SmugMug Spotlight: Richard Burley.

Richard Burley is an educator, photographer, and the founder of Epic Action Imagery. He travels the world photographing sporting events from football and hockey to obstacle races like Tough Mudder and Spartan. We caught a moment of his time to talk about luck, sofas, and velociraptors, among other fun details.

Startline of Spartan Race Windsor, UK in October 2016. “A foggy morning, a low autumn sun…..after 6 years of shooting Spartan events, those was the first time these factors had all come at once. Throw in an ageing oak tree and group of racers…and I knew from the back of the camera I’d just shot a new favourite. The shot is still at close, if not at the top, of the top three 4 years later. I’ve yet to have those conditions again.”

SmugMug: Hi Richard. To start with, tell us about yourself!

Richard Burley: I’m a sports and action photographer based in the UK. Prior to taking up photography as my full-time job, I worked in education. Initially as a college teacher progressing up the career ladder to management roles. In 2014, just as my photo business was starting to grow, a conversation about volunteers for redundancy saw my hand shoot up. A few weeks later I packed up my desk and headed out of my office and on to what became a huge adventure. I do still teach a few hours and enjoy that side of my life too, but I fell in love with action photography early.

SM: How’d you get into photography?

RB: I’ve had an interest in photography since I was a child watching my dad in his home darkroom developing photos. It wasn’t until much later that I started to think more seriously about taking photos professionally, but my interest in capturing sport, action, and movement was growing.

I bought my first DSLR with the royalties from a text book I co-authored and started to learn lessons by trial and error. I prefer to learn by experimenting and finding out what works and what doesn’t rather than reading or watching others. The only qualification I’ve actually got is a badge from Cub Scouts. I’m very much self-taught.

Spartan Race — London, August 2013. “Beneath this muddy exterior is a young lady named Fay. Her long hair and the murky water of Pippingford Park made for an ideal set of circumstances to capture a full on mud monster. The texture of the mud makes this a favourite image.”

SM: Tell us about starting and growing a photography company?

RB: The real start of it was in January of 2010. I’d stopped coaching football and decided I wanted to get into photography, and was shooting semi-pro matches for a friend. But I just wasn’t getting the shots I wanted, because I was convinced I didn’t have the right lens.

So I go to the camera shop, just to look at a new 70–200mm lens…and 30 seconds later I’m walking out with the box. [laughs] And I’m thinking “I’ve just spent the sofa deposit on a new camera lens, this is gonna take some explaining.”

So I told my wife I spent the money we’d saved for a sofa on a camera lens, and she responded “Well you’re gonna have to take that lens and make that money again.” Which I took very literally! I said okay, I’ll start a business.

SM: The right equipment can make all the difference! What happened next?

RB: A couple of months later, I’m shooting the occasional sporting event, making a little bit of money, but still employed full-time with the college, when on a trip to Cambridge with the family I spot a billboard. On this billboard is a picture of someone jumping over burning straw bales, and I thought “that looks like fun, why don’t I see if they’ve got a photographer?”

There’s a concept people in business will often refer to called “luck.” I think I’ve benefited from an enormous amount of luck. This was a billboard for Spartan Race. They’d just started — one event in the US, no events anywhere else, this was their first event in the UK — and they said “you know, we hadn’t thought about course photography, of course you can come!”

That first moment at a Spartan Race really told me what it was gonna be like: I’m set up along the course, waiting for people to come from the right, and suddenly they appear to my left like velociraptors. And that was it. That said to me “don’t ever expect everything. You know that thing where you like things to be predictable? You’re gonna have to part with that.”

Spartan Ireland, Punchestown, May 2019. “Oh boy. This image is a favourite as it shows the emotion of where these 2 guys were at. Those concrete balls (aka Atlas Stones) weigh around 40kgs (88lbs). The 2 racers had just carried them 25 metres and completed the expected 5 burpees. Just as they stood up, a cold driving wind picked up and it started to rain. Proper rain. Both racers stopped for a moment to pause before hoiking the stones back up the 25 metere course. Definitely a case of right place right time.”

SM: What a lesson to learn on the first day. How’d you grow that into the Epic Action Imagery we see today?

RB: Well, one thing led to another and soon Spartan was asking me to shoot their international events. Then other events start asking me to shoot, because they’re pulling from Spartan’s pool of course photographers, and suddenly I’m doing this full time and building teams. I’d call it an accidental business, really. An experiment that got entirely out of hand.

I think I was fairly lucky, again, because I was an educator and a manager in my full-time work before this. I was used to recruitment, I was used to building teams, passing on information, delegating, and allowing people to grow. Everything I did was very developmental.

The whole purpose of education is to help people grow to become better than yourself — and not be intimidated by that, which is a great fit for photography. It’s really something I look for while building a team of photographers: work that makes me stop and go “whoa. I’ve gotta know how you got that.” I’ve had the privilege of working with other photographers that inspire and enthuse me to work hard and to keep learning.

Europe’s Toughest Mudder, Belvoir Castle, May 2019. “A cold foggy 12- hour overnight event. A runner crosses between me and one of the main course floodlights. Just enough to time to create a silhouette that is as close the Tough Mudder logo as I’ve got in over 70 events with them. Shooting at night isn’t that frequent, so getting a shot like this was pleasing.”

SM: What is it about action photography that calls to you?

RB: I enjoy the challenge of capturing movement at the right time. Facial expressions in sport really tell a story too. Emotions are often amplified in a sporting environment and seeking to tell the story is a challenge that I enjoy. Participants on a Tough Mudder course emerging from ice filled pools or getting zapped by electricity really brings out a range of expressions. And I’ve done a couple of the events myself so I have an inkling of what they’re experiencing.

