What Is It Like to Be a Photographer At the Olympics? Jeff Cable Explains
A veteran Olympic photographer shares the secrets for shooting the games
The Olympics are a dream assignment for many aspiring sports photographers. Sochi will be the fourth Games for photographer Jeff Cable, and he has learned a lot about what it means to shoot the world’s biggest sporting event. Before the opening ceremonies, he shared some of his knowledge with us about what it’s like to shoot on a global stage. You can follow his blog that he’ll be updating while he’s at the games.
How did you end up shooting your first Olympics?
I went to the Beijing Olympics, but I wasn’t fully credentialed. I was helping out in the press center. A couple countries sent representatives and they had writers that didn’t know how to shoot, they said “If we can get you into a venue, can you shoot for us?” So I shot a bunch of stuff there. When people saw what I was shooting and that I was doing a good job, I got higher level credentials to shoot more.
When I was there, I thought, “I want to do more of this.” The next once coming up was Vancouver. I tried pitching to a bunch of newspapers and agencies and it didn’t pan out. I was doing some shooting for the Santa Fe Sharks and they ended up putting me in touch with all the right people at USA Hockey. I play twice a week, so I know the game and I knew some people there. That helped me get my foot in the door. I basically offered to shoot for free for them the first time just to prove myself. It worked out.
It certainly sounds like a tough assignment to land.
The thing the US Olympic committee needs is a million people emailing them saying, “Hey, let me in! I’ll shoot for free!” There’s more to it than that. I worked really hard and knew the right people. I had to prove myself. Now, I know the committee and they know I do good work for them. It’s much easier now. The first time was a one in a million chance. Once you earn your stripes, it goes a long way.
At most major sporting events, there are different levels of credentials that offer different access. Is that true at the Olympics, too?
There are tons of different credentials. They have everything from the editor who can get into the venue to write but they can’t shoot photos. There are credentials that only get you into certain venues. Summer Olympics, they actually give you sport-specific credentials, so if you’re shooting for Water Polo Magazine, you’ll get a credential that limits them to shooting only in that particular venue. They can also go to the press center, but they can’t go anywhere else. If they want to go and shoot track and field, they wouldn’t be allowed in.
I want the ability to roam. When I’m not shooting hockey, I want to go shoot something else.
Is there a top-level mega access pass that gets you in wherever you want?
The largest agencies like AP and Reuters get some different credentials. Opening and closing ceremonies, for instance, are some of the only times that we’re in the actual seats of the stadium with the crowds. There might be blocks of 100 seats in six different locations. There are certain photographers, though, that get all dressed in black and can actually go out into the middle of the ceremonies.
Would you take the assignment if it you had the chance?
Probably. It would just add another level of stress and the unknown, but sure. The hardest part for me is picking my spot. Usually for opening and closing ceremonies there are sections labeled A-F. Each one has certain advantages. One will have a front-on shot of the teams coming out. One has an overhead shot. One might have a good angle on the royalty. It would be nice to be able to pick which one, but a lot of times they just tell you which one you’re assigned to. They say, “You’re an F.”
Can you get around it if your spot is bad?
When I went to London, I got to my spot and it was awful. I went and parked myself outside the office of the photo manager for that venue and waited. When he got there I just said, “Look, I’d like to be moved to a differs position.” I was lucky and he approved me.
What are your primary shooting objectives when you’re at the games?
Winter Olympics, for me, is USA hockey and summer is primarily water polo. Hockey one of the biggest sports at the games, which is exciting. It’s probably behind figure skating, although figure skating doesn’t have any good checks [laughs]. If there’s no hockey game for the US or the game’s at 6 PM, I can go shoot some stuff during the day.
Is it competitive to try and get the best spots in the photo area?
You have to get there early to try and get a clean spot of glass. In the Olympics, they don’t have the holes in the glass like the NHL does, so you have to find the best seat. Then, I’ll gaffer’s tape a business card to the seat to tell the other photographers it’s occupied.
With so many other photographers there, is it tough to get the shots you need and want?
It’s you an 1200 of your best friends. It’s a challenge in many respects. You have to try and be unique, but it’s difficult when you have so many people shooting. I try to get something that other people are not. I’ll slow the shutter speed down or try to get access that others can’t get. That’s part of the challenge, but it’s also what makes it fun.
Do you do a lot with remote cameras? They seem to be getting more popular at each Olympics.
It depends on the venue. Water polo let me set up a remote camera, but not in the rafters. It was from like a balcony about three stories up. I did it a couple times and didn’t like it. At the Bolshoy arena, there are rafter calls for mounting cameras up above the ice. I want to get a camera right above the goalie if I can.
