Adrian Hatwell talks to Mark Taylor, dubbed one of New Zealand’s top sports photographers
It’s not a new story; those in front of the lens bathe in fortune and glory while the craftspeople behind the camera toil away thanklessly to make the stars look good. In New Zealand there’s no shortage of hero worship when it comes to our top athletes, and the artisans responsible for capturing those split seconds of excellence that create idols tend to remain obscure. But each year The National Sports Journalism Awards roll around to shine a welcome spotlight on the hidden heroes of the sports world, such as Waikato Times photojournalist, Mark Taylor.
A passionate sports enthusiast, in 2012 Taylor picked up the Nikon Sports Photography Award for best sports portfolio at the Sir Terry McLean National Sports Journalism Awards, a title he’d been after for twelve years.
“It’s something I’ve been chasing for a while and put a lot of my time into,” Taylor explains. “I’m a big sports guy, so winning what is pretty much the big sports award for the year was really great.”
The photographer was awarded the honour at a special dinner, attended by a notable array of media and sporting celebrities, including Olympic athletes who had won their medals some 40 years ago, through to those who’d taken home gold in 2012. Ironically Taylor beat out many of the photographers who had been lucky enough to shoot last year’s Olympians with his selection of much more local content.
“My portfolio didn’t really have any massive events in it, it was all shot in the Waikato. I thought that was nice, especially with it being an Olympic year,” he says proudly. “It’s normally Aucklanders that take out the big awards, so it’s good to bring the award slightly south.”
Working on the Waikato’s most popular daily paper, the deputy chief photographer had plenty of opportunity to travel to all corners of the region and capture a range of sports over the year. The result was a vibrant portfolio comprising images of diverse sporting events, including BMX biking, surfing, boxing, rowing and bareback rodeo riding. Taylor believes it is this eclectic mix — eschewing the more obvious and well-covered events — that caught the jury’s attention.
“I think it did have a slightly different variety of pictures than a lot of portfolios, a bit more thought had gone into it — different angles, not just straight on and flat, waiting for the moment. It’s obvious there has been a bit of pre-planning, I think the judges see that.”
Taylor has had a fair amount of experience in what attracts the awards judges’ eyes. For over a decade the photojournalist has participated in the Sir Terry McLean National Sports Journalism Awards (named after New Zealand’s patron saint of rugby reportage), snagging many finalist spots and four times winning the best provincial photographer nod.
When choosing images to submit from the huge amount he snaps on a day-to-day basis, Taylor says working for Fairfax, the company that owns the Waikato Times (and the majority of other papers in New Zealand), has its advantages.
“Every month we have a competition between all of us Fairfax photographers where we enter our best pictures, so you kind of know what you’ve got throughout the year, from month-to-month in the back of your head. I get 90 per cent of my points in the competition from sports, as that’s what I enjoy the most.”
Working under the Fairfax umbrella also puts Taylor in contact with a lot of the country’s other working photojournalists, though he says he doesn’t show his work to many of them due to the old ‘too many cooks in the kitchen’ dilemma. He does however have a core brains trust he relies on to point him in the right direction, including the Times’ chief photographer Peter Drury, Fairfax’s Auckland director of photography Peter Meecham and renowned international sports photojournalist Tim Clayton.
Whatever advice Taylor has chosen to take it certainly served him well; his distinctive approach has earned him a place as one of New Zealand’s most prominent sports shooters working today. The photographer says the drive to capture sports with a fresh perspective is what keeps him motivated to push his craft.
“A lot of the time we’re photographing rugby in New Zealand and that’s bloody hard to get something different. You don’t often see a rugby picture and go, ‘Wow, that’s amazing.’ It’s all challenging.
“I like capturing images that people have not really seen before. You know when the light is right and you’ve got something a little bit different — I think patience is the key. You go to an event and spend the whole day there. You might get something in the first five minutes, you might not get anything out of eight hours.”
The nature of photography for a daily newspaper means many elements of an image are out of the photographer’s control. In particular, Taylor says when documenting an event there’s not much you can do about lighting conditions.
“When you’re shooting something like soccer in the middle of the day, between 11am and 1pm, it can be pretty harsh and ugly. But you just take what you’ve got and make the best of it, the sport is on when it’s on.”
If there is some wriggle room with the timing, however, he says knowing what to expect from natural light at different times of day can help out your images immeasurably.
“I suppose evening light would be my favourite, or in the morning, when there’s a bit more shadow. Sometimes at cricket you can get that nice evening light shooting through gaps in the stadium onto the field.”
Chasing the light will sometimes lead Taylor to put his shots together off the clock, such was the case with his portfolio favourite, a shot of BMX rider Paul Langlands flying through the air with his bike over a dirt jump (above). The rider told Taylor he practises after his dinner around 6pm; a time the photographer knew would be perfect.
“It’s ideal lighting after work, so I went out then and it just made such a difference to the picture, having some nice light.
“I like the complete space of the image. A lot of times you see those shots and they’re just tight on the BMX, I think the space around it makes it work.”
Despite the award validating his fondness for the shot, Taylor admits it is still hard to be completely happy with any photo. But he enjoys trying to improve and take his work in new directions; one new technique he is experimenting with is shooting using the wearable HD camcorder, GoPro.
Particularly good for shooting action sports, Taylor is looking to the latest GoPro model, the Hero3 black edition, for its ability to shoot 12MP stills at 30fps as well as being controllable via a smartphone.
“It’s an amazing little camera for stills as well as video, I don’t know why other photographers haven’t got into it more.”
Working with video in addition to stills is one of the major changes the photojournalist has seen in the industry in recent years. When he was starting out, about 15 years ago at the Ashburton Guardian, photographers were hired for their still skills alone, but Taylor says those days have long passed.
“In the last two or three years it has become so much more multi-talented, especially towards video … you have to be multi-skilled to keep your job.
“There will always be a need for photographers but I don’t know how the suit-and-ties think … the days of hiring a photographer are gone, to be honest. If you can do video you’ll get a job, if you just take pictures you’re pushing a rock up hill,” Taylor laments.
“It’s pretty scary but that’s just the way it is, changing faster and faster.”
Though he may miss the days of still image primacy, Taylor is also happy to change with the times. The rise of online news consumption and trending towards video content has seen the photographer take up creating multimedia documentary projects for the Times’ website.
Nonetheless, the photographer’s passion remains in shooting sports, citing a trip to India for the 2010 Commonwealth Games as one of his career highlights.
“It was a great place to do a Commonwealth Games, it was just bizarre and out there — a lot of fun … though you do tend to forget about the bad times, and it was hot and a lot of hard work.
“People think you’re going to these events so obviously you’re going to get these really great pictures, but you’re shooting inside a pen, you can’t really move. It’s not like shooting school athletics, where you’ve got room to move around the whole stadium and can go wherever you want.”
While he may still love shooting the smaller local events that help him reel in the awards that doesn’t mean Taylor is immune to the dazzle of the international stage either. When it comes to plans for the future, this photojournalist has his eye firmly on the gold medals.
“My major goal is still the Olympics — four years time, somehow, some way.”