Michael Willson - Photographing The AFL Finals

6/09/2017 10:03 am

Ever wondered what it takes to be a professional AFL photographer?
In today's article, Ted's Master Michael Willson takes you behind the scenes at the AFL Grand Finals!


It’s a very busy month coming up with the 2017 AFL Finals series starting this week. I fly to Adelaide Thursday morning to shoot the Crows v Giants clash, back to Melbourne Friday morning for the Tigers v Cats blockbuster at the MCG that night, then I jet out to Sydney Saturday morning to photograph the Swans v Bombers game at the SCG Saturday night. It’s a lot of travel and a fair bit of pressure to get ’the shot', but shooting the finals is what it’s all about. The best players, the best teams going at it a million miles an hour, in front of huge crowds - being there to witness the historic moments and capturing those moments through the lens, it’s a privilege as much as it is a responsibility.

In my kit I have 2 x Canon EOS 1D X Mark II bodies and Canon EF 600mm f/4, 70-200mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8, 16-35mm f/2.8 lenses and 2 x 600 EX Speedlites. Making sure my gear is clean and in good working order is paramount. I also have a MacBook Pro laptop with which I file all of my pictures.


Before each match I receive a match day photography brief, outlining photographs that MUST be shot. All teams are entitled to submit photographic requests, as are departments within the AFL and our corporate partners. Sometime the briefs can be quite involved - it could be shooting a function, or signage, or fans or certain players. As well as shooting the brief I’m expected to shoot the match from an editorial perspective as well, so it’s important to get your head around stories going into the match and incidents or events that happen during the game. Sometimes it can be a bit of a juggling act shooting the brief while trying to not miss any of the action. It requires concentration and organisation.


Michael Wilson - AFL Grand Finals

Shooting the coin toss is part of every match day brief. Pic: Adam Trafford

Once I get to the ground and familiarise myself with the brief, I set myself up on the boundary line, usually near the 50m line at one end. Shooting from the boundary at ground level is my preferred vantage point, but occasionally I will venture high into the stands, I’ve even shot from the roof of Etihad Stadium a few times to get a different perspective.


Michael Wilson - AFL Grand Finals
Occasionally intruders will invade your workspace

Filing pictures during the match is now the reality for today’s photographers at any sporting event. It’s a juggling act of shooting and filing on the laptop, making sure none of the action is compromised. By quarter time of a match I will usually have 10-15 photos captioned, cropped and uploaded to the AFL Photos site. I use Photo Mechanic to caption and organise my photos and Photoshop to edit. Once edited and uploaded they are distributed across the AFL and clubs’ digital and social channels, as well as live galleries on AFL.com.au. It’s not unusual to shoot 2000-3000 frames per match, edited down to the best 100 or so. These photos also appear in various newspapers and publications across Australia and the world via Getty Images.


Michael Wilson - AFL Grand Finals
Photo Mechanic - A familiar sight during and after the match

Shooting the action is one thing, capturing the game creatively is another. I’m always trying to think outside the square—looking for different angles, alternative perspectives, clean backgrounds, interesting characters or objects. Sometimes I’ll change up my camera settings, convert images to black and white, re-crop, anything that will enhance an image but I’m also acutely aware of not compromising the integrity of any photo. 


Michael Wilson - AFL Grand Finals

Trying different angles, lenses and camera settings to get a unique picture. Pic: Michael Klein

Intense concentration is required at all times during a match. The unpredictable can happen in a split second and you need to be ready. Miss it and it’s gone. Forever. Anticipation and instinct is key. But you’re also at the mercy of your gear and interference. You hope the focus tracks, the shutter fires, the card records and you don’t get obstructed by an umpire, runner, trainer, water person or seagull. Sometimes you’re on a hiding to nothing, other times magic appears.

After the match is finished time is spent in the photographers room, going through all your images with a fine tooth comb to make sure you haven’t missed anything. I can sometimes spend up to 2 hours after a match doing a second edit. Then you pack up and do it all again tomorrow. It can be draining and tiring, but I love football and I love photography so I wouldn’t have it any other way.


Michael Wilson - AFL Grand Finals

Post-match involves burning the midnight oil - going through each frame to make sure you’ve missed nothing in the Photographers room. Pic: Lachlan Cunningham


Michael Willson

If you'd like to see more of Michael's work, check out his galleries and website in the links below!


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