Getty Images photographer Richard Heathcote has won the prestigious British Sports Photographer of the Year Award at the 2019 British Sports Journalism Awards. The award, presented every year by the Sports Journalists' Association of Great Britain (SJA) and sponsored by Canon, is open to all British-based professional sports photographers.
The British Sports Journalism Awards can be traced back to post-war Britain, when the SJA was established. The association is affiliated with The International Sports Press Association (AIPS), which enjoys close ties with sporting governing bodies including FIFA, UEFA and the IAAF, making the awards a hugely anticipated event widely regarded as "the Oscars of the sporting media industry".
The competition drew 277 entrants across five photography categories, charting the highs and lows of international, national and local sport – from football and boxing to snooker and tennis. Here, some of the winners share the stories behind their shots and offer advice on how to take an award-winning sports photograph.
Richard Heathcote won the Canon Sports Portfolio category and went on to win the coveted 2019 SJA British Sports Photographer of the Year (Ed Lacey Trophy) for his stunningly-timed shot captured during the 2019 rematch between Mexico's Andy Ruiz Jr. and Britain's Anthony Joshua, where Joshua reclaimed the heavyweight title.
Richard was presented with the Ed Lacey Trophy in front of more than 600 guests at a gala evening at the Westminster Park Plaza Hotel on 24 February 2020. The winner is selected from the winners of the individual Sports Portfolio, Specialist Sports Portfolio and Football Portfolio categories.
Richard, a sports veteran with over 20 years' experience, has spent the last 16 years working with Getty Images. He shot the winning image of the much-anticipated event with a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) and Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens.
The rematch fight between Andy Ruiz Jr. and Anthony Joshua in Saudi Arabia was a much-anticipated event. "You can gauge what might happen, but boxing is also unpredictable at the best of times," says Richard. "I felt it was probably going to go the distance, so there should be plenty of chances to get 'punch' pictures. The Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens is the standard lens for boxing so you can get action around the ring."
With the match in the 12th and final round, Richard found himself frustrated with his position shooting to the right of the ringside judge. "The punches and shapes made by the boxers were all three-quarter-on and working for the photographers on the other side," he says. "We also had the large orange LED boards over every corner, which created messy backgrounds."
Eventually, however, his patience was rewarded. "Joshua threw a right cross that landed really well – the distortion in the face, the spray from the punch and clean background – it was a pivotal moment in the fight," says Richard. "It was well worth the wait."
As well as shooting on the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Richard has been an early user of its successor, the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III, and is impressed with its new levels of performance when shooting sporting events. "The AF is vastly improved, especially with face and eye detection," he says. "For recent events I have been using zone AF areas set with face detect and moving them around with the smart controller – it just doesn't miss. The high ISO has also improved by a couple of stops, so we can now shoot when venues have poor lighting."
Lee Smith of Action Images, the sports media agency of Thomson Reuters, won the Football Portfolio category award. His striking category-winning image of players in the FA Cup first round match between Gateshead and Oldham was shot from behind the goal mouth. His shot is framed geometrically with the reflection in a pool of water at ground level.
Lee went to extremes to frame the shot on his Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens. "As the game started, I lay down in the puddle and lowered the camera onto the ground central to the goal mouth, with the base actually submerged in the water," he explains. "Having done test shots beforehand, I knew I needed a cross into the goal mouth so players would be off the ground and this would create the best effect."
The judges praised Lee's portfolio, saying it was "balanced with great use of light" and "showed high technical skill and comprehensive knowledge of the sport." He also won a Silver Award in the Canon Sports Portfolio category.
Andrew Boyers won the Sports Picture category for his celebratory cricket shot and says knowing your sport will get you far in capturing memorable images like this. "Know the people you're photographing and anticipate what they might do," he says. "I also listen to the radio if there is a commentary going on for most sports I cover. I know some people don't like it, but the radio commentators pass on useful information about an injury, or now with VAR at football they get the feed from the referee and sometimes report on what is going on before a final decision is made."
Simon Stacpoole, Highly Commended in the same category and nominated in the Football Portfolio, says anticipating the action is all part of the process. "Wales were on the brink of qualification for UEFA EURO 2020 when they came up against a determined Hungarian side on a mild November evening in Cardiff, so I knew any goal would likely result in scenes of jubilation. When Aaron Ramsey scored their second of the night to seal victory, the team raced away to the corner of the pitch where I was sitting. As more and more players rushed to join in with the celebrations, I made the decision to lower my Canon EOS-1D X with Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 IS II USM [now succeeded by the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM] lens and reach for my third body, an EOS-1D X with Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM lens attached, anticipating and ultimately capturing an image that encapsulated the euphoria of the moment.
"There are so many hurdles to overcome, such as working positions, internet connectivity, and so on, so the speed and reliability of the Canon system gives me the confidence I need in order to concentrate on shooting, knowing the gear won't let me down," says Simon. "And on that night, as with so many other big moments, it produced the goods."
While the majority of categories concentrate on memorable images that encapsulate headline-grabbing, professional and often global sporting events, one category is dedicated to sporting moments that are often more personal. The Away from the Action category is for portraits, features or sports news photos which take place off the field of play.
Freelance photographer and Canon Ambassador Eddie Keogh is no newcomer to the SJA awards, and scooped this category for the second year in a row. A sports photographer for the last 35 years and an avid football fan, Eddie has been working on a long-term personal project documenting Sunday morning football. His category-winning image was captured while a group of players were setting up the nets at Hackney Marshes, East London. It's a succinct – if somewhat cheeky – depiction of Sunday morning football, says Eddie. "Hand in shorts, socks round his ankles and shin-pads showing – it's a classic shot. I couldn't have set it up better if I had tried."
Eddie captured the candid moment on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens, and declares himself a big fan of Canon's flagship DSLR. "It's an awesome piece of kit – it's on another level," says Eddie. "The autofocus is just fantastic. I turned around, saw this chap walking towards me and took about 30 shots in couple of seconds. The AF just locked on the whole time."
The judges said his photograph "perfectly encapsulates Sunday morning football. The footballer is in complete contrast to multi-million-pound sports stars."
When it comes to capturing winning images, Ed Lacey Trophy winner Richard Heathcote offers the following advice to budding sports photographers: "Keep concentrating, keep anticipating, don't let frustration distract you, because you don't know what's going to fall into place when you least expect it."