Diary of a boat race photographer

I actually planned to do this even before the bizarre events came about but after the day it’s something that I wanted to do for myself so that I don’t forget the details.

I was shooting for Bollinger and throughout the day I was uploading a selection of images wirelessly to my website and I know a few of you kept up to date with my progress there – thankfully the 3G network didn’t crash and I was able to continue to do this all day -however, only one of my cameras has this capability and so only a handful of my images appeared there (Click here to see those images)

It begins…

With the best intentions I set my alarm for 7:30 although I ended up snoozing until about 8. I was pretty tired from the previous two days which I’d spent juggling my commitment to photograph some of the boat race preparations with a TV company called Deutsche Welle who were using me to show off London from the perspective of a Sports Photographer – a lot of time spent talking nonsense to a videocamera! Not to mention that I had to make an unfortunate trip to Scotland at the beginning of the week for a family funeral, I’d been running on empty.

By 8:30 I was down by the river to get some photos of the last minute preparations – I quickly noticed that there were very few other photographers around and gave some thought to the fact that it might be an unwritten rule not to bother the crews in the morning of the race – so as not to waste the trip I took a few photos from afar before grabbing a cup of tea from the BT Media Centre and heading back to my house to get myself tidied up and ready for the main event.

9:30 – With my kit organised and myself looking presentable I decided to nip out for a coffee at Artisan (my local coffee time haunt) to get a bite to eat, calm myself and run through the itinerary for the day to make sure that I’d not missed anything and that I was comfortable with the timings. Shooting the race on behalf of Bollinger I had a quite specific brief at times of the race. The priority for me was to get a shot of the Bollinger Bar surrounded by people and ideally with crews in front and then to get some shots of the winning crew celebrating their win with the trophy, Boris Johnson a big bottle of Bolly.

I’d already arranged with the media team to be positioned in the press launch on the Surrey side so as to give me the best opportunity to get the shots I wanted and I picked up my accreditation yesterday so that was all sorted. But just to be safe I’d arranged to head up to the Bollinger Bar at 11 to drop off some kit to change into after the race, to meet the marketing team and to get a few shots of the club with the branding on the outside.

10:20 – a little bit nervous about timings and about leaving Putney I cycled up to Chiswick a tad early to take care of business up there. When I arrived I met the marketing team who were very relaxed about the day and what they expected from me which put me at ease. They were quite interested in my perspective on what might happen during the race and I was quite interested in setting their expectations as to the limitations of photographing an event like the boat race.

The challenge for everyone is that you’re stuck in a boat, unlike most other sports where you have a degree of flexibility about where to position yourself, for the boat race you choose your spot and you’re stuck there – in my case, in a launch following the race at the mercy of the launch driver and where he positions you. But not only this you’re at the mercy of the other launches who might obscure your view, or of the angle that the crews positions themselves relative to one another – if Cambridge are obscured by Oxford – it’s going to be difficult to get a shot of the light blues – there is so much that’s out of your control you’ve just got to be quick to respond and make the best of your position.

After a quick chat I took a few snaps of the boathouse and headed back to Putney. I love that this Cambridge supporter had turned up well over 3 hours early to get his prime location – I hope he got some good pictures!

11:45 I get back to the house, drop off my bike, get fully branded in Xchanging gear and walk down to the river with my cameras. With no agenda from Bollinger other than to capture the day I enjoyed a degree of flexibility and tried to look out for interesting shots. After photographing the toss and checking in at the BT media centre to check everything was running smoothly (and to grab a cup of tea and a sandwich) I spotted a very relaxed looking Sean Bowden on the balcony as we waited for Isis and Goldie to take to the water and managed to get a couple of nice shots of him clapping Isis out.

In some ways I like to think that having a bit of sport specific knowledge helps me in situations like this and that it was a shot that would have never occurred to someone who knew nothing about the sport – but on the other hand I also recognise that if the public don’t recognise Sean then it’s unlikely to be of interest to the papers – but that’s what I’m about really, rowing photos for rowers…

1:10 – The media are gathered on the embankment, unlike at a typical head race or regatta, my camera gear impresses no-one. Lens envy doesn’t really exist in this environment and as far as photographing the race is concerned, it’s a level playing field. It’s not the size of the lens, but how you use it!

