Right place, right time
We meet Bob Martin – leader of the talented team of photographers responsible for the superb action images we all enjoy from each and every SailGP event around the world
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Capturing every bit of SailGP action – on and off the water – is no simple task, so it is no real surprise to find out it takes a large team of talented photographers and some complex behind-the-scenes coordination to make it all happen.
Earlier this year in Chicago SGP Insider sat down with the man who leads the SailGP photography team – seasoned news and sports photographer Bob Martin – to find out how it all works.
As well as working with British broadsheet newspapers like The Times and the Daily Mail and as a Europe-based staff photographer for the American magazine Sports Illustrated, Martin’s thirty year professional career has taken him all around the globe to shoot the action at the world’s premiere sporting events – including the last fifteen Summer and Winter Olympic Games, as well as Grand Slam Tennis and Formula 1.
His images have been showcased in a swathe of the very best international publications, such as Time, Newsweek, Life Magazine, Stern, Paris Match, Bunte, L’Equipe, The Sunday Times, and the New York Times
Martin was appointed Photo Chief at the London 2012 Olympic Games and was a consultant on photographic issues to the Rio 2016 Olympic organising committee. He also consulted for the International Olympic Committee for Tokyo 2020 and now for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
So, all in all, it is safe to say that Bob Martin is something of a big hitter in the sports photography world. But when he first was asked to get involved with SailGP at the end of Season 1 he was at first worried that he didn’t know enough about the sport of sailing to do the job justice.
The challenge SailGP was encountering back then was the familiar one faced by all the top tier sailing events – America’s Cup, Vendee Globe, The Ocean Race –of getting their images seen by a mainstream audience outside the bubble of the sailing world.
“The SailGP machine is fantastic at getting pictures and stories in sailing media but they are not so good at getting them into mainstream media,” Martin confirmed. “My personal goal has been to up the ante on the non-sailing publicity and to try to push SailGP – where appropriate – into mainstream media.”
When Martin flew to Australia for the closing event of SailGP’s first season he dicovered there was lots of duplication of effort among the numerous sailing photographers employed by the six competing teams.
“I rolled into the Sydney event as the sole non-sailing photographer,” Martin recalls. “Each team had their own sailing photographer and we had the mad situation that each of them were sitting in the same press boat taking the same picture of the same piece of action.”
A rethink was clearly called for and Martin proposed the of using one dedicated photography team that would provide the teams with all the images they needed in a timely and effective manner.
“A central team supplying all the competing teams with pictures – that was a different way to how sailing usually does it,” Martin explained.
Different it may have been, but the benefits of streamlining the photography department this way were obvious and the SailGP management soon bought in.
“After that first season they decided it wasn't working using team photographers and we introduced a central team of photographers,” Martin said. “Four really well managed photographers who shoot all the action pictures for all the teams. We deliver the teams a great set of hard core action pictures which they can use for their own digital channels and distribution.
“The teams have continued with team videographers – who do the internal/behind the scenes stuff and take the occasional ad hoc still picture for them. Equally, the team can book one of our photographers – for, say, a formal team group shot – and we will send someone to shoot it.”
The members of the SailGP photography team come from a wide range of backgrounds. Some, like Portugal’s Ricardo Pinto, are well established in the professional sailing world, while others are big name mainstream sports photographers.
“Our approach is to embrace the best of sailing photography,” Martin explained. “As an example, Ricardo is great to have working with us. He is a fantastic sailing photographer and we use him to do the onboard shots during training. He can run around the top of an F50 and has done all the safety training to be allowed on board.
“The other type of people I like to bring in are hard core sports photographers who are normally at the Olympics or the FA Cup Final. They are great because they come in and they don’t care if it is a technically good sailing picture – they just want great pictures. The mainstream guys are more gutsy than the sailing photographers generally.
“If you look at the SailGP photo book you will see beautiful sailing pictures in there – but there is hard core action as well.”
Martin is rightfully proud to have brought a swathe of top name photographers to the SailGP table.
