They come for me when I sleep. Thousands of them. Attacking from all sides. Glowing in the darkness, they whistle past my head. With the instantly recognisable “thwack”, the Slazenger “Wimbledon Ultra-Viz” are out to get me. I wake from my dreams as the alarm chirps on the bedside table. Yes, I’m deep into coverage of the 125th Wimbledon Tennis Tournament.

After being taken off Glastonbury duty this year and assigned to cover a sporting event, I managed to enter the record books with the world’s longest solo sulk/grumble. However, once it had started, I had to admit that it was actually quite a fun assignment.

Being virtually ignorant of tennis and how to shoot it, I had recently been sent to cover the AEGON Classic and International tournaments in Edgbaston and Eastbourne. This gave me the chance to realise a number of things such as how fast the players move, how hard it is to shoot on anything other than a wide lens and how hard it is to get clean backgrounds. If I managed to get one thing right, one of the many other factors would be cruelly giggling at me, as the umpire’s head grew out of the player’s arm, the ball was cut neatly in half by the edge of the frame or the player’s shoulder was pin sharp. Thankfully, I managed to work the main difficulties out quickly and could slowly become braver with my lens choices. The men truly are sorted from the boys when it comes to shooting the nearest player on a fixed 400mm. The standard hit-rate drops severely unless your eye and timing is bang on. The top players move with some serious speed, so it’s incredibly hard to fill the frame with every one of the “Three B’s”, as I’ve just this moment decided to call them (ball, bat and bonce).

One of the first things to learn when covering Wimbledon is how to get around quickly. During those first few days, you’ll be expected to be shooting and covering two or three games that are happening simultaneously. This would be a challenge anyway, but add the general populous in there too and it becomes seriously tricky. Dividing up the courts are little alleyways and passages that seem fine before the gates open but once matches are under way, they become jammed solid. Thankfully, the place is full of little rat-runs, cut-throughs and even a private tunnel that connects some of the main buildings and courts.

As Getty colleague Oli Scarff tweeted early in the fortnight, it’s very possible to test the body’s tolerance to copious quantities of Robinson’s orange cordial, thanks to big tanks of the stuff being positioned in the press centre. With the prices upstairs in the canteen being on the extreme far side of laughable, any chance to find cheaper/free food and drink becomes of major interest. It’s never good to rely on a conversation in the back of a taxi with a stranger as fact, but my co-passenger on one of the first mornings told me that the annual running costs of the whole tennis club are made back within the first two days of the Wimbledon tournament. This could quite easily explain those small £2.80 bottles of orange juice. Sheesh…

As is the norm at these events, Nikon and Canon are on hand to clean, service and loan equipment out, free of charge, so my sensors are currently so shiny that the images are at risk of slipping off them. My favourite new discovery is the Nikon 200-400mm f4 lens. While long zoom lenses usually have the air of the cheap “lazyboy” to them, this really does hold up very well and seems to be the perfect tennis lens. While the more seasoned sports shooters will opt for the prime 300mm and 400mm, those of us with a slightly lower hit rate can be helped along with the ability to zoom out a little when it gets a bit fast and furious! While the one that I used was razor-sharp and relatively lightweight to lug around, it’s interesting to note that I was using the mk1 version, with the mk2 now being available. I’ll certainly be interested to give the current version a go!

One issue that can be a problem with equipment loans at these events is that the loans are officially on a 24-hour basis but unfortunately, you do get some who turn up with very basic kit, loan a big pile of kit and keep it for the duration. This is fine if it’s just a body or a lens but when it’s a whole range of gear, it removes the chance for other shooters to experiment with new toys and gear. Boooo to greedy types.

As with any of the events that are attended by Nikon and Canon, a clear indicator of the individual photographer’s boredom level can be directly charted by how quickly he or she borrows either a fish-eye or a tilt/shift lens. I hold my hand up to breaking out the tilt/shift as you can see on this blog, but that’s the danger of having all of these goodies made available to you. Why shoot that game all regular and straight when I can screw it up with a massively distorted focal plane? Yay! With Alex O’Brien and Rob McNeice leading Team Nikon and Frankie Jim’s top squad at Canon, there was masses of free help and advice on everything you could possibly want. I can now apologise to them for becoming such a regular but when you have such a valuable resource available to you throughout the day, it’s dumb not to soak up as much knowledge while you can.

