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Feature Image by: Phil Hillyard

One Night as a Pro Sports Photographer

Phil Hillyard is one of Australia’s leading professional sports photographers. To find out more about Phil’s unique experiences in the industry, we invited Canon Photographer, and sports photography fan, Mark Wong, to ask him a few questions.  

How did you get started in sports photography?

I was pretty lucky, when I was about 12 a family friend who was a historian had produced a book on football, and in it he’d taken some of the photos from the sidelines. I just looked at it and thought, “that would be a pretty cool job”. It just went from there, and I worked pretty hard to make it happen.

Who inspires you?

As a young photographer my mentor, Ray Titus, showed me the way. He not only had incredible ‘news sense’, the way he would work and get to know his subjects rubbed off on me, and I followed him everywhere to learn as much as I could. I’ve been lucky to work alongside some great photographers in Australia and across the world. Some of my great colleagues include Craig Golding, Trent Parke, Gregg Porteous, Tim Clayton, and Brett Costello.

Do you have a favourite shot, sport, and sportsperson to shoot?

I don’t really have a favourite shot; I have a number of them that mean a lot to me. My favourite shot is the one that I’ve just achieved — whether that’s grabbing a great action picture or a striking portrait — it’s always my most recent picture that satisfies me. I guess it keeps me fresh and wanting more.

I love to shoot Australian Rules Football, cricket — and it goes without saying the Olympics are the pinnacle. I’ve been very privileged to cover the last five summer Olympic Games. My favourite sportspeople to shoot are those who are at the top of their game. They’re the special ones; when they take centre stage your concentration goes up a notch. I was very lucky with the era of cricket I covered. I had Warne, McGrath, Ponting, Gilchrist, Waugh, Lara, and Tendulkar — the list goes on.

With football I’m watching the incredible talents of Lance ‘Buddy’ Franklin each week, and of course being there to photograph every one of Usain Bolt’s gold medals is something I will never forget.

What’s the most challenging sport to shoot and why?

They’re all challenging. There are no replays for us in sports photography, so you have to make good decisions, and give yourself the best possible chance of capturing the moments that matter.

What’s in your standard kit bag at each sporting event and what is your favourite Canon gear to shoot with?

The Canon EOS 1D-X Mark II is a must have camera for a sports photographers — I will always have two of these. Generally I use an EF 24-70, EF 70-200mm, and a large telephoto such as EF 400mm f2.8 (or EF 600mm f4 for the cricket).

Over your illustrious career, what’s your favourite sporting location to shoot at and why?

I’ve always loved working in India. It’s incredibly challenging, but it is such a special country with wonderful people — many of whom are obsessed with the game of cricket. When you are about to shoot a sporting event, do you have a plan of attack? You definitely plan how you’re going to cover an event, but shooting sport is about decision making on the spot. The number one thing to think about when shooting sport is ‘expect the unexpected’. You can plan and try and predict what’s going to happen, but the truth is anything can happen in sport. That’s the challenge, but it’s also the reason I do it.

How do you stay creative?

I think it’s about always striving for more: wanting that elusive image. Something you’ve never achieved before. It keeps me fresh — my hunger for jagging that great image is as strong as it was on my first day. It is incredibly rewarding to capture something that lasts forever and tells a story on it’s own.

Has there been a time when you’ve missed a shot, and how do you minimise those moments?

Of course there are plenty of times you miss, but it’s often more a case of the moment not running your way. An example was Steve Waugh’s thrilling last ball of the day century at the SCG. He ran the other way with his head down! Not a good picture. That’s a moment that lives on in people’s memories but for me it was a disappointing day. When shooting the big events, you thrive on the pressure and you have to put yourself in the hot seat to be where the big moments happen.

What advice would you give to people who wish to crack it into the media industry?

Find your passion, and work hard at it. If you want to achieve something you can.

WATCH: Phil Hillyard’s must-have equipment checklist and key techniques for weekend sports photography.