Long assignments and lightning-fast turnarounds: life as an agency sports photographer

Senior sports photographer Richard Heathcote talks about his job at Getty Images and how Canon's EOS R System has helped to transform his workflow.
Richard Heathcote looks through the viewfinder of a Canon EOS R5 camera with telephoto lens attached.

As a senior photographer for Getty Images, Richard Heathcote covers major sporting events around the world – all with Canon kit. Of agency life, he says: "There's definitely a lot more creative freedom. A newspaper photographer is always looking for the story, whereas agency photographers get a lot more opportunity to be creative at events and to think about things differently."

Most sports action images reach the public via agencies such as Getty Images, Reuters and the European Pressphoto Agency – yet few of us know much about the photographers who shoot them. What are the good and bad aspects of agency work? Why do photographers choose it? How long do they spend away from home, and how much creative freedom are they given?

Richard Heathcote, a senior sports photographer for Getty Images, is one of the most experienced agency photographers working today. He has been a professional photographer for 25 years and has covered countless sporting events, including all the best-known international football, rugby and general sports tournaments. He was the 2019 Sports Journalist Association Photographer of the Year and the overall winner in the 2020 World Sports Photography Awards.

Here, Richard shares his insights into life as an agency photographer, talks about his workflow when covering major sports events and reveals how Canon's EOS R System has had an impact on his work.

Hear more of the conversation in this episode of Canon's Shutter Stories podcast:

A Canon EOS R3 placed on a wooden surface with a forested, mountainous landscape in the background.

Richard uses a Canon EOS R5, alongside the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III, for many of the sporting events he covers, but lately he's been getting to grips with the new Canon EOS R3. "It's got fantastic ergonomics, and the viewfinder is absolutely amazing," he says. "I think what's really impressive about this camera is that it gives you options."

The benefits of agency work

Richard left college in 1996 and freelanced for about a year before joining Action Images as a staff photographer. He moved to Getty Images in 2004, and has been there ever since. "I like the way agencies work," he explains. "There are more opportunities – in general there's only one sports photographer per newspaper, whereas we must have around 25-30 staff sports photographers just in the UK, plus all the freelancers. If you're working for a newspaper, you might get into more of the high-profile events, but agency photographers travel a lot more and cover a greater variety of sports."

The majority of Richard's work comes from his assignment editors, who handle the day-to-day, regular editorial events coverage, but the agency photographers are also encouraged to pitch their own ideas. "It may be something slightly different that we're interested in doing or that would make a nice set of pictures," he says. "If it's something worth pursuing, we're given the freedom to work it into our schedule."

He says the only real downside to the job is having to spend such long periods away from his family. "I'm often away for two to four weeks at a time," he explains. "For major events, I'm away for seven or eight weeks. That includes the planning stage, when I'm doing things like setting up remote cameras in places where we can't put a photographer. However, I'm very fortunate because the assignment editors are a similar age and have families, so everyone's flexible. And now it's so easy to communicate in any time zone across the world – you can always find time to make sure you're in contact with your family."

A technician wearing white gloves cleans the sensor of a Canon camera.

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A Canon EOS R5 camera held by a pair of hands. On the rear screen is a backlit image of a landscape and the sun, with the word "transferring".

The Canon EOS R5 uses an always-on Bluetooth Low Energy connection to maintain a continuous link with a smart device. It also supports FTP and FTPS for fast, secure image delivery to the client.

Fast and efficient image transfer

The agency uses what Richard describes as a 'tag and send' workflow, in which all the events it covers are live-edited by the editing team. "At a football match, I might shoot around 1,000 pictures," he explains. "I might upload around 150 to our editors for them to decide which ones they want to use, keep or discard. From that 150, maybe 75 get to the site or are published.

"When I'm shooting pictures, I'll voice-caption them, tag, and send them. I use the camera's Voice Memo feature to record caption information to the file, and then the File Lock function to 'mark' that file. In the image transfer options I select 'Locked files not transmitted' and then upload them to my chosen FTP destination. This saves time, as I don't have to scroll through the images on the LCD screen frame by frame and send them individually.

"Our editing software runs on a cloud server, and all the editors connect to it while on a Zoom call at the same time. The pictures come in to the editors, they pick what they want, do a quick edit, then caption them and upload them to our site. We can upload pictures extremely quickly if we need to – from the moment it lands from my camera into the FTP, it can be sent to our clients in under 40 seconds."

Canon's EOS R System cameras are designed to make image sharing as simple and as fast as possible. As an agency photographer, Richard makes frequent use of the Canon EOS R5's secure file transfer ability. "Being able to send the images directly to our editors 'live', as we work, helps us to keep our speed to market extremely fast," he explains. "It's vitally important not only to deliver great imagery to clients, but to be able to deliver it as fast as possible."

The flagship Canon EOS R3 uses its wired LAN socket and 2.4/5GHz to talk to computer networks, laptops and mobile devices. The EOS R3 is also compatible with the Canon Mobile File Transfer app, which lets pro photographers add metadata to images via type or voice assist. Those images can then be transmitted from a smartphone, using either Wi-Fi or mobile phone data.