That’s always a great shot.
The question becomes who’s going to get the straight down shot. Obviously, Sports Illustrated and AP and all the big guys are going to want that angle so I may have to work around how many cameras are mounted up there.
The other issue is that you have to have your own frequency for your Pocket Wizards so you’re not firing off the wrong camera.
With all those reporters and shooters on-site, the press center must be really impressive.
It’s a full building. The average press room is something like ten tables and an area for your laptop. In London there was a gymnasium, a food court with a McDonald’s, and a massage center. It’s like a small city. It’s huge.
Considering the competitive nature of the thing, is the vibe in the press room cool or is there tension?
I’ve got great friends now from the Olympics. But, the challenge is that we’re so balls to the wall busy that there isn’t a lot of time for making friends. I don’t think I’ve ever gone to have a beer with one of these guys. You’re going 8 in the morning until midnight every night. Sometimes it’s 2 AM. You’re always shooting, editing, or blogging. It’s cool, though.
Everybody is friendly and everybody is happy to be there because it’s such an honor, but at the same time, it’s a pressure cooker.
What is the recovery like when you get home from the games? Do you just crash out for a while?
I call it POS: Post-Olympic Syndrome. My wife and I actually have an extra bedroom in our house and my wife has it ready for me when I come home. I’m absolutely trashed. It takes me about a month to fully recover. It’s a really narcissistic environment. You’re working all the time and you’re only really thinking about the things you need to accomplish. Ihad thought about getting an assistant, but the thought of having someone trailing behind me, not going at the pace I want was too much.
Once you come back home, you have your family and your wife and people are telling you what to do again. You’re so burnt out from lack of sleep and the Olympic vibe. It’s crazy. One of the photographers actually said that doing the Olympics is like doing the Super Bowl every day for three weeks.
**I’ve actually heard the Super Bowl comparison before. It sees like the Olympics have quite a few complications beyond what even the big game can throw at you. **
With the Super Bowl, you have the press events and then the big game. With the Olympics, you actually have to choose what game you’re going to cover. The great thing that really started in London is that there’s an App. I already know when all the Hockey games are, so I can schedule around them. So, the days with no hockey games, I make a schedule to go hit other stuff. With the app, I can look and it shows me everything.
So, planning is key.
The worst part is that as much planning as you do, you sometimes realize there’s no way you can make it to all of them. You overrun time or the venue is too far away. You can make spreadsheets, but it’s almost out the window right away.
It’s like the old Mike Tyson quote, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
The Olympics will punch you right in the mouth, especially if you don’t know what you’re doing. The first time, I was scared to death. Three months before the games I was laying awake at night thinking about how much gear I needed to bring or how I was going to know what to do when I get there. Now, when I land, I know to go right to the press center, pick up my credentials, put my request in for opening ceremonies, get my locker, go to the venue, talk to the photo manager, get my locker there… If it’s your first time there, you might not know to do any of that.
Packing for the Olympics must be really tough. I’d imagine you have to bring a ton of gear.
I’m gone for a month, so it’s a lot. I’ll take a minimum camera bodies. I’m taking two Canon 1D Xs this year.
There are probably quite a few of those on-site.
Yes. It was that way in London, too, because it had just come out. I actually had a prototype. Canon actually just shipped me two more 1D X s. I’d rather use theirs than mine if I can.
Just because of the sheer number of shots you’re going to go through?
I shot 90,000 in London. It is insane. If you look at a Hockey game, at 12 fps, you’re shooting thousands of images per game.
Hockey has always had the reputation of being one of the toughest sports to shoot.
If you’re shooting through a hole or into plexiglas, you’ve only got about 25 percent angle which you can move to shoot. Otherwise, you’re getting a bunch of reflection off the plexi or the side of the hole. Of course, the action is really fast. There are a lot of variables.
**What lenses do you typically bring with you? **
I’ll bring a fisheye, a 24-70 for press room shots, a 70-200mm which is my hockey lens, and I’ll bring a 16-35mm for environmental shots outside the venue and opening ceremonies. I’ll bring the 100-400mm because it’s a good small lens. Anything bigger than that I’ll just borrow from Canon on the spot. Canon and Nikon both bring a ton of product and if you’re fully-credentialed, you can literally just walk up to the table, they scan your badge and say, “What would you like?”
Do you bring any of the big, fast primes?
The first time I shot opening ceremonies, I brought a 600mm F/4 lens. You’re sitting in a regular seat with all your other gear so there’s no room for a lens that big. I ended up putting it in a locker and not even using it. Before that, though, I carried that thing around for six hours for nothing [laughs].