Working conditions vary drastically from court to court with the smaller ones allowing photographers to gracefully crawl around on their hands and knees behind the umpire, switching sides as the winner begins to become clear. With the celebration usually being the key photo, it’s important to try to predict which side the player will be on when they eventually reach match point. For some reason, the powers that be have decided to put this bloomin’ great net thing in the middle of the grass, ruining our pictures if something of note happens on the opposite side. You’d think someone would have pointed this out by now…

On the exhibition courts, life is very different indeed. Photographers work from pits on either side of the court that leave the camera’s field of vision close to ground level. Wooden benches, power points and LAN points are the only creature comforts so a long five-setter results in some serious aches and pains. With the opening stages being a free for all regarding seating, a strict system is introduced from the semi-final stages onwards. Being one of the big agencies, AFP are granted two positions in good spots on opposite sides of the court. Working like this is reasonably simple during the quieter matches, but when it gets to the key matches, and media interest is high, it becomes a bit of a challenge. If you want to shoot the chap on the left and the person to your left is following the chap on your right… Well, you can see how we end up in this weird stacked system with photographers shooting under, over, around, behind and in front of each other to allow everyone the chance to get the shot they need.

A challenge that I thankfully didn’t have to spend too much time on was celebrity spotting. With the newspapers often more likely to run a picture of a famous person in the crowd than the actual tennis, some of the photographers on assignment for them will have to spend the whole match scanning the crowds for worthy targets. With a daily list being produced on the guests that will be seated in the Royal Box, that leaves the rest of other seats that are unlisted ie, every other seat. With a 600mm, the photographers have to sweep the thousands of faces until eventually someone of note is identified. While the presence of the recently-married Duke and Duchess of Cambridge was widely known, Kate’s sister Pippa turning up was high on the list of faces to look for and fifteen minutes into one of the matches, word went round the pit that she was coming. AFP doesn’t rush to follow the celebrity crazes but the US interest in all things Middleton means that this was of interest to me too. Sure enough, after some top spotting from photographers along the line, she was picked out, sitting with her family, up in the top levels. Some of the newspaper guys then proceeded to ignore the game and concentrate solely on every toss of the hair or smile while I had to shoot the match but make sure I had enough of her too. Needing completely different focal lengths, every break in play saw frantic scramble as we all dumped our sports lenses for our 600mm lenses. Not much fun at all.

An interesting aspect of the tournament that I hadn’t considered before, is the strange phenomenon of there being less for the spectators to see as the fortnight progresses. In the opening days, every court is in use and there is the chance for everyone to see some really top-level tennis. As the tournament progresses, these openly viewable games are rapidly reduced. While those with tickets for Centre Court and Court One can sit in their allocated seats and enjoy the match, many of those that pay for ground passes dash along the paths when the gates open in the morning to go and sit on the hill and watch the day’s events on the big screen. While it’s good to get the communal experience, it’s quite an odd way to spend the day.

I didn’t get to shoot (or even see) Rafa Nadal during Wimbledon fortnight, however, I did get to shoot some of the other stars of tennis, including Roger Federer. Having been warned that he was hard to shoot, I had an idea what to expect but even with the heads-up, I was still amazed at how hard it was to get a frame. His incredible abilities on the court mean that he never really seems to be stretching himself, so while others are grimacing and gurning as they reach for the ball, Fed has a look of total calm on his face. This often even includes having his eyes shut as he hits the ball. Combined with a very low swing that rarely sees the racquet close to his face, it results in very dull pictures. The fact that he’s a lovely man doesn’t change the fact that being a rabid fan of his seems to me to make about as much sense as cheering on your fridge for chilling your food. He seems to do the job so methodically and clinically that he just becomes a machine.

Despite this, every game he played was packed full of travelling fans waving banners declaring that “India loves Roger” and “Taiwan loves Roger”. While I may be confused about their obsession, I have to admire the fact that they’ve asked a whole nation for their thoughts on Switzerland’s ball-hitting appliance.

Saturday saw my chance to take to the hallowed turf of Centre Court as I shot the Women’s Singles final. With everyone assuming that Maria Sharapova would cruise to victory, it was an upset to picture editors everywhere as they were denied the chance to use a big picture of Shazza, when Petra Kvitova took the title.