“We have got some world class people working with us,” he said. “A good example is Simon Bruty who is a World Press Photo winner, [as is, incidentally, Martin himself]. Then there is John Buckle who has won Sports Photographer of the year in the UK. Jed Jacobsen who worked with us in San Francisco has won the NPPA American Photographer of the year award.”
Key to making sure Martin’s photography department captures as much of the action as possible is a structured approach to where the photographers are positioned each day. The goal is to be in the right place at the right time – every time.
“We spread the photographers out strategically on the water and up in the air in the helicopter so that we don’t miss any of the action,” Martin said. “We cover the racecourse completely, so that if there is a capsize or some other incident, then we are on hand to get a picture of it.”
Backing the photographers up is a slick behind-the-scenes operation which processes the images in real time and makes them available to the teams and the media.
“The photographers’ cameras all have transmitters and as they shoot the images are automatically uploaded to go up to the cloud,” Martin said.
“Our on site photo editor Richard Ward – the king of Photoshop in my opinion – and another four editors in a room back in London grab them out of the cloud, edit them, and then get them on our media hub.
“That means we can get a picture of a race start up within one minute and the images of the prize giving within 30 seconds. That is the turnaround that social media demands.”
Martin describes himself as ‘an old gnarly sports photographer’ and very much looks and acts the part. He is a big guy with a big presence and a commanding voice to match. When he speaks nobody in the SailGP media centre is left in any doubt who is in charge of the photo team.
He readily admits to being a hard taskmaster with his team but says that his bark is generally worse than his bite.
“The bad side of me is that I do bite, but the good thing about me is that I forgive as soon as I have bitten,” he said.
“I like a nice friendly atmosphere and we have really lovely people in the team – but I want to deliver a super high quality service and I do not tolerate lackadaisical behaviour. I will forgive anyone a mistake, but I don’t forgive stupid or lazy mistakes – those I jump on because if I don’t then people won’t learn.”
One element of the SailGP setup that Martin particularly enjoys being involved in is mentoring the young photographers who join the photography team at each event around the world.
“The young photographers we get are pretty talented,” he said. “Last year in Plymouth the young guy came from the local photo journalism school and was one of the best young photographers in the country. In Chicago this season the young lady came to us from the IOC mentorship programme,
As I have witnessed from myself on several occasions, after a day of shooting as part of the SailGP photography team, Martin spends one-on-one time with the Inspire photographer reviewing their images and giving honest and forthright feedback on their images.
“I try to talk them through their pictures to help them identify what’s right and wrong with them,” he told me. “I am a stickler for backgrounds. I get annoyed when people concentrate on just getting a picture of a boat in the air.
“I try to instil in them that a good picture always has a sense of place. If it has not got a good background it will always be a bad picture – so why even set up to shoot if your background is average. If you set up with a good background, even if you get less images there is more chance you will get a great picture.”
Martin very much leads his team by example and is out shooting every day – either on a rib or in the air. When I asked how he approaches the challenge of capturing images of the super fast F50 foiling catamarans he grimaces as little and lowers his voice to a confessional whisper to tell me:
“The funny thing is that I find the boats all a bit slow – even then they are going full whack. That’s because I’m used to photographing Formula 1, or an even better example is the Bobsleigh. With those two sports – you blink and they're gone.
“Another example is downhill skiing, where you can’t use a motor drive or you will miss the skier between frames – one is too early and the other too late. It’s the same with tennis – if you want the ball on the racket you shoot one frame at a time, you can’t motor drive it.”
While Martin makes no claims of being a sailing expert he has photographed Olympic sailing on more than one occasion, but says that a very different approach is required to shoot the SailGP action from the water.
“With Olympic class boats you have the time to set up your shot, take it, and then get out of the way,” he said. “You can’t do that with the F50s because they are just too fast to risk it. The approach we use is more like shooting Formula 1 cars, where you set up in a safe location on a corner and let them come to you.”
As a concluding comment to our interview Martin made a point of paying tribute to the character of the SailGP competitors who he said always impressed him with their friendly and generous natures.
“I have shot so many athletes from so many different sports around the world over the years,” he said. “I honestly have found the SailGP sailors to be the nicest and easiest people to work with.”