That’s interesting. A lot of people associate those giant lenses with the games.
The lens I plan on using the most for sports other than hockey is the new 200-400mm. That lens works for anything that’s outside, like snowboarding. It has a range from 200-560, it’s tack sharp and it focuses super fast. I’d rather have that than any fixed focal length, even if they’re faster. It’s still too big to carry with me, but I plan on borrowing it.
**With the high-ISO capabilities on modern DSLRs, the difference between F/5.6 and F/4 isn’t as crucial as it once was. **
It’s interesting you say that, because that was my thought, too. You know, I was expecting to go to ISO 10,000, but the Olympics is just really well lit. It’s lit for television. For water polo last time, I was using the 200-400mm at F/5.6 and my ISO was only at 1600. And I was still getting shutter speeds fast enough to freeze the action. I was around 1/1200th to 1/1000th of a second.
Anyone reading this right now who usually shoots local sporting events in dim gymnasiums is so jealous right now.
The other advantage is that, if you’re shooting in a gymnasium, you’re trying to hide the backgrounds because there are empty bleachers and horrible lighting. The Olympics are a dream. They use the Olympic rings everywhere so you want to use those to your advantage. You want to include them to tell the story.
Do you bring Pocket Wizards for the remote cameras?
I brought three or four last time, I probably only really needed two or three. They’re a custom frequency, so I can’t borrow another one. Those actually have to be approved. I have to take those to the press center and they have to inspect and sticker them as approved. You can’t just take a Pocket Wizard into the Olympics.
**How about for mounting the cameras? **
I bring mounting brackets and security cables so I can mount cameras in the rafters. Those brackets need to be approved as well. They can’t be plastic or anything like that. I brought a Super Clamp with me to London and it wasn’t the heavy-duty one so it was disallowed. I had to go buy a heavy duty one and I only used it twice.
I take one tripod even though they’re not allowed at the Olympics. They’re useful for night shots and other environmental shots around the venues at night, which are always pretty. I have a Gitzo monopod that folds way down and that one is my life. When you shoot sports with a big lens, you have to have a monopod.
Are flashes allowed in any of the venues? Do you even bother bringing one?
It’s not allowed in any of the venues, but you can use it for other environmental stuff, so I’ll bring it just in case.
You must also bring a stack of memory card with you. Do you use big cards or a lot of small ones?
I take a boat old of 128 GB, 1000x Lexar cards. Literally, when the Women from Team USA won the gold medal–it was the first time they had ever won any medal–I was the only photographer. I shot 78 GB in an hour and a half. When they got their medals, I was hammering on the shutter. It was such a huge game, I and to get it.
I shoot to two cards simultaneously. I keep two cards in the body, so the second 128 GB just keeps things redundant and I shoot things raw.
What’s your typical workflow at the games?
I use fast USB 3 card readers and dump to and edit on a 15-inch MacBook Pro with an SSD. I shoot and edit, then off-load to four Western Digital Passport Ultra drives. I’ll typically have one with me, one in my locker, and one in my hotel room and I’ll generally move the images to all three. My favorite images that have been edited will go onto DropBox. That way they’re backed up in the cloud.
How do you carry it all around?
I keep everything in a Lowepro X200 rolling bag and I will cram as much stuff in there as I can. Then, I have a couple Lowepro backpack because a rolling bag doesn’t always work. You can’t exactly take a rolling bag out to the half pipe to shoot snowboarding.
Do you think you’ll see any GoPro cameras at the games this year? They seem to be everywhere.
There might be, actually. All Olympic photographers have signed a contract saying that we will not shoot a single second of video in any Olympic venue. I think the reason is that the DSLRs have gotten so good at video that they can’t allow the competition for the Olympic Broadcast Committee. If I bring one, it’ll be for a time lapse only.
The amount of planning that goes into shooting something like this sounds incredible.
Every venue you walk into still has a question mark. You do as much research as you can before you show up. I know that Bolshoi arena is going to be where I’m shooting all the hockey games. I know that Olympic positions tend to be on the corners. The first time I did this, though, I had no idea. The first time I shot for USA water polo, I practiced from the side of the pool at a low angle. When I got to London, the only approved positions were on either end of the pool on the net sides. That’s where we were shooting from.
Do you have a preference between summer and winter games?
Nope, not really. They’re equally exciting. The cool thing about the Olympics is the vibe. People look at me and think about how lucky I am and I agree with them. I never take it for granted. That vibe is consistent throughout both summer and winter.
Jeff Cable’s Packed Gear for Sochi
USA Men’s Hockey from the 2010 Olympics
Track and Field
Jeff Cable in London