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In his mind’s eye: how Al Bello shoots sports

In his mind’s eye: how Al Bello shoots sports

© Al Bello/Getty Images

September 2015

Top sports photographer Al Bello (Getty Images) has been working in the photographic industry since 1990 and has thus far won four World Press Photo Awards for his work. In an exclusive interview he spoke to CPN writer Steve Fairclough about his career, his inspirations and how he shot some of his most famous pictures.

Al Bello admits: “I wish I had gone to school for photography but I didn't.” What he did do was gain a degree in Liberal Arts from the University of New York at Stony Brook and then quickly secured a job as a darkroom manager for London Publishing that published the famous boxing magazine ‘The Ring’ and wrestling magazine ‘Pro Wrestling Illustrated’. "I processed film and did prints from all the events that would happen for them around the US and sometimes outside. I just worked in their darkroom every day and slowly they let me do boxing shows in Atlantic City or Madison Square Gardens to shoot wrestling - Hulk Hogan and guys like that."

© Al Bello/Getty Images

Al Bello (on bottom of pool) pictured during an underwater commercial shoot.

Al reveals: "Sometimes they [sports stars] would come to our place and we would do studio shooting with lights, so I learned how to do basic lighting and to shoot boxing. It was a sport that I loved anyway, so it was a really good fit for me. I would keep notes, collect magazine articles on some of my favourite photographers and try to meet them."

After three years with the company Al felt it was time to move on and he approached the sports agency Allsport (now part of Getty Images). He reveals: “We’d get slides from them of big fights in Las Vegas and I kept seeing this one name on the slide sheet "Holly Stein/Allsport" so I called her and flew out to Los Angeles just to say ‘hello’. That started up a relationship. I needed to be surrounded by sports photography all the time and I thought their [Allsport] pictures were majestic and made sport look beautiful. They were photographs I was not capable of doing at that time - I needed to learn how to do all that."

Eventually Al landed a job with Allsport and left his East Coast roots to work in Los Angeles for three years. "I learnt a heck of a lot. I would never have gotten the training in any college - there was no school that would have taught me what I learned and what I use to this day in photography. There honestly really is no substitute for on-the-job training."

Influences and inspirations

Al's inspirations include the work of photographer Neil Leifer, of whom he says: "He had a relationship with Muhammad Ali and he did all those great, innovative pictures in the 1960s - remote pictures, overhead pictures of boxing rings and he put a remote camera on second base at a pro baseball game; you'd never be able to do that today! You just think 'Wow! How did he think about that?'"

He adds: "You learn, from just looking, that you need to build tremendous relationships with PR people, directors of professional teams and people on-site to get what you want to get. You need to get where you [physically] can't be with a camera to get a remote camera in to get where you want to go."

Al also cites the underwater work of Heinz Kluetmeier (Sports Illustrated) and his former Allsport colleague Simon Bruty as key influences in his early career. "As I went through Allsport I worked with a lot of sports photographers and just asked a lot of questions, kept quiet, did my job and worked on things that I learnt from them and then incorporated my style as well. I learnt a lot of basic stuff that has stayed with me to this day. I'm still surrounded by sports photography every day and am learning every day. I think once you stop and think you know it all… you're kind of dead!"

Equipment choices

A relationship with Canon equipment has spanned Al's whole career: "I think my first camera was a Canon FTb - you'd use your thumb to twist the film [on]. I got an AE-1 with motordrive and then I moved on to the F-1 - the 'big tank', which was heavy and very durable. I had T90s and then I moved on to the EOS System after that. That's the system I was brought up with."

He explains: “Nowadays I use EOS-1D X and 5D Mark III. I use all the lenses that go with it and that's it! The 200-400mm is my long lens that I’m using now, but I use a 70-200mm short zoom and carry a wide - a 16-35mm. That's my basic equipment and I wrap around a couple of other things for specialty shots. But those three lenses are the things I walk around with on a daily basis - I throw a flash in here and there and maybe a wider lens."

