30 Years In Sport

In 2013, Action Images celebrated 30 years in sport.

Action Images was founded in 1983 by aspiring sports photographer David Jacobs. At the time David was running J & P Pictures, a separate photography business, with school friend Gary Phillips, working mainly on local newspaper and PR jobs in North London. The subject matter was extremely varied, from assignments covering local politics, to church fetes, to Worzel Gummidge opening a local branch of MFI. David also shot the Broadwater Farm riot in October 1985 which earned him a number of prominent national newspaper usages.

However David’s first passion was for sport, and in particular football, so he set up Action Images to run alongside the existing company, and shot sport whenever he was not working for J & P Pictures. This arrangement continued for a couple of years, but the turning point came in 1985 when David won the Sports Photograph of the Year award, for his picture from a Saracens rugby match. David also won the UK Press Gazette Sports Photographer of the Year, which awarded a first prize of £3,000, a significant sum of money at the time.  These awards cemented David’s desire to be a sports photographer.


David became more and more interested in shooting just sport, which led to disagreements with business partner Gary Phillips about the direction that J & P Pictures should take and as a result, David eventually bought out Gary and merged the two companies. Over the next few years, David recruited some of the most promising young photographers of the era to work under the Action Images name, including Ben Radford, Darren Walsh and Nick Potts.

The FA Cup Final in 1987 between Tottenham Hotspur and Coventry was something of a key moment in Action Images history. At Wembley Stadium, the photographer allocation was full and David Jacobs was among a number of photographers on the reserve list. All of the original applicants turned up to claim their accreditation, but the FA’s press officer allowed the reserves to sit along the side of the pitch (in those days photographers only sat behind the goals), enabling Action Images to cover their first FA Cup Final. Following the match, Action Images’ profile rose significantly within the industry as the company won a number of important contracts including the Football Association and Tottenham Hotspur FC.


During the 1980s the newspaper industry was very much the driving force behind sports photography, there were no subscription deals like there are today, all usages were ‘on spec’, allowing picture editors the freedom to choose the best image available, rather than the best image available from their preferred suppliers.

At this time around 95% of football matches kicked off at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon; Sunday and midweek games were rare, and only took place to meet the occasional demands of television. Images were submitted to the newspapers by hand delivering prints to Fleet Street, commonly known as the ‘Saturday night run’. Later, as advances were made in technology, the development of portable computers and film scanners enabled photographers to transmit images via telephone lines from nearby locations immediately after a match. It was a time-consuming process, taking 7-8 minutes to send a black & white image, (almost 30 minutes for a colour image) and often the connection was lost midway through the wiring process. On a good day, the newspaper picture desks could expect to see the first images arrive around 40-50 minutes after an event had finished.

In the UK, traditionally the biggest sports photo agencies were Allsport, Bob Thomas (which later became Popperfoto), Sporting Pictures and Colorsport, who dominated the market during the 1970s and early 1980s. In the late 1980s and early 1990s there were major technological advances, which had a massive impact on the industry.  Action Images and Empics were two of the smaller agencies who were quicker to embrace the changes, investing in BBS (Bulletin Board System), a computer program enabling clients to dial in using a modem, and once logged on they could search for and download images. As early adopters, Action Images and Empics were able to leapfrog some of their larger competitors and position themselves alongside Allsport as the ‘big three’ of the industry.  The established agencies – Bob Thomas, Colorsport & Sporting Pictures – never recovered the lost ground.

Action Images’ growth from 1990 onwards also owes something of a debt to England’s success at the FIFA World Cup in Italy, which saw football begin to rise out of a dark period of tragedy and hooliganism which had marred the previous decade. Football in England enjoyed a massive surge in popularity, with the football magazine market increasing from 3 before the World Cup, to 47 in 1991. The Premier League was just around the corner, bringing with it an influx of money from television and sponsorship deals, and signalling the dawn of football as big business.


During the mid-to-late 1990s sports photography became much more commercially driven, and within the photography industry, Allsport led the way in providing the accompanying services. Major sponsors were heavily investing in sport and football in particular, and their requirements had changed from primarily ad hoc usage of branded images to a desire for dedicated bespoke photography. Action Images followed suit and soon acquired a portfolio of high profile commercial clients including Barclays, Coca-Cola, Carlsberg and FIFA.

The turn of the millennium saw the beginning of the digital era, as the rise of the internet brought with it greater demands for a faster turnaround of images. Initially, even with the highest spec Nikon and Canon digital cameras the image quality was quite poor, barely good enough for online usage, let alone magazines who insisted upon high resolution scans. However, over the next seven or eight years advances in digital technology saw the standards dramatically improve, to the point where many early film scans are now significantly inferior to almost anything shot digitally today. Action Images had been trialling digital cameras for 18 months before making a full switchover in early 2002, when they equipped photographers with the Canon EOS-1D, considered by many at the time to be the early benchmark for a professional DSLR camera. The first major tournament covered using the new gear was the FIFA World Cup in Japan and South Korea. The results were a vast improvement on the early days of the technology, and the tournament marked the start of widespread industry adoption of digital cameras.


By this point stock agency Getty Images was becoming a dominant player in the wider photography industry, with a reputation for acquiring picture agencies in a bid to become a one-stop shop for picture buyers. Having bought Allsport in 1998, Getty entered into a partnership with Agence France-Press (AFP) in 2003, and purchased German agency Bongarts in late 2004, building a strong presence in the sports market.

In March 2005, Action Images responded by signing an exclusive worldwide agreement to represent Sporting Pictures, adding a renowned historical archive to complement their ongoing output. For David Jacobs, this deal was a landmark as Sporting Pictures had made the transition from a major competitor in the industry to an important addition to the Action Images package. In September 2005, global news agency Reuters bought Action Images from David, with the aim of developing the business into their specialist sports photography arm, focusing primarily on commercial markets in a bid to combat Getty’s growing dominance. The Action Images brand was kept intact, with the intention of building on the company’s existing reputation in the field of commercial photography.


As part of a much larger organisation, Action Images remained intent on keeping pace with technological developments. At the FIFA World Cup in Germany in 2006, Reuters launched Paneikon, a software system developed in-house allowing their picture editors based around the world to remotely access images from photographers almost instantly after being shot. Photographers simply inserted their memory cards into their internet-connected laptops, and preview images appeared on the editor’s screen, ready for selection and transmission.This system allowed images to be delivered faster than ever before, and also removed much of the onus of picture transmission from the photographers, enabling them to focus on what they do best – shoot photographs.


Sport is now a multi-billion pound industry followed by hundreds of millions of people globally. Consumers expect instant access to content, and the photographic industry faces constant demand for ever faster delivery. As 4G becomes more widely available, and phone networks continue to develop bigger and better technologies, photographers will adapt to the changing landscape as they always have done. The 2013/14 football season will see many photographers transmitting images wirelessly from the back of their digital cameras, no longer needing to remove memory cards and use card readers to upload images to their laptops.


I wonder where the next 30 years will take us…


(Originally posted on Action Images’ blog in 2013, all photographs are copyright of Action Images/Reuters)

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