Monday, 4 September 2017

Paulton Rovers v Winchester City

The entrance sign at Paulton Rovers FC. So now we know where we are, we can start the story...
It's not a competition. I repeat - it's definitely not a competition, and there is no winner, but every weekend, amateur and semi-pro photographers all over the country go out and try to take the ultimate football picture. We go to the match, we click away, then eagerly check the screens on the back of our digital cameras looking for this week's finest photos (we know when we've got a good 'un! Like a fisherman reeling in the biggest trout of the day, there's a frisson when we first see our best pics...). We download our pictures to our PCs or laptops, delete the out of focus ones, or the pictures where the linesman ran in front of the lens at just the wrong moment, do a bit of cropping and brightening, then upload our favourite photos to our preferred internet platform and wait for the Likes to roll in...

We just want our labours to be loved.

The structure photo. Players giving foreground interest.
Paulton Rovers FC (1) 1 v 0 (0) Winchester City FC
Emirates FA Cup 1st Qualifying Round
Saturday 2nd September 2017
Attendance: 129
Admission: £9
Programme: £2
Colours: Claret / claret / white v Blue and black stripes / blue / blue
National Grid reference: ST6556

Landscape for context. Tiny players. Spoil heap covered with trees...small gap top right!
You can classify football photos in to different groups. An interesting match photo album will have some pictures from each group.

If you're going to create a satisfying album, you want to tell a story, so we tend to start a photo-story with a sign. It will literally set the scene by showing the viewer where we are that day. Is there a match board? A road sign pointing to the ground? A big board outside the entrance with club name and badge? There's one of the latter at Paulton Rovers, so that's the title of this week's story sorted.

We enter the ground. We need to set context for the match, so we take photos of the structures. The stands and terraces are part of the history of the club - there's emotion in these places. So many cheers and tears over the years, so many stories from matchdays past. Today is the latest chapter in the club's ongoing history. Empty or full of nervous, fingernail-chewing fans, the stands and terraces are our background for the day. Paulton Rovers' 25-year-old main stand is smart and colourful - painted in pink and claret - it makes a cheerful backdrop for the later action pictures. I make sure it appears often (backdrop is important for action photos).

The action shot. Crunching tackle version.
The match starts. We select a position where the backdrop is interesting or the light is good (sun shining on players is often better than shooting in to the sun...). Structure pictures are useful for the story, but there's also the wider context of the ground's setting. What lies outside of the confines of the stadium? The keen football photographer will take a few "landscape" pictures at every match. At Paulton Rovers, to the south, there isn't much to see, so no landscape photos on that side. To the west lies the village of Paulton itself, so slatey-grey rooftops are visible on this side. To the north, behind the pink stand, you can see green Somerset hills with wind turbines way off in the distance. These hills carry on round to the east (and most open) side of the ground, so the north and east sides give the best backdrops. A wide angle camera lens gives us tiny players, but there's pretty countryside and big sky to make up for this (if there's no attractive backdrop, then Big Sky is always a good fallback, especially if there are fluffy clouds).

We'll return to the landscape to the east in more detail in due course...

Great action shots aren't easy to take. There's anticipation, timing, and luck involved. You have to anticipate that crunching tackle, that aerial battle from the goal kick - a split-second too early or too late, and the ball hasn't arrived yet, or it's already gone (it's always good to have the ball in the picture). You also want to have the players facing towards the camera - whoever views your pictures will want to see their grimacing faces. In the action shot above, it looks like Simba Mlambo is being fouled, but the ref thought otherwise and waved play on.

The goal photo. Almost inevitably taken from the far end of the pitch. At least the scorer isn't hidden in this one.
The ultimate action shot is The Goal! As with the standard action shot, a little luck is needed. Are you going to be at the right end for the first goal of the game? On Saturday, the first goal was the only goal of the game, so miss it and there would be no goal photo for the story. Paulton were having their best spell of the match five minutes before half-time (Winchester had been disrupted by losing two players to injury in quick succession at this point - Adam Tomasso to a particularly nasty-looking head injury after he caught a flailing elbow, and Andy Jenkinson to a muscle injury). Paulton won a corner on their right. Dale Evans floated the ball in to the box where Joe Chandler rose highest to head home (video retweeted by the club here).

The trouble with goal photos is that the scorer is often obscured by another player, so it's a good idea to have a motor drive on your camera, taking several photos per second - at least in one of these pictures, the scorer may be visible.

Allied to The Goal shot is The Celebration! Taking many pictures of the goal celebration improves the story (but just choose the best shot for your story - don't fill the entire album with essentially the same moment -  just because you took 17 pictures with the motor drive doesn't mean your audience want to see all of them). It's the most emotional part of the match. Are the players leaping all over each other? What are the fans in the background doing (answer: not much in the picture below - although the other photographer at the match is looking at his camera - I wonder if he caught the goal)?

The goal celebrations. Always with the goal celebrations.
Then there's the portrait shots. Photographers may snap individual players during breaks in play. There are the full length shots, such as the one below of Pat Cox, or half-body or head and shoulders shots. If someone is pointing or shouting or otherwise showing some emotion on the pitch, so much the better. As I was following Winchester on Saturday, I concentrated my portrait shots on the away team only, trying to snap each of them at least once (I failed miserably).