Al is not too precious about camera settings and admits: "The only times I manually focus are if it's really dark and it's not picking up the focus or if I have the focusing dot in the middle and I just want to quickly recompose on something I'll sometimes stop autofocus and just do it manually. Up until two years ago I was manually focusing boxing no matter what because I was just always comfortable manual focusing. I was very, very late to autofocusing on boxing in particular. Then I slowly started using the autofocus system and now I use autofocus all the time."

Although he gets fewer chances to shoot it nowadays, boxing remains Al's favourite sport. "To me there's still nothing better than a real, big fight. I've done Olympics, Super Bowls, World Series and big events but if it's a big, big fight - it's electric. I love everything about it and if it lives up to the billing, it's even better. Not enough people [photographers] get to do it because there is such a small amount of people allowed on the ring now - it's special; I really enjoy that. My first memory of sports was watching Ali fight Joe Frazier on television and going 'Oh my god, this is amazing'. I still like to watch boxing on television - I don't watch much sport on TV because I'm always there shooting it, but I will watch fights."

Pictures in his mind

Although the majority of his day job is simply to capture the action in front of him Al is a meticulous planner of images in his mind. "There are always pictures in my mind and there are pictures that sit in my mind for years on end. It's just a matter of getting the opportunity to do it. The pictures I think out in my head are the ones that get me really excited but I can do both [action and planned pictures] and I do both every day."

© Al Bello/Getty Images

Novak Djokovic (of Serbia) plays a forehand during his men's singles fourth round match against Marcel Granollers (of Spain) on Day Nine of the 2013 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in the Flushing neighbourhood of the Queens Borough of New York City, USA, on 3 September 2013. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 25mm; the exposure was 1/3200sec at f/2.8, ISO 200.

One such 'planned' image is a shot of tennis superstar Novak Djokovic, which won Al third prize in the Sports Action Singles category of the 2014 World Press Photo Contest. He explains: "I had totally planned this picture in my head for a while and needed to just execute it with the right amount of luck and patience. I needed somebody with the right colour of outfit and Djokovic happened to have the right kind of shirt on that day. I needed it to be long shadows so I had to wait for a situation near the end of the day when the sun was just about to drop over the stadium before it became dark. I needed to position myself along the baseline of the court."

He adds: "For exposure I needed a fairly full stadium; I needed the background to be dark. The US Open Arthur Ashe [court] is traditionally a messy stadium that's full of empty seats a lot of the time and ugly railings that shine during the day and mess up your pictures. It needed to be faded off in the background so that time of day is a real good time to be doing pictures. It needed Djokovic to make that stretch and I got both of his feet off the floor; I got the ball just about coming off the racquet so you could see it in the shadow as well. It was one of those pictures you practice for over the years and you just need the right circumstances. If he had had a white or black shirt on it wouldn't be as strong - the red shirt pops right out and just separates him from the background."

Just 12 months after the Djokovic image won a World Press Photo Award Al took second prize in the Sports Singles category of the 2015 World Press Photo Contest with his iconic American Football image 'The Beckham Catch', which shows Odell Beckham of the New York Giants catching a touchdown pass with three fingers. He recalls: "The [Odell] Beckham picture went mental - that picture went everywhere. People talk about 'iconic photos' and the word iconic has never really been attached to my images so much but this one does. If I could point my finger to one [iconic image] - it's that."

© Al Bello/Getty Images

Odell Beckham (13) of the New York Giants catches the ball to score a touchdown in the second quarter against the Dallas Cowboys at the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA, on 23 November 2014. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 100mm; the exposure was 1/2000sec at f/4, ISO 3200.

As to how it was shot, Al reveals: "I'm not a fan of the [MetLife] stadium layout - it's very messy background wise. If I would have shot that picture from any other angle the background would not have been pleasing - the stadium has all kinds of security [staff] in yellow coats, lots of players, guys holding yard markers. I put myself in that corner specifically just for the background and I saw them driving down the field. I had my lens set up - a 400mm, a 70-200mm and a 16-35mm; they were in the middle of the field and Eli Manning dropped back to pass and I was 'on' him. He threw the ball and, I can't explain why or how, but I was just ready to get this touchdown. There's a whole process of switching lenses and what you go to you pretty much have to stay with."

