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Wei Seng Chen on his award-winning bull racing image

Wei Seng Chen on his award-winning bull racing image

© Wei Seng Chen

April 2013

For every sports and action photographer, a fraction of a second is all that separates an award-winning picture from an also-ran. If proof were needed, look no further than to this year’s World Press Photo winning image in the Sports Action Singles category. CPN Editor David Corfield talks to its winner, Wei Seng Chen, about a fantastic frozen moment...

When the winning image of the Sports Action Singles category in this year’s World Press Photo Contest was revealed, nobody was more surprised to have won than its creator, Malaysian photographer Wei Seng Chen. A freelance photographer working primarily on news and international sports events in Malaysia - such as soccer, golf, basketball, squash and motorsports - he occasionally gets the chance to shoot something just a little bit different...

© Wei Seng Chen

Wei Seng Chen’s prize-winning image, entitled ‘Joy at the end of the run’ was photographed in Batu Sangkar, West Sumatra, Indonesia. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D Mark III with an EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM lens at 220mm; the exposure was 1/500sec at f/8, ISO 800.

“The 'Pacu Jawi', or bull race, is a regular event that takes place in Batu Sangkar on the western side of Sumatra, Indonesia,” he reveals. “It's held between rice planting seasons, as a competition between villages in the area.”

He explains: “Just after rice harvesting and before the next replanting, the open rice fields provide the arena for a bull race. Jockeys step onto a harness strapped onto the bulls, and they race across the wet rice fields. It is not a race of speed, but a show of strength and to demonstrate an ability to handle the running bulls.”

“Each team from the different villages taking part enters a jockey and two bulls, and all the teams take turns to run. The village elders and head men who formed the jury score points for each run and the winning team with the highest points takes home a trophy. It brings much pride and honour for the village and the bulls will fetch a high price if they were to be auctioned off in the market later.”

Wei Seng Chen knew that an event such as this would provide good pictures, and also a good story to sell around the world. “I am a sports photographer, and in my travel I love to explore non-traditional sports (to the western world) so I wanted to show this event to the world. I had heard of it before and had seen images from other photographers in the past so decided that I should go and take some myself.”

“I sell my images to stock agencies as 'soft' editorial photographs but in this instance the photographs I took were not done on assignment or for any particular agency or for a news story. I just wanted to see for myself what I could get.”

What he got was, in fact, truly breathtaking. “It was such an action-packed event, and action and drama was always guaranteed,” he remembers. “What I managed to capture was the water splash and the emerging bulls that ran out of it and the expressions of the jockey, all in one. For me it looked more like a painting than a photograph and that, I think, made it special.”

Remarkably, only a handful of frames Wei Seng shot were good enough and he is quick to praise the rapid focusing of his EOS-1D Mark III DSLR. “I used the [EOS] 1D Mark III and the EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM lens. The EOS-1D series [cameras] are robust weather-sealed cameras, perfect for sports photographers and capable of fast focusing and bursts of up to 8fps, which was ideal for these conditions and the race. As the action of the jockey and bulls can climax at any part of the rice field, a long telephoto zoom lens was ideal, as it allowed me to frame and compose as the action unfolded. For me, this meant only one lens: the EF100-400mm. It was perfect.”

“I had four or five frames of the eight in total that were usable,” he reflects. “Some had water splash covering the jockey's face or showing less emotional expressions, and in some frames the bulls were slightly out of focus. Only one image of the eight that I shortlisted had all the ingredients of a great photo.”

Wei Seng Chen decided to enter the World Press Photo Contest because he knew there was something special about his image. But he also wanted to show a different kind of sport. “When I’m in a stadium with lots of other photographers around me, everyone gets more or less the same sort of image. While that is inevitable and perfectly acceptable for reporting news, for a competition as important and prestigious as World Press I felt that something a little bit different would find favour with the judges.”

He reveals: “I actually got the news that I had won when a photographer friend from a Malaysian newspaper called me to inform me because I had not checked my email that evening. It felt great, knowing that this image had won in a major photography competition – and in an international one too. To have my image shown on a global scale was so overwhelming.”

Wei Seng Chen puts his success down to great equipment, great timing and the perfect set of conditions for a dramatic picture. “In any kind of event it pays to do your research first,” he says, “And not just turn up on the day hoping to get a great image. Every year on this event, for example, many photographers get hit by the bulls and fractured limbs and cuts are common. I realised this and positioned myself in the perfect place to still get the action, but not put my safety at risk!”

© Wei Seng Chen

Like a modern-day contact sheet, this fascinating series of frames from Wei Seng Chen’s EOS-1D Mark III DSLR shows how rapidly the action can develop, with expression and focus points changing all the time. Wei Seng Chen has marked in yellow his chosen frame and the crop he gave it.

For photographers familiarity with equipment is so important. Being at one with your camera means that you are more aware of what’s going on beyond the lens, rather than in the viewfinder where any unfamiliarity with settings and modes may trip you up and lose that award-winning moment...

“I have been a Canon SLR camera user from the film days,” Wei Seng reveals. “I like Canon because they have a camera for every user level and a complete range of lenses for every occasion,” he states. “Plus, as a CPS member, I get continuously great support and excellent service. This picture is, in many ways, my special thank you to Canon. I couldn’t have got my award-winning picture without them!”

Biographie: Wei Seng Chen

Wei Seng Chen

Wei Seng Chen is a Malaysian freelance photographer. He takes on assignments for local and foreign photo agencies or event management companies, shooting mostly sports events and tournaments.

Chen began experimenting with photography at the age of 13. He joined his school’s photography club in 1975 and learned all about photography, from shooting and processing film to making prints in the darkroom. However, he had to take a break from photography when he enrolled in medical school.

He got back into photography in 2006 when he bought a DSLR camera. He began to get freelance work covering events when his images were shared on social networking websites and photography forums. His hobby now allows him to travel to exotic places in Asia looking for interesting local celebrations and traditional sports.