Canon Ambassador Tom Jenkins attached his Canon camera and L-series lens to a stadium lighting rig over the rugby pitch to take this aerial shot. It gave him a unique perspective of a dramatic moment just short of the try line in a Rugby World Cup 2015 match between Wales and Fiji in Cardiff. Tom tells us his techniques for capturing 'money shots' like this in sport. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 90mm, 1/1000 sec, f/4 and ISO3200. © Tom Jenkins

A passion for sport and an understanding of it, the ability to perform under pressure, fast reflexes and physical fitness: the skillset required of a professional sports photographer isn't dissimilar to that required of an athlete.

Sports photographer Tom Jenkins can often be seen sprinting the length of a pitch as he follows the action. With three cameras attached to three sizeable Canon L-series lenses in tow, it's no mean feat. "I've got a Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens that has this amazing lightweight technology in it, and it has made such a difference!" says the Canon Ambassador. He's been shooting sports professionally for more than 30 years, and on contract with British national newspapers The Guardian and Observer for over a decade. "I can get up and down a bit quicker, which means I'm not so exhausted towards the end of the match when the most crucial events might happen."

Every second counts when you have lots of photographers – and a bank of long lenses – vying to create something unique, or to catch a split-second expression that will capture the imagination of the world in a viral flurry. Getting the 'money shot' is what Tom's job is all about – "there are photographers all around me, and we're all out to get the best shot." You're under pressure to take a risk with exposure or shutter speed to get something different, but the stakes are high: "You're standing at the end of the 100m straight, and you've got Usain Bolt coming towards you, at quite a speed. It's nine seconds, and it's gone. You've been there all day setting up those cameras. It won't be repeated. That is pressure."

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There is no set rule about what the defining moment of a game looks like: it could be the match-winning goal, but it could equally be a fight on the sidelines. A large part of Tom's job is to identify the news angle, to anticipate what the writers will hone in on, and ensure he covers it. Tom approaches a game with both eyes open: "I focus through my right eye the whole time. But I've taught myself over the years to keep my left eye open to see what is going on. I might see a manager going loopy on the touchline, and then, 'Bang!' Over to the manager."

Describing himself as a "failed sportsman" at heart, Tom draws performance pressure comparisons but admits, with pitches spanning 100 metres and access restrictions, sometimes it's down to luck and perseverance. "When I miss the shot, it's quite hard to take," he says. "I suppose when I was younger and less experienced, I would be pretty angry but you have to be philosophical about it. Tomorrow is another day."

Silhouette of rugby players jumping for a ball at sunset. Photo by Tom Jenkins.
"Rugby makes fantastic pictures because it's such a physically intense sport – there's a lot of ferocity. You can get some crunching action pictures," says Tom. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II) with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM lens at 35mm, 1/4000 sec, f/5.6 and ISO400. © Tom Jenkins
A rugby player is captured mid-air as he dives to score a winning try. Photo by Tom Jenkins.
Tom is always looking for the winning try or an off-beat moment that sums up the story of a game – and says grassroots sport gives you the freedom to get in close to the action. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM at 115mm, 1/1600 sec, f/4 and ISO1600. © Tom Jenkins

It took 25 years photographing the Grand National, one of Britain's most famous horse races, for Tom to get the 'money shot' he was after. "There's one fence called The Chair – it's the biggest on the course and I started setting up there in the 1990s," he says. He knew one year he'd get a good picture there, but didn't anticipate it'd take him decades…

"In 2016, it was raining, pouring, and I thought, 'Shall I put the remote cameras out? They're likely to get really wet. Is it worth it?'

"I knew I had to – I was due some luck at this fence. That year, all sorts of things happened: the horses were really tired, so they didn't jump the fence properly, and there were fallers. I got this picture on a remote camera and thought, 'Wow, I've cracked it, after all these years!'" It won first prize in the Sports Singles category of the 2017 World Press Photo awards (see the winning image here).

Two England rugby players tackle two Australia rugby players. Photo by Tom Jenkins.
Sometimes, sports photographers take risks with exposure or shutter speed to get something different; the stakes are high as they compete to capture the most important moments of a match. Here, Owen Farrell of England shoulder charges Matt Giteau of Australia (and gets a yellow card for it), and Sam Burgess tackles Michael Hooper round the neck during their Rugby World Cup 2015 match in London. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with a Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 1/1328 sec, f/4 and ISO3200. © Tom Jenkins
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Photographing Rugby World Cup 2019™

Tom is now preparing for what will be his fifth Rugby World Cup, in a career that's also taken him to seven Football World Cups and five Summer Olympics. "Rugby makes fantastic pictures because it's such a physically intense sport – there's a lot of ferocity. You can get some crunching action pictures," he says.

"You feel like you're in the centre of the world when you're shooting a World Cup final and you know that half the world is looking." But he does still find himself at local matches – jobs he says are refreshing, owing to the comparative freedom you have at grassroots games, where your position isn't restricted by advertising boards or TV cameras, and off-beat moments such as dogs running across pitches can still be chanced upon.

Big games aren't needed for great sports photographs, he insists, and nor are expensive lenses: "I know I'm very lucky that I can afford to have really fantastic kit and big lenses, but you don't need them to take great sports pictures. I started off with just one plain camera and a 50mm lens – that taught me how to frame things, and how to go in close."

