Continuing our profiles of women in sports photography, Siren’s Deakin University intern Brielle Quigley introduces us to photographer Kelly Defina.
After starting her career in fashion, Kelly Defina swapped runways for muddy fields and long, hot days spent courtside anticipating when the magic would happen, and magic it is. With an uncanny ability to read a moment paired with a deep respect for every sport and its players, Kelly’s work as a sports photographer is a brilliant amalgamation of aesthetic and action. From basketball to rugby, to tennis and beyond, virtually every mainstream sport is featured in her portfolio and behind each shot, a story.
It was such a delight to have Kelly share some of these stories and also a little of her own insights on sports photography and the behind-the-scenes of her favourite shots.
Brielle Quigley: Can you share with us how you got into sports photography?
Kelly Defina: I’ve always been inspired by sports, mostly through training and competing as a junior while I was growing up. I studied some photography & sports sociology subjects at uni, and also learnt ‘on the job’ by assisting senior photographers. Early on I was actually covering mostly fashion, which provided some great opportunities such as travel and shooting at both Sydney and New York fashion weeks. However, as I went on I realised I wanted to transition to focus on sports where I felt more connected & was passionate about documenting moments and stories. One of the best things I did while learning the different techniques and processes of sports photography was taking a couple of Summit Workshops in L.A. and Denver. I had the opportunity to listen to industry leaders speak & learnt a lot through that experience. Following this I was fortunate enough to start contributing with Getty Images back home in Melbourne, I’ve really valued this opportunity to learn from editors & photographers whose work I really admire and respect. I’ve been trying to put into practice tips I’ve picked up along the way, and just keep working on building.
BQ: Who were some of the earliest talents you enjoyed photographing?
KD: The earlier part of my career was working in the fashion space and the great thing then was probably the time to work a bit more organically, collaborating regularly on creative work. Once I focused on covering sports, I realised how tricky the access can be in the professional arena. A couple of years ago I had the chance to work with Getty Images as a part of their extended freelance team at the Australian Open. I was actually covering an on-court sponsors brief, however at a couple of intervals throughout the tournament I had the chance to photograph the match action also. Being in the media pit during a Serena Williams or Rafael Nadal match was an absolutely incredible experience! It’s opportunities and memories like these that push you through any challenges in general – the pursuit of looking for that next epic moment and making a frame you know is a definite keeper is what propels you forward and probably one of the things we’ve all missed most during 2020!
BQ: This image of Viviana Ruiz really struck me as a classic ‘picture tells a thousand words’ moment – what makes it one of your favourites?
KD: One of the aspects of sports photography I’m most passionate about and would like to explore more is the stories behind an athlete’s journey. I agree with you, this image is one of my favourites because the emotion is so high, and it looks to have layers to the back story. After this event I actually came across an article in Women’s Health magazine talking about Viviana’s route to this fight, where it spoke of a split decision in a preceding qualifier where she narrowly missed out on the Commonwealth Games, combined with starting boxing in her early 30’s – this moment in the picture is when, through much resilience and determination, she qualified to represent Australia at the World Championships the following year.
BQ: Like a lot of rugby fans, I’m a sucker for a good try-scoring action shot like this one of Joe Stimson – did you always find it natural to get amongst the more intense moments of sport or was it a learning curve?
KD: It might be a bit of a cliché to draw a comparison between competing in sports and photographing them, but in a way I think there is a similarity just in the sense of preparation/practice in the lead up and then being truly present in the moment of competing or shooting. I won’t lie, there are times leading up to photographing an event I’ve definitely had butterflies, checking my gear over multiple times or sometimes over thinking how things might unfold – but then in the moment, there really is no time to think at all and when I’m shooting it’s a time when I genuinely feel 100% focused on the moment. Rugby also, you’re often ‘running the sideline’ to capture the action, and a try score for example is a split second, but it’s all the preparation of course that allows you to react, but it feels instinctive – and I love capturing the intensity of the moment.
BQ: You also capture some pretty incredible portraits. What makes a great portrait?