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"In theory, an external Wireless File Transmitter (WFT) would have a better signal, but the internal antenna on the Canon EOS R3 seems to be extremely good," says Richard. "Also, because 5GHz Wi-Fi is built into the body, it makes life easier. Occasionally, there's a big jump in camera technology, but most of the time it's the smaller innovations in new models that actually make the biggest difference."

 Richard Heathcote holds a monopod with a Canon EOS R5 with a telephoto lens attached.

The Canon EOS R System has enabled Richard to diversify his output. "Because you can see exactly what you're getting through the EVF as you're shooting it, you can play a little bit more with exposures and work out how much you want to overexpose or underexpose to get a desired look to your picture," he says.

Increased opportunities

Richard has been shooting with the Canon EOS R5 since it first became available. "It's just a fantastic camera," he says. "You can use it at some sports and not others because of the risk of rolling shutter, but you kind of pick your subjects. I've used it alongside my Canon EOS-1D X Mark III bodies, which are my current workhorses."

Rolling shutter is a common phenomenon when cameras use an electronic shutter – the camera reads data down the imaging sensor line by line and, in the time it takes to do that, very fast moving objects might have changed position. The result can be objects such as moving golf clubs looking stretched or warped. To prevent this, many photographers prefer to use mechanical shutter (which typically means a slightly slower frame rate) – but the high-speed sensor in the Canon EOS R3 minimises rolling shutter distortion, as motorsports photographer Vladimir Rys discovered while shooting an electric rally car.

"I'd definitely say the Canon EOS R System has diversified my output," Richard continues. "The silent shutter and improved frame rates allow you to do things you couldn't do before. For example, while at events where there have been no spectators because of Covid-19, everyone can hear an EOS-1D X Mark III firing away at 16fps. Whereas if you're shooting on an EOS R System body, nobody can hear it. It doesn't distract the athletes, and you can take pictures you'd have thought twice about taking previously."

 A Canon EOS R5 held by a pair of hands. On the rear screen is a backlit image of a landscape and the sun, with the words "recording memo".

Another key Canon EOS R5 feature for Richard is the voice memo functionality. "We have to make sure clients have all the information about a picture – from who it is and where it is, to what's going on," he says. "The voice memo is the most secure way to make sure we get that information across to our editors, so they can put it into the caption."

Richard Heathcote holds a Canon EOS R5 at elbow height and looks down into its vari-angle screen.

"The vari-angle screen of the EOS R5 is really useful when you need to shoot a low angle, or shoot over the heads of others and you hold the camera high in the air," says Richard. "It also becomes handy when you need to be a bit more discreet and you don't want to draw attention to yourself looking through the viewfinder."

The benefits of the EOS R3

The Canon EOS R3 has been designed specifically to meet the needs of sports and news photographers and Richard is impressed with what he's seen so far. "It's slightly smaller than the EOS-1D X Mark III and, although it's also lighter, it feels like a familiar and comfortable tool to use in the hand, which means you adapt more quickly to using it," he explains. "The last thing you want is to go to a job with something that's completely different, because you're thinking more about what you're doing with the camera than the subject in front of you.

"The EVF on the EOS R3 is absolutely fantastic and comfortably the best I've seen on any mirrorless camera. It has the Eye Control AF built-in, and that's possibly one of the reasons why the viewfinder is so large, but as a consequence, it makes it really nice to use. The 30fps frame rate is also great – if I'm shooting a swing sequence in golf or tennis, for example, I've simply got more frames to choose from."

Richard recently used the EOS R3 at a major golf tournament for the first time and says, "It came into its own as a dependable, mirrorless version of the EOS-1D X Mark III." He found the workflow with the two cameras is almost identical, but the R3's features, including the silent shooting facility, EVF and high ISO performance, brought new benefits that helped him in his work.

"I could shoot whenever I wanted, without fear of putting the players off, and I could let the AF points do their thing and keep track of faces/eyes, which allowed me to concentrate on where the subject was in the frame and if they made any sudden movements," he continues. "I could also make sure the exposure was perfect, especially with silhouettes, and being able to move up to extremely fast shutter speeds meant I could keep a shallower depth of field to make the subject pop."

A close-up of the Canon EOS R3.

Ultra-responsive, highly sensitive and extremely reliable, the Canon EOS R3 is built to capture the fastest possible action, making it a natural fit for sports photographers seeking to freeze the best moments of a game. "It's got that blend of the EOS-1D X Mark III and the EOS R5, which is what we need for our work," says Richard.

Richard thinks he'll definitely be a regular Canon EOS R3 user but expects the transition to be gradual. "If I'm at a football match, for example, I know I have to get the goal picture and the celebration," he explains. "You have to trust your equipment implicitly, and the only way you do that is by using it and realising how it can help you create things quicker, easier and better.

"The latest Canon cameras are fantastic, and the jumps in AF, image quality and lens quality are amazing. I think that over the coming months, people in my profession will gradually transition to using the EOS R3 and RF glass. In my work, I'm always trying to look for something a bit different. Yes, there are a lot of traditional angles you always want to cover, but you also want to try to find something new. The EOS R3 will help me do that."

David Clark

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