Profile: Rob Cianflone
Many of us have dreamed of turning our love for sports into a career. But what does it take to be a professional sports photographer in an era when every fan has a camera and moments are gone in the blink of an eye? AP meets Getty sports photographer Rob Cianflone to find out.
As you’d expect, the road to becoming a professional sports photographer starts right at the grass roots. For Rob, that meant capturing his younger brothers playing soccer, like many of us will have done, on the cold sidelines on Saturday mornings in winter.
“It would have been the early 90s, and I had bought a camera as I wanted to take photos of them playing,” he explains, calling down the line from lockdown in Victoria.
“Before too long, other parents were asking me to take photos of their kids, and I found I really enjoyed it, and was soon taking photos for the club.”
From there, an opportunity came to follow his local club as they competed in the national league. With the higher quality football on display came better quality offers to photograph, and before he knew it, soccer magazines were knocking on his door keen to buy his shots and photos of other teams in other national league games. At this point, he was only about two years deep into what would become his future career.
By the mid-90s, Rob began ringing around the local newspapers, angling for work. He eventually landed himself a job working for the Leader newspaper.
“I was doing everything. You might have 10 jobs a day, and it could be anything from real estate, to used cars, to a cat up a tree. Every day was different.”
On the weekends, while the other photographers had time off, Rob worked with another photographer to capture community sport.
“Just like during the week, you’d capture everything -– a cricket match in the morning, lawn bowls in the afternoon, a tennis match maybe, and you’d have to get back to the office with your film by the end of the day.”
The broad skillset was a perfect grounding for the career to come.
“I was at a VFL game when I met a photographer who mentioned the agency he was working for at the time, Sporting Pix Australia, were on the lookout for freelancers. At the time, they were the official photographers of the AFL. I was happy at the Leader, and actually didn’t think my work would be good enough to shoot for an agency either, but I gave him my details and didn’t think much more of it.”
A few months passed, and then the phone rang out of the blue. It was the night before the 1997 AFL Grand Final, and Tony Feder, the founder of Sporting Pix, was on the other end.
“I picked up the phone straight away, and the first thing Tony said to me was ‘tomorrow’s the grand final…’. Before he could finish, I straight away went, ‘yes, yes, yes!’ and then he said, ‘…and I want you to shoot Race three at Sandown!’”.
The horse race wasn’t quite the AFL Grand Final, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The race was mired in controversy as the winning jockey was so far in front he celebrated early by twirling his whip – an illegal move. Unlucky for the jockey, but lucky for Rob who’d captured the whole thing. His photos were everywhere.
In 1998, Rob started full time with Sporting Pix, which would eventually be bought by Getty images. The rest, as they say, is history, with Rob now the last ‘original’ left from that era.
The agency shooter
Today, Getty employs five full-time photographers for the whole country, with the rest of the work picked up by a team of freelancers. It’s just half what it was in the 90s.
The number of photographers capturing sport may have reduced, but the amount of work has never been greater or more diverse, with an ordinary week shooting anything from AFL training to Big Bash Cricket, and for Rob, even the occasional Dan Andrews press conference when sport ground to a halt during lockdown.
But while it’s easy to think that being a professional sports shooter is just a matter of turning up, firing away on the shutter, and then heading home, that’s far from the reality – take a Big Bash game as an example.
“In the lead up to the game we’ll be looking at key players to follow, any injuries and any other key action we should be looking to capture,” Rob explains.
“A few days before the match we might meet with Cricket Australia who’ll let us know about any of the events they’ll want us to capture on the day, which could be something like a fan giveaway during a break or a sponsor segment.”
By the time matchday rolls around, the photographers will know what they need to capture and where they’ll be positioned during the match. “For a cricket game, I will start at long on, and usually work my way around to square leg at some point, although ‘Covid permitting’, photographers can move around if needed.”
Ultimately though, it’s the peak action that every pro wants to capture – the decisive moment in a match that turns the story or wins the game. And surprisingly, although skill is important, sometimes you do need a bit of lady luck.
“What you hope is that when it happens, you’ll be ready with the right lens and you’ll have the right light to capture it,” Rob explains. “There’s an element of luck to it, but you do gain a sense of when something could happen from years of watching sport.”
Of course, one way you can improve your luck is by knowing your gear inside out.
The gear and settings
Rob’s kit starts with his Canon 1DX Mark II and III’s – proper workhorses that sports fans will recognise from the sidelines of most major events.
“On the bodies I use Canon’s Recall settings with two options,” Rob explains. “If I’m shooting a football stadium that’s half in sun and half in shade for example, I have a setting for each, which has a shutter speed and aperture already setup, and I’ll manually control the ISO if I need to.”
For motorsports, he’ll use a slightly different setup – a Recall setup that will give a different shutter speed of say 1/50s, which can blur the action with a touch of a button, before reverting to a fast shutter of 1/1000s (or faster).
And then there’s the remotely triggered cameras. At a soccer match for example, Rob will have a camera setup on a low tripod with a wide-angle lens and a pocket wizard in the goal mouth. Manually focussed, the lens will be pre-focused to between the six-yard box and the goalkeeper’s line and set to high drive mode.
“I have a foot pedal that’s linked to the remote for the shutter,” he explains. “When I see the striker lining up to take a shot, I’ll put my foot on the pedal, and hopefully capture something.
Some photographers will put the remote trigger on their hot shoe, but that will just give you twice as many images to work through when it comes time to sort your images.”
Combine this with editing in the field while the game is underway, and it’s obvious that sports photography at this level requires mind-boggling attention to detail and an ability to work fast – very fast.
“Usually I’ll take a few frames, download the card, edit a few shots, and then start shooting again while the game continues,” Rob explains.
Most pros shoot JPEG only, and images can be either uploaded in the traditional card in computer way or WiFi’d to the computer, lightly edited, with only adjustments to basic levels and sharpening permitted, before being sent off. The whole process of taking a card out, editing and sending to home base before clearing the card and preparing to shoot again could be as fast as just two minutes.
Technology continues to improve however, and the new generation of cameras allow photographers to connect their camera directly via ethernet to provide editors back in the studio a real-time feed of images as they’re captured. Less time moving cards means more time to focus on the action.
The next generation
The skill to be able to adapt to the changes in front of the lens while also managing the myriad of gear behind it, means that the learning curve for a pro sports photographer is particularly steep. It’s something not lost on Rob.
“The expectation from our clients is that we will be able to shoot a match and get a good set of 30-40 images. This isn’t easy. We might test out new photographers by getting them to capture a second tier VFL match for example, and they’ll only come back with 10 good pictures.
You combine this with the pressure of knowing your editor is demanding images while you shoot, and it’s a very challenging environment for an aspiring photographer.”
Ultimately though, if you have a love for sport and a desire to capture the agony and ecstasy of the game, it’s a great career.
“Just be prepared to put in the hard yards, ask for feedback from other pros and don’t expect to be shooting the Olympic games straight off the bat,” he laughs. ❂