Meet the sports photographer bringing the game to life

Johnny Wilkinson's drop goal in the closing seconds of extra time secured England's Rugby World Cup win in 2003 against Australia. Photo: Marc Aspland

After years covering the biggest sporting events on the planet, Canon ambassador Marc Aspland knows the secrets to great sports photography

Marc Aspland took a lot of pictures of the 2003 Rugby World Cup final, when Jonny Wilkinson’s last gasp drop goal sealed England’s triumph in the most dramatic fashion.

Marc captured tries and tackles, blood and thunder, triumph and despair. But his favourite shot of that famous night has none of the obvious ingredients. It captures an altogether quieter and more intimate moment, despite the mayhem all around.

Captain Martin Johnson shares the moment with Jonny Wilkinson after England lift the Rugby World Cup trophy for the first time in 2003. Photo: Marc Aspland

“My personal favourite is one of Jonny during the lap of honour,” Marc explains. “But he isn’t triumphant. He’s quiet, thoughtful, almost pensive. I’ve got to know Jonny really well over the years and I know that in that moment he’s recognised that he’s reached the summit of professional sport: he’s thinking, ‘where do I go from here, what do I aim for now?’”

Photographer Marc Aspland with his trusted Canon on which he has taken so many iconic sporting shots. Photo: Canon

It’s a shot that confounds preconceptions of what sport is and how top sports people are. It is the kind of shot that Marc seeks out, and the kind of moment that drew him to sports photography in the first place.

“What I like about sport is that you have no control at all over the events you are trying to capture. Sport will always surprise you. Whether it’s the drop goal in the dying seconds or that moment of quiet contemplation amidst all the triumph and celebration,” he says.

“I’d be sent on 20 jobs a day”

Marc wasn’t always a sports photographer. After training in Sheffield, he moved to the picture desk of a local newspaper in Watford. It was, he says, “an incredible grounding.” He’d cover Watford Football Club one day, a golden wedding anniversary the next, and a break-in the day after that.

Later he moved to the Times, where he still works today. “There was a team of 30 photographers in those days, and it took me two years of working solidly just to get a foot in the door,” he says. He took pictures of the Kings Cross fire, and went to Lockerbie in the aftermath of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. “But I always put my hand up for sports jobs, even if I was third choice for Chelsea vs Fulham at Stamford Bridge, because sport gave me an opportunity.”

Capturing close up the energy and effort of a scrum between Argentina and the All Blacks. Photo: Marc Aspland

It gave him the opportunity to trust his artistic and creative instincts. He advises anyone interested in sports photography to do the same. Look beyond the obvious, and search out pictures that sum up the entire event, as well as those that capture the decisive moment.

“If I go to the Emirates and see a 4 - 0 drubbing, of course my editor will expect me to get the goals,” he says. “But there’ll be other great opportunities, like the opposition manager with his head in his hands. Or at the rugby, I might capture Eddie Jones having a rant, even if England are winning. It can be those shots that show the bigger picture, a truth beyond the events on the pitch.”

“Pictures that sum up the whole day”

In these days of digital photography, picture editors are inundated with shots of the try, the goal, or the winning runs at Headingley. “So I get those pictures, but I also try to capture something unique about the game, something that stands apart,” says Marc.

Black and white photo captures the moment the All Blacks lift the Webb Ellis cup as winners of the Rugby World Cup 2011. Photo: Marc Aspland

That’s certainly true of another of Marc’s favourites from his personal portfolio. Sam Warburton, captain of the English and Irish Lions, framed alone against a foreground of the All Blacks - backs to camera - performing their famous hakka.

Marc says: “The noise in Eden Park that night was incredible, and there was Sam, jaw jutting out, defiant, strong. Later he told me that they’d discussed it in the changing room earlier. ‘Stand strong against the hakka.’ Inside he was thinking ‘Oh my God!’”

Again, it’s not an action shot, but it perfectly captures the passion of professional sport at the highest level, and the courage of those who take part.

“Remember to look behind you”

Marc uses the best Canon kit to take shots like that, but he says you don’t need to invest in thousands of pounds of camera equipment to take great sport pictures, especially when you’re starting out.

The compact state-of-the-art G-series offers stunning handling, speed and DSLR quality. For an affordable price they combine power with usability, and models such as the Canon Powershot G1X Mark III is perfect for amateurs just starting out in sports photography.

Canon's Powershot G1x Mark III. Photo: Canon

“Go to your local rugby club but don’t sit with other photographers. Take action shots, but also take pictures that sum up the whole day. Follow the team down the tunnel if you have that access, or get the picture of the grandad with his grandson - him sucking on his pipe, the boy on his lollipop - lost in the action.

“In other words, remember to look behind you. Sport is about the crowd, the people in the burger van, the scarf seller, as much as the goal or the try.”

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