Chess photography at Wijk aan Zee (1/2)

by Alina l'Ami
2/5/2017 – Tata Steel is without question one of the highlights of the year thanks to its great diversity of events and of course the Masters with its host of elite players. One other thing that has helped keep it such a pleasurable event is the attention made to have great videos and photography. Alina L'Ami has been the official photographer for the last few years, and enriched the reports by all with her lovely imagery. Here is a large pictorial of photos she chose with her comments and tips.

ChessBase 17 - Mega package - Edition 2024 ChessBase 17 - Mega package - Edition 2024

It is the program of choice for anyone who loves the game and wants to know more about it. Start your personal success story with ChessBase and enjoy the game even more.


Photos and text by Alina L'Ami

Two people can look at the very same chess position or a photograph but see completely different things. That's what fascinates and challenges me.

However, seeing the photo above, I would say most viewers would have similar reactions: nice playing venue for the Tata Steel Chess on Tour 2017. And that is not what I am striving for.

Anyone with the right equipment and a few editing techniques could produce comparable images or better ones, since the room is not moving anywhere. You can try different settings, different angles, different lenses and see where that will bring you. In the end you pick the best one and you're done.

But what to do when the scene is not so forgiving?

The tournament hall in Wijk aan Zee turning into a jungle

That's already more on my taste: capturing the fistfight-kind-of-atmosphere for that one unique winning shot. You must crawl, bend, jump or whatever it takes to produce at least something decent. Not easy, not always working and quite often you will end up grumbling over those people that blocked your view or photobombed your (by now) useless material.

Since many things are happening, with lots of information stored in the photo, the viewers' attention could be dragged onto: the players and how they feel facing each other again after their last encounter in New York; how is it possible to focus given the circumstances; or maybe some would discover a little surprise - the boy behind the yellow elbow, trying to get a glimpse of his idols.

I believe such photos would make the organizers and media happy as they can squeeze a story out of them. But more onto my liking are the less messy creations, able to generate an emotion in the spectator:

Go get'em tiger!

Simple, intense and with the chess pieces in it, which is an important element to make it a “chess photograph”. But this detail is harder to get than it seems... Very often the distance between the player and the pieces doesn't make for a good shot. At other times someone is blocking the viewing angle or simply the subject is not interesting enough.

Creating a sell-able chess image is quite a challenge and many photographers agree that our sport is in a way very easy to photograph (the players are relatively static) but this 'advantage' turns into a huge handicap, too. Quoting: “chess is not dynamic and makes for boring shots with these poker faces; nothing happens!”. And I actually agree with that, unless one has the time and the patience to stubbornly be vigilant, on the lookout and ready for when the right (or wrong) moment comes. Sometimes it just doesn't.

'Trick' number one: eliminate the chess pieces and hunt those players in different environments. The World champion will sell anyway

But that can't be done all the time if we are speaking about covering a chess event or bringing its atmosphere to the chess lovers.

“A Scandinavian deefense, Adhiban Baskaran? And 2...Nf6? Seriously?!”

It comes in handy to know a few things about chess, so when sharking around the boards I felt I should stick just a little bit longer. And Magnus didn't disappoint me.

The 'problem' with chess photography is that we know those players' faces and seeing yet another one brings no element of surprise, unless something unusual is captured. Just how exactly could I make all these familiar things new? That was the question I tried and still try to answer.

Storing emotion and feelings within a frame in chess is indeed a challenge...

Trick' number two: focus on children

They are such a manna for showing emotions and are not afraid nor shy to express visually what is in their mind and soul. If only they wouldn't move all the time… That makes it more difficult to shoot in the dim light of the tournament halls.

'Trick' number three: grab those opportunities that interesting subjects offer! In this case the 'chessy' background helps as well.

Sometimes you don't even need the actual chess board

I remember the moment I spotted Willem Grünbauer, also known as Willem de Schaker (the chess player), and couldn't suppress a smile. I knew I had found my subject. Half an hour later my smile turned into a frown. For various reasons, I just couldn't get the right position! It was becoming even more frustrating as I was thinking I definitely must have this one today, else he might change his outfit. But then the moment came and luckily, I was ready.

Blunder in sight

I don't think I have to explain why I like this one. Capturing a moment that is passing, that fraction of a second – this is what brings me satisfaction.

Who is more nervous: the player or the supporter?

Emotion lays at and beyond the chess board, you just need to be lucky enough to be there when it unfolds. And obviously be on the move as often as possible. Which is not always possible. But the spectators do offer great material to work with:

“Oh no! That's not the right move”

This is a mixture between street and chess photography, keeping in mind that Tata branding must be present, thus making the connection with the tournament territories. The same reasoning goes for the next photograph:

Love those eyes!

As cute and nice and challenging and satisfying those shots are for me, I cannot forget I am shooting a chess event, so I should better deliver and hunt those GMs.

Pep talk

When I saw Aronian staring at his pieces (I actually think he was tying his shoelaces...), I immediately dived in, with the camera literally in his face...sorry but I had no other option! I had the 20 mm lens on the camera, meaning the wide angles lens which normally doesn't serve well the photographer in portraiture. But it worked. What I like about this image too is that it reminds me how photographers help each other, with advice or critique. Patrick Put gave me a lot of valuable advice in general, with his extra pair of eyes, while David Llada suggested I should crop this particular photograph further. And above you have the final result, which is stronger than my initial version.

Portraiture with the 20 mm again. I just love this lens! Aronian and Nepo made my day with their postures.

And when Karpov himself poses for you, it is getting even better.

Wei Yi smiling!

When you photograph a face, you try to bring out the soul behind it. And it's just difficult with certain people. But when the magic happens, your contentment doubles. I am relieved that even though the photo was taken before the game started, no extra heads, hands are visible in the background. The curved line is somehow helping the composition too, as it draws the attention onto the foreground.

Some players are very generous with the photographers. Expressive hands too.

Portraits, however, are not the only photos I like to shoot, since I am aiming to bring the chess atmosphere closer to the audience as well. The way to do that, I thought, is shading some light on the human factor:

Life as a second is tough

Pub culture in Wijk aan Zee

Final touches before the battle

But one cannot 'escape' assignments either. So other things must be captured, too: logo, posters etc. In the world we are moving branding becomes vital, thus:

Chess action

Having everything in one single image is not such a bad achievement. The famous quote is there, the orange banner as well, while things are happening on both chess boards. Even better: the hands are in sync, too.

Next on the list: the Jaguar(s), which serve the top GMs during the tournament. I could take a simple shot of the car(s) but that is just...dull.

Aronian's father wondering if his son will be able to stop Carlsen

This composition is giving more to the viewer than a plain image with a (even if powerful) car.

Alina is an International Master and a very enthusiastic person in everything she does. She loves travelling to the world's most remote places in order to play chess tournaments and report about them here on ChessBase! As chance would have it Alina is also an excellent photographer.


Rules for reader comments


Not registered yet? Register