Everything is running as normal, if anything the race seemed almost less of an event than previous years, it was business as usual. From where I was standing I couldn’t really hear the crews being introduced one by one. I almost got a nice photo of Mike Thorpe chucking his welly but didn’t time it right to get the welly nicely in the air… grrr… you win some you lose some!

Looking back I had quite a comical discussion with Peter Spurrier about Richard Heathcote who had chosen to photograph from the Umpire’s launch (when you’re the Getty photographer you don’t ask to be somewhere, you decide). Peter and I both thought it was an odd choice and that it would have been better to be shooting from a slight angle as it presents you with a few more options rather than being right behind them the whole way down. Like my race prediction – all wrong – Richard’s photo appeared on the front page of ALL the Sunday papers!

1:45 – getting onto the launch my rowing experience finally counts for something. There’s a small bit of chop on the water, there’s a bit of breeze, it’s high tide and having made the mistake before I know that sitting down the front of the launch leaves you open to getting a lens full of water so I walk past the other snappers and head to the back to make sure I get on the right side of the launch to be able to photograph the boats un-obscured.

I love the waiting before the race. This is the second year I’ve been lucky enough to follow the race in a launch and it was the same as I remember it last year. Below Putney Rail Bridge there’s an eerie quiet – no crowds, just the two crews getting warmed up and a flotilla of launches filled with a who’s who of rowing media, alumni, umpires and friends and family, all quietly discussing the race and anticipating what might happen.

In many ways it’s similar to the atmosphere in the boat tents at HRR on the Sunday. A large empty space filled by your crew, your opposition, your respective support networks and a handful of nosey buggers. A vast space intensified by it’s emptiness.

2:05 – the crews paddle through the main arch of Putney Bridge and get attached to the stakeboats. Despite the fact I can only imagine what it must be like to drift into the amphitheater created by the bridge and riverbanks I take the opportunity to do so… I’m definitely suffering from a case of sympathetic nervousness.

2:15 – GO.

The speculation in my launch was that Oxford were slippery out the blocks but also that Cambridge would know this and that it would be up to them to take the race to the dark blues. Credit to them, they did this and here began what was shaping up to be a great race and one which was far more competitive than many of the people whom I had spoken to had predicted. I manage to get some nice shots of the two crews rowing, both looking strong as they pass Craven Cottage.

2:21 ish – coming up to Hammersmith bridge I took the opportunity to use the new Canon 70-200mm lens which is the latest addition to my armory (arrived on Friday) to get some shots of the two crews coming under Hammersmith. The way the crews are lined up these are shots I know that my client will be able to use in the future – side by side coming under an iconic bridge – it’s always a relief when you get a few shots in the bag and good to know the lens is useful.

2:24 ish – Talking to the journalists around me we agree that Cambridge have asked all the right questions of Oxford. But there’s a definite sense that Oxford are about to move. Cambridge hadn’t fully capitalised on the advantage offered by the bend and Oxford should be looking to take the initiative and get themselves into a good position as they head into Barnes. But suddenly amidst the action there was some disturbance in the Oxford Boat and the crews stop…

I saw a head appear in the water and started snapping frantically. We were quite far away from the crews and with the swell from the boats we were bobbing up and down quite a lot so getting a shot in focus was difficult but I managed to get one or two in amongst a handful of blurry water and sky. Duncan Grove, another photographer instantly had the Sun on the phone asking if he’d got a shot which he hadn’t and asked if I did to which I said yes and via the power of the iPad I was able to send over a copy instantly… At this point ignore what I said earlier – there was definite kit envy going on in the boat!!! A petty victory, but a victory none the less!

Amongst the chaos our launch driver Dan took the initiative and moved over closer to the action and as the swimmer was taken on shore we were in prime location to get some photos of him being handed over to the police – a photo I also subsequently sent to the press.