Action shots and portraits can be taken at any game, and are essentially interchangeable. But what makes the match or the ground different? This is where a quirky or arty picture comes in. Is there an unusual sign in the ground? Or is there coloured tape wrapped around a goalpost? Zoom in and highlight the quirks. The arty shot featured here from Saturday is of a pair of speakers taken from inside the stand, taken at such an angle that Winchester's subs can be seen as well for extra interest.

There are other types of photo not featured here, such as the "crowd's eye view", where you might stand behind someone and take a picture of them watching the match. Pictures of the fans, floodlights, the carpet in the clubhouse with the club crest on it - it all adds to the story.

My photo-story of Paulton Rovers v Winchester City is partly here, but mostly on the HAH Facebook page.

The full-length portrait with bonus blurry background landscape.
But there's one more type of photo I haven't mentioned yet, and it's one that us amateur football photographers dream of - the perfect whole-stadium view taken from an overlooking vantage point outside of the ground. We don't get many chances to do this. A rare example of this type of pic in the Wessex League would be at Laverstock & Ford - there's a hill behind their ground - on my last visit there I climbed up the hill to take pictures of The Dell and the rest of Salisbury stretching out beyond and it was lovely!

The further west you travel, the more hills there are, the higher the chance of getting an elevated full-stadium view. So I checked an Ordnance Survey contoured map before setting off for Paulton, and sure enough, I found a lump overlooking the ground. Even better, there were public rights of way wending their way up there.

I made sure I arrived in Paulton early. I parked in the ample club car park and went for a walk. Ten minutes later, I was at the base of the lump. It's no ordinary hill - it's an old spoil heap from a neighbouring coal mine (the disused mine is no longer visible, as it apparently was a few years ago). It's a steep old lump, but I was determined to get my perfect photo! So I followed the path along the base, looking for a gap in the trees with a view of the football ground. It didn't happen, so there was only one thing to do, and that was to climb the spoil heap to the top. One major's surrounded by barbed wire, so no go.

So I walked round the base to the right, through a kissing gate and in to a field. I disturbed a woodpecker feeding on ants, but otherwise there was no other living creature up there. Still no whole-stadium view though as I reached the top of the field. At which point, I stopped dead in my tracks. In front of me was a herd of cows. Now, you might not be afraid of cows, but I most certainly am. A few years ago, I was walking along a footpath through a field full of cows when they suddenly took a dislike to me and my companions. The entire herd started running towards us, looking angry. We had no choice but to run as well. Either that or be trampled.

We reached the wall surrounding the field and just managed to climb over before the herd reached us. Cows? No thank you! As you can probably imagine, I'm very wary when out walking now, and if my route goes through a cow field, I'd rather turn back and retrace my steps. So, with one eye peeking warily behind me, I walked back down the hill, disturbing the woodpecker again.

The quirky/arty shot. Big speaker! Small speaker!
There was another path to the left of the spoil heap, so I tried this way instead. I found a small gap between the leaves here and took a picture, but I thought I could do better. There was no barbed wire next to this footpath, so glancing up at the steep, gravel-strewn hillside to my right, I thought I'd risk climbing up there.

It was slippery - very slippery. I'd put one foot down on a tree root, but the other foot would slip back down as there was no real purchase. Eventually though, I made it to the top. Treading very carefully, avoiding the badger sett holes, I tiptoed across the top of the spoil heap. There was my friend the woodpecker again - oh, if only I had wings like you! Someone else had been up there having a bonfire recently, but they were long gone. I was on my own in a potentially dangerous place, but my urge to take the perfect photo drove me on.

Ten more steps, and there it was...Paulton Rovers below me with the players doing their pre-match warm-ups on the pitch. I could see most of the pitch and the near and far ends, but not the stand on the right, which was obscured by a tree. Three steps to my left and I'd be able to see it. Trouble was, the steps were down and would end at the top of a nearly-sheer drop of fifty feet or so. Was it time to turn back and admit defeat? Of course not! Perched precariously at the top of the cliff, I took the photo reproduced below. Was it worth it? You can decide for yourself.

And here's the one I defied serious injury for. Was it worth it?
Winchester can consider themselves truly unfortunate not to come away from Paulton with at least a draw. They were unlucky with the early injuries, but then with wave after wave of attacks being repelled by the home defence in the second half, and a marginal offside decision denying them a 93rd minute equaliser, they would have lost that match maybe one in ten times. On most average days with average luck, they would have been in the hat for the Second Qualifying Round draw. Talking of which, here's how it turned out for the surviving Hampshire clubs:

Havant & Waterlooville v Merthyr Town;
Gosport Borough v Swindon Supermarine;
Cinderford Town v Basingstoke Town or Hartley Wintney;
Truro City v AFC Portchester.

Paulton Rovers will host Kidlington.

Ties to be played on Saturday 16th September.

Match reports can be found here (Paulton Rovers website) and here (Southern Daily Echo). I can't see any other photos elsewhere. So the HAH Facebook page will be the only place where the story of the day will be found (as soon as I have time to upload them).

If you're interested in football match photography, take a look at these sites to inspire you. They don't necessarily follow all the rules (rules are there to be broken, after all), but they're all exceptional at this lark:

Pitchside Photo
Darren Luke
Ben Webster
Onion Bag
David Bauckham

This list is not exhaustive.

There are also a few local club-based photographers who are also very good. Take a look at Ray Routledge's photos on Sholing's website, for example.

HAH will be back in three weeks for an FA Vase tie featuring a Wessex League club. See you then.

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