Getty Images photographer Streeter Lecka puts it best: “The Olympics are unlike anything you will ever shoot in sports,” he says. “For professional shooters, it’s our Super Bowl. The competitive spirit that the athletes feel, we feel. We’re all going for that iconic picture that will forever go down in Olympic history. We’re there to capture it in real time, under nerve-racking pressure, because in competitive sports shooting, there’s never a ‘do over’.” Preach it, brother.
With the Olympics, as with all organized sports, photographers fight two battles. One has to do with the logistics of covering such a massive event, with its crowds of people and unending stream of forms, schedules, and permissions. Chances are, you’ll never face that particular fight.
But the other is entirely photographic—and it’s one that anyone who shoots any sport, at any level of competition, faces. You have to bring the right gear for each event, find a great vantage point for capturing it, and figure out just how to add your own visual twist that will lift your pictures above all others.
Photographically preparing for the Olympics begins months before the opening ceremonies. Every day and every event you cover must be carefully scheduled in order to make the most of the opportunities. “There are some days when you’re scheduled to be at three different venues, each in different light, with different shooting positions that can require completely different gear,” says Donald Miralle, who has covered the Olympics for Newsweek (www.donaldmiralle.com). “In advance, you need to figure out what access you will need, where the venues are located in relation to each other, and how much time it takes to get from point A to B to C.”
Ron Wyatt, a New Jersey-based pro who has covered the past two summer Olympics for Kodak (www.ronwyattphotos.com), speaks bluntly of the logistical challenges. “Traveling between venues is probably the single hardest thing about covering the Olympics,” he says. “Buses leave every half-hour between venues. My goal was to shoot three to seven events per day, and often, to fit them all in, I had only 20 minutes for each sport.”
So whether you’re covering a high school or college athletic meet or trying to cram in as much Olympic action as a spectator can, always have a plan B. If you decide (or were assigned) to shoot weightlifting, for example, and the backgrounds there are a disaster, or, for whatever reason, the event is off schedule, cut your losses: Fire off a few shots, pack up, and head off to your preplanned B event.
During the preparation stage, one of your first responsibilities is learning the Olympic planning committee’s guidelines for photographers. In London, for example, visitors are prohibited from bringing lenses longer than 11.8 inches (30cm) in length, nor can they bring tripods or monopods. Professional photographers with media credentials are allowed monopods, but not tripods. Some venues will have flexibility in how thoroughly they enforce these limits, though, depending on the crowds and space availability.
Familiarize yourself beforehand with the venues that you will be working. Wyatt suggests that you consider the context: “Do you need a high angle from the stands or a ground-level vantage point? Would shooting straight into the competitors’ eyes or capturing them in profile work best? Especially if you’re new to the sport, find out what vantage points will and won’t work by researching on Google and Flickr.” If you can’t get permission to shoot from the best vantage points, find another event.
Know Your Sports
After you’ve got logistics and scheduling down, Lecka says that the next step is to research the sports and athletes you will be covering. “It’s important to know who is who, and what physical tendencies they may have,” he says. “You can score great images by knowing the athletes and how they react to winning or losing. Some athletes are physically demonstrative, striking iconic poses that can make a great photograph. You need to learn in advance who will produce these poses and make sure you’re in position to capture them.”