As a four-time world champion and the 2004 Olympic gold medallist, most fans recognise Dwight Phillips as a legend of the long jump. These days, the Georgia native, now retired from the sport, is directing his passion for athletics into his work as a coach and aspiring photographer.
Phillips was recently named to a five-judge panel that will select the Best Athletics Photograph of the Year at the IAAF Athletics Awards 2017 on 24 November.
In this Q&A, Phillips discusses his evolution from a beginner and hobbyist in photography to an avid sports photographer who incorporates the craft with his work as an elite athlete coach.
When did you first start getting into photography? I noticed you started your Instagram account this year.
Initially I started in 2003 at the World Championships in Paris. I never imagined in my life that I’d have the opportunity to travel to so many beautiful places, so I just wanted to try and capture the essence of each place I visit, so I can look back and have fond memories of all the countries I visit.
You’re also an established coach and the world’s first ‘virtual track and field coach’. How have you managed to incorporate that with photography?
I think people really enjoy seeing quality content, so with that in mind I wanted to combine some of the passions I have. So I make it a production when I’m training, so the athletes I coach can see themselves getting better, it gives them a chance to share these photos with the world. It also helps to capture the essence of their training sessions.
Everything is so visual these days, it is all about engagement now and I believe it is important to combine both coaching and photography.
You’re a very keen photographer when it comes to sport, travel and landscape photography. What style of photography do you prefer?
Honestly, I only found that I really enjoy sports photography this year. Before then my passion was landscape photography, but with my equipment I use now it has really changed my perspective on sports photography. There are so many things you need to think about in sports photography that I never really considered. For me, every event in track and field provides you with a different mood, feeling, and emotion and you need the right settings to capture that.
Some of the images you captured at the World Championships were stunning, particularly of the long jumpers such as Lorraine Ugen. Which photo in particular was your personal favourite from this year’s World Championships?
There were a few I really loved, but my favourite was of Christian Taylor. I’m a huge Christian Taylor fan. The photo isn’t actually of him jumping, but the beginning phase of his run. You can see the intensity and emotion on his face. He wanted it more than any other athlete. You know, for him he’s been doing it for such a long time now and to still exhibit that level of passion is inspiring still.
He’s a really fantastic competitor. The fact that you can capture a variety of emotions crossing the different events is amazing.
Yes it is, and Mo Farah for example, in the penultimate lap of men’s 10,000m, he turned around and looked up and I captured that. And I thought to myself what a great guy, he has the whole world on his shoulders performing at home and all the expectations, for him to win. That opening night of the World Championships is something I’ll always remember. I managed to shoot the photo from up in the VIP area, it was just really inspiring, it gave me chills.
It’s impressive to get that kind of photograph from that position. What camera and equipment do you use?
I normally use the Canon DX Mark II, it’s brilliant for sports photography and I can shoot 17 frames per second. That kind of speed gives you the opportunity to shoot some brilliant photographs.
I use the Canon 70-200 lens - again it’s just brilliant for sports photography.
Are there any tips or recommendations you’d give to people wanting to get into photographing sports such as athletics?
I would say just inform yourself, take a class. I bought a general camera initially, and then I moved up to a DSLR and I absolutely loved that. I just learned over time how to navigate through all the different setting and options for photography. It’s just about educating yourself. I had a brilliant mentor, Ben Brown a local Atlanta photographer, but honestly I learned most from just trial and error.
Is there a particular piece of software you use to edit your photos --again any tips for amateur sports photographers?
I use Adobe Lightroom and also Photoshop, those are the two industry standards that I would recommend, I also have experience with Final Cut Pro too, so I have experience with composing and making videos.
So, obviously you’ve had success in the sport being Olympic and multiple world champion, but how does it feel becoming successful in the world of sports photography, especially through gaining more than 16,000 Instagram followers in less than a year?
Well you know, I found that if I was equally as passionate about something as I was about athletics, I knew I’d have the opportunity to be as successful. You know, it’s really a learning experience. As an athlete I would just be open to learning new things every day and I tried to apply that to photography.
How do you combine photography with coaching at a championhips?
If I have an athlete out there, photography comes second. My primary focus is on them, I want to be able to give my athlete all the attention. But, at times it can be conflicting though.
Coaching and athletics aside, how does it feel to be recognised for your photography by being a part of the IAAF’s judging panel for the Best Athletics Photograph of the Year?
It is such an honour for me. I follow a lot of sports photographers, I use a lot of them as inspiration. Just to be on a panel alongside them is such an honour. They’re all incredibly distinguished photographers, they put so much time and effort into their work and honestly it is just, as I said before, an honour to be recognised and to be a part of it.
Photography aside, what was your favourite moment of the World Championships this year?
There were so many great moments so this is tough, but because I do have an affinity for the long jump, seeing Brittney Reece win another title in long jump, overcoming adversity and the death of her grandfather, I think that was truly a magical moment.
Mo Farah winning on the opening night, the decibel level on that night was incredible. I mean for a 10,000m, it’s not often that you get that kind of fan engagement. Every lap was electric. Also seeing Emma Coburn and Courtney Frerichs go one-two (in the women’s 3000m steeplechase). That gave me chills being a spectator and also being there to capture that moment.
Do you have a favourite athletics moment of the season?
Again this is so tough, so many incredible performances this year. I’ve got to go back to the World Championships again with Tori Bowie. Elaine Thompson was a nailed on favourite, but Bowie overcame it. We thought the same in men’s with Bolt, but it shows how nothing is ever certain in athletics. Seeing Barshim be so successful this year has been great to watch, along with Sam Kendricks in the pole vault. He’s been undefeated this year, how often does that happen in pole vault? - or even in the history of athletics? It was just outstanding, with pole vault there are so many things you need to think about.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I just love the sport of athletics, I’m constantly reading and studying as a coach, and getting involved in sports photography this year has been truly brilliant.
Ben Harlow for the IAAF