If you think that I’m being cynical here, you only needed to look at the next day’s front pages for confirmation. Two ran with a story about a television star’s relationship, some ignored it altogether and one ran with my picture of US actress Anne Hathaway in the crowd until pictures of the Duchess of Cambridge came through from the US and bumped the story off the front altogether.

While I’d hoped to get access to the big finale, I knew in my heart that I probably wouldn’t get to shoot it, and my guess was proved correct on the final Sunday morning. With sports specialists Carl De Souza and Glyn Kirk taking the reins, I was on features duty, but thankfully got the chance to shoot Novak and his new cup as he stood on the stairs of Wimbledon tennis club.

With Wimbledon ‘n’ dusted, I rang the Mrs to say goodnight from the flat AFP had rented in Wimbledon and we discussed the day’s play. It was only after fifteen minutes that Kirsten pointed out that we’d actually had a reasonably detailed conversation about sport. Crikey. Who would have thought that was possible? With the 2012 Olympics drawing ever closer and the time to start pushing for our personal choices of sport to cover, maybe I’ve unexpectedly found the answer.

30 Responses to “Umpire State of Mind”

  1. I love the colours in the first one, the ball right in the umpire’s eyeline is superb, but my personal favourite is Tsonga doing his victory dance. It put a smile on my face all day, seeing him bounce round the court like Tigger, and you’ve got it bang on. Why can’t Murray do a bit of that when he wins, eh?

    All in all a fantastic set. (See what I did there?)

    Posted by Mark
  2. Excellent photos and inciteful, witty writing. I loved the line, “…so my sensors are currently so shiny that the images are at risk of slipping off them.” :D I’d have had a play with the tilt-shift lens too given the chance.

    In the third shot of the Umpire, my eyes keep getting drawn to those somewhat freakily-aligned bald heads! It’s like they’re stacked on top of each other.

    I don’t usually like to see too much flare in a shot, but I do like the overall effect of the seventh shot with the mega flare. It’s quite artistic and etheral, in a kind of retro 1970′s hot summer way.

    Finally, full marks for the “Scotch missed” pun. ;)

    Posted by Tim
  3. As a photojournalism Student becoming aware of you blog has been an eye opener.

    This post has particularly opened my eyes as an aspiring sports photographer and reminded me to look off the court as it were for the shots that others aren’t getting.

    Thank you and hopefully be sitting in the pit together some day in future.

    Posted by L Hardy
  4. The only thing exciting me about the 2012 olympics is seeing your pictures!!

    I love the flare on the player.. WTF was Cliff doing??

    awesome as ever!!

    Posted by Lee Allen
  5. Brilliant. That’s all.

    Posted by Juliet McKee
  6. @Mark Yup, Tsonga became my favourite of the tournament due to great action and looking like a really nice chap. Was great to watch him go up against Federer and win. No-one saw that coming! :)

    @Tim Glad the writing works. It’s always a challenge to throw together some entertaining text with the pictures so it’s good to get feedback on the writing too. That flare was ridiculous. It was JUST before the sun went down so even with the hood on, it was coming right down the barrel. Once I saw how over the top it was, I started to play with it a little. 70′s chocolate box was how I saw it too!

    @Laurence Thanks for your comments and good luck with the training. See you soon!

    @Lee haha! Quality. I’ve been trying to decide if there’s anything I’d rather shoot at the Olympics and still can’t decide what I’d prefer to do if I have an option. Cliff was actually dropping his head back in a gasp of frustration but it amused me that it looked like he’d finally keeled over on Centre Court.

    Posted by tabascokid
  7. Simply brilliant.

    Just brilliant

    Keep up the good work!

    Posted by James Cannon
  8. Another great set Leon. Your humbleness isn’t fooling anyone! You always seem to find original angles, especially when it’s a job you’re not familiar with. I can’t wait to see your olympic coverage and accompanying puns (which were the only things lacking in this post!)

    I particularly love that shot of the umpire watching the ball fly past and the shot of the player behind the – nicely tennis ball like – flares.

    Posted by Miles
  9. @Juliet Cheers, m’dears!

    @James Cannon I’ll do my best!

    @Miles Thanks bud. As for the puns, how could you ever doubt me? How can the blog title and the title of frame 18 pass you by? I hereby promise to put more in, just for you. :)

    Posted by tabascokid
  10. What a great set of pictures Leon. Nice balance of great sports shots with the atmosphere and your usual flair for observation.
    Really a pleasure to look at these, thank you for posting them. Justin.

