Professional Insights

Professional Insights

Benjamin Antony Monn

Matthias Hangst

Sports (Germany)

The race to capture the winning moments

Since his early 20s, freelance sports photographer, Matthias Hangst (33), has been covering some of the world's biggest sporting events, including Wimbledon, the World Cup and the Olympics. He is an official photographer for FIFA, DFL, FINA and the Wimbledon Championship, as well as a member of the World Photography Organization. His work has appeared in most major sports publications around the globe.

From local reporter to freelance globetrotter

My career in sports photography began through journalism. When I was 15 years old, I took advantage of a chance to work for a small, local newspaper. I was able to start as a writer and editor, earning money for short articles with a chance for more money if I shot an accompanying photo. That was the first step. My father had a really old camera that I could use, and the newspaper used black-and-white film, so I was able to learn the development process on the job. I came from a very active family and had been involved in sports since I was six years old, so combining sports with journalism was a natural — and possibly inevitable — transition for me.

My career developed through various agencies, but around the age of 25, I decided to become my own boss and be a full-time freelance sports photographer. My personal breakthrough was during the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea. The agency I worked for at that time had decided not to send photographers because of financial reasons, so I made the decision to go on my own. I told my boss, "I will take four to six weeks of unpaid holidays and do it solo. I have to: it's the World Cup!" It was the first time that I had to arrange everything on my own: every bullet train ticket, every hotel and every data transfer, which was not as simple nine years ago as it is today. I sent pictures to Europe from Japan using a normal telephone modem with 9600kb! After completing my assignment without an agency to assist me, I was confident in my ability to work alone, and knew that this was the life I wanted to lead. I worked hard, and I still do, but I realized on that amazing journey that experiences like this happen only when you are in complete control.

On competition

A different type of breakthrough happened during the Olympic games in Athens, a few years into my freelance career. It was there that I realized photographers like me were in competition as well — competition for shooting locations, of course, but more importantly, we were in competition for the winning shot. For example, the men's 100-meter final is always a huge event that generates a lot of interest, and therefore a lot of coverage. Every four years, there are over 500 photographers jockeying for a position in the stadium, where they will attempt to shoot this race's winner. These photographers are competing as well. They are competing against the other 499 photographers seeking the right position for the winning shot.

Some arrive incredibly early and sit there for hours. The race itself, one of the biggest events at the Olympics, lasts less than ten seconds. Then it's over. Many photographers only have a few shots to choose from. For them, there is no referee who determines the winner or loser, but after the race is over and you start looking in newspapers, magazines and websites, you know your exact position in the hierarchy.

The pros and cons of sports photography

Sports photography has its share of excitement, but the job is much more than shooting from the sidelines. It is also a business — there are times where I feel that I am more businessman than sports photographer, but that's the job. If you decide to work on your own, you have to run it as a business, and you have to be willing to work for as long as it takes. At many normal jobs, you can leave the office after eight or nine hours. Not so for sports photographers. Sometimes you must concentrate for days on end — not just during the sporting event itself, but also during the prep and travel, and then again after the shot. Another challenge is the travel. Very few sports photographers have their own assistants, which means that most carry all of their own equipment from location to location, all around the world. The typical traveling businessman carries approximately 40-50 kg of baggage with him on his travels. The typical sports photographer is responsible for at least double that amount.

It is indeed hard work, but worth it — and for me, the extra sweat and stress of working freelance has its rewards, as well. For example, when you work for an agency, many of your expenses are taken care of, but you must work on the assignments that they give you instead of deciding on your own. I would have never seen the Japan/Korea World Cup at 25 years old if I had stayed with my agency. Another example happened during the ice hockey final at the Olympic games in Vancouver. I was crammed behind the glass with around 30 other photographers, the intense pressure of producing a winning shot hanging over my head. Sitting nearby was a Canadian fan, and we began to talk. I asked him how much his ticket cost. "Well," he said, taking a deep breath, "around 16,000 Canadian dollars." It was then that I realized, once again, what a privileged position I was in.

Great sports images aren't exclusive to big assignments, however. I think any sporting event can yield a great picture. In fact, I really enjoy shooting athletes in lower leagues, because they frequently offer the most authentic facial expressions: whether they win or lose, their reactions are genuine. Another benefit of smaller events is that they usually have fewer regulations to adhere to, so on smaller assignments you often have a real chance to be creative, as well as find the best position and the best light.

The D4 and the importance of autofocus

The D4 is an incredible machine, and for my type of work, the focus and tracking are very impressive. My main subjects are soccer players, and unlike 100-meter sprinters who run directly towards you, my subjects are constantly moving in incredibly unpredictable ways. A typical challenge my work gives a camera's AF system is the common occurrence of two soccer players going for a header at the same time. This is incredibly difficult for AF. You have three objects — one ball and two heads — approaching the same point at the same time, but at differing speeds. I need a focus point sharp on a face at the very moment of contact, all without following the dirt or spray after impact — a challenge every soccer photographer encounters during every game.

An out-of-focus picture is useless to me. There are many aspects of photography I can do manually or adjust after the fact, but not focus — you can't make a blurry photo sharp, no matter what you do. Autofocus is crucial, not only when following a single player, but also when switching quickly between subjects, such as moving my focus from a player two meters away to a coach standing on the other side of the field. I need a focusing system that quickly reacts to these changes, and the D4's focus points do. Thirty years ago, there were brilliant sports photographers who could use manual focus with amazing speed, but with the advancements of AF, there is no going back. The D4 is no exception. With a camera of this level, I don't have to constantly check the sharpness and image quality. It's there, and that's incredibly important to me.

A big buffer is also crucial to my work, because there are so many things happening simultaneously in a soccer match. For example, after a goal is scored, you have multiple reactions, such as the celebration of the players, the anguish of the goalie, and the responses of the coaches. Or perhaps the referee suddenly calls a player offside, and you have an entirely different set of reactions. A lot can happen in 10 seconds, so I need a buffer that won't stop when the action continues. To concentrate on the scene, I shouldn't have to wonder when the buffer will run out. With the D4, I won't have to.

The right camera, the right image

Cameras are not a religion for me. I'm a photographer, and I need the tools that will best help me do my job. I first switched to Nikon with the D3: after two days of testing it on my own, I said: "That's it." The difference in performance was amazing — it was like walking on the moon for the first time. The D4's performance is even more incredible. However, another reason why I am a Nikon user now is NPS (Nikon Professional Services). There are a lot of inherent risks to my equipment during many of my assignments, but when I am on the job, my gear has to work. It's important for me to know how my equipment is treated while being repaired, and when possible, I prefer to know the person repairing it. I have a real relationship with NPS: they know me, and I know them. The NPS team provides a safety net, solving my problems and answering my questions when it is most important to me. Without them, I cannot do my job as effectively. On assignment, my goal is not 20 good pictures, but a single perfect one. With the D4 and the NPS team on my side, that goal is much easier to achieve.

Discover more about Matthias Hangst's world of photography