I enjoy the people too. Sports events have an energy and a vibe that I find motivating. Capturing people overcoming fears or beating their personal bests is a responsibility I take seriously and I work hard to ensure that moment is captured for them to share with their friends and family. There’s been several moments where I’ve captured people who’ve overcome significant changes in their life to achieve a sporting goal. Often I find there’s a bit of dust in my eye when seeing such a victory.

A big motivation for me to make amateur sports people look like pros, giving them an image in which they look truly epic. From my personal perspective I always try to take a picture that makes a person look and feel like Usain Bolt. When they’ve had a bad day and they’re reaching for that beer in the fridge, they can see a picture on the fridge door of themselves leaping over flaming hay bales and think “I am awesome! I am epic!”

SM: Last business question: what’s the biggest challenge in shooting action photography?

RB: The vagaries of the weather, absolutely. I’ve worked in 42 degree heat (108° F) in Bahrain, and I’ve worked in -20 cold (-4° F) in Canada. Thigh-deep snow, I’ve been swatting flies off, days where it feels like someone’s hitting me with a firehose, but I love that. I love being outdoors. To reframe that: I don’t think there’s a challenge apart from loving what you do, really.

Even when you’re shooting the same thing — someone jumping over flames or crawling through mud — how do you tap into the journey they took to get there, to be fit enough to run five miles and leap over these flames? The biggest challenge, and the biggest joy, really, is tapping into the energy and euphoria of these participants each and every time.

Tough Mudder North-West, Cholmondley Castle, September 2018. “This is the first image that became a meme and had over 100k of views on the Tough Mudder Instagram page within 24 hours. The mud at the venue was so thick, that when the racer (Matt) emerged from the depths he was transformed into a mud monster.”

SM: What gear do you use to capture those moments?

RB: Canon 1DXs (3 x mk1 and 1 x mk2) with a range of lenses from 16mm to 400mm. I started with Canon in 2006 and have yet to be tempted to try anything else. I am curious to try a few mirrorless options and listen to the experiences of other photographers when considering my kit choices, but the 1DX is a versatile workhorse and has coped very well with the range of conditions that I find myself working in and the image quality means that I can get the images I want.

The lenses I favor for events are the 16–35mm and the 70–200mm. My kit gets a fair amount of scuffing on rocks and hard ground so I use an EasyCover to try to keep my kit protected.

For football, I’ll have the 400mm and 70–200mm as a main set up and the 16mm on a remote camera positioned behind the goal using a PocketWizard set up. The 400mm is my favourite lens. It’s an old-school mark 1 IS 2.8, but so crisp and ideal for capturing the action that unfolds at the other end of the pitch. It’s a little heavy and if the teams change ends before kick off, it’s quite a challenge to run round the pitch perimeter with all the gear. I hear the mkIII may be a little more mobile and I may make the switch in the future.

SM: Speaking of gear, what got you started with SmugMug?

RB: I started with SmugMug in 2013. I met a representative at the PhotoShow and at the time was looking for a platform to host event images in a cost-effective, reliable, high quality, and simple to use manner. I was also in search of something that would let me search my photos by keywords and bib numbers so I could easily sort participant photos. We had to be able to deal with the kind of peak demand that these events generate. Fortunately, SmugMug met all these criteria and I signed up that evening. 4.7 million photos later we’re still going — if I posted one photo every minute, it would take me 7 ½ years to get through them all. We love it.

Mud Girl Run, Hamilton, Ontario — June 2018. “The Mud Girl events are so much fun to shoot. This image was late on in the day and I was sat in a pool of mud to get low enough to shoot the crawl images. Using a 16mm lens and a low power speedlite to help the subject pop with the pink colours was the intention and this shot the favourite of the set. Being so close to the action means that my gear is often caked in mud by the end of the day. I tend to go through several filters a year as there’s only so much clearing of grit they can take. Especially as on occasions, the only clean surface available in part of my shirt!”

SM: What’s your most-used or favorite SmugMug feature?

RB: I actually just redesigned the site last week. Part of our post-COVID recovery has been taking the time to think about what we do and why we do it, and engaging with my local business community. I met with a local marketer who told me “your photos are amazing, but man your website’s old fashioned.”

So I tried a landing page, liked the look, and three hours later I’ve got the whole site looking brand new. It was that easy.

In terms of what I use a lot, it’s image library management. SmugMug works as part of our client relationships, so Spartan or whoever can go in and retrieve images easily, and we manage their photo library as part of the business relationship. They tell us what details they want for the photo — keywords, metadata, factoids, you name it — and we’ll get those set up for them.

Photo sharing is a big part of it, too, and obviously sales, which we like because they’re all seamless. It’s also visibility. I can see what photos people are buying, track stats, keep up with what’s popular. Sometimes you get excited about an image as a photographer because all of the elements came together, and you get to see people excited about those same things enough to buy and share them, too.

SM: Lastly, any tips for a new SmugMug user?

RB: Learn. Keep learning. See what others do, interrogate the style, and let that style influence you as you capture your images and organize your site. There’s so many wonderfully talented photographers showcasing their work on SmugMug, it’s a great way to find inspiration and to showcase your own work.

London Triathlon — July 2019. “Part of the brief for this event was to capture participants enjoying the race against the iconic landmarks on the route. Tower Bridge — that’s pretty iconic, jovial cyclist loving the event…..that’ll do. It was a very busy junction and many of the shots have vehicles in the close background and trying to minimise the multitude of traffic cones was quite a challenge too. This one is a favourite simply because the guy in the image looks so happy.”


Follow Richard Burley on Instagram and Facebook. Also, visit his website at https://www.epicactionimagery.com.

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