Life behind the lens: The world of a sports photographer | Sports| German football and major international sports news | DW | 20.07.2017
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Life behind the lens: The world of a sports photographer

In a world full of photos, it is easy to forget the work that goes in to creating the perfect shot - particularly in sport. The pressure is on, the expectation is high. What is life like as sports photographer?

An emotional shot of Cologne striker Anthony Modeste, after May 12's Bundesliga game against Mainz. Cologne, its fans and Modeste celebrated qualifying for the Europa League after the game. Professional photographer Jörg Schüler is also in the shot, stood at Modeste's right shoulder.

Anthony Modeste's emotions on qualifying for the Europa League seem a mere memory now that China beckons

It has never been easier to take, save or share a photo. In the fast-paced, slide-projector world of social media, endless photos are the flick of a thumb away, and things are no different when it comes to sport. Mario Götze in China, James Rodriguez in a Bayern shirt - the options are endless. But what about those who are trying to make a living off the captured frame? How easy is it to keep your shutter up to speed with Karim Bellarabi?

InfoTrends, the leading worldwide market research firm for digital media industries, predicts that 1.2 trillion digital photos will be taken in 2017, with 85 percent of them being snapped on a mobile phone. The age of the private digital camera is all but over, but professionally the technology continues to develop and in the right hands the results can be breathtaking.

A series of swimmers' feet leaving the starting blocks as they dive away at the start of a race at the 2013 swimming world championships in Barcelona. Taken in 2013 by Ryu Voelkel.

The moment tension is released captured perfectly at the 2013 Barcelona Swimming Championships

Ryu Voelkel is a freelance photographer based in Berlin and began his career as a sports photographer in 2005. After leaving his job because he felt "sick of taking the same tube, wearing the same suit," he battled through a tough few months, but one lunch and a trip to Japan later, Voelkel earned his chance to shoot the Confederations Cup in Germany. Since then, his work has blossomed and clients now include Nike, Adidas and Sports Graphic media, to name but a few. His photos are often taken from unusual angles, and his ability to convey sporting emotions pervades his portfolio.

Exposure a problem in video era

Nevertheless, Voelkel believes sports photos are struggling to find their relevance in the modern market. "Agencies have driven the prices down to the point that it's basically free. As for photos in general, probably more [important] than ever. Photos have the instant gratification that videos don't have."

A special time-lapse photo taken from a table tennis world championship doubles match appears to show each of the players two or three times. Taken by Ryu Voelkel.

Capturing the effect of movement is one of the greatest challenges facing sports photographers, but Voelkel masters it here.

Never has this felt more of the case. Videos may be of greater importance in 2017, but it is photos not videos that better stand the test of time. "You often have a picture in your mind and not the whole event. For example, if you think of Germany vs. Ukraine during the 2016 Euros, what is on your mind? Boateng clearing the ball and lying in the goal," says Jörg Schüler, a freelance photographer working in Germany for the likes of Bild, EPA or Action Press.

The roots of Schüler's sports photography dream lie in his childhood. "I was 14 when my father gave me a book called "Momente im Sport" (Moments in sport) by Bernhard Kunz. There is a picture showing the old west stand of the Betzenberg in 1992 when Kaiserslautern played Barcelona. The photo looked like it was burning red because of all the flares. That's when I had my first thoughts about becoming a sports photographer," says Schüler.

A close-up of Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski's face, covered with a protective mask. Taken by Ryu Voelkel in a Champions League match against Barcelona in 2015.

Robert Lewandowski as a masked man, captured from an unusual angle

It took him until 2012 to start and despite a shaky start - his "test" day ended with the agency saying only one photo was acceptable - Schüler is now one of the sharpest and warmest on the circuit.

On gearing up, and missing the moment

For all of the wonder surrounding the final product, the process is a demanding one. Both Schüler and Voelkel quote between 20-25 kilograms in terms of weight to carry for the day. In that kit is a variation of four bodies, four lenses, a laptop, flash drives and remote equipment.

Being prevented from getting into a game or a tournament because of "some bureaucratic bulls---" is Voelkel's biggest frustration. Schüler once tried to make two games in one day, but he left Mönchengladbach five minutes before Marcel Risse scored the winner for Cologne and then arrived in Dortmund after Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's winner against Bayern. Once at Dortmund, Schüler opened his bag to attach the lens but before he could, Dortmund scored and then head coach Jürgen Klopp was already celebrating in mid air. "I took one look at the guy next to me and said show me the picture. It was perfect, just for him, not me," says Schüler. Timing really is everything.

In an article with Forbes, Getty Images' sports photographer Al Bello talks of the effect technology has had on expectation: "Speed. Everything has gotta go out yesterday. In the early 90s, it took 25 minutes to send one photo. If you sent six images per night, you did your job. Now, six images go in six seconds."

Borussia Dotmund go 1-0 ahead against Wolfsburg, thanks to a Jeffrey Bruma own goal. In the background, the empty Yellow Wall where the home faithful usually stand dominates the image. 18.02.2017, Dortmund. Taken by Jörg Schüler.

Schüler believes 'you can feel the silence' in this photo, one he took at a BVB home game when their famous Yellow Wall was closed to supporters

One Bundesliga game, around 3,000 photos

On Bundesliga matchdays, the demand is no different. There are roughly 20 to 30 photographers at each game. Voelkel takes around 1,500 photos per match, Schüler around 1,000. Roughly, that adds up to approximately 30,000 photos per fixture, which means around 270,000 per weekend from Germany's top flight alone. Siphoning down the quantity to get the quality means approximately 3,000 photos end up being sent per game (roughly 75-100 per photographer) - nevertheless an impressive number that makes competition fierce.

For Voelkel, the best sports photos are the ones that "stop you in your tracks," while Schüler echoes a similar sentiment: "A good picture tells a story on its own."

Schüler's photo of Monica Puig in the moment she realizes she has beaten Angelique Kerber to win gold at the 2016 Olympics says more than any article ever could, as does Schüler's photo of an empty Yellow Wall. "Dortmund score the opening goal in front of the empty Yellow Wall and the players react, but because there are no fans in the stand you can feel the silence within the picture," says Schüler.

Tennis player Monica Puig holds her head in joy, smiling, after claiming gold at the 2016 Summer Olympics. 13.08.2016. Taken by Jörg Schüler.

On her toes, hands on head, racket in the air and mouth open in disbelief - Monica Puig is the embodiment of joy

Both photographers have ample evidence of that in their own portfolios, but with trillions of photos in the world there's always another shot to take.

"I try to take the best photo I can take on that day. Therefore I'd like to believe that I'm getting better. My dream is to become the best sports photographer who ever stepped on this planet," says Voelkel. The world is in for a treat if Voelkel, Schüler and sports photographers around the world continue to capture sporting moments the way they have done so far. We just have to make sure we take the time to appreciate both the photo and those behind the lens.

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