Capturing movement at the heart of sports performance with Canadian photographer Danielle Earl

At only 26 years old, Canadian photographer Danielle Earl already has an impressive career behind her. Very few people can claim to have obtained an accreditation for the Olympic Games : yet she managed to get one and cover the figure skating events at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics.

Looking 12 years back helps us have a clearer view of how it all began – this is the case for each person belonging to the sports circle. Each journey can be explained by its origins (the beginning of it all), which is why it is crucial to focus on that part to better understand what people went through and how.

Danielle Earl first started taking photographs thanks to figure skating : « I started taking photos of figure skating when I was about 14 years old. I was a skater and my friend was having a pairs tryout and wanted to have some photos to show her family on her Facebook page. At the time my mom had just gotten a new digital camera and I wanted to play with it, so I offered to take photos for her. I really loved the challenge of trying to capture the perfect moment, so I started to go to all the pairs training sessions at my rink to practice taking photos. »

After that, Danielle Earl quickly started working on weekends for a local photographer. Yet her initial career wish was not related to photography but to medicine: « When I was a kid, I always wanted to be a doctor, but I didn’t have good study habits, biology grades, or passion to really make that happen. »

If photography was an important part of her daily life, skating still remained her priority. However, an injury forced her to stop training: « When I was 16, I injured my tailbone in a freak fall during an ice show practice and couldn’t really skate much after that, so the natural transition was to start taking more photos, so I could stay involved with the sport I loved and the friends I had made, but not actually have to skate because it hurt too much. »

While continuing to take photographs, always seeking to diversify her pictures and do things differently to improve her work, she realized that she may have found her way.

Early 2012, the young woman registered Danielle Earl Photography as a company and began her activities in March of the same year. Specialized in skating, she extended her action field to dance and gymnastics, thus becoming a full-time sports photographer, which involves many trips to various events: « I’m on the road 40-45 weeks of the year and I can’t imagine anything better! »

Based in Waterloo (Ontario, Canada), her company is split between two pillars : the vendor photography business (Danielle Earl Photography) and Danielle’s work as a freelance photographer (Danielle Earl).

The vendor photography business usually takes place during competitions in Ontario and Quebec. Accompanied by her team, Danielle goes directly on-site to take photographs that are destined to be sold to the attending audience.

« I work with Skate Ontario, Patinage Quebec, and Skate Canada to provide photos to all athletes at these events throughout July-March. Because there are many of these events throughout the season, and we are often double booked on any given weekend, I have a team of contract photographers that I can pull from. These are photographers who I’ve trained to my standards and who represent DEP when I am unable to be there. »

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Nova Junior Team – Skate Canada 2019 Synchronized Figure Skating Championships (Waterloo, Ontario)
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Gold Ice Junior Team – Skate Canada 2019 Synchronized Figure Skating Championships (Waterloo, Ontario)

Danielle also works as a freelance photographer (the second pillar of her company – Danielle Earl), when she is hired by a federation, a news outlet or a website to cover events such as the World Figure Skating Championships and the Olympic Games: « Over the past year, I’ve been asked to cover more of this type of event, and they pull me away from being able to attend all the competitions that the vendor pillar is covering. »

Choices must be made when her attendance is required on several places at the same time: « I pick which one to attend based on if it’s freelance or vendor, the cost to attend, location, and when I’m working for the vendor pillar it usually comes down to “which event is short a photographer? »

The diversification of her business goes hand in hand with a more personal, evolving approach to sports photography. If Danielle Earl took her first steps looking for focus photographs, she then started yearning to take « THE perfect photograph in motion. »

Today, Danielle has her heart set on adding an emotional dimension to her artistic approach: « Now I think I’m trying to show my love for the sport, the skater’s love for the sport, and the emotions behind the sport in addition to “in focus” and “good action”. I haven’t done a lot of traditional portrait photography, so I’m not completely sure how it’s different, but I think most traditional photographers are striving to “tell a story” or “convey emotion” in their images, which is no different than what I’m trying to do.

I think maybe the difference is that I don’t get to ask for a do-over or for someone to change their head/shoulder/angle for a better-looking shot. I get to work with whatever they’re giving me – which I kind of enjoy the challenge of! »

Last year was particularly important for the photographer, who was able to obtain an accreditation for the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang (South Korea). A pivotal moment that she still struggles to realize today: « I still shake my head in disbelief that the Olympics is actually something I got to experience in person. It seems like a dream some days! »

A dream that came true thanks to a job for a website.

« The editor of the website I worked for at the time suggested we apply to PyeongChang2018 for the experience of applying, so that next Olympics we would know what we were doing and could get a credential (because it is very hard to get accredited for the Olympic Games). Much to both of our surprise, I was actually awarded a photo accreditation for PyeongChang2018, which I was definitely not expecting. When I got the e-mail, I think I went into shock for a minute and then I texted my mom “I think I’m going to the Olympics??”. Then I just went into full-time planning mode. »

Such an experience leaves lasting memories in any mind – for the Canadian photographer, it is impossible to choose only one because of its intensity (which is understandable). However, three key moments spontaneously come to her mind:

« The first moment that marked me was when my colleague and I accidentally ended up on the floor of the Opening Ceremonies venue after everyone had left (we were trying to find our way back to the media room) and got to take a photo with the lit cauldron in the background as well as meet some of the performers who were actually in the Opening Ceremony.

The second memory that comes to mind is watching Kaetlyn Osmond skate her long program and sitting directly across from Team Canada and watching their reactions to her skate/medal – I still tear up thinking about it. That was the only time I teared up during the whole time I was there, which is a record for me!

Canadian figure skater Kaetlyn Osmond skating her long program at the Pyeongchang Olympic Games (2018)

Then, there’s the moment Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir (the most decorated figure skaters ever) won gold. »

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Canadian figure skaters Tessa Virtue et Scott Moir skating their long program at the Pyeongchang Olympic Games (2018)

Living such moments in a career can be as fascinating and exciting as unsettling, especially when someone has to go back to her/his daily life whilst thinking about the future. This explains why the post-Games period, when euphoria suddenly falls down, was not an easy time to manage for Danielle.

To define new objectives, she accepted several freelance missions, outside the competitive framework: « I found myself lost for a long time after the Olympics because for the whole lead up to it I couldn’t “see past” it. I wasn’t prepared for the Olympic let-down or the feeling like “I’ve accomplished the highest possible summit of sports photography – what now?

It’s only over the last several months that I’ve kind of rediscovered the “why” behind what I do. I’ve done a bit of “behind the scenes” photography with a figure skating tour [The Thank You Canada Tour*, see pictures below] and I really, really enjoyed that. I’m excited that I’ll be doing a little bit of work with another tour in the spring and hopefully fall [Rock the Rink Tour].

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And in terms of big goals… I would really love to go to the Summer Olympics one day. I would love to work with the National Ballet of Canada in some capacity. I’d love to go back to the Winter Olympics in 2022. I’d like to find more time to volunteer, whether it be at my local club or for a larger organization. I think my biggest overarching goal is just to continue to appreciate every day that I get to live my dream, watch kids grow up through the sport I love, and never take for granted anything I’ve accomplished. »


Follow Danielle’s news on Facebook, Instagram and on her website !

*Photographs taken during the Thank You Canada Tour, with figure skaters Patrick Chan, Meagan Duhamel, Eric Radford, Kaetlyn Osmond, Kaitlyn Weaver, Andrew Poje, Elvis Stojko, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir.

© Danielle Earl Photography

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