An interview with photojournalist Mike Inkley

Photojournalist Mike Inkley lets us in on the action, sharing his years of sporting experience...

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You specialise in sport and action – what do you find so fascinating about movement?
I guess a lot of people have an attraction to excitement and I’m lucky enough to have made a career out of it. As a photographer, the unexpected way that action photography can go at a moment’s notice means that you can never relax. More importantly, when shooting live, the pressure and adrenalin of no second-takes is quite addictive. It’s an all-or-nothing environment.

What’s the key to successful action photography?
The crucial thing for me is an understanding of what you’re shooting as that allows you to have an element of prediction while you’re working. You also need to have the ability to use peripheral senses while looking down the barrel of a lens so that you don’t miss what’s going on around you. This could be crowd noise, tyre noise or something similar that tells you something else is happening.

How important is timing?
Timing is everything, whether it’s action or sport, and this is where the high-speed capability of a modern camera is crucial. Quite often the perfect image is a combination of anticipation and a high frame rate. It’s quite common to see a burst of, say, ten images where only one will be the money shot. I often see people shooting single shot or a slow frame rate for action and this is commercial suicide as the chance of success is minimal.

What’s the best way to get started in action photography?
I suggest looking at the lower end of sport like club or park football and cricket, or go to a motorsport event at a circuit where you have public access without a big fence in the way. But make sure you have permission for the shots. The smaller club or circuit might use those images and that exposure can help you move on. Never be afraid to get things wrong.

Talk us through your compositional process – where do you start?
Composition is definitely in the eye of the beholder in action and sport work, but it’s normally key for the image to tell the story. The majority of the time that will be action-stopping images that really grab the attention. Filling the frame is important for maximum impact, as whatever you’re shooting is the key. I often include a small amount of background to give context.

What’s the best piece of action advice you’ve ever been given?
That’s an interesting question as when I started we were using film and high frame rates meant lots of cost. I suppose the best advice was that when you start on a new project or sport, look at the kind of images that get published and the best spots and angles to choose at your venue. There are reasons that certain pictures get used a lot, so learn from them.

Are there are any rookie mistakes or common misconceptions to avoid?
A rookie mistake is to apply camera settings from other types of photography. I recently covered a rugby game where a new photographer couldn’t work out why his pictures were blurred and mine weren’t. He was shooting in aperture-priority mode at 1/100sec and I was shooting in shutter-priority at 1/1000sec. Guess who was freezing the action…

Are there any ‘secrets’ you’ve learned over the years that could help our students?
My best piece of advice would be for anyone trying to pan a subject at a slow shutter speed. Most people try to pan a whole car or aeroplane or person and – the first time, at least – it doesn’t work and is blurred. Forget the big item and pan just a wing mirror or small marking on your subject. Keep this small element in the same place in the frame and your hit rate will improve dramatically.

Mike Inkley is an experienced photojournalist whose images have been used by BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Sky and CNN. He has covered motorsports for 30 years as well as cricket and rugby. Mike has also supplied images to the RAF, USAF and many other clients. See more of his work here