KD: Thanks so much. I really enjoy shooting portraits, to me what makes a great portrait is when the subject lets their guard down just a fraction and a genuine moment is captured. The best photographers I’ve either assisted or watched in action are the ones who spend a great amount of time in testing and preparing in advance, allowing them to be relaxed and therefore making the athlete or person feel at ease during the shoot. To contrast two portraits here, the Nat Fyfe image was actually captured in a crowded room full of journalists, camera teams and media managers all working to photograph the captains of the 18 AFL teams in just under an hour. The Maddie Garrick portraits I was really fortunate to have more time with Maddie while she was training following surgery. I prefer when there’s more time like this, just the fact that I also got to scout the location prior too, it allows you to think about the shots that could be created there. On the other hand, when it’s a shoot like media day, then it’s more about working quickly and being able to adapt for any logistical challenges on set and aim to capture something as much like you would hope for in a studio environment – albeit in a very short window. With Fyfe, looking back at the metadata I had a total of 1min and 23secs from first to last frame before he was whisked away and the next player stepped in!
BQ: What are your favourite moments to photograph?
KD: Celebrations definitely – either during match action or following game victory. One of the main reasons, as I’m sure most photographers covering sports would say, is they follow the game and are inspired by the stories that make up the competition, so having the privilege to document a player’s emotion in that moment is one that I enjoy and hope they like the image if they do see it through either news or social media.
BQ: This shot of powerhouse Naomi Osaka really is visually stunning – is there pressure when you are photographing to get *the* shot or is it more of an organic process?
KD: Thank you. I think it’s a combination of both, of course with covering live sport in general you can’t manufacture any of the moments, it will unfold naturally. In saying that, you can study the sport, be familiar with player styles and be thoroughly researched so you are aware of any topical or newsworthy aspects. In combination with monitoring visual aspects like the light and how it will change throughout the timeframe of a match, you’re putting yourself in the best position to capture those moments when they do happen in a meaningful or aesthetically strong way. Images can also gain value over time as an athlete’s career evolves – this was shot in 2018, since then Naomi Osaka has gone on to recently win her third grand slam in the US Open and also prominently use her voice and platform to shine light on the ongoing issues of systemic racism and social injustice. To me, this image is now representative of even more and I’m glad to have had the opportunity to photograph her.
BQ: 3 hours and 38 minutes seems like forever to be behind the lens – did you photograph this entire match or do you pick your moments with lengthy games like this?
Both Kyrgios and Nadal are such expressive athletes, having the opportunity to be on court for this match was definitely an epic experience! I was primarily covering the sponsors brief I mentioned earlier, so the first couple of sets were spent on this, and then I had the bonus chance on this particular match to focus on some action. While it’s a favourite for sure, tennis can be a pretty gruelling sport to cover in general. Key photographers who are assigned to the match editorially will stay for the entirety of the match, other photographers covering a few different matches or a brief may aim to arrive for key moments and also factor in other courts playing simultaneously and editing as well (unless you’re a senior photographer and sending wirelessly etc). Either way, a day photographing the tennis could easily be 10-12+ hours – factoring in the Australian summer and temperatures on court, make sure you stay hydrated and try to get in some sleep (or at least catch up after the whirlwind 14 days of the tournament!).
BQ: What have been the more challenging aspects of your career so far?
KD: I would say making the transition from fashion to sports photography was challenging. From re-learning a totally different technique to workflow, including such a quick image delivery time when on a freelance job for a newswire, as well as in the beginning gaining access with a limited sports portfolio, but then continuing to work away on it game by game and being grateful to develop working relationships with some great editors and photographers whom I’ve learnt a lot from. Over time, and working around some challenges, I feel excited to keep developing things and evolving my photography once we see what the landscape looks like for work post-pandemic in the industry. I think you need to be hungry to create your own opportunities too – in addition to assigned work, either pitch a story to an editor, or aim to follow some personal interest stories as well. I think it’s great to continue experimenting creatively, looking for new ways to produce content.
BQ: You shoot such a wide range of sports from all different leagues; we’d love to know if there is one in particular that you really love to photograph?
KD: This is a tough one because I love the variety and individual challenges of covering different sports. To choose one I will say NRL – from a dynamic try scoring frame to the celebrations, along with the actual process of being able to follow the action along the sideline as a photographer, is what makes it such a good one to cover. And of course the tennis when it’s here – I enjoy following tennis as a sport and it’s just such an awesome atmosphere in general when the Aus Open is on!
BQ: As someone who has been privy to the ongoing rise of women’s sport through your profession, what have you loved about shooting it so far?
KD: As a photographer I want my work to highlight female athletes in an empowered and strong way – particularly with the next generation looking to these players for inspiration. I feel lucky to be working in the space when so much success is happening particularly in Australian women’s sports. I hope that we see a continued shift in mainstream media in terms of portraying this athleticism authentically. I also think we’re seeing a rebalance of power in terms of athletes representing their own views, and aim to be part of amplifying this message through imagery.