As we embark on the Champions League season. Reuters photographer PHIL NOBLE talks to Will Roberts about his love of sport and the conflicts within the industry.
At 38, Phil Noble is still a young man in the world of photography, but he speaks with the authority, experience and passion of someone much older.
His career — starting off as a newspaper photographer before moving on to news agencies -has coincided with a massively significant time in the news industry; a period of substantial upheaval. He took his first steps as a professional photographer when the printed media was king, when local newspapers were still selling tens of thousands of copies a day. Today, much of the focus of newspapers and news agencies is around digital media and the internet, and with that comes a different set of skills, priorities and pressures.
For the past seven years Phil has been at Reuters, taking pictures of news and sport that end up on websites and in newspapers around the globe, and before that he worked for the Press Association. Based in Manchester, his work sees him cover events of all types all the way up to the Scottish border, but he’ll often travel even further afield — I catch him as he is packing a suitcase in readiness for a flight to Moscow, where he is covering the World Athletics Championships.
Sport is Phil’s main passion — as with so many sport fanatics, the conversation inevitably makes its way back to football, cricket or golf- but his commitments with Reuters means his work is often varied in terms of location, style and subject.
«Reuters is a traditional wire agency so you have to be a bit of a Jack of all trades,” he says in a warm Liverpool accent.
“Being based in Manchester, the bulk of the stuff that I do is football and whatever else goes on up here. I’ve always shot sport and I’m okay at it, so I do an awful lot of sport. But if something else goes on up here — news, features, royals, whatever -geographically it makes more sense for me to do it.”
But being a massive sports fan helps Phil in his job. Growing up in Liverpool, he was surrounded by sport he calls it «the language of the northern schoolboy.” Football, cricket, Wimbledon and the Olympics were all followed closely by his family and he took that thirst into his working life. He says: “If you’re a young 21 -year-old photographer and you get asked ‘do you want to go and take pictures of Man United versus Liverpool?’, you’re not going to say no.
“I’m a firm believer that if you are taking pictures of something which you A, enjoy and B, understand, then you’re halfway there to getting a good picture.” Were he ever to go and photograph an opera, Phil admits that much would be lost on him.
He says: “I’ll look for the nice lines and the nice light and the dramatic moments, but all the nuances and the subtleties are beyond me. Stick me in a football pitch, juggling a camera over my shoulder and dropping from a long lens to a short lens and I’m fine -1 know the game. All those sporting momentsin your mind that you have seen growing up either live or on the telly you want to go and recreate them.”
IN THE KNOW
Reuters photographers look for three key things from a football game — a good action shot, a celebration picture and most importantly of all, the goal — that split moment when contrasting emotions erupt -elation for the striker, despair for the goalkeeper.
Phil’s knowledge of the game helps him capture those key shots. Talking about the «old days» at Manchester United, he says: «You had Beckham running down the right wing so most people would try and sit at the right-hand side of the pitch because you have to have a Beckham picture -he sells worldwide. Ultimately you know that Beckham would beat a man and cross the ball in — he’s not going to score. So I know I can’t stay on Beckham for too long because if 1 want to get the goal, I have to pull off Beckham and go into the centre. It’s knowing the game and knowing certain routines — knowing who is going to be where.”
Phil adds: “I went and did figure skating a few years ago and I was completely lost it took me a while to work out things like how fast they were going and the shutter speed needed to freeze these guys.” That, he says, is the thrill of being a wire photographer. Being dropped in a situation and not just having to produce a picture but having to produce the picture, regardless of how familiar or otherwise he is with it. “You either get the picture or you don’t,” he says. “There’s no ‘well I kind of got it’. It’s a yes or no answer, because you know that someone else will have got it. It’s that buzz that gets you going.»
Sports photographers follow the event by “looking through a drainpipe» and Phil says having the camera in front of him stops his emotions as a fan coming through. He tells me a story about a fellow photographer “who shall remain nameless” who once let his emotions as a football fan get the better of him during the epic 2005 Champions League final between AC Milan and Liverpool. Trailing 3-2, Liverpool were awarded a penalty. Xabi Alonso’s spot kick was saved, but the Spanish mid-fielder scored the rebound, sending Liverpool fans into delirium. “We’re both Liverpool fans and we had been sitting through this game and all the nerves that go with it,” he tells me. “Alonso scores and he runs our way and I heard the thud as this guy’s camera fell on the floor and he jumped up and celebrated.
He sat back down and I said ‘did you not take that?’ He said: ‘take what?’ — for that split second he turned into a fan.”
While Phil admits that it is impossible to not appreciate the importance of the event he is shooting be it Augusta at the Masters golf tournament or Wembley for an FA Cup final he says it is vitally important to keep the camera up to his eye. He was in Beijing when cyclist Chris Hoy won his three gold medals, but says that despite desperately wanting to cheer him over the finish line, he dared not take his eye away from the viewfinder or his finger off the shutter release.
“It’s dangerous but it’s also a good thing because it means that I care about where I’m at and I care about what I’m covering — but it’s a fine line,” he says.
FAST IS BEST
The settings on Phil’s camera largely stay the same throughout the match — with the aperture always as wide open as possible to blur the background and the light around the floodlit stadium relatively constant, meaning the shutter speed stays the same. But the biggest technical challenge for Phil during a shoot is combining camera work with sending the pictures to his editor. Sports websites all have live galleries and constant, rolling updates from the games. The media demands almost instant images to go online, so Phil needs to be as efficient cropping, captioning and sending the pictures as he does taking them in the first place, whilst also keeping an eye on the action to ensure he doesn’t miss anything.
