Professional PhotographerQ&A with Robert Beck
What was your dream as a child?
To be a baseball player, but my life has been a dream.
If you ever have time off, what do you like to do?
I still surf a lot. If not, I'll ride a bike for a couple of hours.
What big mistake have you made recently?
Some of the big things that go wrong are out of your control. But I've made lots of little mistakes.
Do you have any message for young readers?
There really aren't a lot of outlets for sports images. To be successful, you have to work hard.
Last updated on July 9th, 2014
Capturing magic moments in sports
No form of photography is as dynamic as sports photography. A talented sports photographer can capture unique moments of athletic triumph or defeat, where the energy almost literally bursts out of the photo and inspires and moves people on a deep emotional level.
Sports photographers need a very human sense of intuition and inspiration to get those once-in-a-lifetime shots that make people feel the emotional rush when athletes surpass their rivals or their own physical limits.
Robert Beck is our sixth Tech Hero. He's on the staff of Sports Illustrated magazine and is one of the world's top sports photographers. Whether it's baseball, football, golf or soccer, Beck freezes in single frames the energy of athletes pushing themselves to achieve peak performances.
"You need to capture that special moment. You only have that one chance. You either get it, or it's gone."
Beck uses the advanced autofocus and continuous shooting features of latest professional cameras to capture those special moments, when he connects with people on a deep emotional level and makes them feel "euphoric," as Beck puts it.
"It's like, "Oohhh! Look at that picture!" It takes you away from reality for a moment. Autofocus is essential. The faster my camera acquires focus and tracks a subject the better my images will be You have to have the technical know-how to make the artistic stuff work. The camera is the brush and paint that helps create the vision. I need a camera that has great autofocus ability (and delivers) marvelous files, especially in challenging low light conditions. I work in stadiums and arenas that make those qualities essential to my success."
Beck insists on using top-of-the-line equipment: the best camera bodies and the fastest lenses, from fish-eyes to super telephotos. He says the first lens in his kit is the 70-200mm f2.8 zoom lens, which he describes as "very sharp and very fast." Beck also uses the 200-400mm f4 lens, which he says is "fabulous" for any sport.
"I need lenses that are sharp, with excellent color and contrast. I can't do my work without them."
Favorite Athlete: Tiger Woods
Beck says that of all the athletes he's photographed, golfer Tiger Woods is probably his favorite. Taking photos of Woods lets Beck share the infectious sense of excitement that the legendary golfer creates when he's up against other top players.
"There's a whole bunch of Tiger Woods shots that I like. He's just a good picture. Part of the reason people like him so much is that he's exciting. It's unusual in the world of golf to have a guy who's jumping around and yelling and screaming. He put golf on the map."
And Beck says that all the sports he's covered, golf gives him the greatest scope to create the unique viewpoint that makes for a great photograph. Some of his best pictures are long, wide shots that show golfers sizing up the next shot or teeing off with the eyes of hundreds of spectators fixed on the player, the camera taking in the emerald-green fairways, ponds shimmering beneath bright blue skies, and stately stands of trees in the background.
Beck has a very clear idea of what makes a good photo. He says he wants to capture "the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat."
"The bottom line is that it's human emotion. It's Tiger Woods when he sinks a putt and pumps his fist, or when a hockey player scores a goal and the other players all gather round."
Beck thinks photography is the ideal medium for conveying that emotion.
"You can see a game on TV, and you can watch it over and over. But when you see a photograph of it, it's different, because it's frozen in time. You can study it a lot more."
One of Beck's most famous shots is the iconic photo he took of Brandi Chastain at the women's soccer World Cup in 2000 at the Rose Bowl. It's a classic example of how a great photograph can tell a story beyond words, and make you feel the passion that leads to the glory of victory.
"The US team was tied with China at the end of regulation time, and there was a series of penalty shots to decide the game. Brandi Chastain took the final kick, and she scored. She tore her jersey off and went crazy. The entire stadium went crazy! And that became the cover of the magazine. It was an important point in women's sports. I met Brandi three or four years later. She was almost crying when she was talking about it. She said, 'You don't understand what that photo did for our sport, for girls who want to be athletes.' "
Although he's now at the top of his profession, Beck didn't set out to become a sports photographer, it's something that happened gradually. When he was in his late 20s, Beck was teaching geography and history in middle and high schools.
"I had a lot of time on my hands and I was trying to earn some extra cash. I borrowed my dad's camera and I would go to high-school sports events after my day was over. And I would take pictures. I'd have a slide show, and if kids wanted to order prints, they could do that. Little by little I made enough money to buy my own camera."
First big break
Beck gave up teaching and took photos for surf magazines for the next five or six years. His big break came in 1986 when he got his first job for Sports Illustrated covering the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii.
"They told me I would be going up in a helicopter to cover the race. In those days, there was a 'double-truck' (pair of facing pages) that was the table of contents. If you didn't have the cover, that 'double-truck' was the thing to have. And the picture I took from the helicopter was that picture. Life magazine chose it as one of their pictures of the decade. It was a picture of the start of the race, with all the swimmers. So I designed the picture diagonally. It was a kind of picture that no one in those days had ever seen."
One of the biggest challenges Beck faces in his work is knowing how to watch a sports event so not to miss the best photo opportunities.
"You're not watching a game like a spectator, where everyone says, "You've got the greatest job in the world." Well, I'm not watching it like you, and it's kind of draining and tiring. It's a mental thing."
Graphic point of view
Beck carefully composes his photos before he starts shooting. He says he looks at photography from a graphic point of view.
"What makes your picture is the background and how it's composed, where the best light is coming from. My biggest tip is knowing how to manage what the frame looks like. That's the artistic part."
Competing with other top photographers to get the best possible shot is the key motivation for Beck.
"At every single game, you want to get the picture. What makes a great picture is getting something that nobody else has. But that's getting harder to do now, because there are more photographers."
My Personal Bucket List
Beck says his next challenge includes shooting surfing competitions at Teahupo'o in Tahiti and Cloudbreak in Fiji, the Monaco Grand Prix and the major tennis tournaments. Robert’s journey with pure passion toward photography not only attract people but inspire them in many different ways.
Reaching people emotionally
Beck says an episode at the Staples Center in Los Angeles made him appreciate how photographs can reach people emotionally.
"The Staples Center, where the Lakers, Clippers and Kings play, has hallways lined with photographs. I noticed two young boys studying a print of Blake Griffin dunking like it was a Monet hanging in the Louvre. Maybe it filled these little boys with hope, or joy or wonder. A good photograph engages people, takes them somewhere else. We need that."
High-tech cameras help Beck make those emotional connections with people. Beck continues to capture those special, never-to-be-repeated moments and preserve them in photos that deliver a powerful and passionate message. By taking great shots of athletes achieving their personal best, Beck has set the bar high for all photographers.