He adds: "I got off my 400mm [lens] as soon as he threw the ball and saw the receiver and the defender running down the field - I made the choice early to go with the 70-200mm. I was 'on' these guys from the 20 yard line coming down so I had time. I chose the right lens and I was on the guys running and I just kept thinking 'steady, steady, focus, focus, press the button'. And that's what I did. I handed the disk over to my editor and I said 'keep an eye on this string [of pictures]; it's pretty good and I think I got something'. The picture went pretty good because it helped that the [TV] announcers - Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth - were amazed by the catch and were going on about how it was the greatest catch they ever saw."

Al notes: "It was a regular season game on a Sunday night and the [New York] Giants happened to lose the game but it just was a great catch. I just happened to be there, got myself in the right spot and was pretty calm about the whole thing as it was happening. I was able to rely on past experience of shooting touchdowns and it all came together in one night. - I can count on the fingers of one hand American Football pictures I've taken that I'm happy with and this is one of them."

Underwater action

An image that had been in Al's head for around 10 years finally came to fruition at the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto, Canada. It not only shows two divers in the pool in the bottom of the image but also the scene out of the water in the top half of the picture. Al explains: "People say to me 'you can see what's going on above the water and in the water' and I've always wanted to give them both views. To do that I needed to put the camera half-in and half-out of the pool, right under the 10-metre board. You really needed to have two divers in there because it balances out the photo better. What I like about this photo is the body language of the two divers and the fact that it's pretty clean at the bottom of the pool."

He adds: "I started asking for this photo about six months before the event. There's a whole behind-the-scenes thing that goes on before you get to place the camera where you want it because you're battling television [companies] and they've got the [broadcast] rights. I asked the photo manager of the Pan Am Games if I could do it with more of a crowd, a setting and more of an industrial background. I wanted to do it at a real arena at the finals of a real event. At the beginning of the event we met face-to-face and I wound up getting in touch with the TV person."

© Al Bello/Getty Images

Jeinkler Aguirre and Jose Antonio Guerra of Cuba dive during the Men's Synchronised 10m Platform Final at the Pan Am Games in Toronto, Canada, on 13 July 2015. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF14mm f/2.8L II USM lens; the exposure was 1/2000sec at f/5.6, ISO 5000.

"I saw that there was a helper bar when you get out of the pool on steps, and I thought I could clamp my camera to it. I kept it quiet and waited for the last day of the event so I knew if I did it, it couldn't be done again. If I was going to do it I needed to get it right. I had to be patient and I got TV to say 'OK, do it'. Why they said 'yes' I don't know but they let me put the camera there. I placed it, ran a cord and it took a while to get it done but I did it and I just needed the divers to follow through for me."

Al admits: "Doing remote pictures is kind of like playing a video game but it all came together - I was really happy with the splash on the outer part of the lens so it just looks like a lot is going on and then all of a sudden there's peacefulness under the water. It's a split-frame picture where it's controlled chaos and then 'job done' underneath the water. I was really happy because I saw the beginnings of it 2005 from some other photographers with practice pictures. I'd had a lot of 'nos' over the years and finally from pushing and pushing we got a 'yes'. Once I got the 'green light' there was no stopping me. The housing I was using wasn't a data housing; it was just for a remote cord so I was just timing it and shooting as they hit the water."

Shooting boxing

One of Al's favourite boxing shots was taken in May 2015 and it shows British boxer Amir Khan landing an upper cut on his opponent Chris Algieri. He reveals: "That's a straight-up action photo. That's the kind of fight I like because it's a rough and tumble fight where you can just sit down [to shoot] and the guys just punch each other - it's a lot easier to photograph than Floyd Mayweather dancing around the ring for 12 rounds and making it a boring fight."

Al adds: "They were throwing a series of punches at each other and I remember focusing on this guy's face and the other guy came in with an upper cut. I shot the sequence and thought 'Ooh, something happened'. My 'inner voice' told me that something just happened. During a fight you can't stop and look at what you're doing but [the shot] was in my head and I thought 'I hope that one's sharp'. The punch before his face was down but in this one you see it on contact, the spray and it's exactly what you want [to happen] in boxing."