He says his equipment plays a vital part in helping him capture images that the media will want to use. No single piece of equipment is more important than his ‘workhorse’ Canon EOS-ID X: “The best camera I have ever used,” he says enthusiastically when we start to talk about it. “It’s the best digital SLR on the market by a country mile,” he says. “It’s robust and the autofocus is really fast and really accurate. Also doing sport, where you’re constantly using high ISOs you can comfortably use it about ISO 4000 and not have too much of a noise issue.
“When digital cameras first came out they weren’t weatherproof and I blew up a few from getting them wet. I sit in a puddle getting wet for most of the year but these 1D Xs work so well — you can take them home, dry them, and the following day they’ll be fine — and that’s really important. It’s going to take something special to better the 1D X.”
A CHANGING INDUSTRY
When the conversation moves onto the news and sport photography industry as a whole, Phil’s voice changes it creeps up an octave and gets a little louder. Somewhat reluctantly, he admits that the best days of his industry have gone. He reminisces about when, as a teenager doing work experience on a German newspaper, he first got to see one of his pictures in print as it was displayed in the newspaper office window. It was the same buzz that he gets when one of his photos made a double-page spread in a broadsheet. But as the print journalism industry sees steady decline, so do the opportunities to showcase great photography, according to Phil.
Now, he says, there is too much focus on immediacy, rather than quality. While the standard of cameras and lenses and the calibre of photographer has never been better, the stage upon which great photography can be celebrated is ever-shrinking.
There arc some exceptions, according to Phil. Reuters’ Wider Image app, The New York Times’ Lens Blog and the Boston Globe’s Big Picture all give a great opportunity for photographers around the world to show their talents, but often the emphasis is on hard news such as conflict or disaster. “It’s not as important as what is going on in somewhere like Syria now, of course, but the pictures that come from great spoiling moments — photographically, they are just as good as what comes out of Syria and other conflicts,» he says.
Digital and online media is still very much in its infancy and Phil believes there needs to be a better way of ensuring the quality of photography on major websites and apps around the world is high. •‘The chance to showcase proper photography has never been better,” he says. «The issue I have is that nobody knows how it’s going to shake down and with online there is a temptation that first is best — all they want to do is constantly populate their pages and try and keep them updated to try and keep up with rolling news TV. In days gone by the event would happen, the papers would wait, they would look at the best set of pictures and the best picture would always win the play because you had picture people looking at them arguing their cause and saying ‘this has to go in the paper’. But that hasn’t been the case for an awful long time.”
IPHONES NOT A THREAT
The traditionalist in Phil likes to look at photographs in the printed form. He says that if any of his four children want to see his work from a particular event, he has a box of cuttings they can look through. In the future, it may not be as simple as that. “What am I going to have in ten years from now?” he says. “A box full of broken links to sites that don’t exist any more. It’s that whole thing about ‘we capture a moment in time’. If we capture that moment now, where is it going? If you have a print in front of you, you look at all four comers and you look at the bloke in background as well. If you are looking at the screen of an iPad, I don’t think you do it in the same way.”
While newspapers and news agencies have been gradually down-sizing their staff, the dawn of smartphones featuring good, usable cameras means that the opportunity for the average man in the street to become a photographer is greater than ever.
But this brand of citizen journalism does not worry Phil. “A good picture is a good picture — no matter who has taken it or with what,” he says. “I’m not going to do a set of pictures on an iPhone, but if I’m out and there is a massive explosion and the first thing I can take a frame on is my iPhone, then of course I’m going to use it. If that means that a punter walking down the street with an iPhone is the first person to take a picture which captures the moment, then fair enough. A lot of photography is about being in the right place at the right time, but quicker doesn’t always mean better.”
What docs worry Phil is the amount of untrained photographers passing themselves off as professionals. “They may have the kit but they don’t have the ethics, the morals, the technical ability or the nous to go with it,” he says passionately.
Phil says that the career path he took, via college and small news agencies, isn’t as defined anymore, meaning more young photographers are entering the industry without the relevant grounding. Many, he says, are desperate to get their images printed, so ignore rules governing things like ethics and privacy. “One of the arts of being a proper professional photographer is — as well as knowing when to take a picture — knowing when not to take a picture,” he says. “I’ve seen fantastic stuff that I just can’t photograph -1 could have taken a photograph, and sold it for whatever, but I wouldn’t work again and I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.
There’s not enough people who know when not to take a picture anymore the kind of people that I grew up admiring.”
In contrast to his work in sport, Phil also spends a lot of time covering royal occasions.
He was outside Westminster Abbey during the wedding of William and Kate an event he describes as «the biggest stage-managed event I’ve ever been to.”
One of his favourite pictures of recent years came while shooting an event attended by the Queen and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Responding to a joke by Prince William, the Queen thrust her arms out and laughed, and Phil was, to use his own terminology, in the right place at the right time.
“When you photograph the Queen, or Usain Bolt, or football, it’s always the unexpected, the different that takes you by surprise and makes the picture,” says Phil. “I’ve been taking pictures of the Queen sincc I was 20 and while she’s always great with pictures. I’ve never ever seen her do that. I don’t think she would have done it if William and Kate weren’t there because she is so much more relaxed when they are around. That’s a proper moment — it’s unexpected. It’s not a massive moment in the history of time, but it’s a moment where you walk away and think ‘I don’t believe she has just done that’. For me and for some other photographers who have shot the Queen for donkeys’ years, that was a great moment.
“Sometimes the big events don’t always produce the great moments, but the great moments always produce the best pictures.”