With his last name, you could say that David Cannon was destined for a career behind the lens.
Receiving the PGA of America’s Lifetime Achievement Award in photojournalism in May, the 67-year-old was praised for his “technical mastery and artistic competence”.
However, while his first professional camera was a Canon, the Englishman’s journey to becoming one of the world’s leading sports photographers was anything but predestined: he didn’t even have any formal training.
Born in Sussex, Cannon was a talented golfer in his youth, with a handicap of one. Competing in a number of amateur tournaments, he finished eighth in the British Youths Golf Championship in 1974 and played alongside a young Nick Faldo in the following year’s tournament.
But sharing races with the future six-time major winner extinguished any hopes Cannon had of a professional career.
“When I played with him [Faldo], it was like, ‘Oh shit, I’m not even in the same league,'” he told CNN Sport. “It was just something else.”
Needing a job to make up for the lack of financial reward in amateur golf, Cannon worked at a nylon sheeting company, but after four years he craved a change of pace. When an impromptu chat with family friend Neville Chadwick, a photographer for the Leicester News Service, offered an opportunity to capture some local sporting events, Cannon jumped in.
Selling his car to fund a small telephoto lens and camera, naturally a Canon AE-1, shortly after sitting in a rugby stadium for a New Zealand Tour match in November 1979.
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The 24-year-old was armed with just two pieces of advice that have served as the foundation of his craft ever since: “Focus on the eyes and fill the frame.”
“I was out, that was it. The light bulb went on,” Cannon said. “Playing golf suddenly took a huge backseat and every spare minute I had was buying cameras with spare change, taking pictures, going to games.”
In 1983, having covered everything from the Commonwealth Games in Australia to the FIFA World Cup qualifiers in Honduras, he joined the esteemed photography agency AllSport. Although acquired by Getty Images in 1998, Cannon has worked there ever since, specializing in golf to quickly become one of the most recognizable names in the field.
“I’ve loved every minute of it,” he said, and there have certainly been many minutes to love.
Cannon has covered more than 700 events and nearly 200 men’s and women’s majors, according to an interview at the Ryder Cup, the biennial event he has worked 17 times.
Cannon’s exciting estimates of his career statistics: 3.4 million frames shot, 2.6 million miles flown, 115 countries visited, 5,000 nights slept in hotels and 13,000 miles of golf courses walked.
However, Cannon insists it is a necessary compromise. While sports like football will at least give photographers the opportunity to capture celebrations almost every game, the less dynamic nature of golf can make the pickings scarce.
“You can go at least six months, probably two years, without getting a great final freeze image,” he explained.
“Golf is very slow. People don’t realize how physical it is to photograph golf. You can walk 25,000 steps in a day, and all you get are individual shots of golfers hitting the ball and nothing very interesting if they’re on the runs all the time.”
Fortunately for Cannon, his career has coincided with some of golf’s most iconic players, many of whom he has met personally.
Keeping in touch with Faldo, he became close friends with Ernie Els and met Greg Norman, a trio with 12 major wins between them, and had a front-row seat to the peak of the Tiger Woods era at the turn of the century
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Photographing Rory McIlroy and newly crowned US Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick since they were amateurs, he has had the joy of following their journeys from the grassroots to lifting some of golf’s biggest titles.
However, one name stands above all others: Seve Ballesteros. “Never meet your heroes,” goes the adage, but Cannon not only had the joy of hooking up with his all-time sports idol, he also became a close friend.
A portrait of the Spanish legend captured near his home in Pedreña in 1996 remains one of Cannon’s most cherished images. And his photos of the five-time major champion’s iconic fist pump celebration in St. Andrews en route to victory in the 1984 Open are some of the most enduring images of Ballesteros, who died of brain cancer in 2011.
“It’s probably the most defining image of my career,” Cannon said. “For a moment, this is my favorite.”
When Cannon took this photo, his 36-exposure camera gave him only 25 shots to choose from in the entire sequence. Today, I would have five more photos to choose from in a single second. While technology has changed dramatically, the principles of sports photography have not.
Cannon was reminded of one of those guiding rules when, caddying for his professional golfer son Chris, he overanalyzed a three-hole swing earlier.
“‘Dad, this is something you’ve got to learn, there’s a 10-second rule in golf,'” Cannon recalls his son saying. “‘Ten seconds after you hit the shot, you can’t get it back, you can’t do anything about it, you’ve got to get it out of your head.’
“That rule works exactly the same in photography. If you miss it, you can’t go back and get it. If you’re at a sporting event, it’s never going to happen again. I find that’s a pretty useful rule.”
One of the most important skills of the trade is to pre-emptively spot a story or moment and prepare accordingly. Easier said than done on courses that span miles of fairways, with multiple games at once, but tips can pay big rewards.
These were harvested in abundance by Cannon at the Alfred Dunhill Cup in 1999 through his photo of basketball icon Michael Jordan and Spanish golfer Sergio García participating in a footrace through the St. Andrews fairways, once described as “the greatest golf photo of all time” in Golf Digest.
Hearing Jordan and Garcia aggravate each other on the first tee, Cannon decided to stay out and follow the duo past the third hole, the point at which newspaper photographers, reluctant to stray from the clubhouse, decide to re-enter.
“I heard Jordan say to Garcia, ‘You want a run, boy?’ ” Cannon recalled.
“It was really fun to follow them that day, and from that point on I walked a few hundred meters ahead of them all the time.”
It’s the kind of knowledge that has kept Cannon at the forefront of his field for more than four decades. Not bad for someone with no formal training.