Last week photographer Steven Paston faced another week of shooting a so-called pub game in a darkened room…
“With the darts final at Alexandra Palace still fresh in my mind I found myself back here after just 11 days away. I’m still taking the same route by car, parking in the same place and working in the same venue, but this time it’s for the Masters snooker. Unlike the darts where I’m here for 16 days, this tournament lasts just 8 days, with the top 16 players invited, and only two matches per day. This makes it a lot easier to manage, the key difference being that these matches can last anything from 60 minutes up to more than 6 hours.
My snooker photography career started back in 2010 when I covered the Masters at Wembley for the first time. Since then I’ve covered the event three times from start to finish, the UK Championships in York twice, the World Seniors Championship (for players over 45) twice, the Players Tour Championship Grand Finals in Belfast, the World Open in Glasgow and finally the big one – the World Snooker Championship at the Crucible Theatre – twice. This year I will be back in Sheffield again for the full 17 days, so I have accepted my role as Action Images’ Mr Snooker, which some of my fellow photographers are probably very happy about!
I would like to say I’ve grown up watching the game as kid but when I was younger my only snooker memories are of watching Big Break on BBC One during the 1990’s. Since covering the sport as a photographer it has gradually grown on me, and I’ve been lucky enough to watch some great players including Ronnie O’Sullivan and more recently Judd Trump. With Ronnie I sometimes sit there wondering how he finds some of the shots he plays, whilst Trump is still very young and his tactical game is improving all the time.
Back to Ally Pally, and the secret of keeping going for eight days, and in principal it’s the same as the darts. Key shots that I look out for are action shots of the players at the table, the reactions of the inactive players sitting down, general views of the arena during play, the ‘two shot’ where both players are side by side looking at the table, giving more context to the match, and finally people in the crowd, including family members, sportsmen, celebrities and occasionally people who have fallen asleep during play!
On the third day of the Masters, 10 minutes before Shaun Murphy and Ding Junhui were due to open the afternoon session, there was a power cut in the local area, which delayed the start of play for well over an hour. Due to health and safety regulations members of the public had to leave the venue, but BBC cameraman Jim Cemlyn Jones provided a ‘Cliff Richard’ moment, grabbing his guitar and singing one of his own songs to entertain the crowd. Not something you see every day in snooker but it just goes to show there is often more to people than meets the eye!
When shooting at the Masters you are only sitting two to three metres away from the table, and you need to make sure you only take images after the players have hit the cue ball. Unlike the darts where there are thousands of fans singing, cheering and making a racket, at snooker there are about 1,500 fans sitting in near silence barring the odd cough, the occasional burst of laughter whilst listening to the commentators on their earpieces, and some polite applause in between shots. Some of my fellow photographers would say that the only place quieter is Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium!
For photographers this atmosphere can be frustrating as there are often opportunities to shoot players trying a high-angled cue shot, or a dejected player sat in his chair or standing beside the crowd, but you can’t because the noise the camera makes could put the players off. Another downside to being so close to the action is that if a frame appears likely to last over 40 minutes you can’t get up and head to the press room to transmit images whenever you want. Due to the photo position the photographers also get blocked by the TV cameras which are moving around, which reduces the chances of capturing key action shots or celebrations.
The photo position does have some benefits though, as you are so close to the action you can really appreciate the skill that the top players have. Their judgment in knowing how much pace to play on the cue ball, positioning for their follow-up shot, and making life difficult for their opponent (especially playing a ‘snooker’) is really impressive. There is also a good level of banter between the players and with the referees, with Ronnie O’Sullivan being one of my favourites. I remember seeing him make a 147 break at Glasgow in 2010, my first live one, and Ronnie just had a swagger about him like he does it all the time. He is also the most interesting player for the press as he has strong opinions and isn’t afraid to voice them.
This week he was the best player, making only a few errors in the first round, with his best performance in the quarter finals against Ricky Walden. Ronnie won the match 6-0 in just 58 minutes, far quicker than many frames that I have sat through. To witness a match finish in that time, rather than in the standard 4-6 hours, was pretty amazing.
The final was spread across two sessions, but with Ronnie on form there was a chance it could be over quite quickly. His opponent was the no.1 ranked player and defending champion, Mark Selby. Both players were cheered on heartily by the crowd as they walked on, and both appeared wearing a traditional white shirt which is great for photographers as it reflects light back into their faces, balancing the green caste from the table. In the second session both players switched to black shirts, which made capturing good images more challenging. As he had in the quarter final, O’Sullivan took a lead of 7-1 into the second session, only needing three more frames to claim the title. For the media an early finish is preferred because it eliminates a mad rush to transmit images in order to make deadlines for the national newspapers, you can take more time and select a wider range of images. The final result was a 10-4 victory for Ronnie, and having shot many finals over the years I knew that the ideal position for the trophy presentation was at the front of the bottom end of the table, providing a clear shot of the winner and trophy, along with the green of the table to give the shot some context. My favourite image from the trophy presentation is of Ronnie is enjoying the moment with his children.
So another tournament is over and my 22-day residence at Ally Pally ends for another year. Now the countdown begins to Sheffield for the World Snooker Championship at the Crucible…”