In the chaos it was everyone’s instinct to find out what had happened and why… suddenly all the journo’s pulled out their earphones and started to listen to the radio coverage to try and find out exactly what was going on. During all this I took the opportunity to make sure I had enough memory card space for the restart and also to make sure that I’d be ready for the finish where I needed to make sure I was prepared to get some shots of the Bollinger Bar.

From a personal point of view I was of course going to make sure I got all the action but at the same time, my duty was to Bollinger and so I had to keep my eye on the prize as it were…

Once everything calmed down there was a sense of total disbelief on the water, why on earth would someone do that? What were his reasons? What did he have against the rowers specifically? At the time I jested that he was possibly the son of the Xchanging CEO making a cry for help and trying to get Daddy’s attention – closer to the mark than any of us realised at the time.


It was a really weird atmosphere – a very unique situation.

2:57 – Race restart – I’m impressed that they managed to get the crews lined up. The water was a little lumpy from all commotion and having raced side by side without stakeboats many a time for seat racing etc I know how big a part gamesmanship can play in these scenarios… tap it up, tap it up… keep tapping… tap it up… But to the credit of the Umpire it was a fairly painless restart and the race was soon back underway.

People who have followed my photography will know that I have a keen eye for a crab/clashing and even though I was quite far away on the Surrey side I could tell that they were close together, for me the tell tale signs are shouting and an increased amount of looking around. Both crews were looking anxious and so I was trying my best to get a shot of someone in the Oxford boat looking across at the Cambridge boat but we were so far away and the boat was unsteady that I couldn’t control the camera well enough to get a decent focus on the far boat between the rowers on the nearside and as a result most of my shots were focused on the near boat.

I was never going to get a decent shot of the oar snapping but I did manage to get a shot of the CUBC reaction with a bit of OUBC frustration in the background. A photo which on it’s own doesn’t tell the whole story as you can’t see the oar breaking – but given some context it’s a photo with a bit more meaning.

Unfortunately any claim by Cambridge that they didn’t know what had happened in the Oxford boat is called into question by the photo – but personally speaking, if as I’ve been told the blade was snapped in CUBC water, why the hell not have a chuckle?

As I took it I actually had no idea what was going on between the two boats, I could see blades popping up and it was obvious that there was contact but it was only once Oxford slowed down and fell back behind that we could see only 3 spoons on strokeside. Karl Hudspith & Zoe De Toledo both frantically gestured towards the umpire and all eyes turned to him but the race continued and at that stage the race was effectively over.

I got a handful of photos of Oxford but there was no real point. As I mentioned earlier, you’re limited by the position you’re in and I knew our position wasn’t best placed to get a shot of that action – I also knew that it wasn’t a shot that was going to be of any use to Bollinger.

3:02 Coming through Barnes I started to think about my shot at the finish. Frustatingly, the further Cambridge moved ahead of Oxford, the less likely it was that I was going to get the shot I wanted. To add insult to injury, the launch we were in started to hang back meaning that the angle was never really there to get the shot I had imagined in my head and so I had to make the best of the situation and get a few shots of TSS in it’s Bollinger ‘skin’ at various angles and degrees of closeness.

3:05 – The celebrations… This for me was one of the weirdest elements of the day (as it it needed it).

I have heard mixed reviews of the appropriateness of the CUBC celebrations given the circumstances. Standing up with an oar held aloft… it’s a matter of opinion really, I’ve heard people say that it’s a bit much in any circumstance let alone a race you won more or less by disqualification – had CUBC come off worse from the clashing I’m sure that OUBC would have been disqualified.

Either way, I was there to photograph it and did just so… I also took a few photographs of Alex Woods slumped in the bowseat.

Retrospectively I feel a bit weird about this, nobody was to know how seriously exhausted he was. As a photographer you’re looking for the extreme emotions – the agony and ecstasy if you like – while CUBC were celebrating and the rest of the OUBC crew were raising objections, Alex was giving the most agony if you like and so I photographed it.