    Posted by Justin Sutcliffe
  11. I don’t think the fella in frame 2 has quite got the hang of it yet.

    Agree with Tim’s comment about your clean sensors – a bit of wensleydale cheese flew out of my sandwich when I read that :D

    I like the tilt shift shot – was that the first time you had tried one? Are they tricky to use?

    Posted by Carl Osbourn
  12. Bloody hell! What a lovely set of fresh and genuinely charming images. Hope you’re chuffed with yourself.. S

    Posted by Sarah Lee
  13. @Justin Thanks bud. Coming from yourself, that’s high praise indeed! :)

    @Carl I had huge amounts of respect for his tenacity! He got a serious whooping but rather than surrendering, he was coming out with the most incredible dives, leaps and, in this case, outright last chance moves. Glad the writing had the cheese-projection effect too. Regarding T/S lenses, I’ve used them a couple of times before so know how they work but always find them a little too toy-like. It’s a bit of a one-trick pony and they’re usually only ever seen when photographers are getting desperate!

    @Sarah I am for today but, as I was telling someone recently, I get bored of my stuff really quickly so will be picking them to pieces within a few weeks. Cheers for your wonderfully kind words though. :)

    Posted by tabascokid
  14. Fantastic photos and blog as always- fabulous. Remember if u need an assistant during the olympics there is a lady with a fat hand happy to help!!

    Posted by Amy B
  15. I just misread that as “there’s a fat lady with a happy hand” for a second. I thought I was being propositioned round the back of Kings Cross station for a moment! Cheers for your kind words, Ames! :) x

    Posted by tabascokid
  16. Another brilliant blog. I cant wait for the next one as usual. I have tried and failed before with sports photography so I am amazed how brilliantly sharp your images are and how well composed they are at the same time. Well done.

    I cant understand why people queue up for ages and then just sit on a hill to watch a big TV. Thats mad english folk for you.

    Posted by Craig Shepheard
  17. Thoroughly entertaining post as always, I did wonder if you’d gone to Glasto this year but happy to see you managed the tennis instead.

    Always love the narrative that accompanies your shots!

    Posted by Neil Davidson
  18. Nice job yet again mate.

    Posted by Ian Forsyth
  19. @Craig The next one at the moment is probably going to be a review of some new stuff I’ve been trying out recently although there is the Photographer’s Knowledge #5 still waiting in the wings… :)

    @Neil Yeah, I’ll probably be back at Wimbledon next year as it’s a fallow year at Glasto but come 2013, I’ll be donning the wellies and the sunblock once again!

    @Ian Cheers Ian. Feedback always very much appreciated.

    Posted by tabascokid
  20. Have been waiting for this blog since you mentioned you were snapping the tennis. Ace result. Ooh, tennis pun. I had thought you might call the blog ‘Serb and Volley’, or ‘Winner’s czech’, but then that’s why I work in an office.

    Great photos, great commentary. And for the record, the photos look brilliant on an iPad.

    Looking forward to more. Onwards.

    Posted by Dave Curtis
  21. Oh, there are some good ones there! I may be contacting you if my mind runs dry for future blog titles… :) Cheers for your kind words and your “readership” too!

    Posted by tabascokid
  22. So it was worth you being away from North London for the best part of two weeks ;) (You know I’m your biggest fan, babe x)

    Posted by kirsten
  23. Nice pictures congratulation

    Posted by Pedro
  24. glad to see you enjoyed it old chap ! i do believe we will make a sports photographer out of you yet ! i did like your flat cap !

    Posted by peter tarry
  25. Nice work as always Leon! I saw your CU of the statue holding the tennis ball dripping with water on the NYT Lens blog. As for the Olympics 2012, I hear that Speed Walking is a gripping sport! ;)

    Posted by Daniel Brennan
  26. Loved this (sorry it took so long to read it!).

    Bit sad you weren’t covering Rafa, of course, but this is all excellent and really looking forward to your Olympics photos.

    Posted by Sara H
  27. Your live sport is better then your feature work from this. Just goes to show why a fresh pair of eyes can offer! Good work yesterday too; my camera refused to focus on brooks… Funny that!

    Posted by Jason a
  28. these were take by (canon or nikon) ?

    Posted by vijay
  29. By me (but using a Nikon!) :)

    Posted by tabascokid

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