster gives you. You are as happy/sad for your team mates as you are for yourself.

    At least I passed 101. Now to get the shot!

    1. Elroy,

      Yes, now for the shots. If you know the sport, you know when people will show raw emotions. Wait and anticipate those moments and you’ll get the shots you need. Good luck. :)


  4. My question has to do with the sport of competitive food eating…and is there any way to tell the difference between the emotion of losing the contest (holding one’s stomach/covering one’s face with hands/staring at the ground) vs. potential “reversal of fortune” (holding one’s stomach/covering one’s face with hands/and staring at the ground?

  5. You removed my first image from the contest because it “was not an emotional image.” It was an extreme close-up of the losing Curling skip (captain) as the other team was being awarded the trophy. His lips were pursed and there were tears in his eyes, though he was holding it together enough that he was not yet crying.

    The one I replaced it with is a much more obvious image, personally I liked the other one because I remember watching him try to hold his s*** together and not bawl after coming “this close” to winning. It was more subtle, for sure.

    Maybe it was removed because, as we all know… curling isn’t a real sport :P

  6. Kenneth,

    I think curling is a sport. I also happen to think the curling girls are sneaky hot and I get curling fever every 4 years.

    Now that is out of the way, let’s talk about your picture. The fact that you had to explain to me why the picture you submitted is an “emotion” picture, therein lies the problem. We here at BLFS are trying to make you a better photographer. The picture needs to tell us what’s going on, not the description.

    You ask anyone whether that image implies emotion, they would have said “No”. Why? Because it is not obvious enough. I’ve also taken down other images, because as Matt put it succinctly “people with funny faces don’t count as emotional images”.

    The image should stand absolutely on its own. Context is secondary.


  7. Yah, I don’t mean to complain, I think I had my own emotions attached to the photo as well… so being told “it is not en emotional photo” kind of threw me.

    I appreciate all the guidance you guys have given. I think it has helped me in general as a photographer and not just for sports… thinking more about backgrounds, thinking about catching a moment. Turning off the 10 fps drive and waiting for singular shots. More than anything I think just a little more before, during and after a shoot.

    Next time I shoot someone on the verge of tears I will be sure to cut some onions.. and get those tears flowing :D

  8. Kenneth,

    I will always forever be grateful for my 10fps. Without it, I can’t live. :)

    We here at BLFS just try to make you think a bit more before and after you shoot. We want to be responsible for new crop of photographers taking down the old guard. We are going to revolutionise the way people see sports photography.

    And hopefully make a lot of money for everyone. :)


    PS Onions or hit him in the nose. That usually will make anyone cry.

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