"It's very humbling to shoot boxing - it just knocks you down every time because of the failure rate," explains Al. "People think you can just stroll in and do it but boxing is one of the hardest sports to photograph. You have to shoot underneath the bottom rope and it does a job on your body because you're crunching underneath something and looking up for however many hours you shoot boxing in one night. You've got to be aware of boxers stepping on you or falling on you, sweating on you or bleeding on you. You've got to deal with the cornermen, TV cameramen in your way, the referee, all the round girls - there's always somebody in your way. Having said all that, when you get a successful boxing photograph it's still, to this day, the same feeling. I'm very appreciative when I get a photo that works out in boxing. I didn't plan this one though - it was just what was in front of me, so it worked out."

© Al Bello/Getty Images

Amir Khan (right) punches Chris Algieri (left) during their Welterweight bout at Barclays Center of Brooklyn in New York City, USA, on 29 May 2015. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 70mm; the exposure was 1/2000sec at f/3.5, ISO 5000.

The best advice

When quizzed about who has given him the best advice in his career Al recalls: "There's a [sports photographer] guy named Heinz Kluetmeier and he was just talking in general about an assistant. He was a very demanding person of his assistants but… work for him and you learn something. He was upset over one of the assistants who tried to help and do something, but he couldn't do it. He told me the guy said 'hey, what do you want me to do? I'm doing my best' and then Heinz goes 'well, your best is not good enough'."

He admits: "That just stuck with me. That's what it takes. If you want to separate yourself 'your best isn't good enough' means he has it in him to say something like that and that means he holds himself to that standard too. If you're doing your best and your best isn't good enough, then you're not good enough. Since he said that, that has stayed with me and that drives me all the time. Even if I know I did my best and it's not good enough that makes me mad because I'm not good enough. I don't want to be the one to do my best and not be good enough."

Al adds: "I know it's impossible to be perfect - I realise and have accepted I'm going to make mistakes. I used to get real down on myself and it would sit with me. While it still disappoints me I'm kind of over it the next day but if I miss something big I do have his [Heinz Kluetmeier's] words in my head all the time, whether he knows it or not. That's the one thing that's stuck with me so I try to make my best good enough as much as I can."

Future plans

As to the future Al states: "I'm hoping to keep doing what I'm doing - I'm happy where I am and where I'm at. I'm going to try and do the job as long as my body will let me - it's a very physical, taxing job on your body and just trying to hold it all together is a task in itself. There are certain people that have helped me in my development during my career and I feel like you've got to give back in this business and show young people the way because there's so many wrong ways to do photography that are accepted as fine when it really isn't fine. I feel that if I can lend a voice to a young photographer coming up that he or she deserves that - if they're willing to put the effort in, I'm willing to help them."

He reveals: "People have described my style as 'quiet intensity'. I've heard people say that about me, and they could be right, but inside there's a hurricane, a volcano, all the time. I really won't show it because if I let it out I wouldn't be pleasant to be around! But I'm constantly just thinking about stuff and it's just in me not to fail. I don't want to fail and I think it's what's gotten me to where I am. I'm not sure what the future's going to hold for me - I just know that if I work hard things sort of work out. I plan on working hard for a long time!"

Biography: Al Bello

Al Bello

Al Bello started his photographic career in 1990 as Darkroom Manager for London Publishing company which produced the boxing magazine ‘The Ring’ and the Wrestling magazine Pro Wrestling Illustrated. In 1993 he became a junior photographer at Allsport (now part of Getty Images) and he is now Getty Images’ Chief Sports Photographer in North America. He has covered 10 Olympic Games and worked on assignments for clients such as Sports Illustrated, Time, The New York Times, Everlast, Nike and Speedo. His sports feature stories include ‘Cockfighting in Puerto Rico’ and ‘The Faces of Boxing’ and his many photographic awards include four World Press Photo Awards. Al has taught at The Eddie Adams Workshop and The World Press Photo Foundation, amongst others.


Riders race across a level crossing on to the path of an oncoming train during Stage 2 of the Tour DuPont between Fredricksburg in Maryland to Richmond in Virginia, USA, on 2 May 1996. ASA 50 pushed one stop 1/60sec at f/22.