Five of the world's top Olympic sports photographers talk about what it's like to shoot the biggest sporting event in the world
The great sports shooter Dave Black (www.daveblackphotography.com), for example, knows all of Michael Phelps’ moves, which helped Black get the image on the previous spread during the 2004 Olympics in Athens. “I had memorized Michael’s freestyle stroke pattern and knew that he would take a breath two strokes after the 50-meter mark,” he recalls. “Knowing this, I picked an appropriate upper-level camera position so that I could shoot slightly above the splashing water and capture a single image of Michael’s face. It was his last breath before sprinting to win a gold medal.”
In planning and plotting your schedule, try packing it with the most photogenic sports. Ron Wyatt likes gymnastics. “Finding a clean background can be difficult with gymnastics, but the uniforms are colorful and tastefully designed, and the actual movements are so graceful that it’s almost a challenge to do it justice in your pictures,” he says. “It’s as close to working with professional fashion models as you get in sports.”
Lecka responds to the aquatic events. “First, they’re great because those of us with media credentials have so many unusual vantage points at our disposal. Most times you can shoot directly above the pool, at pool level, from the stands, and even underwater. The speed and grace as the athletes glide through the water makes it all the more interesting.”
Al Bello (albello.com), also with Getty, agrees. “Adding water into the photographic mix gives you beautiful blue backgrounds, shimmering reflections of light, and sometimes, a sparkling quality. You can also add a nice graphic punch by carefully placing the black lane lines in your compositions,” he adds.
Conversely, some sports make it hard to get iconic images. For Bello, these include rifle shooting and archery—all the competitors use identical, static poses and body language. “And your choices for camera angles and compositions are limited. You can’t get in front of your subjects, for one thing,” he laughs.
Olympic photographers must also prepare themselves on a physical level. Covering the games is exhausting. Before arriving, you must be thoroughly rested, healthy, and ready to hit the ground running—literally.
Black says, “Covering the Olympics is like photographing three Super Bowls per day for 16 consecutive days. It can be very tiring and sleep is an absolute premium. [Pro] photographers might get four hours a night—if they’re lucky. They eat on the run, download and transmit images to their editors directly from the events, endure long hours of concentrating through their viewfinders, and carry up to four camera bodies with a 14–24mm, 24–70mm, 70–200mm, 200–400mm zoom, a 400mm f/2.8, and a 600mm f/4, along for the ride, plus two Speedlights, a monopod, and a laptop up and down stairs, to and from shuttle busses to each venue, as they try to cover three or more events per day.”
Lecka suggests bringing as many healthy snacks as you can cram in your luggage.
Once preparations are behind you and you’ve arrived at the games, it’s time to start photographing. “Don’t wait until an event starts to begin shooting. Get out early and shoot the warmups. You need to get used to photographing the action,” says Wyatt.
“A photographer may shoot a thousand pictures at an event, and almost always the first 100 have the lowest percentage of sharp, well-composed pictures, and the last 100 have the highest. That’s because it takes time to get into the rhythm of a sport, and for each sport it’s different. So I say, shoot warmups, and warm yourself up along with the athletes.”
One of the best techniques for bringing home the gold, photographically speaking, is panning with moving subjects as Lecka did with his shot of Sweden’s Susanna Kallur competing in the hurdles in Beijing on the previous spread. “Panning is a high-risk, high-reward technique, but is well worth the challenge. It opens the doors to a whole other artistic side of photography” he says.