Tom Jenkins with three Canon EOS-1D X Mark II cameras with three long lenses attached, pitch-side in a large stadium.
Tom Jenkins puts pink tape on his lenses, so he can quickly identify his kit in press areas full of large Canon lenses. © Tom Jenkins

Many sports fans would say it's a dream job, but Tom is covering events rain or shine and he admits there are days where he gets frustrated. He says the weather sealing in his kit is "critical". "They need to withstand the hurly-burly of my profession. I can't make the excuse that my camera's not working." A chamois leather cloth is his must-have accessory.

The pressure to deliver is clearly higher than ever, with live sports coverage and increasing consumer expectations and competitors' standards. His images are transmitted via Wi-Fi to his laptop, and then straight to the news desk. "One of the first things I do when I get to a stadium is work out how I'm going to get the pictures sent as quickly as possible," he says. "It's vital."

It's hard to imagine how you can stand out in a crowd of photographers, penned in together. There are tricks you can learn, but much of it is instinctive. Tom can't explain why he frames like he does: "It's in-built; how it feels nice to me."

A scrum between South Africa and New Zealand rugby teams. Photo by Tom Jenkins.
Tom will be photographing his fifth Rugby World Cup this year for The Guardian, looking to capture atmospheric images like this one of a scrum during the New Zealand v South Africa Rugby World Cup 2015 semi-final match in London. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with a Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM lens at 1/1328 sec, f/4 and ISO4000. © Tom Jenkins

Tom also ensures there's no room for technical failures and places great importance on caring for his tools. "I use CPS a lot," he says, of Canon Professional Services – the technical support network for Canon-shooting pros. "In the rare circumstance that something goes wrong, they fix it as soon as they possibly can." CPS also attends the world's most significant matches with a team of technicians. "As a professional photographer, that support is really important," he says.

Camera manufacturers often test their top-level cameras on sports photographers because they get pushed to extremes. "We shoot in poor conditions with bad contrasts that are really hard for autofocus and we want fast shutters and really quick motor drives." With a fast-moving subject, it's essential to have a fast and precise autofocus. "It is the biggest game changer and the most important development in technology over the past 30 years," says Tom, who started his career manually follow-focusing his subjects.

During a typical game, Tom will have three cameras on him: a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens, and another two bodies with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens and a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens. "Those lenses cover me for all situations, from shooting action tight-in to tries in the corner, which are absolutely crucial."

Rugby player Jonny Wilkinson walks through a crowd of fans as he leaves the pitch. Photo by Tom Jenkins.
Tom photographed England rugby player Jonny Wilkinson as he left the pitch after making the winning drop-kick goal at the Rugby World Cup 2003 final match against Australia in Sydney. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D at 20mm, 1/500 sec, f/2.8 and ISO800. © Tom Jenkins

When the moment comes, it's not whether his camera will work that's playing on Tom's mind, it's missing that key shot. "One of the most memorable nights of my career was in November 2003 in Sydney, Australia," he says. "It was the final of Rugby World Cup 2003, and England were playing Australia. I'd never seen England win anything big, be it cricket, football, rugby…

"It was a tight game, and it went to extra time. I was running up and down the sidelines photographing everything, and I was incredibly tired by extra time. It was pouring and I was sweating like mad, but I knew that it would probably come down to just one kick.

"The ball came back to Jonny Wilkinson. For some reason, I still don't know why, he turned and kicked it off his right foot, which is his weak foot. The ball looped up, went through the posts and England had won the World Cup. It was an incredible feeling.

"All the players were celebrating with the trophy, but I knew the story was Jonny Wilkinson. He is quite an introverted character, and the one player from the whole England team who didn't go near the trophy.

"So I'm thinking: 'how can I illustrate this?' Then I saw him heading towards the dressing room. He was the first player to leave the pitch that night. I saw all these fans draped over the tunnel with their arms out waiting to greet him. I rushed after him with a wide-angle lens, and I got one frame as he walked down the tunnel before the press officer walked in front of me and said, 'No more'.

"I didn't need more than one frame – it told the story. I knew the instant I took it."

Írta: Emma-Lily Pendleton


Tom Jenkins' kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their sports photographs

A selection of Canon EOS-1D X Mark II cameras, L-series lenses and accessories.

Camera

Canon EOS-1D X Mark II

"The autofocus on the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II is amazing," says Tom, who often carries three camera bodies. Canon's flagship pro DSLR with 20.2MP full-frame sensor, 61-point AF system, up to 14fps and ISO to 409,600.

Lenses

Accessories

Chamois leather

"I learned years ago that one of the most crucial items in a sports photographer's kitbag is a chamois leather," says Tom. "This might seem weird considering all the technology that's in the bag, but if there's a sudden downpour, I can get the chamois leather out and put it over my kit. It protects it and is also then ready to get rid of any water splashes on the front elements. I buy new chamois leathers every year so they're nice and soft and fluffy."

Mini tripods

As well as the three cameras he has on him, Tom will set up remote cameras in the corners of the pitch for moments he might otherwise miss.

Canon Remote Switch RS-60E3

A 60cm remote release for EOS cameras featuring an E3-type socket. Its two-stage control button behaves in the same way as a camera's shutter release, activating AF on a half-press.

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