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From Epic Action To Quiet Emotion: How A Veteran Pro Captures The Essence of Iconic Sports Events

Legendary sports photographer and Sony Artisan Neil Leifer has spent over six decades capturing some of the most iconic moments in sports history. His work includes everything from the intensity of the boxing ring to the elegance of horse racing, and his latest project, a comprehensive coffee table book published by Taschen, will feature a remarkable collection of his horse racing photographs. Among these, Leifer's images of the Kentucky Derby have a special place, showcasing his mastery of the craft then and now. We connected with him to learn more about his experience photographing iconic events and how his approach changes based on the assignment.

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Sony Alpha 1
Sony 24-105mm f/4 G
Sony 300mm f/2.8 G Master
Sony 12-24mm f/2.8 G Master

We talk to the legendary sports photographer about his experience photographing iconic events and how his approach changes based on the assignment.

A Historical Perspective Vs. The Modern Era

Leifer's journey with the Kentucky Derby began many years ago. "I've done 15 Kentucky Derbies prior to this one. This was my 16th Derby.” His extensive experience includes photographing the 100th running of the Kentucky Derby in 1974, a monumental event that will be prominently featured in his upcoming book. The book is set to cover various forms of horse racing, including polo, harness racing, equestrian and steeplechase, but the main focus will be on flat racing such as the Kentucky Derby, the Belmont and the Preakness.

Leifer's approach to capturing iconic events has varied over the years, adapting to different assignments and evolving technologies. "90% of my work was done years ago for Sports Illustrated, Time Magazine and Life Magazine," he explains. “Depending on the assignment, my focus could range from covering the news – who won or lost the race, highlighting the winning jockey, owner, or trainer – to focusing on a single subject or aspect of the event. For instance, in 1980, he was tasked with creating a Time cover featuring jockey Steve Cauthen and the horse Affirmed, who won the Triple Crown that year. This singular focus allowed Leifer to produce a series of intimate, detailed images that captured the entirety of that specific moment.

In contrast, this year's Derby was an opportunity for Leifer to showcase how much the event has changed over the years. "My mission this year was very simple,” he says, “knowing what the old pictures look like and the track, this 150th race, I wanted to do three or four things that you couldn't do before because the places I wanted to shoot from simply didn't exist.”

©Photo by Neil Leifer. Sony Alpha 1. Sony 24-105mm f/4 G. 1/1250-sec., f/4, ISO 1600

©Photo by Neil Leifer. Sony Alpha 1. Sony 24-105mm f/4 G. 1/1250-sec., f/4, ISO 1600

Leifer's recent work at the 150th Kentucky Derby highlights how much the event has evolved. He aimed to capture scenes that were previously impossible due to changes in the venue and technology. The images in this article are from the Kentucky Oaks race for fillies, held on the Friday before the Kentucky Derby each year. "The new grandstand, which goes way up high between turn one and turn two, gives you a panoramic view that was never possible before," Leifer explains. This new vantage point allowed him to photograph the horses with the entire Churchill Downs grandstand in the background – a shot that would have required a helicopter in the past.

Technique & Technology

For the 150th Derby and its surrounding races, Leifer utilized the latest in Sony technology. "I used three Sony Alpha 1 cameras," he says, detailing how he prepared to capture different perspectives. For the dramatic shot of the horses racing with the grandstand behind them, Leifer used the Sony 24-105mm f/4 G lens set at about 50mm. This allowed him to frame both the dynamic motion of the race and the iconic twin spires of Churchill Downs.

In another action image from the Kentucky Oaks race, Leifer captured the horses from behind as they rounded turn two. This shot was taken with the Sony 300mm f/2.8 G Master lens, which he had on hand next to him ready to go with another Sony Alpha 1. "The Sony 300mm f/2.8 G Master is a gift for sports photographers," he says. “The way it can capture such fast-moving subjects with clarity is just incredible.” Leifer utilized the Alpha 1's tracking feature to keep the rapidly moving horses in sharp focus, demonstrating the camera's prowess in high-speed sports photography.

©Photo by Neil Leifer. Sony Alpha 1. Sony 300mm f/2.8 G Master. 1/1250-sec., f/4, ISO 1250

©Photo by Neil Leifer. Sony Alpha 1. Sony 300mm f/2.8 G Master. 1/1250-sec., f/4, ISO 1250

Another standout shot from this year's Derby events features the brand-new paddock, a $200 million addition to Churchill Downs that was only completed days before the event. Leifer used the Sony 12-24mm f/2.8 G Master lens set at 12mm with his Sony Alpha 1 to capture the wide-angle shot, showcasing the architectural beauty of the new paddock, the horses preparing for the race and the attendees patiently waiting in their colorful outfits and hats. "I always do my homework," he notes, having researched the new paddock's layout extensively before the race.

©Photo by Neil Leifer. Sony Alpha 1. Sony 12-24mm f/2.8 G Master. 1/250-sec., f/8, ISO 400

©Photo by Neil Leifer. Sony Alpha 1. Sony 12-24mm f/2.8 G Master. 1/250-sec., f/8, ISO 400

A Legacy In Print

Leifer's upcoming book will be a comprehensive collection of his horse racing photography, featuring images from his early days at Sports Illustrated and Time magazine to his most recent work with Sony cameras and lenses. "All of the races I shot in the past were done in the sixties and seventies. The new sections will include pictures I've taken in the last three years," he explains. This blend of historical and contemporary images will provide a unique perspective on the evolution of horse racing and sports photography.

His dedication to capturing the essence of the Kentucky Derby and other iconic events is evident in every shot he takes. His ability to adapt to new technologies and venues, combined with his extensive experience, makes his work a timeless celebration of sports photography. We eagerly await the release of his new book, which promises to be a landmark collection showcasing the beauty and excitement of horse racing through the lens of one of the industry's greatest photographers.

See more of Neil Leifer’s work on his Alpha Universe Profile.

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