For more than two decades now, Getty images photographer Michael Regan has been waking up bright and early, going about his morning routine almost as though he were an ordinary human being, before grabbing his camera kit and hitting the road, en route for one of any number of stunning footballing cathedrals on this side of the world or the other, to take his place at pitchside and perform a job most of us can only dream of.
As a professional sports photographer with more than just the odd season or two under his belt, you could count on one hand the number of esteemed players, stadiums, tournaments and ceremonies Michael and his lenses haven’t yet witnessed, and along the way he has frozen in time, in all their transient glory, some truly breathtaking events.
These Football Times caught up with Michael to chat about the moments that have made up a most envious career, the extraordinary sights belonging to his portfolio alone, his advice for mastering the art of getting that one shot right, and so much more.
What are your earliest memories of photography and how was it you found your way into the discipline as a career? Which career do you think you would have chased had you not become a photographer?
“I remember messing about with an SLR as a kid. These were the days of film so I couldn’t afford to take hundreds of pictures, most of the time I had to make do by pretending. I’d shown an interest in photography before an interest in football (much to my dad’s disappointment) so I’m not sure I’d have necessarily gone into sport. Once I got into football, I’d take a camera down to Filbert Street. I took loads of really bad blurry pictures from the back of the Carling Stand.
“If photography didn’t work out, I did always dream of being a fighter pilot, but to be honest, I’d given up on that as soon as they said you needed to be good at maths.”
Throughout your 20-year career as a sports photographer you’ve travelled a great deal and covered many major tournaments; World Cups, European Championships, Champions League finals. What are the most unforgettable things you’ve seen through those globetrotting lenses of yours?
“It actually tends to be the moments far away from the pitch that stick in the memory. It’s incredible where football can take you. I’ve been to hip-hop parties at the top of the Rio favelas, inside Putin’s inner sanctum in the Kremlin, not to mention Sam Allardyce’s kitchen. That’s the great thing about football, it’s universal, it’s everywhere and you can end up anywhere.”
Could you describe your typical working day? Are there any parts of your preparation or routine that may surprise people?
“Photographers tend to get to the ground around three hours before kick-off, to get the best spot. You have to take an educated guess on where the best spot will be. Who’s playing? Who will win? Where do the players celebrate? Is there a new signing and where does he play? You can only play the percentages though, after that it’s all luck.
“I like to have a stroll around the ground to try and find fan pictures or images to preview the game. Once the game starts, time flies. We can send our images directly to our editors in London within seconds which is a massive help. The images are out to clients within a minute or so. On the final whistle, all the work is done and it’s just about packing up and getting home, avoiding the traffic.”
In your opinion, what constitutes a good photograph?
“It has to be a moment or an angle people won’t have seen before. These days you have a hundred TV cameras at a stadium; they capture everything that happens from every angle but somehow a good photograph has the ability to draw people into a particular moment.
“Overhead kicks, for example, look great on TV but its only when you look at a photograph of Gareth Bale’s against Liverpool for example – by my colleague David Ramos – when he’s at the peak of the movement and the ball is on the end of his foot, you appreciate the height, athleticism and precision required. I was on the other side of the goal and my picture is genuinely only a fraction of a second later, the ball has just left his foot, but that peak moment has passed. There were 250 photographers there that day, but David’s image stands out.”
What would you say is the harder art to master: photographing portraits or the game in motion? Which do you prefer and why?
“I’m relatively new to portraiture. I’d spent 15 years shooting action before I started to take portraits seriously. Right now, it feels like portraiture is harder, especially because I always shoot footballers. They’re not models, they don’t turn it on for the camera, you have to try and get something out of them, a subtle emotion from their face or a strong pose. It’s not natural for them.
“As a sports photographer amazing moments happen in front of you and you have a split second to capture it or its gone forever, with portraits that pressure is off but you can’t be unlucky, it’s on you to get something. I think being an action photographer helps, though. You’ve seen them on the pitch, you know the emotions they go through or how they’re seen by the fans and you try to capture that.”
Do you have any favourites to shoot – players, teams, stadiums, countries – and if so, what makes them so special to you? Do you have a favourite photograph that you treasure above all the rest?
“Some photographers can’t decide on their favourite picture. For me it’s not in doubt. I had special access to shoot Leicester lifting the Premier League trophy. To have a foot on the stage as my team crowned the greatest sporting upset in history was a privilege but, to cap it off, I managed to get a decent picture of it. Weirdly, a couple of days later I took my second favorite picture. A West Ham fan overlooking Upton Park from the roof of an adjacent tower block as the last ever match was played there.
“My favorite stadiums are the old British ones: Goodison Park, Bramall Lane, Elland Road. They’re difficult to work at, the photographer positions are tricky, but the fans are right on the pitch and, if there’s a decent atmosphere, it’s great. To see a great old stadium play out its final match from such a unique view surrounded by fans from the community – who definitely shouldn’t have been on that roof – again was such a privilege and I like to think the picture did it justice.”
Do you have any favourite photographs from throughout the history of the game, or shots you see and think ‘man, I wish I could’ve taken that’, and what makes them stand out?
“Anything iconic.! Bobby Moore on the shoulders or Geoff Hurst’s hat-trick in ‘66. Maradona and the Belgium players in ‘86. Gazza crying in 1990. You always want to have taken the picture that sticks in people’s minds for decades – so any of those. Really, it’s specific games that you wish you were at. Imagine photographing the 1970 World Cup final, for example.”
If you could photograph just one last game, but you could handpick the competition, the location, and the participating teams, what scenario would you create and why?
“It would have to be England in a World Cup final, wouldn’t it? Against Germany. In Berlin. 1-0 to England, after extra-time. And the winner is a penalty, just to make sure I don’t miss it!”
What are you favourite memories from your career, be they on or off the pitch?
“I think I look back on some England away games in far flung Europe more fondly than the big tournaments. England played Montenegro away a couple of times and I remember the atmosphere there being incredibly hostile and relentless. Flares and smoke bombs everywhere. The atmosphere affected the match, it was kicking off everywhere, Rooney got sent off in one and England didn’t win either game. As football modernises, the fans are kept further away, and VAR stops players misbehaving, I’ll miss it.”
What advice would you give to somebody with a passion for sports and photography, looking to follow in the footsteps of somebody such as yourself?
“It’s hard to get going because the cameras you need are so expensive and access to big games is restricted. Despite that, you can start out with non-league or even park football. Practice, don’t worry about producing loads of images, just one or two good ones from a match. Approach photographers for advice, always improve, have the right attitude and you’ll be noticed, you’ll make progress. Don’t worry about websites or posting 30 pictures from a game on a Facebook page, just concentrate on quality, you’ll get there sooner than you’d think.”
By Will Sharp @shillwarp
Thanks to Michael Regan for speaking to These Football Times as part of The Gallery. If you’re an artist for whom football remains the ultimate muse, and you’d like to feature in The Gallery, please email us with examples of your work.