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30 Years of Iconic AFL Photography with Phil Hillyard

Canon Master Phil Hillyard is one of Australia’s leading professional sports photographers, and after covering 30 seasons of AFL, has captured many iconic sports moments behind the lens. We caught up with Hillyard at the legendary Sydney Cricket Ground shortly before the Sydney Swans took to the ground for a game of Friday Night Footy.

How long have you been shooting AFL?

AFL is something that I'm completely addicted to. I love the game. It's the reason why I probably got into photography at the first place. I first came up with the idea as a 12- or 13-year-old kid to take photos of the footy and 30 years later we're still here. I have been lucky to have a front row seat to many great events and that privilege is not lost on me.

AFL game photographed by Phil Hillyard

What have been some of the most special moments you’ve captured in AFL?

I think one of the most special moments was Buddy Franklin’s 1,000th goal here. Friday night footy at the SCG and he needed four goals to get the milestone. As he's coming in, the crowd's going crazy, but to me it all actually just goes silent. As the fans jumped the fence, Lance started to walk in and then as he kicked the goal, they were running towards him. And to see that unfold clean through my lens it was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen in sport.

Tony ‘Plugger’ Lockett’s 1300th record goal way back in 1999.

Tony ‘Plugger’ Lockett’s 1300th record goal photographed by Phil Hillyard

One of my favourite images of Adam Goodes, absolute legend of the footy club.

Image of Adam Goodes photgraphed by Phil Hillyard

Micky O’Loughlin and Brett Kirk. The image to me epitomises the Bloods culture - close teammates and still really good friends.

Image of Micky O’Loughlin and Brett Kirk photographed by Phil Hillyard

Over the years you’ve developed a close working relationship and rapport with many of the athletes. What are some of your favourite portraits you’ve taken?

I've been lucky. I've had many of the great athletes be very accommodating and pose for my portraits.

I shot Luke Parker here a few years ago, it was just in a stairwell at the back of the Noble Stand, and I ended up creating this scene which looked like he may have been running out for his 200th game.

The sun was in and out of the cloud, but I'd noticed this light starting to come in, but every time I'd get set for it the cloud would come and the light would disappear. So, I had to act pretty quickly to execute the image, using my own lighting as well to create the extra shadow.

Image of Luke Parker photographed by Phil Hillyard

Adam Goodes a few years back re-enacting Nicky Winmar’s famous stance against racism. I spotted the sun through the edge of the stand starting to move. Goodsy was carrying my lights and running across the field with me as we chased the light and made this image and it’s one that I’m pretty proud of.

Adam Goodes re-enacting Nicky Winmar’s famous stance against racism

You’ve witnessed countless memorable sports moments at the SCG over the years. What’s it like shooting a game there?

It's an intimate ground. The crowd is close. It’s my second home. I love being here it's my happy place to be on the sidelines here.

As the game starts to build and the crowd comes in, the players run out, the song goes on, my adrenaline sort of kicks up as well and I try and use that to really immerse myself in every moment that is happening out on the field.

If you're here on a Friday night game like we are tonight and the Swans get up in a close one, there's sort of no better place in sport, I think. 

I love nothing more than capturing a close finish to an event. The crowd's pumping. My adrenaline's pumping. I'm on the edge of my seat as well. The pictures are going to be more amazing.

Sydney Cricket Ground photographed by Phil Hillyard

What’s in your kit when you’re shooting AFL games and portraiture?

I've been with Canon since probably the mid '90s. I choose to use Canon because it doesn't let me down [after] years of doing this. [After] Years of doing this, I know I've got a tough camera that I throw over the ground. I choose to use it because it's reliable and the best pros in the world think the same.

When I'm shooting AFL, we use big lenses ranging from 400mm, 500mm, 600mm. I like to have a second camera with a 70-200mm on it. And obviously shooting the portraits we like to use the prime lenses. My go to is probably a 35mm or an 85mm, I love the quality of the primes and the shallow depth that you can get with them.

Image of Phil Hillyard holding a telephoto lens

I've been lucky to cover five Olympic games, spent 10 years traveling with the Australian Cricket Team, 25, 30 seasons of AFL. I have to pinch myself sometimes. I've been incredibly lucky to have the career that I've had.

Watch the video to see Phil in action at the footy with the EOS R5 and R3.

Discover the EOS R3 and EOS R5.