3:15 – the launches were quite quickly instructed to drop us all off on land at Mortlake & Anglian RC and so we hurriedly removed our life jackets, jumped off the boats and made our way through the crowds towards the presentation area.


Where’s my iPad????

I’d only left it on the bloody boat!!!

Thankfully I know Dan (smurf) who was driving the launch and managed to shout him over to the bank where I jumped back onto the boat and recovered ‘the precious’ in between getting a torrent of abuse from the crowd about ‘the size of my lens’ – a joke I never tire of.

3:30 – Having taken my slot next to the winners podium we waited patiently to find out:

1. If Alex was going to be OK (the hearsay on the bank wasn’t good and everyone was extremely concerned.
2. If there was even going to be a presentation.

While I chatted to Getty’s Richard Heathcote speculating what might be going on my phone started vibrating and I got a torrent of text messages from people telling me that I was on telly… Unwittingly I think I’d managed to get myself in frame behind Clare Balding although I still don’t know for sure. But as a movie star (Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood – true story) I managed to keep it cool and avoid waving at the camera – although given the circumstances it would have been wholeheartedly inappropriate to do so.

3:50 – I got word that there wasn’t to be a presentation and made my way to the Bollinger Bar (Tideway Scullers School) to continue with my work. Unfortunately the Bollinger Bar was only due to be open until 4:30 and people had already started to leave. Had the race gone to schedule there would have been plenty of time for me to get the shots needed but the way things worked out I had a more difficult job there than I’d hoped for.

When I’m photographing events like this I like people to be relaxed and so I try to photograph people smiling/laughing/joking unaware that they are being photographed – but without gaggles of people to hide behind it makes it harder to hid my 6’2″ frame and snooper lens… But I did manage to get a handful of shots there and I was extremely thankful towards the Bollinger staff who were understanding of how frustrating and unusual a day it had been.

It wasn’t until about 5:30 that I left Chiswick and made my way back to Putney chatting away with a Sunday Times journalist who had been ridiculously fortunate to find David Searle and Chas Newens in the bar who were able to give him the credible quotes he needed to accompany his article. Obviously I mentioned to him that I had some photos of the day and sent them over to him as well as having sent them to various picture desks – but having seen some of the photos in the media room I knew that my photo of the swimmer bobbing in the water wasn’t the strongest so I didn’t have high hopes.

6:30 – I get home and begin the task of downloading all the photos from the memory cards onto my computer. Intermixed with ordering takeaway, watching some trashy TV and trying to rejuvinate myself with copious amounts of tea served up by my flatmate…

It wasn’t until Sunday morning that I was flicking thought the newspapers and discovered that the shot I submitted to the Sunday Times had been included with their race coverage and appeared on page 2 of the news section.

This was particularly significant for me as it’s the first time I’ve had a rowing (related) shot published by a broadsheet and so I ended up spending £20 in the local shop clearing them out of all their copies so that I can send one to my Mum and Gran who I like to be reassured that all the time I spend by the river taking photos is actually going somewhere… In previous years the papers have dominated by the Getty images and if I’m honest, had it been a normal year, the amount of coverage the race received would have been limited to one or two images that captured the essence of thr race – but as it was, the increased coverage meant that the door was opened to the plucky freelancers to sneak a shot in…

Me 1 – The Man 0

Or more accurately:

Me 1 – The Man 2,439

But it’s 1 more than I had on Friday!

3 Responses to “Diary of a boat race photographer”

  1. [...] Our photographer Iain Weir has also written a diary of the day – read it here [...]

  2. [...] says it all.  But there’s more – Iain Weir is a photographer and has blogged the “Diary of a Boat Race photographer” explaining how he got his great shots and the quiet jostling for position among the [...]

  3. [...] on the Boatrace… April 18, 2012 British Rowing Photographer, Ian Weir has blogged about his day of the Boatrace. Those of you still scratching your heads in disbelief, might find his perspective [...]

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