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 two key ingredients are shutter speed and background. The slower the shutter speed and more graphic the background, the better the pan will look. However, the slower you go, the less likely you will get the subject sharp.”
Lecka’s tips for great pans: Stand as still as possible and follow through with the subject while opening the shutter. Keep moving until after you hear the shutter close, and make that movement as smooth as possible. “Don’t get frustrated if your subject is blurred, because panning isn’t as easy as it may look. It’s a skill that takes time and practice to master.”
For sharper photographs, says Wyatt, “I don’t use the shutter button to focus— I use the back button. Both Nikon and Canon systems allow you to focus by pushing one of the rear body buttons, and the advantage is that, by keeping this button depressed, your shot is already in focus when you hit the shutter release. The result is a lot more in-focus pictures.” On DSLRs that lack dedicated AF buttons, you can often assign this function to a custom control instead.
Lens selection is also a paramount concern. “Outdoors, I use a 200–400mm f/4 Nikkor Vibration Reduction zoom. I had a 300mm and a 400mm f/2.8, but I fell in love with the 200–400mm,” says Wyatt For him, this 7.45-pound zoom is worth the nearly $7,000 price tag because it lets him handhold the camera (the 400mm f/2.8, at 10.2 pounds, requires a monopod), and the benefits of zooming are impossible to overstate. “The guy shooting a super tele has to set the lens down when the action gets too close to him, and during those moments, he’s losing precious images,” he says. “My zoom helps me avoid that.”
He adds, “For anyone on a budget, though, I recommend the Sigma 120–300mm f/2.8, because it’s light enough to handhold and is about $3,500 cheaper. It’s my second-favorite lens for sports.”
For more on equipment, see Olympics Camera Gear story. And you can gaze in wonder at the massive amount of stuff that Wyatt hauled to Beijing the last time around at www.ronwyattphotos.com/#about-me/rons-gear-box.
Prepare to Compromise
After focusing and lens selection, the most important photographic consideration for capturing action is obviously exposure. It comes down to two factors: You want the fastest shutter speed you can use under the given lighting conditions, and you’ll need to use the highest ISO that you can without getting too much noise in your images.
If you’re covering indoor gymnastics, and the lighting isn’t great, you’ll have to bump up the ISO. With some cameras, the highest you can go before noise sets in is about ISO 1600. In today’s world that’s not high enough. “If I’m going into a dimly lit gym, I want at least ISO 2000,” says Wyatt.
Another photographic challenge: backgrounds. “The worst are when you’ve got bored people standing around, not watching the event you’re photographing,” says Wyatt. One solution to problem backgrounds? Find camera angles with distant backgrounds and defocus them by shooting wide open.
Another technique: Climb as high into the stands as you can or get permission to mount your camera in the rafters, and use a remote to shoot down on the action. Scout the venues early so you will have time to file for the necessary permissions. Getting low can also be an option.
Converting files from color to b&w can declutter a messy background, too. “Color can be distracting,” says Al Bello. “Bad backgrounds can have poles, empty seats, and random people loitering, but overly vibrant color can also be a problem.”
Going to the London Olympics this year? Mark Rebilas (www.markjrebilas.com), a pro shooter from Phoenix, says the fun part will be shooting a wide variety of sports, many of which you can’t regularly cover back at home. Seeing what other photographers are doing will inspire you, and for this American, “the overwhelming feeling you get when the Star Spangled Banner plays after a U.S. athlete takes the gold is like no other feeling in sports.”