ProFiles | Dickie Pelham

Sport has its legends of course, but sports photography does too, and one character who could lay a serious claim to the title is Dickie Pelham. He’s been The Sun newspaper’s sports snapper for 30 years, and in that time he’s covered seven World Cups, six Olympic Games, numerous boxing finals and everything in between.

He’s showing no signs of slowing down either – this year he was crowned The Society of Editors’ sports photographer of the year for a fifth time, with his spectacular image of Dillian Whyte clocking Lucas Browne across the jaw in order to retain the World Boxing Council Silver heavyweight crown.

With Dickie’s incredible body of work soon to be immortalised in a book, published by Pitch Publishing, we caught up with him to talk camera gear, favourite Instagrammers and the recent dramatic football season…

Portrait of Richard Pelham

Dickie, thanks for talking to us! What have you been working on lately?

We are working on a book, A Life Behind the Lens, which comes out soon from Pitch Publishing. It’s 30 years of photography – it took a bit longer than expected to research the whole lot, but going back through the archives and finding all these negatives was brilliant. As a great friend of mine once said, our future is in our past.

The IAAF World Athletics Championships Day 1 The London Stadium Mo Farah win his third consecutive gold in the 10,000m at the World Athletics Championships at London Stadium.© Richard Pelham

Has it stirred up some real memories?

Oh yeah. Euro 96, Gascoigne’s goal and things like that. There’s the Olympic Games from ‘96, which was my first Olympics. A lot of stuff has got lost as well, but they’re finding gems all the time in our reference library. They found the image of Roger Bannister doing the four-minute mile – I saw it as a glass plate. Incredible.

© Richard Pelham

And this is your first book?

Yes. We tried at 20 years and couldn’t get anyone to touch it, but this time Pitch Publishing said “Yep, we’ll do that.” It’s football, boxing, cricket – all the stuff that I’ve done.

© Richard Pelham

Are you keeping up with sport work as well as the book?

Yes, I’m working on an Olympic project. We’re covering seven athletes that are going to the olympic games – there’s Taekwondo, Judo, paralympic swimming, canoeing, a sprinter and I’m shooting a BMX rider tomorrow.

So are these portraits?

We’re doing portraits, we’re doing a composite where we put them all together, and then we’re also studio lighting each of their disciplines. I’ve done the gymnast studio-lit, I’ve done the swimmer underwater – that was great. I can dive as well, so while she was buzzing around on the surface I was shooting her from below. We’ve been using Elinchrom lighting and stuff like that – the gymnast was on the rings with lighting, the sprinter was outside with lighting, and hopefully the BMXer will be flying through the air with lighting tomorrow as well.

© Richad Pelham

Sounds awesome! Enjoying it?

Loving it. It’s different from the run of the mill. Though that’s been good too – we’ve had a great football season…

It was definitely dramatic!

Up to the final chapter – Manchester City’s amazing treble.

© Richard Pelham

Indeed. I’m from Watford so that was a complicated feeling [Man City beat Watford 6-0 in the FA Cup final], but it’s still an amazing achievement.

I’d have liked Watford to have won, but I couldn’t see it happening.

© Richard Pelham

I left the pub when they were 1-0 down…

Cricket score, wasn’t it?

How does it feel when you’re shooting something like that, and you’re aware it’s a momentous occasion? Does that affect what you’re doing?

No. You’ve one hundred per cent got to put it out of your mind. You’ve got to stay professional and do your job. We talk about this in the book – remember when Beckham scored against Greece [in the 2001 World Cup qualifier]? He scores the goals, he runs and runs and runs, and he jumps in mid-air celebrating right in front of me. Now, okay I didn’t know at the time I’d win Sports Photographer of the Year with that picture, but then as he peeled away I remember thinking “Yes, we’re going to the World Cup!” and it’s great to know you’ve got next summer working. You’re going to a World Cup.

© Richard Pelham

I guess that’s a nice perk if you’re a photographer and your national team wins a qualifier – that’s you sorted for the next few months

Even though I’m staff, I don’t take it for granted. I’ve done seven World Cups and six Olympic Games, but when my boss asks “Are you going to the Olympics next year?” my answer is, “Of course I’m going to the Olympics! I’m not doing all this work not to go to the Olympics!” You’ve got to look at it like that, especially in this industry with the way cutbacks are. You’re honoured to be going to these sorts of things. But when you’re in the front line, you’ve still got to get the picture to go with the story for the paper.

© Richard Pelham

Do you have any dream subjects – stuff you haven’t shot but would like to?

There was one dream subject I would have loved to have photographed – Muhammad Ali in action, without a doubt, but I was too young for it. I’ve seen Lennox [Lewis], [Frank] Bruno, David Haye, Tyson Fury – I’ve seen five heavyweight champions of the world, one undisputed. Football is my major sport but boxing is brilliant – it makes for such great pictures.

Especially with cameras getting better and better – you must be able to get such good stuff?

You know, you say that – but even if you’ve got 20 frames per second on a mirrorless body, it’s still all about timing. That one frame I won Photographer of the Year with this year [Dillian Whyte versus Lucas Browne], it’s all about timing. At the end of the day it’s about getting that punch on the jaw.

© Dickie Pelham

You’re a Canon user if I remember correctly. What are you wielding these days?

I am using the EOS 1D X Mark II. I’ve also got the mirrorless EOS R at the moment, which they’re lending me. As a professional photographer, you’ve got to try mirrorless, because that’s the way it’s going to go. I’ve shot a lot of this Olympic project on the R, and it’s pretty good. I like it. I keep telling people it’s not there yet – everyone’s banging the drum for Sony, but in my view it ain’t there yet. I’m not slagging off Sony – I’ve used them, played with them, they’re not for me. I’ve also got Canon’s 600mm f/4 lens at the moment, I’ve just done a piece for someone on that. It is superb. So, so light.

They’re doing an amazing job of getting these lenses smaller and smaller.

And when you’re taking them on and off planes and carrying all the kit around, it makes a massive difference. Believe me.

It’s quite a contrast from the way things used to be – as you must have been reminded recently while looking at the plates for the book…

And we’ve had to get everything scanned, and there are no decent neg scanners out there anymore! We used to use the Kodaks and carry them on jobs with us. Now you can carry three or four bodies and remotes and an ethernet cable, and that’s it.

Is there any advice you’d give young, upcoming photographers today.

It’s a very difficult market for the young and upcoming right now, but I’d say this – don’t run before you can walk. People think that if they can get into a Premier League game then they’ve cracked it, they’ve made it as a photographer, but you’re always learning. I’m certainly still learning – I don’t know nearly enough about light and lighting. I’ve picked up loads of tips by following people on Instagram – Hannah Couzens is one.

She’s great, isn’t she?

I’ve learned loads from her. We have a bit of banter going – I’ve been to her studio a few times, I went to her talk at The Photography Show. She photographed me for my book and said she found it daunting – all I said to that was “You nailed that easily!” I picked up lighting techniques just from watching her!

There’s so much to learn, isn’t there?

I’m always learning – I like Glyn Dewis, he’s a master of Photoshop and lighting. Dave Clayton as well – his and Glyn’s podcast is called He Shoots, He Draws. I learn a lot from that – they interview photographers on there as well, and you can learn so much. I’ve got 30 years’ experience in the industry and I’m still learning.


Richard was talking to Jon Stapley. Richard Pelham’s book: A Life Behind the Lens: Thirty Years of Award Winning Photography from Sport’s Most Iconic Moments is out from July 29, 2019. You can follow Dickie on Instagram and Twitter, on both of which he is @DickiePelham

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