THE open air of a football stadium during the fiercest storm to hit Sydney in a decade is not the safest place for a camera.
On a Monday night in April, rain was pelting sideways from the south, and a single drop of water on the lens would prove fatal. But the Cronulla Sharks were chewing up the South Sydney Rabbitohs in an NRL fixture and somebody had to capture it.
“It wasn’t just the torrential rain – it was the wind that made it so difficult. Gusts of 90kmh,” Brett Costello says the next morning. “For anyone who uses long lenses, the wind makes that movement of the lens so much greater. We could only shoot in one direction – the wind was coming from the south so we could only face the north to keep the lens dry. I had to create a makeshift cardboard extension of the cover on my lens – if you get one drop of water, that’s it.
“I have to say in all my time, probably 17 years of shooting, it was definitely one of the most challenging nights of shooting sport.”
Luckily the Daily Telegraph photographer loves a challenge. It’s often hairy situations like horrendous weather that produce some of the most striking shots, he says – not just on the footy field but events like the Sydney to Hobart, which he has covered for the last eight years.
“Most of my shots have been from a helicopter so I’ve managed to keep dry. It’s an amazing race and a really unique sport to shoot. Weather can play a part and it can create some beautiful images.”
When Jessica Watson was a day out from finishing her solo voyage around the world in 2010, Costello headed out in a chopper to find her 60 miles off Sydney. “It was really wild weather,” he recalls. “It made a spectacular picture – of her launching off a wave, with the pink boat in the dark water and the dark stormy clouds, it just really stood out.”
For Costello it’s one of his most powerful images and it won him a Walkley Award that year. “One of the important factors in shooting and in great photographs is you’ve got to have a sense of emotion and you’ve got to portray that to the viewer,” he says. “That’s what you’re always trying to do.”
Achieving that goal is part skill and part luck. Mr Costello says being able to predict what’s going to happen, whether by reading body language or simply being in the right spot, is the key to getting a good shot.
Being focused in the right place at the right time earned him a spot among the 11 best photos of 2014 by Wisden when he captured a ball by Ryan Harris which broke the bat of Michael Carberry in the Fifth Test between Australia and England. “It was a really unique moment – you don’t often see a bat break, particularly in Test cricket,” Costello says. “One of the toughest things about shooting Test cricket is that at any moment, any ball of the day, something like that can happen and you have to be ready for it. You’d be annoyed if you’d decided to change position and missed that ball.”
Capturing portraits of sport’s biggest personalities is also a source of emotion. Being in the Rabbitohs change rooms after their first NRL premiership win in 43 years last year was “a special moment”, Costello said. While many were leaping around in celebration, captain Greg Inglis cast an emotional figure.
“To see him sitting there in the corner with his arms draped over the trophy, it was a great moment,” he recalls. “I think he was just trying to take it all in – it was great to be there and capture it. “It’s another side to the job I love – the fact that we get to step into these people’s lives for half an hour and get to live in their world. It’s a wonderful thing.”
Costello gets up close with some of Australia’s most idolised figures – but what are they really like?
“Some of them may have to put on a front when they’re in public because of all the attention,” he says. “But more often than not, behind closed doors and one on one, they’re just normal people who happen to be very good at what they do.”
Mr Costello started out as a cadet at News Corp Australia in 1998 and witnessed the transition from film to digital and now, social media. Between balls at a cricket match he uploads photos online and to his Instagram and Facebook pages, where he has an audience of almost 2000. “It’s another challenge but it’s something I think you’ve got to embrace,” he says. “It’s becoming more and more immediate and everyone wants things now, as it happens.”
For every incredible shot he takes, he admits he fails every day – and remains hungry for the perfect shot. If you’re not trying new things, you aren’t challenging yourself – and you aren’t improving, he believes.
“I like to think there’s a handful of images that I’m happy with that I’ve shot through my career,” Costello says, “but I think one of the great things is that there’s always a better image to come. You always have to chase that and hope for it.
“Photography is an evolving and competitive industry and you have to stay at the top of the game and keep learning. No matter how long you’ve been in it, you always learn something new.”