Alice Hector, Ambassador to our sister company – Drummond Clinic – interviews Sports photographer Darren Wheeler

What drew you to photography, and triathlon photography, in particular?

I was initially drawn to sports photography through my own personal love of water-skiing. I have always embraced challenges that most photographers would shy away from. Bobbing along in a cold lake with 4 life vests for buoyancy and no waterproof camera equipment while a boat drives at you at 36 mph in varying light conditions is a challenge that most would run from. The progression into triathlon came naturally though. The dream has been to be able to deliver studio quality photography in a live race environment.  The difference with triathlon photography is that the environment is changing all the time: one second the light is in front, the next it is behind, and that involves many in camera changes throughout a race. It’s all about pushing the boundaries of what is possible.

What elements does an image have to have, to make you proud of it?

There are four things that form a great image.

Focus is the main one: if the subject isn’t in focus, sadly it’s straight in the bin.

Composition is a close 2nd, and takes a long time to learn.

Then for me, it’s to either shoot with movement or to freeze the motion and this can be critical to how a photo comes out.

Finally of course is exposure, however these days with the dynamic range in the latest cameras a huge amount can be recovered in post-processing.

How much work is involved in event photography?

An Ironman is a seriously hard day at the office.  I’m carrying 25kgs of kit in a race, and covering the full race distance (albeit not all on foot!) and a fair bit more.  I start shooting at around 5am as the pre-race nerves and last-minute checks are great for capturing atmosphere, and then I’m also there at midnight to get the last finishers. Only then can I get to a computer to start editing, so that the photos are live the next morning.  It’s normally a 24 hour stint and probably takes me as long to recover as most athletes do post-race.

What’s the most enjoyable event or subject you’ve photographed?

There are so many events that I have such great memories from, and I consider myself so lucky to be able to experience the race up close and personal with the athletes, documenting their pain and passion for the sport. Xterra Cyprus was very special for me. The locations that Xterra hold races at are amongst the most beautiful in the world.  Once you have seen one TT bike on a road course, you have seen them all, but each and every photo of a mountain bike course is invariably different and more beautiful than you get on a road course.  I hope to shoot more for Xterra in the future.

How have you evolved your work over the past few years and where you see the world of sports photography developing further?

The key thing to learn has been composition and timing. Whenever I go and shoot new sports, I know that I must master the timing of the sport in my mind before I first push the button. This takes time and I rely heavily on communication from the athlete to tell me what works and what doesn’t.  Without this, the shoot is doomed. I have also worked hard to push the boundaries with technology, and mainly lighting. The gap between an iPhone camera and the cameras us photographers use has narrowed, so I have specifically pushed the limits of technology with lights and lenses as far as possible to highlight the differences. In the future the iphone cameras and GoPros will get better again, and most cameras will shoot video, and the highest quality stills can then be extracted from the video.  This technology is already available, but is not yet providing pro quality photos – yet!

What future projects have you got lined up that you are most excited about?

Next year I already have some amazing work coming up.  Israel is a regular for me at Israman: it is such a wonderful event to work for. Next is then Superleague Singapore which is the final in their race series. I shot Le Mans 24 this year as a bit of a test case, and I’m looking forward to getting another opportunity to be there again.  Over the next few years, I am hoping that my love for sports photography will take me further afield to some of the most beautiful locations in the world.