Paul H. Phillips on Endurance and Planning

Triathlons are multi-sport endurance events, and the photographers who cover them are not unlike the athletes who participate in them. Paul H. Phillips and his team of photographers at Competitive Image in Minneapolis have identified their métier, and it’s in their blood. Competitive Image consists of photographers who also happen to be runners, skiers, cyclists, swimmers, and martial artists. These common athletic interests enable them to cover sporting events in ways most photographers can’t or don’t imagine.

©Competitive Image

Bob Kupbens teamed up with Phillips to conceive and create Competitive Image’s iconic shot of the start of the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon earlier this year. The shot was also featured in Runner’s World magazine. It’s a classic example of the company’s premise of making great shots, as opposed to taking them.

©Competitive Image

This approach is paying off. By staking out race courses and planning out positions of remote cameras, the teams’ results are getting them recognition. Their soccer book, Portrait of Passion, has been nominated for the 2009 Billie Award for Journalism for the Outstanding Portrayal of Women in Sport. They have also had an image published on one of the ultimate sports marketing icons: a box of Wheaties.

Triathlons are essentially a long swim race followed by a long bicycle race followed by a long foot race. Photographers covering them need to work at least as long as the shortest time it takes the winner to complete the course. That doesn’t include setup and breakdown times. Endurance is the strategy on both sides of the cameras.

The PocketWizard MultiMAX has proved critical to many of Competitive Image’s shots, including some of their decisive images of winners crossing triathlon finish lines.

©Competitive Image

“We can now do some very exciting things with very high shutter speed,” says Phillips. “This is because of PocketWizard. We’re slowly making the shift from the MultiMAX to the FlexTT5 and the MiniTT1. I particularly like the Mini because it is what it is: it’s tiny! We’re combining all of these models on a shoot for the cover of Triathlete magazine. We’re going to use studio strobes, but we need a few highlights on the athlete’s bike, so we’ll use a few remotely-fired 580s, too.”

Competitive Image recently shot a series of swimmers in a pool using the FlexTT5 and the MiniTT1. “One Mini and three Flexes were used with five MultiMAX units. I only see our work with PocketWizards increasing.”

©Competitive Image

“The PocketWizards help us make the shot. We ask, ‘what shot would be really cool?’ Well, let’s build something and hang it from the starting line truss!” As the lead photographers for the Twin Cities Marathon, one of the top marathons in the country, Phillips and his team enjoys a large degree of latitude in creative license and permissions to set them up and get them. Named as one of the International Triathlon Union Photographers for 2010, Phillips is earning the reputation of the guy who can get the shots others don’t.

For the first leg of triathlons with athletes diving into the water, Phillips sometimes finds himself shooting half-submerged from the waterline with two assistants behind him holding strobes on monopods. He also has been known to sit backwards all day on a motorcycle, shooting athletes as they bike and run for the finish line.

©Competitive Image

“I only see our use of PocketWizards expanding,” says Phillips. “We’re only limited by our own creativity. We’re already designing our next big cover shot for a race that will be the first week in May of 2010.” Phillips will be detailing his preproduction work in an eight-page report, covering everything from how he’ll mount remote units on streetlights to dealing with crowds during a race which will be won in approximately four minutes. “At a four-minute mile, you’re talking about a runner moving 22-feet per second. Trying to light that and get a clean shot is challenging.” With that kind of action, the team will have several photographers firing a multitude of PocketWizards on different channels.

©Competitive Image

The Competitive Image team shoot a full range of lenses for both Canon and Nikon digital bodies. Two of the team are MIT grads, “so if we need something built, it’s no problem,” Phillips laughs.

The well-written Competitive Image blog not only details some solid tips for sports photography enthusiasts, but documents some of the detailed thought process Paul—a former racer himself—and his team do in the preproduction stage before an athletic event. Photography fans and athletes alike have reason to follow Paul Phillips and his team—until they have to start planning for their next race, that is.

Competitive Image

Water shoot

Video of water shoot

Blog entry on water shoot

Portrait of Passion

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One Response to “Paul H. Phillips on Endurance and Planning”

  1. Susan Hushinzki says:

    Great work! That first swimmer image is amazing!